Judgements 15: With Eagles' upset, NFC playoffs look like Big Easy for Saints

Photo courtesy of USA Today

Philadelphia's unpredictable upset of the Rams Sunday meant more to New Orleans than it did the Eagles. Here's why.

Philadelphia wasn't the biggest winner Sunday night. The New Orleans Saints were … and they didn't even play.

But they didn't have to.

With the Eagles' 30-23 upset of the Rams, New Orleans moved a game-and-a-half ahead of L.A. for the all-important home-field advantage in the playoffs -- virtually guaranteeing that the NFC road to the Super Bowl goes through the Super Dome.

And that's a problem for everyone but the Saints.

Not only have they won all but one game there this season; they've won 13 of their last 14 (including the playoffs) at home. One reason why: Drew Brees. In six home games this year, he has 20 touchdown passes, one interception, no passer rating below 111.9 and two of 153.2.

He also conquered the then-unbeaten Rams there in November, giving the Saints the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Granted, New Orleans must win Monday night to solidify its position, but you have to like the Saints' chances going forward. They have Carolina Monday (and the Panthers are in a five-game slide) before finishing at home vs. the Steelers and Panthers.

SAY GOODNIGHT TO THE PATRIOTS

It’s time to admit it. The Patriots’ reign in the AFC is over.

I know, they’re going to win the AFC East for the 10th straight year … but that’s more a statement of the rest of the division than it is New England. Because the Patriots are flawed. There’s too little defense and not enough Tom Brady to rescue them now.

Nowhere was that more apparent than Sunday’s 17-10 loss to Pittsburgh, a brutal defeat punctuated by 14 New England penalties, too many missed tackles and another Brady mistake. The game kept Pittsburgh alive for the playoffs and, at least for me, all but finished New England as an AFC heavyweight.

That’s because, barring an upset of Houston next week, it makes them a virtual lock as the No. 3 seed for the playoffs -- and tell me the last time New England didn’t have a first-round bye and went to the Super Bowl.

Try never.

It's also because it's the first time since 2002 New England suffered consecutive losses in December. That's significant because the Patriots didn't reach the playoffs in 2002.

And it also means that, in all likelihood, they’ll have to go on the road at least once … and they’ve already demonstrated they’re vulnerable there. OK, let’s not sugar coat it. They stink there. They’re 3-5 on the road, scoring a total of 50 points in four of those losses, including 10 each in three of them.

So what? So the last time they had a losing record on the road was 2009 ... when they lost their playoff opener.

So this is what we're looking at: The Patriots historically peak for the playoffs in December. Now they’re falling apart. Their defense historically improves as the season goes on. Now, it’s falling apart. And Brady? He’s made more Red Zone blunders the past two weeks (2) than he typically makes in a season.

Yes, they could regain the second seed ... and a first-round bye … if Houston loses at Philadelphia next week, and the Pats win the next two -- not unreasonable to assumer, since both are at home vs. the Bills and Jets.

But let's be honest: They aren't accelerating toward the playoffs. They're fading away.

BEWARE THE COLTS

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

If there’s somebody that should concern the AFC’s top two seeds – especially Houston – it’s Indianapolis. The Colts are hot, winning seven of their last eight, and they’ve demonstrated they can succeed without Andrew Luck.

At least they did Sunday, the second game in the past three weeks where Luck didn’t throw a touchdown pass. And let’s look at those last three weeks: They’ve allowed a total of 27 points in those three games … and remember what we say about defense when it comes to championships.

A year ago, the Colts couldn’t defend. Now they can. A year ago, they couldn't run and pass protect. Now they can. And if you don’t believe me talk to Marlon Mack fantasy owners.

“The more I see of them,” said NBC’s Rodney Harrison, “the more I’m a believer.”

Plus, there’s this: The Colts pulled off the upset of Houston a week ago … in Houston. So they can win big games on the road, where they’re going to be if they make the playoffs.

So, let’s see: They play defense. They can run. They can pass protect. They can beat Houston. And they have Andrew Luck.

I’m with Rodney Harrison.

FIRST-AND-25

  1. Don’t mess with Texas … unless, of course, you’re the Indianapolis Colts. Not only did they beat Houston and Dallas in successive weeks by a combined score of 47-21, but they stopped the Texans’ nine-game winning streak and the Cowboys’ five-game run.

  2. Oh, and by the way, that makes Dallas 1-6 when tied or losing at the half.

  3. Surest sign that we're late into the season: There was one 300-yard passing game Sunday, and it was by the Rams' Jared Goff in the night game. But he didn't throw a TD pass, and he didn't win.

  4. Best backup quarterback? It isn’t Nick Foles anymore. It’s the 49ers’ Nick Mullens. The more he plays, the more C.J. Beathard should talk to my realtor.

  5. Another victory and another big rushing performance by Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. But, sorry, this formula can't succeed over the long haul. The guy’s had 86 carries in five starts and will not … cannot … survive that way.

  6. More troubling sign for the Rams than Todd Gurley's left knee is Jared Goff's accuracy. Over the past three games -- or since that 54-51 shootout with Kansas City -- he has exactly one touchdown pass, seven interceptions and passer ratings of 68.6, 19.1 and 66.8.

  7. Not sure what Derrick Henry put in his egg nog, but I want some. The last two weeks he’s run for 408 yards and six touchdowns. He had four touchdowns the previous 12 games. Meet Mr. December.

  8. Best run of the afternoon wasn't Kalen Ballage's 75-yard dash through the Minnesota defense. It was Chris Carson's 1-yard touchdown run through the right side of the 49ers' defense. Rewind the videotape, and you'll see why.

  9. Just asking: Do the Bears reserve a playoff share for Jon Gruden?

  10. Everyone on the New England defense – and, no, that doesn’t include Rob Gronkowski – report to work early Monday for 12 hours of tackling instruction. I’ve seldom seen a playoff team this bad this late in the season at stopping ballcarriers.

  11. Don’t tell me Chiefs’ fans shouldn’t be nervous. They should. Their team lost two of its last four and should’ve lost three of them. But that’s not what has people frazzled. This is: What’s next. Kansas City’s lost 11 of its last 12 playoff games, including its last six at Arrowhead. Plus, Andy Reid is 1-6 in his last seven playoff starts. So what we’re looking at now looks more like a warmup for what we may see later.

  12. All I want for Christmas is the Chargers hosting the AFC championship game. Putting it in a 27,000-seat stadium is just the optics the league deserves for allowing an inane relocation to a city that never wanted them.

  13. Say this about the Bills’ Josh Allen: Accuracy remains an issue, but the guy knows how to win.

  14. So that’s what a Kevin Stefanski offense looks like. The Vikings’ 220 yards rushing were their most this season, and more than their last two games combined (172) … both defeats.

  15. With the next two games, the Giants must find out what they have in rookie Kyle Lauletta. Because if, as reports indicate, they’re going to stick with Eli next season then you better find out what you have in his backup NOW. Because there is no future with Eli. There might be with Lauletta.

  16. Not sure what’s going on with Aaron Rodgers, but I’ve never seen him miss so many open receivers deep. Maybe it’s all that time he spent doing those dreadful State Farm ads.

  17. Best evidence that Denver hasn’t found a reliable passing game: Demaryius Thomas is still second on the team in catches. He was traded Oct. 30.

  18. I’m sold. The Jets have a keeper in Sam Darnold. With a zillion dollars in cap space, their next move is to get him some weapons.

  19. Really can’t explain that Seahawks’ loss, but I do know this: They’re going to be very, very tough for Kansas City to beat next weekend because 1) they peak this time of the year, 2) the game suddenly is critical to the Seahawks’ playoff hopes, 3) they’re home where they’ve won their last three and 4) they're not going to commit 14 penalties again.

  20. Up next for the Eagles: Division leader Houston, and all the Texans have done is win 10 of their last 11 starts. But give Philadelphia and Nick Foles this: Nobody put consecutive regular-season losses on the Rams under Sean McVay until Sunday night. So anything's possible. Plus, that was the first defeat at home this season for the Rams.

  21. I’d be surprised if Gronk plays another season. He suddenly seems slow, old, unable to separate and not much of a factor.

  22. That Washington victory was significant, and not because it keeps the Redskins in the NFC East race. But because it marked the first time in the Jay Gruden Era they won after trailing at halftime. Honest. They were 0-14 before Sunday.

  23. Not sure if that game-clinching field goal by Chris Boswell was “a redemption kick,” as Jim Nance called it. But I am sure Pittsburgh can’t survive long with someone who makes only 61 percent of his field goals … and less than 50 percent of them between 40 and 49 yards.

  24. There’s a reason the 49ers are a league-worst minus-22 in the takeaway/turnover differential: They haven’t forced a turnover since their Oct. 28 game vs. Arizona and have a league-low five takeaways all season -- or 30 fewer than front-running Chicago.

  25. The more I see the Rams, the more I believe the Bears are more of a threat -- if there is one -- to the Saints.

FIVE THINGS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED

  1. With nine sacks Sunday, Minnesota is just the second team since 1990 (Jacksonville last year is the other) to produce at least nine or more in multiple games in the same season. The Vikings had 10 in Week 9 vs. Detroit.

  2. Aaron Rodgers’ interception-free streak is over. It stopped at 402 passes when Eddie Jackson picked him off in the end zone.

  3. Derrick Henry’s 408 yards rushing the past two games broke Hall-of-Famer Earl Campbell’s two-game franchise record of 405.

  4. Chicago is just the latest NFL team to go from worst to first. In 15 of the past 16 years, at least one team that finished last or tied for last in its division one season has won that division the next year.

  5. Chris Boswell’s 12 missed kicks this year are the most by any NFL kicker.

THE SUNDAY OMG

Here’s the list of Buffalo receivers with consecutive 100-yard games the past 16 years: Sammy Watkins (3 times) and Lee Evans. Period.

THE SUNDAY OMG II

Until Philadelphia scored a second-quarter touchdown Sunday night, the NFC East had combined for one TD -- with Washington the only club to cross the goal line. Unusual? You bet. Dallas and the Giants have never been blanked on the same weekend, and the last time any two teams from the same division were held scoreless was 2006 (Cleveland and Pittsburgh).

GOLD JACKET QUOTE OF THE DAY

“It’s like the movie ‘I Get Older and They Stay the Same Age,’ ” – Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers on missing the playoffs for the second straight year for the first time in his career.

SUNDAY’S BIGGEST WINNER

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS. With the Rams' loss Sunday night, they move a game-and-a-half ahead of L.A. in the race for home-field advantage in the playoffs. And anyone's who has been to the Super Dome knows playing indoors for dome teams is HUGE in the playoffs. Because they don't win conference championship games when they're forced to go outside.

SUNDAY’S BIGGEST LOSER

NEW ENGLAND. I’ve seen enough. This team is beginning to disappear. See above.

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