And there it is, AFC fans: Your worst nightmare.
With New England’s victory and Houston’s loss, here we go again. Yep, the Patriots are in position for their ninth consecutive first-round bye.
And that’s a problem.
Granted, the Pats are flawed, there’s too little defense, not enough Brady and virtually no Gronk but … follow the bread crumbs. If they gain a first-round bye, the Patriots get at least one game at home … where they’re 7-0.
That, of course, would be in the divisional round.
So, let’s say they win there. In all likelihood, then, it’s on to Kansas City, and the Pats are 3-5 on the road. So, adios, right?
Not so fast. What do we know about the Chiefs? That they’re about as reliable in January as Middle-East cease fires. They’ve lost 11 of their last 12 playoff games, including their past six at Arrowhead, and Andy Reid is 1-6 in his last seven postseason starts.
Which means … no, it can’t be … oh, yes, it can: It’s not implausible that the Chiefs lose their playoff opener, and the Patriots wind up hosting their fourth conference championship game in five years.
And then anything is possible.
I know, they’re stumbling down the stretch, they just subtracted their best receiver (Josh Gordon) and they have more losses (5) this season than at any time since 2009 when they were one-and-done in the playoffs – with the loss at home (Baltimore). And let’s be honest: They’re not the best, second-best or maybe even the third-best team in the conference.
But none of that matters.
Because they’re where they want to be … and that’s within one victory of staying home. So, no matter how badly they’ve played, how beaten up Gronk may be or how old Tom Brady is, that should make the rest of the AFC nervous.
Merry Christmas, New England.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR EAGLES, NICK FOLES?
I know, he becomes a free agent after this season. But tell me: How do you let this guy walk if you’re the Philadelphia Eagles?
He won a Super Bowl. He’s a Super Bowl MVP. And he is to December what Reggie Jackson was to October … and you can look it up. With Sunday’s last-second defeat of Houston, Foles is 11-4 from December on – including the playoffs – and isn’t that what this game is all about?
But then there’s this: He just set a franchise record with 471 passing yards, and his 400-yard, three-touchdown performance was the first for the Eagles since … well, since Nick Foles did it vs. Minnesota in 2013.
So how do you let him walk? Well, when you have Carson Wentz, you have no choice. Right? Right? But I’d try to find a way to keep the guy because the Eagles are better … and a lot better … now than they were with Wentz this season.
IT’S MORE THAN THE TOWELS THAT ARE TERRIBLE
The Pittsburgh Steelers probably don’t make the playoffs, and they deserve better. But tell that to NFL officials. Because they played a significant role in their decline.
Look, I know the Steelers committed enough mistakes Sunday – crucial fumbles, a fake punt that didn’t work and too many penalties – to sabotage themselves. Heck, they committed enough mistakes down the stretch to blow their chances. And, yeah, they even lost to Oakland.
But for the second time this month, officials played a major role in their crash-and-burn.
I’m talking about that dreadful first-half call vs. Joe Haden that gift-wrapped a Saints’ touchdown. It wasn’t a PI. It wasn’t even close. But don’t take it from me. Gene Steratore, Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino all weighed in on it on Twitter … and all came to the same conclusion.
It was no penalty. But in a game decided by three points, it was a difference maker.
So what’s new? Rewind the videotape to Pittsburgh’s Dec. 2 loss to the Chargers when officials failed to whistle two obvious calls – one an illegal procedure, the other an illegal block in the back – on plays that resulted in touchdowns. That’s 15 points (there was a two-point conversion in there) in a game decided by three.
That’s two losses for a team that’s 8-6-1, and it’s probably the end.
The AFC playoff picture is far more unpredictable than the NFC, and here's the proof: Three of the top four teams entering Sunday (K.C., Houston and Pittsburgh) lost. Only New England won. Meanwhile, the four top NFC teams won.
The MVP race is really down to three guys now: Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees … and Nick Foles.
If life is fair, then New England should reserve a playoff share for Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney. He’s the guy who was front of center in the Texans’ last two losses … first with an off-sides penalty vs. Indy and now with a roughing-the-passer call vs. Foles.
A week ago, I thought the NFC sixth seed wasn’t a threat. Now I do … but only if Philadelphia makes it. The Eagles are back to where they were a year ago, and the envelope, please: With back-to-back defeats of the Rams (11-2) and Texans (10-4) it marks the first time in the franchise's history the Eagles beat 10-win teams in consecutive regular-season weeks.
It's not only a sure-tacking defense that makes Seattle dangerous. It's Russell Wilson. Unlike defensive-heavy teams like Chicago and Baltimore, he can beat you with his arm and his legs … and he proved it again Sunday night.
With Dallas clinching the NFC East, neither of the first-round picks that Jon Gruden acquired for Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack will be top-20 choices. He would’ve been better off dealing either to San Francisco.
News flash: Arizona’s Steve Wilks is expected to be fired a week from now. This is news?
Whew, that was close. The Saints didn’t beat Pittsburgh as much as they escaped them. And that’s good news for Chicago. No, I don’t think there’s much of a playoff threat to the Saints in the Super Dome (they’re 5-0 there in the playoffs under Sean Payton), but the Bears … or maybe the Cowboys or Seahawks … have enough defense to play them close.
Looks like the Rams discovered what was wrong with Jared Goff: He wasn’t playing Arizona.
No wonder Miami owner Stephen Ross doesn’t like what he sees. His football team is dead … flat … ordinary … with the emphasis on dead. Since 1994 the Dolphins are 199-200.
If and when New England cedes control of the AFC East … or when Brady retires … who’s next on top? Give me the Jets, and I’ll tell you why in two words: Sam. Darnold.
The Browns were 2-5-1 when they fired Hue Jackson. They’re 5-2 since. The Bengals were 5-3 when they took him on. They’re 1-6 since. Just sayin.’
It wasn’t just the Steelers that took a hit with that loss to New Orleans. It was the Chargers, too. Because Pittsburgh’s loss moved Baltimore to the top of the AFC North … which makes the Ravens the fourth seed. And that, in turn, means L.A. and Baltimore probably meet again in two weeks.
Now you know why Aaron Rodgers didn’t want to miss Sunday’s game. It wasn’t just “for my guys.” It was for Aaron Rodgers, too. He seldom looked better … in any game of any season.
Imagine if the Texans won close games. Their five losses this season have been by 7, 3, 5, 3 and 2 points.
The difference maker in the AFC isn't Patrick Mahomes. It's TMZ. Ever since its video forced the release of Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs are 2-3 … and could be 1-4 (OT defeat of Baltimore).
Christmas comes early to Cleveland. After 15 games, the Browns are .500.
Did you see that look that Baker Mayfield shot Cincinnati’s Hue Jackson? Guess he woke up feeling dangerous again.
I don’t get what the Giants are doing with rookie quarterback Kyle Lauletta. For the second straight week, he was inactive – which means he was the third-string quarterback. Huh? There’s no future with Alex Tanney. There might be with Lauletta. So why not find out now? The Giants can’t survive another season with Eli Manning’s inconsistent play and critical mistakes.
That was more than the end of Ryan Tannehill’s nine-game winning streak at home. It was his last home game, period, as a Dolphin. Book it: He won’t be back with the team next year. Enough is enough, and seven years of mediocrity is enough.
Hard to believe Steelers’ fans can be Cleveland fans, too. But that’s where they are now, folks. Because the only path to the playoffs for Pittsburgh is to win next week and have the Browns beat the Ravens.
That’s six straight Steelers’ games decided in the final seconds. Pittsburgh is 2-4 in those games.
I feel so much better about the Raiders now that Gruden’s fired his strength and conditioning coach 14 games into the season.
The Giants don't need Dwayne Haskins or Justin Herbert. They need Mariano Rivera. Sunday's game was the third time they lost on the road when their opponent scored the deciding points in the final minute.
Somebody pointed out that all the Chargers’ losses this year have come in L.A (three at the StubHub Center and one at the L.A. Coliseum). So, then, I guess that makes their road record 11-4.
This is all you need to know about Arizona: Running back C.J. Anderson was cut by three teams this season, including the Raiders. Then he runs through the Cards for 167 yards and a touchdown after the Rams last week signed him off the streets.
FIVE THINGS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED
The Patriots 273 rushing yards are the team’s most in the Bill Belichick era.
Tom Brady’s 48.3 passer rating was the worst of his career in a New England victory.
Cleveland’s seven-game improvement from last year is the biggest one-year turnaround in the franchise’s history. The previous best was a six-game improvement from 3-11 in 1975 to 9-5 a year later and from 4-12 in 2006 to 10-6 in 2007.
Only one player since 1982 – Hall-of-Famer Reggie White – has more games with two or more sacks in one season than the Rams’ Aaron Donald. White had eight. Donald has seven.
Larry Fitzgerald’s passing touchdown was the 10th this season by a non-quarterback, the most since 2002 (10).
ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS …
CAROLINA RB CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY – Oxygen. All he did was touch the ball 33 times for 178 yards.
NEW ENGLAND QB TOM BRADY – A first-round bye. With one more win, he gets his wish.
TAMPA BAY QB JAMEIS WINSTON – A watch. He committed two delay-of-game penalties and would have had a third were it not for a Dallas penalty.
PITTSBURGH COACH MIKE TOMLIN – A Cleveland win. If the Browns beat Baltimore, and the Steelers beat Cincinnati, the Steelers make the playoffs.
THE DAWG POUND – A Cleveland win. One more, and the Browns have their first winning season since 2007.
Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins entered Sunday’s game with 94 catches and zero drops – the most catches without a flub since Pro Football Focus starting tracking the stat.
SUNDAY'S OMG II
Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson on Sunday combined for five touchdown passes from outside the pocket, the most in one game since 2012.
SUNDAY'S OMG III
Of C.J. Anderson's 167 yards rushing Sunday, 105 were after contact -- more than Todd Gurley had in any game this season and the most by a Rams' rusher in the past 10 seasons.
SUNDAY'S GOLD JACKET QUOTE
“I thought we were playing two teams: The Packers and the striped shirts.” – N.Y. Jets’ coach Todd Bowles.
"We made the bed. We'll lay in it." -- Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin.
SUNDAY’S BIGGEST WINNER
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS. They won more than their 10th straight division title. They regained the second seed for the upcoming playoffs and, with one more victory, a first-round bye.
SUNDAY’S BIGGEST LOSER
PITTSBURGH STEELERS. They didn’t just drop out of first place in the AFC North. They may have dropped out of the playoff picture, too.