The Seattle Seahawks locked up the NFC West with a win over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, and it spoke volumes to their progress.
In September, the Seattle Seahawks were an aerial bonanza. In December, they’re kicking asses.
Seattle beat and beat up the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday afternoon, 20-9, clinching the NFC West title. Rams quarterback Jared Goff was sacked three times and departed with a broken thumb. Los Angeles ran for 4.1 yards per carry, and was stonewalled inside the 1-yard line on a 4th and Goal in the third quarter.
All told, the Rams never found their offensive rhythm, and they never found the end zone.
This feels like an impossible result if you saw Seattle over the season’s first half. The Seahawks were a bumbling mess, allowing 29.1 points per game and notched 19 sacks.
In the seven games since, Seattle has permitted 13.1 points per game while amassing 24 sacks. The charge has been led by a preseason acquisition and a mid-season trade piece in safety/blitz-extrordinare Jamal Adams and defensive end Carlos Dunlap, respectively. The duo has combined for 15.5 sacks, including 12.5 since the start of November.
Of course, the NFL demands imperfection, and so while the defense has soared, the offense has regressed. After throwing 26 touchdowns through seven games, Russell Wilson has 12 such tosses over the past eight tilts, with four coming against the New York Jets. Wilson is also without a 300-yard effort since Week 9, a 44-34 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
Wilson’s dropping production is a cause for concern, considering the playoffs will likely bring duels with the tough New Orleans Saints’ defense and the high-flying Green Bay Packers. To beat either, the Seahawks need his best. Still, the margin for error becomes significantly bigger with the defense forcing stops and gobbling up quarterbacks.
On Sunday, the Seahawks won because their defense stonewalled the Rams time and again, giving Wilson and Co. opportunities to break through.
Against Los Angeles’ top-end defense, the Seahawks punted on three of their first four possessions and only scored six points prior to halftime. Yet the game was tied 6-6 at the break, and Seattle began the second half with a methodical seven-play, 70-yard touchdown jaunt.
With this defense, and the proven offensive ceiling, the Seahawks are the biggest threat to the Packers, especially as a team not intimidated by poor weather. Seattle must earn its way to Lambeau Field for what would be a star-studded NFC Championship Game.
Incredibly it’s the defense, of all things, leading the charge.
Top 10 snow game moments in NFL history
1. Tom Brady sets off dynasty with Tuck Rule vs. Raiders (2001)
2. Adam Vinatieri sends Pats-Raiders AFC Divisional Game to OT on 45-yard FG (2001)
3. Steve Van Buren’s TD run wins 1948 NFL Championship for Eagles (1948)
4. Convict clears kicking spot on snowplow for John Smith, Patriots in 3-0 win (1982)
5. Leon Lett gaffe gives Dolphins win over Cowboys on Thanksgiving (1993)
6. Brett Favre beats Seahawks in NFC Divisional with 3 TD passes (2008)
7. Patrick Mahomes wins first playoff game, beats Colts at Arrowhead (2018)
8. Le’Veon Bell sets Steelers’ record with 236 rushing yards over Bills (2016)
9. LeSean McCoy sets’ Eagles rushing mark with 217 yards in win over Lions (2013)
10. Packers rack up 500 yards against Buccaneers (1985)
“This is a bad defense. Worst one I’ve ever had.”
– Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer on the unit’s output this season
On Saturday, the Saints scored 52 points and racked up 583 yards — including 264 rushing — in an embarrassing Christmas defeat for Minnesota. At 6-9, the Vikings are officially looking towards the offseason, and the defense will be the main focus.
The good news? The 2021 Draft is viewed favorably in league circles, deep at a litany of positions. Minnesota has its picks and after nailing it current rookie class, perhaps general manager Rick Spielman can do it once again.
And he better, because the Vikings are in a tight cap situation. Minnesota isn’t likely to be a huge player in free agency, and Kirk Cousins will be back for a fourth season under center. If the Vikings return to contention, it’ll be due to quality smaller signings and an infusion of impactful youth.
Since the start of the 2015 season, the Las Vegas Raiders, Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers have combined for 42 AFC West wins.
The Kansas City Chiefs have amassed 31 (31-4) over the same stretch.
Info learned this week
1. Colts, Browns losses open up wild Week 17 scenarios
The Chiefs are the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers have won their respective divisions.
Everything else is up for grabs.
Going into Week 17, the Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns are the Nos. 4-7 seed, in that order. The Indianapolis Colts, who blew a 24-7 lead to Pittsburgh on Sunday, are the only team alive which is outside the playoff picture.
Here’s what each team needs to make the playoffs:
- Titans: Win at HOU or loss by MIA, BAL, CLE, or IND
- Dolphins: Win at BUF or loss by BAL, IND or CLE
- Ravens: Win at CIN or loss by CLE, IND, or IND and TEN
- Browns: Win vs. PIT or loss by IND or TEN
- Colts: Win vs. JAX and loss by CLE or TEN
For Cleveland, which managed to lose to the suddenly-hot New York Jets, missing the postseason would be especially cruel. The Browns haven’t reached the playoffs since 2002, and yet a home loss to the Steelers would likely keep them out.
2. NFC playoff picture remains chaotic entering final week
Alright, so we know the Packers, Saints and Seahawks are division champs. We also know the NFC East and the No. 4 seed remains a mystery. Additionally, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have clinched a playoff berth.
Everything else? Who knows.
Here’s what each team needs to make the playoffs in the NFC, of those who haven’t clinched:
- Rams: Win vs. AZ, or loss by CHI
- Bears: Win vs. GB, or loss by AZ
- Cardinals: Win at LAR and loss by CHI
Of all three teams, the Bears have to oddly feel good. Even a loss to the Packers — who are still playing for the No. 1 seed — wouldn’t doom them. Considering Arizona is 3-5 in it last eight games, even with the Hail Murray, there’s a good chance Chicago would make the postseason at 8-8.
Then there’s the NFC East. The short version says Washington wins the division by beating the Philadelphia Eagles, who were eliminated on Sunday. Yet a loss by the Football Team means the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys are essentially having a playoff game at MetLife Stadium, with the winner hosting the No. 5 seed in the Wild Card round.
Finally, do the Rams have a complete collapse and miss the playoffs altogether? Goff’s ailing thumb isn’t helping. If they do finish the disaster, it was kicked off by losing to the Jets at home, followed by a listless offensive showing in Seattle and finished off by an inter-divisional loss at SoFi Stadium to the reeling Cards.
Lastly, do the Buccaneers play hard this week? They can’t win their division, but a victory locks up a date with the NFC East winner. Otherwise, a loss coupled with Los Angeles winning means a trip to either Green Bay, New Orleans or Seattle in the Wild Card round. Not ideal.
3. Packers expose Titans’ flaws while showcasing their own strengths
Green Bay is the NFC favorite, even if the margin is relatively slim. We saw why Sunday night.
In a dominating 40-14 win, Aaron Rodgers threw four touchdowns, Davante Adams caught three of them, and reserve running back A.J. Dillon rushed for 124 yards and two scores. It was a trouncing complete with a quality defensive effort by a much-maligned group, highlighted by two sacks and Ryan Tannehill’s two interceptions.
If teams are going to beat the Packers, they must limit Adams and get into blitzing downs. Tennessee couldn’t do any of it.
Which leads us to the Titans, who came into the game with the league’s lowest sack total (14) and worst third-down defense (53 percent conversion rate). How’d they do in those departments? One sack, and 50 percent on third down.
If Tennessee is going to march to the AFC Championship Game as it did a year ago, it needs the defense to be passable. It’s currently a doormat, and one the Chiefs and Bills would stomp all over. The offense is loaded with Tannehill, Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Corey Davis, but it matters not if the defense is an 11-man clown car.
4. Jaguars lock up No. 1 seed, but will they take Trevor Lawrence?
The Jacksonville Jaguars did it. They were plowed 41-17 by the Bears. Combined with the Jets winning, Jacksonville has wrapped up the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Here comes Trevor Lawrence, right? Probably.
Nobody is arguing Lawrence isn’t a phenomenal prospect at the sport’s most important position. However, a report from Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated says former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is a potential fit for the Jaguars should Doug Marrone be fired at season’s end, bringing up a few key questions.
If Meyer ends up in Jacksonville — which is 71 miles from Gainesville, where Meyer coached and won a pair of national titles at the University of Florida — does he want his former quarterback in Justin Fields? If so, the Jaguars could trade picks with the Jets, get a ransom for moving back one slot, and then land Meyer’s guy while setting themselves up with major draft capital.
Finally, Breer is connected here. He’s a Buckeye, so it’s safe to believe he has a good working knowledge of Meyer’s situation.
Maybe Meyer doesn’t end up in Jacksonville. Maybe he does and takes Lawrence.
That said, there’s reason to believe Fields could wind up with the Jaguars if Meyer is donning the headset in Duval.
5. Chargers making case for Anthony Lynn to get 2021
Should the Chargers retain Anthony Lynn? The argument is worth having, and the players are making theirs heard in recent weeks.
With their win over Denver, the Chargers are 6-9 and getting Kansas City’s backups in Week 17. They could finish 7-9 and with a four-game winning streak, while Justin Herbert looks like a future superstar — if he’s not already — under center.
There will be talk within the organization about avoiding a step back for Herbert. Fire Lynn, and his entire staff is likely gone. Another scheme, another first year in many regards for the wunderkind from Oregon.
Conversely, though, the argument to fire Lynn can also be built around Herbert. He’s a fantastic player who set the rookie record for passing touchdowns against the Broncos. If the vacancy sign is lit up in Los Angeles, the Chargers would have the ear of every head-coaching candidate. Herbert, a talented roster and living in California would be an enticing pitch.
An easy case can be made that between horrid clock management and brutal special teams, the Chargers blew four games this season. The defeats weigh down Lynn’s chances to return, but a quality final month, combined with Herbert’s ascension, could buoy him.
In other words, keep an eye on the Chargers after their game on Sunday and into Black Monday. Either Lynn gets a final chance, or the most intriguing coaching vacancy becomes official.
Best advice? Avoid Week 17, because some teams rest, some don’t, and chaos ensues. That said, if you’re going to get involved, look at the Colts and Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium. The spread opened for Indianapolis at -14. Considering Jacksonville has locked up Lawrence, and the Colts will be playing for plenty, this is a great recipe for a blowout.
Matthew Stafford deserves better.
Stafford, 32, left the Detroit Lions’ blowout loss to the Buccaneers with an injured ankle. This, one week after surprising many by playing against the Titans despite rib and thumb ailments. Going into the Tennessee game, the Lions were 5-8 and out of the playoff race.
Yes, players who can play should. But reality is another story, and many high-paid stars would have gladly passed while dealing with pain. Not Stafford.
As the Lions soon embark on an offseason headlined by revamping the front office and coaching staff, Stafford may not fit into Detroit’s plans. Despite turning 33 years old in February, the veteran remains a quality quarterback on cap hits of $35 million and $28 million over the upcoming two years. Expensive, but not prohibitive.
With another full-scale rebuild coming in Motown, the Lions should on. Get a top-50 pick and take a quarterback early. For Stafford, a chance to see what it’s like outside Detroit, and maybe even win a playoff game.
If he becomes available, the San Francisco 49ers should be calling. They can move off Jimmy Garoppolo this spring and save $50 million over the next two years. San Francisco is 6-9 despite being absolutely crushed with injuries this year. Imagine giving head coach Kyle Shanahan a talent such as Stafford, and only needing to move a second-round pick as the headliner in a deal.
It’s time for the Lions to tear down their roster to the proverbial studs. It’s time for Stafford to get another chance.
Inside the league
The Jets are locked into the No. 2 overall pick come April. And a tough decision.
Sam Darnold has struggled through his first three seasons, winning only 13 games while trying to learn two schemes in his short career. While the Jets would unquestionably move on if they were positioned to draft Trevor Lawrence, they current situation begs the question:
With Fields being the most-likely option, is Darnold in 2021 the best move for general manager Joe Douglas?
While Darnold continues to fight through issues, a source tells FanSided the third-year man is well-respected in the Jets’ locker room, including by the veterans. He’s impressed with his leadership through what has been an embarrassing campaign, all while fighting through injury. And, also, Darnold is only 23 years old.
I reached out to a pair of general managers in the league this week and asked what they believed the Jets could get for Darnold in a trade. One stated a Day 2 pick would be the most-likely outcome, while the other believes a first-round choice is possible, texting “all you need is a couple of teams to think he is a young QB with great potential and you can get more than you think.”
The latter GM also mentioned a strong finishing kick would be beneficial to Darnold’s value.
Much of the Jets’ decision may come down to the incoming coaching staff and its belief level in Darnold. If New York does decide to shop its quarterback, the return likely includes a top-100 pick, but also the risk of missing out on a kid who simply needs a coach and some stability.
How important is earning a postseason bye week to being a Super Bowl participant? It’s a matter of perspective.
In 1978, the NFL expanded its playoff format and began awarding bye weeks to top seeds. Since then — excluding 1982 and the wonky Super Bowl Tournament — only 12 have reached the Super Bowl without the benefit of a bye week.
However, eight teams in said span have won the Lombardi Trophy, including six since 2005. In short, 40 percent of champions over the past 15 campaigns have won four playoff games. However, if you look over a longer stretch, the percentage drops quickly.
This year, there’s another added layer since fans will largely be absent. A week off is still critical for the body, but does home-field advantage matter as much? In 2020, home teams entering Week 16 were 111-112-1.
Everyone in the NFL would gladly be a No. 1 seed come January, but the advantage may be somewhat overstated historically.
Does only one team in each conference having a bye change the equation? Time will tell.
This is almost certainly the final 16-game regular season for the NFL. Next year, the docket will see an extra week added, and so the handwringing will begin about too much football.
Here’s the reality: none of us will be upset about more football when it gets here.
This offseason, plenty of pundits moaned about the watered-down nature of a 14-team playoff field. Fast forward to the present, and the AFC race is incredible. Somehow, a 10-win team will be left out of the picture. In the NFC, it’s creating high drama for Arizona, Los Angeles and Chicago.
For the 17-game season, it’s imperfect. The league should really make it an even 18 (which will happen in a few years) and have an equal amount of home and road games for everyone.
Still, another week of NFL football? Sign me up.
For the traditionalists — and I count myself among them — we’re wise to understand how the league has evolved over time. In 1961, the NFL extended its season from 12 to 14 games. In 1978, it became 16 tilts.
As for the postseason, we saw only a title game from 1933-65. Then there was a Super Bowl for the NFL and AFL champ. In 1967, the NFL added a Divisional round, creating a four-team bracket. Three years later, upon the AFL-NFL merger, four teams from each conference qualified. In ’78, the league added two more teams, giving us Wild Card Weekend. Then, in ’90, we got the six-team format in each conference.
Each change undoubtedly brought complaints, followed by predictable excitement.