Patriots aren’t contenders, NFL power rankings, playoff picture and more

NFL


The New England Patriots have continued to falter. The reasons are many, but the bottom line is a brutal road in the playoffs.

The Super Bowl will be played in Atlanta come February. The New England Patriots won’t be there.

After reaching the previous two Super Bowls, New England is attempting to become only the third team in NFL history to reach three straight. After Sunday, that appears to be a pipe dream.

There are myriad reasons for why the Patriots find themselves mired in their version of mediocrity. For starters, Rob Gronkowski resembles an old man trying to find his car in a parking lot when running routes. He ambles with a gait. There is pain in each movement. It’s hard to watch. It must be brutal to be him in the moment.

The Patriots lost 17-10 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, dropping them to both 9-5 and the third seed in the AFC. New England could reclaim the second seed, although it will require winning out along with a loss by the Houston Texans.

In plain English, the odds aren’t good.

This is a scenario New England hasn’t faced in years. The last time the Patriots suffered the indignity of playing on Wild Card weekend was 2009. Oddly enough, that was the only other season in which the Patriots have lost at least five road games under Bill Belichick. That group went 10-6 and earned the third seed. It also was unceremoniously bounced in the Wild Card round by the Baltimore Ravens.

Tom Brady, for all his glory, is 41 years old. He isn’t surrounded by an elite cast anymore, and he’s no longer making a sub-optimal cast more than the sum of its parts. The Patriots are a collection of good players who don’t border on great. They don’t have a premier weapon to rely on in tense moments. Julian Edelman is a 32-year-old slot receiver coming off a torn ACL and suspension. Chris Hogan is forgettable. Josh Gordon is a rental. Cordarrelle Patterson is a fun distraction.

All of that equals a good team when it includes Brady and Belichick. Even with them, though, it’s lucky to be the fourth-best team in the AFC.

For almost two decades, the Patriots have largely been the favorites to reach Super Sunday as the AFC representative. New England has been there a staggering eight times since 2001. It has won every AFC East title in that span save two. The Patriots have five championships to show for their dominance.

Only a fool would rule out the Patriots in any playoff game. New England has been there too many times and come out clean on the other side more often than not.

Then again, only a fool would believe that good things last forever. Old legacies die hard, often when those within its walls still trust there is another batch of magic in the satchel.

Brady is aging. Gronk is ready for retirement. The defense isn’t equipped to atone for its considerable sins.

The Patriots will be playing in January. The difference this time? That’s where the road ends.

Power rankings

Top 10 unexpected playoff runs since merger

1. 2001 New England Patriots – The beginning of it all
2. 2012 Baltimore Ravens – The miracle in Denver leads to jewelry
3. 1980 Oakland Raiders – First team to win four playoff games
4. 2007 New York Giants – Defeat of the undefeated
5. 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars – Brunell and Co. stun Buffalo, Denver
6. 1987 Minnesota Vikings – A gigantic upset in San Francisco
7. 1995 Indianapolis Colts – A Hail Mary from the Super Bowl
8. 1983 Seattle Seahawks – Krieg takes down Miami
9. 2018 Jacksonville Jaguars – Bortles almost sees Super Sunday
10. 1979 Los Angeles Rams – Ferragamo to the Super Bowl

Quotable

“Will you marry me?”

– Bears left tackle Charles Leno Jr. to his now-fiancè, Jennifer Roth

Leno might have had the best day of anybody in Chicago on Sunday. The Bears won the NFC North and Leno got engaged in the immediate aftermath. Not a bad day at the office.

Podcast

Matt Verderame and Josh Hill bring you a new episode of Stacking The Box every Sunday night, covering the week that was the action ahead. Make sure to subscribe, rate and comment on iTunes for all the latest!

Random stat

In their last 12 road games, the Dolphins are 1-11 with a negative 204-point differential.

Info learned this week

1. Eagles shock Rams in primetime tilt

Philadelphia looked dead and buried. Carson Wentz was out, and the record was sub .500.

Now? The Eagles are very much the heartbeat under the floorboards in the NFC.

After stunning the Rams, Philadelphia has life at 7-7. For any postseason hopes, the Eagles still have to beat the Texans at home in Week 16 before handling the Redskins on the regular season’s final Sunday. Additionally, Philadelphia would need the Panthers and Vikings to lose once. It’s a tough path, but it’s suddenly possible.

GOING DEEP: Rams look lost as playoffs approach

Conversely, the Rams are struggling mightily. Los Angeles has lost two straight and now is almost certain to be the second seed. There are worse fates, but it’s a tough reality after being 9-0. Los Angeles desperately needs more from Jared Goff and the offensive line protecting him, a duo that has been underwhelming against physical fronts in Chicago and Philadelphia.

2. Playoff picture continues to refocus in Week 15

What a long, strange trip it has been.

On Sunday, the Colts and Titans continued their trek toward a Week 17 date with destiny. Both authored shutout victories over NFC East foes in the Cowboys and Giants, each raising their records to 8-6.

For Indianapolis and Tennessee, their season-ending matchup could be a virtual playoff game. Both should win next week with the Colts hosting the Giants and the Titans welcoming in the Redskins.

The Steelers finally broke their three-game slide, beating the Patriots in a heart-stopper. Pittsburgh now sits at 8-5-1 and leads Baltimore by a half-game in the AFC North, while eliminating the Browns from contention. As for the Ravens, they are in both the aforementioned divisional race and a wild card fight on their hands. Looking at all the schedules, Baltimore is more likely to win the division than the sixth seed, likely needing to win out regardless.

Next week, both the Ravens and Steelers face tough road tests. Baltimore plays on Saturday night against the Chargers, while Pittsburgh plays less than 24 hours later against the Saints in the Superdome.

Beyond the North, Pittsburgh’s win shakes up the AFC playoff picture. The Texans are now the second seed after escaping with a win over the Jets. Houston is 10-4 and has the Eagles and Jaguars on the docket, two games it will be significantly favored in.

In the NFC, the Bears won the North for the first time since 2010, beating the Packers at Soldier Field. Another win over the final two weeks — or a Dallas loss — would clinch the third seed for Chicago, which hosts the 49ers next weekend. The Cowboys failed to win their division on Sunday with the loss at Indianapolis being coupled by the Redskins and Eagles winning. The magic number remains one.

GOING DEEP: Bears gain controversial advantage with air raid siren

In Minnesota, the Dolphins fell 41-17, all but putting Miami down for the winter. Meanwhile, the Vikings strengthened their hold on the sixth seed in the NFC, something they can lock up next weekend against the Lions.

Two weeks to go. So much to play for.

3. Chargers, Chiefs appears to be best AFC teams

The Chargers defeated the Chiefs in an instant classic on Thursday night, winning 29-28 on a two-point conversion with four seconds remaining. For many, it was proof that Los Angeles is a factor in the Super Bowl conversation. it was also further proof that Kansas City’s defense could factor in heavily come January.

With both at 11-3, the Chiefs control their own destiny. However, Kansas City has a tough task on Sunday, playing in primetime at Seattle. Meanwhile, Los Angeles plays 24 hours earlier at home against the desperate Ravens. Both teams should win in Week 17, meaning that this upcoming weekend likely determines who hosts the AFC Championship Game, and who has to win three road games to reach Atlanta.

GOING DEEP: Todd Bowles and Kansas City is a logical marriage

After 15 weeks, it’s tough to argue that regardless of order, the Chiefs and Chargers are the class of the AFC. Perhaps we get a rubber match.

4. Vance Joseph is cooked in Denver

It was a Saturday night special in Denver, but it was the Browns who spoiled the party.

Cleveland beat Denver 17-16 to stay alive in the AFC North race, while the Broncos are 6-8 and down for the proverbial count. More importantly, the loss was a clinic in how not to coach situational football, leaving Vance Joseph on the hottest of seats.

After going 5-11 a year ago, Joseph was narrowly spared by general manager John Elway. Now at 6-8 and facing consecutive losing seasons in Denver for first time since 1971-72, Joseph appears beyond saving.

Meanwhile, the Browns are 6-7-1 and showing some real fight. Cleveland has a choice to make on whether to retain Gregg Williams as head coach, with the interim tag still looming large. The Browns are very interested in Mike McCarthy according to FanSided sources, though, making Williams a longshot.

5. Saints try to hold top seed; Panthers attempt to snap skid

New Orleans is trying to make the road to the Super Bowl go through the Big Easy. If that’s going to happen, the Saints likely have to win out.

That voyage starts on Monday night with a road date with the Panthers, who are aiming to keep playoff hope alive. Carolina was once a lock to make the postseason at 6-2, but five straight losses have submarined those plans. Now, the Panthers try to get to 7-7 by beating a New Orleans team that is playing for seeding.

GOING DEEP: Saints were biggest winner from SNF

This is the first or two matchups between these teams in the next three weeks, with the rematch coming in Week 17 at the Superdome. If the Panthers are going to make that game mean anything for them, it’s time to play their best tilt of the year.

History lesson

The 1991 Washington Redskins might be the most underrated in NFL history.

On their way to a 14-2 season and Super Bowl title, Washington set a record that still stands by winning with an average margin of 16.3 points per game. In the playoffs, the Redskins blitzed the Falcons, Lions and Bills by a combined score of 102-41.

There are ample teams with more Hall of Famers and household names, but nobody was more dominant.

Parting shot

Two weeks ago, the 49ers were 2-10 and headed for the first-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Fast forward to the present, and they’ll be waiting through a few selections before going onto the clock.

Good for them.

Increasingly, pundits and fans talk about the benefits of tanking. There’s this notion that being horrible is better than simply being bad, even if it means laying down any shred of dignity in the process. While football doesn’t have near the tanking problem that is pervasive in baseball and basketball, it still lingers in the shadows.

The 49ers could have done what seems to be the right long-term play. They could have run a vanilla scheme the last month of the season, been blown out by teams fighting for the playoffs and waltzed to the No. 1 pick.

Instead, San Francisco showed fight by playing spoiler in wins over Denver and Seattle. The 49ers won not only a pair of games but the ability to maintain a culture of hard work and effort. While that should be a standard in every locker room across the league, it isn’t. Especially among the league’s bottom-feeders.

The 49ers didn’t have to play hard. Some probably prefer they didn’t.

Too bad. Good on San Francisco.





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