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Packers, Patriots Positioned for Playoff Stretch

NFL Week 12 – The Green Bay Packers made a statement with their victory over the Los Angeles Rams. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots continued on their Super Bowl collision course. The Pittsburgh Steelers may finally have bowed out of the playoff race for good. And the New York Giants may finally be parting ways with Dave Gettleman, for better or (somehow) worse.

But let’s not get too lost in the weeds of who did what to whom on Sunday. The start of the holiday season marks the start of the extended NFL playoff stretch run. It’s a great time to use Week 12’s results as a lens through which to examine the bigger picture. Where is each team heading as the season enters its final third? What are the biggest games on the horizon? Who are the true contenders? The spoilers? Who is about to crash and burn, besides the New Orleans Saints?

It’s time for a late-season reset. We’ll cover all 32 teams, starting in the NFC, with the Week 12 Awards wedged in the middle so you don’t have to wait too long. Teams are listed in order of where Walkthrough thinks they currently rank based on DVOA, Sunday’s results, and gut instincts/dead reckoning.

Green Bay Packers
The Packers demonstrated in their 36-28 victory over the Los Angeles Rams that they are a well-coached and well-run organization that also happens to have a Hall of Famer at quarterback. It’s easy to overlook or take the Packers for granted, however, because:

  • Their Hall of Fame quarterback thinks that he can do a better job than the coach and organization; and
  • The Packers lose so entertainingly in the playoffs each year that it’s easier to just pencil them in and wait for the fireworks than scrutinize their weekly ups and downs.

But c’mon: the Packers just won another game with someone named Yosh Nijman at left tackle. Eagles and Panthers castoff Rasul Douglas had a pick-six and four passes defensed against the Rams. Other teams—OK, the Cowboys—would have curled up into a ball if they lost as many top players to injuries as the Packers have lost this year.

The Packers face the Bears, Ravens, Browns, Vikings, and Lions down the stretch. They may need to run that table to earn a first-round bye, especially since the Buccaneers have a Conference USA late-season schedule. But bye or no bye, the Packers could get some combination of David Bakhtiari, Jaire Alexander, and Za’Darius Smith back by mid-January. So don’t chalk up that NFC Championship Game loss just yet.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers look a little like the 2018 Patriots right now. The Tom Brady wizardry is waning a bit again, but Rob Gronkowski is available to go ham when Brady needs a big play, the offensive and defensive fronts remain stacked, and opponents have a habit of muffing punts and making other silly mistakes in His Divine Presence. The 2018 Patriots had an awesome secondary and glorified practice squad wide receivers, the 2021 Buccaneers the exact opposite, and Leonard Fournette is the fully evolved form of Sony Michel.

The Buccaneers’ late-season stretch is basically a Roman triumph for Brady. Even the Jets are showing up to pay homage. It’s actually a little gross.

In the event of a Buccaneers-Patriots Super Bowl, there’s a nonzero chance that I retire from football coverage and return to teaching.

Arizona Cardinals
Kliff Kingsbury may deserve Coach of the Year for navigating the Colt McCoy-led Cardinals to a 2-1 record. Vance Joseph definitely deserves a second chance at a head coaching gig for the work he has done with the Cardinals defense. With Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins expected to return, the Cardinals are in much better position for a Super Bowl run than the Cowboys or Rams right now.

Los Angeles Rams
The Rams look more and more like overhyped, overcompensated 2014 Lions cosplayers every time Matthew Stafford goes on a turnover jag. Their future schedule also offers few respites after they take their frustrations out on the Jaguars next week. In terms of paper talent, the Rams should easily snap out of their losing streak, remain buoyed atop the wild-card race, and make a very frightening playoff road team. They’re about where the Chiefs were in October, which means it’s far too early to count them out of the Super Bowl conversation.

Dallas Cowboys
It’s tempting to write off the Thanksgiving loss as the result of the absences of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, plus Shawn Hochuli’s attempt to win a Daytime Emmy. It’s also worth noting that Mike McCarthy made some drippy decisions (the 59-yard field goal attempt, the rotating offensive linemen) and the Cowboys have been a little too eager to surrender in the face of adversity over the last month.

Walkthrough thinks the Cowboys will rebound when their receiver corps returns and their schedule fills up with NFC East pretenders down the stretch. But there’s a chance that they are doomed to another December and January that feels like a script written by a vindictive Eagles fan.

San Francisco 49ers
Another week, another 15-play, 87-yard, 8-plus-minute prog rock drive, this time in a convincing 34-26 victory over the Vikings. The 49ers are the Patriots of the NFC: a YAC-and-defense team that was easy to scoff when they were losing games early in the season. The biggest difference between the 49ers and Patriots at this point may be that the Patriots have faced one of the easiest schedules in the NFL so far this season, while the 49ers have faced one of the toughest.

The 49ers are clearly superior to the Saints/Vikings/Whoever tier of NFC wild-card hopefuls now that they are healthier on both sides of the ball. They need to avenge their early-season loss to the Seahawks in Week 13 and defeat the flailing Titans in 16—and take care of their business against the Falcons and Texans, of course—to position themselves as the road team that’s built to throw a playoff scare into the Cowboys or (given their postseason history) Packers.

Minnesota Vikings
Remember last week when the Vikings upset the Packers and we had our annual “Gosh, Kirk Cousins’ stats look great, maybe we should cut him some slack” conversation? Welp, Walkthrough has been listening to that conversation since Cousins played for Washington, and it’s always followed up by a loss to a beatable opponent. Every day is Groundhog Day for Cousins.

Cousins and the Vikings continue to exist and soak up energy and resources. They’ll climb back to .500 with a victory over the Lions next week, then probably take advantage of the Saints freefall by reaching the playoffs with the help of a Bears sweep in the final four weeks. Whatever. The 49ers are significantly better and far more interesting.

Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles may be on the path to going 13-4 in 2023. They may be on the path to going 4-13 in 2023. It’s a credit to the organization that the good path is even feasible right now, though Sunday’s loss illustrated how quickly they could find themselves on the crooked path. Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts don’t need to scratch their way into the playoffs to earn a second “evaluation year,” but they must avoid catastrophes such as the Giants loss at all costs.

Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are a self-caricature at this point: they wait around for 60-yard touchdowns on offense and dole out 12-yard completions like boardwalk fudge samples on defense. There aren’t enough Texans and Lions on the Seahawks future schedule for them to climb back to respectability at this point. No franchise faces tougher offseason decisions in 2022.

Washington Football Team
Tyler Heinicke is the type of quarterback you talk yourself into if you see a touchdown pass threaded through three defenders on a highlight reel and think “that’s a sustainable skill!” instead of “that’s an interception in three trillion parallel universes and only a completion in this one.” Monday night will tell us whether Washington’s 2021 season will be a rerun of 2020, with a second-half surge pushing them into the bottom of the playoff field. Whether that happens or not, Washington really needs to start moving forward instead of sideways in 2022.

New Orleans Saints
An imploding skyscraper that may take five years to rebuild.

Atlanta Falcons
Just good enough to beat the league’s most pathetic teams and no one else, as Sunday’s 21-14 snoozer over the Jaguars illustrated. The Falcons will beat the Lions in Week 16; lose to the Buccaneers and Bills; decide the final NFC wild card when they face the 49ers, Saints, and Panthers; and ultimately position themselves perfectly to not be able to select a blue-chip starter at a high-leverage position (don’t even dream about a quarterback) in the first round of the 2022 draft.

Carolina Panthers
A bad team run by a bunch of overmatched goofballs who have run out of ways to distract us from the fact that they have no long-range plan whatsoever. In the wake of Sunday’s 5-for-21 meltdown in a 30-10 loss to the Dolphins, creaky/unprepared Cam Newton will probably return to Wildcat duties. P.J. Walker will helm the offense until Matt Rhule trades for Mike White or Marcus Mariota next year.

The Panthers’ sole purpose down the stretch will be as schedule-fluffers for the Buccaneers and Bills.

Chicago Bears
The fear coming out of this half-assed Bears season is that Matt Nagy has already managed to break Justin Fields: 31 sacks in just 10 games, a rib injury, a year of shamelessly negligent coaching. No one except the surliest Packers fans want Fields to fail, of course, but the Magnificent McCaskeys should at least consider the possibility that Nagy will inflict further damage on the team’s future instead of circling wagons around him the next time a firing rumor pops up.

The Bears are still a fringe wild-card team, but their upcoming Cardinals-Packers-Vikings slate should take care of that.

New York Giants
Based on Ian Rapoport of NFL.com’s report on Dave Gettleman’s likely end-of-season retirement, the Giants plan to either replace Gettleman from within or raid the Patriots scouting department for someone “more in-line with [Joe] Judge’s thinking.”

Hiring from within the greater Giants “family” is how they ended up with Gettleman. The success of Patriots Tribute Bands over the last 20 years speaks for itself. And giving Joe Judge more power is a terrible idea, because Judge is horrendous at every single element of head coaching. But golly, it sure looks like Judge somehow won a boardroom power coup over the last eight days, and now he has a silly little victory over the Eagles that he can sell as the latest Giants “statement” win.

At least Bill O’Brien led the Texans to the playoffs a few times while turning into Colonel Kurtz. John Mara better look long and hard into that abyss before he hands the keys over to someone he should be locking out of the building.

Detroit Lions
0-10-1 in the standings. 7-4 against the spread. Number one in our hearts.

Week 12 Awards

Before we switch conferences, let’s dish out some trophies for Sunday’s best performances:

Offensive Line of the Week
As expected, the storied Bengals offensive line, whom Walkthrough frequently compares to the 1980s Hogs and the Seven Blocks of Granite, manhandled T.J. Watt and the Steelers defense all afternoon. So let’s once again call attention to the greatness of Jonah Williams, Quinton Spain, Trey Hopkins, Hakeem Adeniji, and Riley Reiff, even though you are undoubtedly sick of hearing us endlessly extol their virtues.

Defender of the Week
Patrick Surtain intercepted two Justin Herbert passes: one in the end zone and a second off a deflection that he returned for a pick-six.

Defensive Rookie of the Year props were off the board as of Sunday night, but Surtain could sneak into the picture. Then again, Micah Parsons has 6.5 sacks in the last month, so Surtain may need a few more picks.

Special Teamer of the Week
Duke Riley blocked a punt near the goal line at the end of the opening Panthers series, Justin Coleman retrieved it and pushed his way into the end zone, and a Dolphins rout was underway.

Vikings kickoff returner Kene Ngwangwu earns honorable mention for his 99-yard kickoff return. Check out the blocks by Myles Dorn, Blake Lynch, Troy Dye, and others.

Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else’s Highlight
There’s a lot of love to go around for Kendrick Bourne’s 41-yard touchdown catch:

Let’s dole out awards to:

  • Perennial Pro Bowl safety Kevin Byard, who got duct taped to Hunter Henry even though he’s clearly supposed to be sitting in a hook zone and waiting for crossers.
  • Jackrabbit Jenkins, for taking one of his signature “I don’t really wanna make a tackle” angles, then slipping.
  • Amani Hooker and Jayon Brown for failing to knock one of the NFL’s slowest wide receivers out of bounds while tiptoeing up the sidelines.

Honorable mention goes to Matt Vrabel and coordinator Shane Bowen for calling Tampa-2 on third-and-8 when their front four was incapable of getting within 5 yards of Mac Jones all afternoon (while a handful of blitzes resulted in sacks).

Here, check the dots to enjoy the elegance of a simple defense, horrendously executed:

Burn This Play!
Here, in all its glory, is the Jarvis Landry Wildcat pass strip-sack from the late game:

The problems with this design start with the fact that Landry lines up in shotgun with Baker Mayfield at running back: there is no subterfuge to make defenders drift away from their coverage assignments. Also, when Landry is the quarterback, it leaves the Ravens with no receivers capable of getting open against man coverage. Finally, the Browns ran a Landry option play against the Lions last week: no one was open, so Landry scrambled for a touchdown. Did the Browns think the Ravens would overlook that play when studying film? Did they realize that the Ravens defense was less likely than the Lions defense to allow Landry to weave through traffic?

This is the sort of desperate nonsense the Browns weren’t supposed to rely upon this year to generate big plays.

Burn This Game Plan!
The Eagles targeted Jalen Reagor seven times on Sunday, including twice in the end zone on the final drive of their 13-7 loss. Let’s see how that went:

The following interception wasn’t Reagor’s fault, but this is Burn This Game Plan, not Rip This Player. Though we are totally about to rip this player:

The Eagles also targeted Reagor on fourth-and-2; he failed to haul in a low-but-catchable pass.

Reagor is a first-round bust who is now 25-201-2 on 45 targets for the year. Yes, that’s just over 8.0 yards per reception, which gives you a sense of how many of them were screens. No matter who is covering him, Reagor should never be the focal point of a passing game, because he has the contested-catch capability of a toddler chasing a beach ball and turns 50-50 balls into .05-99.95 balls.

Mystery Touchdown of the Week
We haven’t used this category all year, but Chris Myarick’s crotch touchdown had to go somewhere in Walkthrough:

Yep, that was a real statement win for the Giants, who can beat any team in the NFL as long as their fourth-string tight ends keep catching touchdown passes between their ankles.

AFC Late-Season Reset

And now, back to this other thing that we are doing.

Buffalo Bills
As Super Bowl contenders, the Bills lack something: if not the max-buffed 2021 version of Josh Allen, then a Nick Chubb at running back, a steamroller on the interior line, a take-over-the-game edge rusher, or anyone else who can step up when a game is going sideways.

The loss of Tre’Davious White on Thanksgiving night is a major worry for a team that doesn’t have a lot of blue chips to spare and faces the Patriots twice in the next four weeks and the Buccaneers in Week 14. It’s time for the Bills to prove they’re the team they claim to be.

New England Patriots
The Patriots will go as far as 11-yard screen passes on third-and-10, missed opponent field goals, peanut-punch fumbles, and a creamy schedule can take them. In the 2021 AFC, that’s pretty far.

The Patriots are a solid overall team that’s not nearly as good as its recent box scores would suggest. The same can be said of the September version of the Buffalo Bills. A pair of December matchups with the Bills—starting next Monday night in Buffalo—will either validate the Patriots or expose them as something less than an Eternal Dynasty with the next Chosen One at quarterback. Walkthrough is leaning toward the latter scenario, despite our lack of faith in the Bills.

Kansas City Chiefs
The final six Chiefs games are against AFC playoff hopefuls, four of them from the AFC West, none of them from the de-facto Bills/Patriots/Ravens ruling tier. It sure feels like Andy Reid is a pool shark who set everything up just right so he could run the table.

Cincinnati Bengals
Now quietly 7-4 with a sweep of the Steelers and quality wins over the Ravens and Raiders in their playoff portfolio. Still, it’s impossible to tell which Bengals will show up on either side of the ball each week. The Bengals can do just about everything well when they are hot but can’t do anything right when they are cold, and their offensive and defensive peaks and slumps don’t sync up perfectly. They’re like Bills Lite.

Every damn game on the Bengals schedule also feels like a wild-card game, making them that much harder to analyze. The team that trounced the Steelers on Sunday should cruise to the playoffs by beating the Chargers in Week 13 and the 49ers and Broncos down the stretch. The team that lost to the Jets and Browns before their bye could cough up any or all of those games.

The Bengals look to Walkthrough like potential 2022 Super Bowl contenders if they handle their offseason business properly. (A huge “if” for a front office that consists of three interns and a card table full of season-ticket brochures.) They’re going to peak this season as fun-to-watch playoff randomizers.

Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens and Browns both rank below the Bengals in this little exercise by virtue of Sunday night’s blooperfest. Lamar Jackson has been glitching out regularly over the last few weeks, and the Ravens defense doesn’t play at a consistently high enough level to inspire any trust.

The Ravens face the Steelers twice in the final stretch, as well as the Bengals and Browns again, plus (yikes!) the Packers and Rams. That’s a brutal stretch, especially if the Steelers have any life left in them (and they’re sure to find some when they face the Ravens). John Harbaugh has a knack for manufacturing wins that only Bill Belichick and Andy Reid can match, but scratch victories can only get the Ravens to the playoffs. They need a Lamar Jackson who completes passes to Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown instead of the defenders covering Andrews and Brown to get through the playoffs.

Cleveland Browns
Baker Mayfield was reportedly healthier than he has been in weeks entering Sunday night. He then came away from some early-game hits looking gimpy and looked a little panicky in the pocket at times (see: his fumble before halftime). Even if Mayfield is close to 100% after next week’s bye, the Browns and their fans may just have to make peace with the fact that he has peaked as a lower-tier starter on a team with no passing-game playmakers. The Browns are the AFC’s Vikings, with a high floor and a low ceiling, less likely to fade from the playoff chase than the mercurial Bengals or Raiders but nearly guaranteed to go one-and-done once they arrive.

The Browns get the Ravens again after their bye, followed by the Raiders and Packers. A likely 1-2 record during that stretch won’t be disastrous, but it will confirm what we already suspect.

Indianapolis Colts
We saw in the loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday what will happen if/when the Colts face a true powerhouse in the postseason. Even on his best day, Carson Wentz will commit too many turnovers against a capable defense. Jonathan Taylor rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown, but a great running game only gets a team so far. The Colts defense is stout but not extraordinary. There’s no margin for error in the Colts’ style of football, which is a real problem for a team that probably needs to beat the Patriots in Week 15 to reach the playoffs.

Los Angeles Chargers
Chargers drives of 60, 61, and 52 yards ended on downs, a missed field goal, and an interception in Sunday’s 28-14 loss to the Broncos. The Chargers are doomed to either get knocked out of the playoff chase or the playoffs themselves by red zone gaffes and special teams blunders. (The Chargers didn’t quite reach the red zone on their long drives against the Broncos, but you get the general idea.) Their Week 13 matchup with the Bengals should tell us more about each team’s postseason worthiness, but we have said that almost every week about every Chargers and Bengals game, and both teams stay huddled in the middle of the pack.

Tennessee Titans
Ryan Tannehill has no one at all to throw to; at one point on Sunday, he dropped to set up a screen pass, but the running back had drifted away and was nowhere to be found. The fact that the Titans stayed with the Patriots through most of three quarters was a minor miracle and a testament to their offensive and defensive fronts. But with A.J. Brown on injured reserve, there’s no skill-position cavalry coming for the Titans anytime soon.

Late-season wins over the Jaguars, Texans, and either the Steelers, Dolphins, or 49ers will sew up a playoff berth for the Titans. Perhaps Brown, Julio Jones, and even Derrick Henry will return by then. But it’s unlikely to matter if the road to the Super Bowl rolls through Buffalo, Foxborough, or even Kansas City.

Denver Broncos
A spoilerrific team that refuses to bow out of the playoff race. The Broncos’ mode of victory—pick-sixes, fourth-down stops, station-to-station offense—isn’t all that sustainable, but that hasn’t deterred any other AFC teams from making a playoff push this season.

Poetic justice would find the Broncos earning the seventh playoff berth as an afterthought and upsetting the Patriots in Foxborough during a telecast in which the announcers don’t even say the words “Broncos” or “Teddy Bridgewater” until the middle of the third quarter.

Las Vegas Raiders
It’s hard to take Shawn Hochuli’s Thanksgiving officiating drum solo seriously as some sort of Raiders rebound: they won because the iffy flags hit the Cowboys considerably harder than the Raiders. The Raiders’ late-season schedule is full of opponents such as the Browns, Colts, and Broncos, however, so they remain a viable seventh wild-card team, especially with another 1970s powerhouse in the process of plunging off a cliff.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Bye, guys. It was fun. Enjoy the quarterback search.

Miami Dolphins
Has the negging of Tua Tagovailoa ceased after two-and-a-half straight productive games? Wins over the Jets and Panthers after a surprising save against the Ravens won’t convince Tua’s biggest skeptics (his coaches), but the Dolphins have found their true level: one healthy notch above the league’s true bottom-feeders.

Upcoming meetings with the Giants, Jets, and flailing Saints and Titans should make the Dolphins’ record respectable and stabilize Tua’s reputation by the time the Dolphins play spoiler against the Patriots in Week 18. Whether a late-season, schedule-assisted hot streak is enough to prevent Steven Ross from having dinner at St. Elmo’s with Deshaun Watson’s agent at the combine is anyone’s guess. For now, Brian Flores has saved his job, allowing him to either put the first half of 2021 behind him or morph into Matt Nagy next year.

New York Jets
Both the Jets and Zach Wilson needed Sunday’s win over the Texans to avoid being swallowed up by the tabloid monster. The team’s goal down the stretch should be good health, player development, and enough respectable play to keep the city’s attention on the Giants.

Jacksonville Jaguars
The three things I found most depressing while watching the Jaguars’ 21-14 loss to the Falcons on Sunday:

  • Two early-game special teams penalties which handed the Falcons first downs illustrated how poorly coached the Jaguars are in every aspect of the game.
  • All the passes targeted to Laquon Treadwell and Tavon Austin made the Jaguars look like a cross between an XFL team and the Matt Patricia Lions, who loved to clutter their bench with replacement-level (at best) veterans, not all of whom were former Patriots.
  • Trevor Lawrence suddenly has the mechanics of a high school baseball pitcher, especially when his feet aren’t set, which means that coaching neglect and poor receiver play may be leading to bad habits.

The Jets and Texans are the only beatable opponents on the remaining Jaguars schedule. The Jaguars only remain interesting because Urban Meyer could bolt at any moment, and because they could help the Titans and/or Colts reach the playoffs by being easy outs.

Houston Texans
Friend of Walkthrough Stephanie Stradley posted a photo of a nearly-empty Texans parking lot not too long before kickoff:

This is what happens when a team that lacks a generational fanbase stops trying to field a competitive team. Eventually, even a hyper-privileged failson like Cal McNair figures out that the concession and apparel revenues have gone down the tubes. Ignoring the Texans is the best thing their fans can do to make the franchise better, and McNair and Jack Easterby have made ignoring the Texans easy.

Monday Night Action: Seattle Seahawks (-1) at Washington Football Team

Beware the FedEx Field playing surface, my children: a muddy, neglected briar patch that gets worse as the season wears on. The FedEx gravel quarry slows speedy offenses and causes injuries that can bring opponents down to Washington’s level. But most of all, beware the fact that the effects of the East Coast’s most notorious patch of lonesome prairie are priced into the spread and the over-under: Washington is 1-5 ATS (0-6 straight up) in December home games since 2018, and the games are 3-3 against a number that usually hovers in the low 40s.

Walkthrough likes going Under 46.5 in a game that’s likely to end in the 23-20 range, but we don’t trust either team to win. We’re leaning toward Washington, however: they should be able to plod along on drives while Russell Wilson watches Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf spin their wheels in the sand. Washington straight-up AND the under is a low-confidence play, but the +270 DraftKings is offering for the same-game parlay makes it palatable.

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