We’re back, people. Your weekly look-around the NFL for the best performances, worst chokes, and most questionable prognostications. If I didn’t mention your team this week, no worries. Good, bad, or meh, I’ll be getting to everyone in due time.
1. The Monsters of the Midway are real. Be scared.
The ho-hum 14-9 road victory over San Francisco might not move the needle much, except for two things. First, San Francisco has found an identity, especially after beating Seattle. They’re no pushover. Second, the Bears have now won more than ten games for the first time this decade. They have not one, but two DB’s ranked in the top three in interceptions, and Khalil Mack, were it not for Aaron Donald doing Aaron Donald things, would be a DPOY shoo-in. They may enter the NFC playoffs as a three seed, but no one wants these guys at Soldier Field.
2. The Patriots still run the AFC East
Ten straight division titles. And this year, if the pundits are to be believed, is the year that the sky is falling. A win over the Jets this weekend will lock in the number two seed and a much-needed bye week. Not bad for a down year that is the harbinger of doom for Tom Brady.
3. Kansas City is in a swoon
It’s not easy to win in Seattle. I get that. But if Kansas City is the team that everyone assumed that they were in week four, they win that road game against an over performing Seattle squad. After back to back losses, all they need to do to clinch homefield in the AFC is beat Oakland. You think Gruden wants to play spoiler? You bet he does.
4. The Steelers played chicken, and lost
I’ll say it. Because I said it before. The Steelers drawing a line in the sand with Le’Veon Bell was a bad idea. So bad, in fact, that unless a small miracle happens in week 17, the Steelers will be watching the playoffs on TV. There are a handful of guys in the NFL that you simply have to pay. Bell is one of them. The emergence of James Conner for a time appeared to mitigate the loss, but the sudden reliance on Roethlisberger’s arm has made the once-indefensible offense predictable as the season wore on. That early season tie with the Browns is looming large now and might well keep them out of a wildcard slot if Baltimore holds serve to capture the AFC North.
5. Don’t sleep on the Colts
They’ll need to go into Tennessee and beat the Titans to hang onto the sixth seed, but my money is with Andrew Luck and the Colts. They could have easily slipped against a talented and under-performing Giants team last weekend. The Colts trailed by six late in the fourth quarter but scored a late TD and picked off Eli Manning to ice the game. Playoff teams win that game, like the Colts did.
6. Pete Carroll is a legit Coach of the Year contender
I gave my Mea Culpa in this weeks’ Power Rankings, so I’ll just point out a few things here. First, Chris Carson has emerged in his second season as a thousand-yard rusher on the league’s top rushing attack, which averages over 158 YPG. Coach Carroll has that offensive line humming, protecting Russell Wilson, and opening huge holes for Carson, who is averaging 4.5 yards per carry. He’s looking a bit like a younger Beast Mode, bouncing off tacklers, and sometimes just knocking them down. Second, if you’d told me that somehow Carroll would resurrect the Legion of Boom after disrespecting, then losing Earl Thomas to injury, I’d have told you you’re nuts. With a signature win over everybody’s darling Pat Mahomes and the Chiefs, the Seahawks have clinched a wildcard slot and can now breathe a sigh of relief after stumbling below .500 after week ten. It’s an impressive result for a team that I didn’t see going anywhere this season.
7. Aaron Donald is a force of nature
With his three sacks last Sunday, Aaron Donald pulled away from the field, and has come tantalizingly close to breaking Michael Strahan’s single season sack record. Sure, he’ll need three in the final week to tie Strahan’s mark, but is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t think that he’ll be chasing San Francisco’s third-stringer like a madman this weekend?
8. It’s time for a full rebuild in Cincinnati
The Bengals just aren’t very good, are they? I mean, even when they’re good, they’re still not that good. In fifteen years under Marvin Lewis, the Bengals have made the playoffs seven times, but haven’t won a single playoff game in that span. Andy Dalton is the tiger-striped Matthew Stafford. He’s better than some, but he just can’t get the team over the hump. I’m thinking that after three straight losing seasons, the Bengals will be looking for something new.
9. Christian McCaffrey IS the guy we thought he was last year.
He’s got the record to prove it. Despite playing for a Carolina team that is languishing after a sixth-straight loss, Christian McCaffrey is the dynamic and versatile player we expected to see last year. Sure, he was good last season, but he got outshined by Alvin Kamara and a Kareem Hunt. This season, he’s racked up over 1,000 yards rushing and set the NFL record for most receptions by a running back in NFL history. He’s a play maker no matter how you get him the ball. The Panthers need some tweaks to get back in contention after a surprisingly bad season, but McCaffrey is a great building block for the future.
10. Zach Ertz is (somewhat quietly) one of the best TE’s in history
When you mention the top TE’s in the NFL, you inevitably talk about Gronk and Travis Kelce, but Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz is out performing both this year. Last Sunday, Ertz helped keep the defending champs hopes alive with a two TD, 110-yard performance against the Texans tough defense. In doing so, Ertz set an NFL record for receptions by a TE in a single season, and if he hauls in ten more next week, he’ll be in the top five all-time, above (get this) Jerry Rice. That’s quite a season.
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