Well, football fans, after a crazy Week 17 to cap a pretty astound regular season, the NFL finally has its final 12.
There were tears of joy in Buffalo on Sunday, as the Bills beat Miami, followed by a tense — but ultimately fulfilling — wait to see what happened between Baltimore and Cincinnati.
In an unbelievable ending, the Bengals shocked the Ravens 31-27 on a last-minute 49-yard TD pass, sending Bills players and fans into a spasm of joy. The combination of a Bills win and a Baltimore loss end an 18-year playoff drought, the longest of any team in major pro sports.
Tennessee also booked its playoff ticket, beating AFC South winner Jacksonville. Pittsburgh and New England both won to secure first round byes.
Over in the NFC, no big surprises, as Philadelphia lost (sitting many starters) 6-0 to Dallas but have home field through the NFC playoffs. Minnesota won to also finish 13-3 and grab a first round bye. Otherwise, the NFC South has three playoff participants in New Orleans (11-5), Carolina (11-5) and Atlanta (10-6).
We’ve spent some time this past summer telling everyone who we thought got better, while making some gutsy prognostications about just what might unfold when things really get going. On the player side, we think some guys will break out, big time and we let the world know which home-growns will be fun to watch.
With week 17 out of the way, we hit the reset button one more time, paring down the 16 power teams to the 12 playoff participants. As an added bonus, we will handicap each team’s chances. Here are the final 12 power teams.
12. Tennessee Titans – 2017 Record: 9-7
The Titans made few changes to the offence in the off-season, choosing to let third-year QB Marcus Mariota have the freedom to improve on a breakout 2016 campaign. He passed for a career high 3,426 yards and 26 TDs, against just nine interceptions. They are also counting on another big year from RB DeMarco Murray, who ran for 1,287 yards and nine touchdowns last year, along with 377 yards receiving and another three scores. Defensively, Tennessee shored up the backfield by acquiring tackle machine safety Johnathan Cyprien (Jacksonville) and veteran New England Patriots CB Logan Ryan.
Week 17 Result: When his team and its fan base needed him most, Marcus Mariota used his arm and his legs to subdue Jacksonville in a huge 15-10 victory on Sunday. It secured the Titans first playoff berth in eight seasons. Mariota chucked a 66-yard TD pass to Derrick Henry to open proceedings. He also ran for a team high 60 yards to help set up scoring drives that resulted in three field goals. The Titans defence came to play, too, limiting Blake Bortles and the Jags offence to just 229 total yards and no offensive TDs. Bortles was sacked twice and intercepted on two occasions by Tennessee’s Kevin Byard.
Up next: Tennessee travels to Kansas City on Saturday in one of two AFC Wild Card Games. It won’t be easy, as the Titans were 3-5 on the road this season and the Chiefs were 6-2 at home. We don’t see them advancing past the Wild Card.
11. Buffalo Bills – 2017 Record: 9-7
Could it be that this Bills team can become more, or less, predictable? A week after shocking a very good Broncos team, the Bills put on one on the Super Bowl finalist and previously perfect Atlanta Falcons in Week 4. One star of the Broncos game was newly acquired kicker Stephen Hauschka, who was 4-for-4 in field goals, including two from 50-yards plus. He added to his growing legend by booting another three field goals in three attempts against Atlanta, including a last minute 55-yarder to win it. Other new Bills making an impact early in the season include CB E.J. Gaines (formerly with the Rams), rookie CB Tre’Davious White and safety Jordan Poyer (from Cleveland). The Bills D, collectively, sacked Broncos’ QB Trevor Siemian three times and picked him off twice.
Week 17 Result: The Bills needed a miracle on Sunday and they got it after doing their part by beating the Dolphins in Miami in a game that wasn’t as close as the final 22-16 score. After outlasting the Fish, Buffalo had to await the results of the Baltimore-Cincinnati game, won in dramatic fashion by the Bengals on a last-minute 49-yard TD pass from Andy Dalton. Tyrod Taylor had a pretty tidy game behind center, completing 19 of 27 for 204 yards and a TD pass. However, RB LeSean McCoy left the game with an injury and his status is up in the air for the Wild Card game this weekend.
Up next: The Bills, who were 3-5 on the road in 2017, travel to Jacksonville this Sunday afternoon for the second of two AFC Wild Card games. If LeSean McCoy draws back in, their chances are good, especially if the defence can bottle up the Jaguars offence like Tennessee did in Week 17. Without McCoy, though, they may be dead meat.
10. Kansas City Chiefs – 2017 Record: 10-6
The Chiefs got things rolling in a week 1 visit to New England, shocking the Pats with a huge 42-27 come-from-behind victory. They were a 12-4 team in 2016, so there are things to like. But, after a 2-2 pre-season, there are still a few lingering doubts about this year’s edition. Alex Smith is still a good, but not great, quarterback (3,502 yards passing, 15 TD, 8 INT in 2016) who does the little things well but won’t set the world on fire. The Chiefs starting receivers, Tyreek Hill and Chris Conley, have three years experience between them and need to break out. Running back Kareem Hunt is a rookie, leaving TE Travis Kelce as the only big threat on offence, right now. No questions abound, though, concerning Kansas City’s defence, which is led very capably by SS Eric Berry and OLB Justin Houston.
Week 17 Result: It was a fitting end to a rather crazy campaign for the Chiefs, as they needed a 30-yard field goal from Harrison Butker with no time remaining to clip Denver 27-24. Kansas City frittered away a 24-10 third quarter lead, allowing a 38-yard fumble return by the Broncos and then a Paxton Lynch TD pass to Demaryius Thomas to knot it up with just under three minutes to play. Rookie QB Pat Mahomes II, in relief of starter Alex Smith, engineered an 11-play 67-yard drive to set up the winning kick. He was 22 out of 35 for 284 yards in his debut. Rookie RB Kareem Hunt ran the ball once, resulting in a 35-yard TD in the first quarter. Those 35 yards won him the NFL rushing title with 1,327 yards.
Up next: Alex Smith will call the shots in a Wild Card tilt with Tennessee on Saturday. The Chiefs, 6-2 at home, should prevail against the Titans. However, they will have to play either Pittsburgh (13-3) or New England (13-3) in the divisional playoffs, where we think their season ends.
9. Atlanta Falcons – 2017 Record: 10-6
The early part of their 2017 schedule favors the Falcons and everyone also needs to forget their 0-4 pre-season, and quick. The defending NFC champs beat a Chicago Bears team in flux in week 1, and also play Buffalo, Miami and the New York Jets (none of who will be a threat) in their first seven games. The biggest test will be a re-match in New England against the Patriots in Week 7. They don’t play a divisional foe until they visit an improved Carolina team in Week 9 and finish the season with five of their last six against the NFC South. QB Matt Ryan retains all his premier weapons from 2016, including Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Devonta Freeman. Sack leader Vic Beasley heads up a defence that didn’t need to be great in 2016 (what with Ryan’s passing exploits) and features no rookies or off-season acquisitions.
Week 17 Result: The Falcons didn’t visit the red zone much against Carolina on Sunday, but they didn’t need to as K Matt Bryant kicked five second half field goals (5-for-5) as Atlanta beat the rival Panthers 22-10 Sunday. The win secured the Falcons the last wild card spot in the NFC and a return visit to the post-season. Matt Ryan capped a so-so season with a good performance, going 28-for-45 with 317 yards passing and a TD. Atlanta’s defence was also pretty sound, limiting Cam Newton and the Panthers to 249 yards and one TD. They intercepted Newton three times and sacked him twice, too.
Up next: The Falcons, who were a respectable 5-3 on the road, travel to La-la Land to take on the Rams Saturday night in the first NFC Wild Card game. It bodes well for the Birds, as the 11-5 Rams were just 4-4 at home. However, it may be too tall a task containing the NFL’s highest scoring offence (L.A. scored 478 points this season or just a shade under 30 per game).
8. Jacksonville Jaguars – 2017 Record: 10-6; Last Week’s Rank: 8
The enigmatic Jaguars hit the re-set button on a horrible 2016 campaign and welcomed fourth overall pick RB Leonard Fournette of LSU into the fold. He supplants incumbent running backs Chris Ivory (439 yards, 3 TD in 2016) and T.J. Yeldon (465 yards, 1 TD). QB Blake Bortles wasn’t awful last year, but hopes to get back to 2015 form when he threw for 4,428 yards and 35 TDs. The Jags defence underwent an overhaul too. CB A.J. Bouye was brought in from Houston (63 tackles and 16 pass defences in 2016), as was Dallas SS Barry Church (85 tackles, two INTs) to replace the departed Johnathan Cyprien. Up front, veteran DE Calais Campbell was snagged from Arizona to keep up the sack attack (he had 56.5 in nine seasons with the Cardinals).
Week 17 Result: Jacksonville limps into the post-season on the tail end of two disappointing season-ending losses, one to San Francisco in Week 16 (44-33) and then a 15-10 stinker to division rival Tennessee on Sunday to close things out. The Jags could only muster 249 yards total offence in the loss, highlighted by a brutal game from Blake Bortles, who hit just 15 of 34 pass attempts for 158 yards and no touchdowns. He was intercepted twice and sacked twice for 12 yards in losses too. Jacksonville’s defence was game Sunday, keeping the Titans from breaking things open by bottling them up to the tune of just 232 total yards. They’ll be needed Sunday against Buffalo.
Up next: Jacksonville was a sterling 6-2 at home and host a fired up Buffalo squad this Sunday in what will probably be a defensive battle. They were second stingiest in yards against (4,578) and second in points against (16.8). They will probably handle Buffalo, but won’t have a hope in hell against either New England or Pittsburgh in the divisional round.
7. Carolina Panthers – 2017 Record: 11-5
For a team that went to the Super Bowl after the 2015 season, the Cats sure stunk the joint out in 2016. They were brutal in the NFC South, going 1-5 against Atlanta, Tampa Bay and New Orleans, with only a mild streak of three wins in four games (week 8-11) to give anyone hope. The offence, headed by a healthy Cam Newton, remains relatively unchanged (not a bad thing) and on the defensive side of the ball, these Cats have claws, with MLB Luke Kuechly again calling the shots and the squad getting a boost with the additions of veterans like SS Mike Adams (Indianapolis), DE Julius Peppers (Green Bay) and CB Captain Munnerlyn (Minnesota).
Week 17 Result: In what was supposed to be a playoff tune-up against division foe Atlanta Sunday, Carolina fell flat, mustering little in the way of offence in the second half to lose 22-10. Cam Newton was a turnover machine, tossing three interceptions in 34 pass attempts (just 14 completions for 180 yards and a TD). He was sacked twice for 19 yards in losses and fumbled twice (though the ball was recovered both times). The Panthers third-ranked run defence did its job, limiting Atlanta to a measly 60 yards, but the secondary and pass rush did little to stifle Matt Ryan and the Julio Jones/Mohamed Sanu triumvirate.
Up next: The Cats pass defence better be ready to play in the wild card game in New Orleans, as Drew Brees and the high octaine Saints passing offence will pick them apart if they don’t prepare. Either way, it’s the end of the line for Carolina, as the Saints lost just once at home all season and swept the season series 2-0.
6. New Orleans Saints – 2017 Record: 11-5
The Saints gained some traction two weeks ago to slip into the rankings, thumping the Detroit Lions, but not in the way most thought. Instead of a steady barrage of passes from Drew Brees for touchdowns — he did toss two in the win — the Saints defence created plenty of havoc for Matt Stafford and the Lions offence in a convincing 52-38 win. In the off-season, New Orleans tweaked their roster with a few big and small moves. They brought in RB Adrian Peterson (since moved to Arizona), along with veteran WR Ted Ginn Jr. from Carolina. On the defensive side of the ball, there are newcomers like first string LB Manti Te’o (San Diego), first round pick CB Marshon Lattimore (Ohio State) and DE Alex Okafor (Arizona).
Week 17 Result: Nawlins will host a playoff game this weekend, and that’s a very good thing. While they were a stellar 7-1 in the friendly confines, the Saints were mediocre on the road, the kicker being a dismal 31-24 loss to Tampa Bay Sunday to close out the season. Rookie RB Alvin Kamara did his best Superman imitation, scoring on a 106-yard kick-off return in the first quarter, just after the Bucs had taken a 7-0 lead. He then scored on a seven-yard run later that quarter to give his team a lead. However, Jameis Winston tossed a 39-yard TD pass with nine seconds left to send the Buccaneers to victory.
Up next: New Orleans will need a better performance out of everyone except Kamara (he had 283 aggregate yards on Sunday and two TDs) if they hope to outlast Carolina at home. We think they will, but either the 13-3 Vikings or 13-3 Eagles await and that aint’ good, as they say in the “Big Easy.”
5. Los Angeles Rams – 2017 Record: 11-5
The Rams made a fair move up the rankings in Week 4, courtesy of an electric 35-30 win against Dallas. After a lousy 4-12 campaign in 2016, the Rams just one win back of their entire win total from last year. The Rams have gotten a lot of mileage out second year pivot Jared Goff, who has made the most of his first three starts this season. He passed for 292 yards and three TDs against San Fran, which included six completions for 106 yards and two of those scores to Buffalo Bills cast-off Sammy Watkins. He and fellow former Bill Robert Woods (108 yards receiving last Thursday) have been a revelation in La-la land. Their mostly homegrown, and fairly young, defence headed by linebacker Alec Ogletree have done an admirable job so far.
Week 17 Result: In a game that meant little to the Rams, they sat most of their high end starters in a 34-13 loss to Jimmy Garoppolo and the resurgent San Francisco 49ers. QB Jared Goff, RB Todd Gurley II and receivers Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods all got the day off in advance of this weekend’s wild card game against visiting Atlanta. Goff finished 10th in passing yards with 3,804 and had 28 TD passes against just seven interceptions. Gurley II finished second in rushing despite not taking a hand-off Sunday.
Up next: The Rams will have to find a way to win at home, which they found difficult this season, finishing 4-4. However, their key offensive weapons should all be well-rested and raring to go in a huge tilt with Matt Ryan and the Falcons. They should take care of business and could surprise one of either Philadelphia or Minnesota, as they were 7-1 away from La-la Land.
4. Minnesota Vikings – 2017 Record: 13-3; Last Week’s Rank: 4
The Vikings didn’t make a whole lot of off-season moves other than bringing in high-profile running back Latavius Murray. They have a lot of homegrown talent, utilizing a good number of them to sail past the Saints 29-19 in Week 1 to get things rolling. QB Sam Bradford, who had a reasonably good season in 2016, picked up where he left off, surgically taking down New Orleans. Rookie running back Dalvin Cook also lived up to his billing at Florida State, having a great debut. Minnesota was a so-so 8-8 in 2016 after being 11-5 in 2015 and making the playoffs. The Vikes were 2-4 against division opponents, which is mark they should hope to turn around if they want a return to the post-season.
Week 17 Result: After a 2-2 start to the season, the Vikes went 11-1 the rest of the way and enter the playoffs riding a three-game winning streak. They obtained a bye in the first round and won their final game 23-10 over Chicago. QB Case Keenum, an afterthought with the Texans and Rams, was 12-3 as a starter and finished 12th overall in passing yards at 3,547 and had 22 TDs (one Sunday against the Bears) against seven INTs. New guy Latavius Murray had arguably his best game of the season in preparation for the post-season, running for 111 yards and two scores. Stefon Diggs tied for the team lead in receiving TDs with his eighth (which tied him for eighth in the league) and Adam Thielen caught six passes for 61 yards to bring his season total to 1,276 (fifth in the NFL).
Up next: The Vikes can rest and reset for a couple weeks in advance of a home NFC divisional game on Sunday, Jan. 14. They are in tough, but like Philadelphia, are a good team and should advance to the NFC championship game.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers – 2017 Record: 13-3
The Steelers sure did benefit from playing in the AFC’s worst division in 2016. And it looks more and more like Pittsburgh will run the table again this year, as none of Baltimore, Cincinnati or deplorable Cleveland improved enough to take a run at them. The Steelers went 5-1 against their foes last year, and a so-so 6-4 against everyone else before making it all the way to the AFC championship. Not content to sit on their laurels, the Steelers announced that rookie OLB T.J. Watt (brother of J.J.) will start ahead of veteran James Harrison. The team also welcome veteran DB Joe Haden to the fold after he was cut by Cleveland. He was pretty good for a crummy Browns team in 2016, registering 48 tackles, three interceptions and 11 pass defences. On offence, RB Le’Veon Bell finally reported and stalwarts Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown will again provide passing fireworks.
Week 17 Result: The Steelers started their subs on Sunday and were still able to subdue the woeful — and winless – Cleveland Browns 28-24. None of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell touched the field, leaving rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster to have himself a day, catching nine passes for 143 yards and a touchdown. He capped his outstanding afternoon against 0-16 Cleveland by returning a kick 96 yards for another TD early in the third to give the Steelers a 28-21 lead. Brown is rehabbing a pretty nasty leg injury but is progressing well in advance of the divisional playoffs.
Up next: Pittsburgh clinched a bye in the first round and will host a divisional playoff game on Sunday Jan. 14. However, should they reach the AFC championship game, they will likely lose to New England.
2. Philadelphia Eagles – 2017 Record: 13-3
Not to put too much stock in the pre-season, but the Eagles lost 16-10 in their final tune-up to the New York Jets, who are just about everyone’s pick to finish dead last. But, QB Carson Wentz didn’t throw a pass and Eagles QBs Dane Evans and Matt McGloin were sacked a total of four times. As well, newly acquired RB LeGarrette Blount took no hand-offs and veteran receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith sat that exhibition out too. If the Eagles hope to improve on their 7-9 finish in 2016, they have to play better in the NFC East, where they were 2-4. The ray of hope came in weeks 16 and 17, when they beat the Giants and Cowboys back-to-back after a dismal five game losing streak. On defence, the Eagles added good depth in veteran CBs Corey Graham (Buffalo) and Patrick Robinson (Indianapolis).
Week 17 Result: It wasn’t a banner game for the Eagles, who fell 6-0 to the Dallas Cowboys, who were playing for pride only. Nick Foles, who will guide the team into the playoffs, completed just four out of 11 passes for 39 yards and an interception before being lifted in favor of Nate Sudfeld. Foles, who was the QB of record the last time the Eagles went to the playoffs in 2013, will have to be on top of his game in the divisional playoffs. There was a whole lot of nothing in the game against Dallas and the loss prevented Philly from a franchise record 14th win. But, they have home field advantage through the NFC post-season.
Up next: The Eagles managed to give quite a few starters a rest in Week 17, and with another two weeks of rest and preparation, should be ready for a division playoff home game on Sat., Jan. 13. Even without Carson Wentz, they are still a great club and have as good a chance as any NFC team to make the Super Bowl.
1. New England Patriots – 2017 Record: 13-3
Let’s face it, until otherwise proven, the Patriots are still the class of the NFL — and actually got better in the off-season — even after getting hosed by Kansas City in Week 1. Starring alongside QB Tom Brady and TE Rob Gronkowski will be former Saints’ standout receiver Brandin Cooks. He and WR Chris Hogan will get the most targets, followed by Danny Amendola. The Gronk, should he stay healthy, will no doubt reach 1,000 yards again for the fourth time in his career. The only gaping hole is at running back, where a platoon of backs will have to make up for LeGarrette Blount’s punishing running (1,161 yards, 18 TDs). Newcomers on the Patriots already great defence include Stephon Gilmore at corner (48 tackles, five interceptions with Buffalo in 2016), LB Kyle Van Noy (23 tackles in seven games with Detroit), DL Lawrence Guy (28 tackles, one sack with Baltimore) and LB David Harris (95 tackles, 0.5 sacks for the Jets).
Week 17 Result: It doesn’t really matter where the Patriots play in the post-season, they have been virtually unstoppable all year long. In their final regular season contest, the Pats toyed with the New York Jets, getting two TD passes from Tom Terrific in a 26-6 beatdown. RB Dion Lewis rounded out the parade with a TD romp and 93 total yards rushing on the day. Newly acquired LB James Harrison revved up for a possible playoff date with his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, by recording a game high two sacks as well as five total tackles. Brady finished the season with a NFL high 4,577 yards, as well as 32 TD passes and just eight INTs.
Up next: The Patriots clinched home field advantage through the AFC playoffs and will host a division playoff game on Sat., Jan. 13. There really isn’t a team we see beating them. Repeat champs, in our humble opinion.