Whoa. The Cowboys’ upset Thursday night of the Saints has shaken up the NFC playoff picture.
Here is our weekly look at what the postseason would look like if the season had ended today.
The positive side of last Monday night’s wild loss in Los Angeles: The Chiefs got a bye week to rest, regroup and prepare for the stretch run. Two of their final five games are against the 2-9 Raiders, an important note as the Chiefs jostle for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Next up: at Oakland Raiders
The Steelers’ loss, combined with help from the always-cooperative Jets, boosted the Patriots back into position for a first-round bye. They also own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Texans.
Next up: vs. Minnesota Vikings
The Texans maintained their two-game lead over the Colts and essentially put away the Titans as AFC South contenders on Monday night. After eight consecutive victories, the Texans are in control of the division. They’ve already defeated the Colts once and will play them again in two weeks. Indianapolis is the Texans’ only remaining opponent with a winning record.
Next up: vs. Cleveland Browns
It’s fair to wonder if Ben Roethlisberger‘s end zone interception Sunday, scuttling a comeback against the Broncos, will have the same impact as his Week 15 interception last season against the Patriots did, costing the Steelers a chance at home-field advantage throughout the 2017 playoffs. Now they will need some help to earn a first-round bye. Their remaining schedule, including games against the Patriots, Chargers and Saints, does not bode well.
Next up: vs. Los Angeles Chargers
5. Los Angeles Chargers (8-3)
The Chargers got themselves back on track with a dominant victory over the Cardinals and are now as close to a lock for a wild-card spot as a team can be. ESPN’s Football Power Index projections gives them a 93 percent chance to make the playoffs. Their record is only one game worse than the Chiefs’ in the AFC West race, but FPI gives them only a 6.6 percent chance to wrestle the division away from Kansas City.
Next up: at Pittsburgh Steelers
Consecutive victories with quarterback Lamar Jackson behind center have pulled the Ravens above .500 and allowed them to keep pace in the wild-card race. At the moment, they’re holding off the 6-5 Colts because of a better conference record. Ravens coach John Harbaugh won’t say whether Jackson will keep the job when starter Joe Flacco (hip) returns, but among the factors to consider is the Ravens’ tough remaining schedule. It includes trips to Atlanta, Kansas City and the Chargers. The regular-season finale against the Browns is no joke, either.
Next up: at Atlanta Falcons
The Rams were within a field goal of clinching the NFC West on their bye week, something that hasn’t happened since the current playoff format began in 2002. But the Seahawks remained alive in the division race with a last-play victory over the Panthers. A division title is just a matter of time, however. The Rams have only one game remaining against a team with a winning record (Week 14 at the Bears). Despite the head-to-head tiebreaker being in New Orleans’ favor, they’ll have a chance to be in the driver’s seat for NFC home-field advantage with a win Sunday.
Next up: at Detroit Lions
The Saints’ winning streak probably was destined to end at some point, but the consequences of Thursday night’s loss in Dallas are notable. It denied the Saints a chance to clinch a playoff spot, at least for this week, and all of their scenarios for clinching the NFC South in Week 13 are moot as well. It also clouded the Saints’ inside track to the No. 1 overall seed. The Rams now have a chance to leapfrog them at the top of the conference with a victory Sunday in Detroit.
Next up: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 14)
You were wrong if you thought the Bears would stumble last Thursday on an extremely short week and without their starting quarterback. A 23-16 victory over the Lions concluded a season-defining stretch that produced three NFC North victories in a 12-day span. Only two games remain against teams that currently have winning records, and the division title — their first since 2010 — is within sight. ESPN’s FPI gives them an 80.5 percent chance to win the NFC North, and a 95.3 percent chance to reach the playoffs, independent of Sunday’s results.
Next up: at New York Giants
Look out. The Cowboys have won four consecutive games, and barring a complete collapse, they’re going to the playoffs. Thursday night’s upset of the Saints was a major swing game in the NFC East. ESPN’s FPI now gives the Cowboys a 75.5 percent chance of winning the division. (It would have been 54.1 percent with a loss).
Next up: vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Week 14)
5. Minnesota Vikings (6-4-1)
It was difficult to imagine a path to the playoffs without a home win against a depleted Packers team. In that context, the Vikings earned a win they had to have Sunday night. It kept them a pace ahead of the rest of the NFC wild-card field and within striking distance of the NFC North lead if the Bears collapse in December. But they are about to hit a rough stretch of their schedule and would do well to split consecutive road games against playoff contenders on opposite coasts.
Next up: at New England Patriots
The Panthers’ loss Sunday elevated the Redskins in the wild-card race. They own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Panthers and have a better conference record than the Seahawks. It’s more than fair, however, to question whether the Redskins can maintain this spot. They have almost no chance to win the division now after the Cowboys’ victory over the Saints. Overall, FPI is giving them a 29 percent chance to make the playoffs.
Next up: at Philadelphia Eagles
Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys OL, missing first game ever
Martin, an Indianapolis native, will be out for the Cowboys’ road game against the Indianapolis Colts in what will be his first missed game at any level — high school, at Notre Dame or in the NFL.
He will be replaced in the starting lineup by Connor Williams.
Martin suffered the knee injury last Sunday against the Eagles and doctors determined that he did not need surgery, but he does need rest to return later this season. Martin wanted to try to play, especially in Indianapolis, where he is from. But the Cowboys are taking the smart approach and now Martin will do something he never has before.
Martin played every game at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis, then every game at Notre Dame, then every game with the Cowboys. But when Martin hobbled off the field last Sunday, it meant that he would not get to play in his hometown.
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Denver Broncos coach Vance Joseph defends kicking field goal on fourth-and-1 vs. Cleveland Browns — ‘I wanted points there’
DENVER — The Denver Broncos went with math over a gut feel Saturday night, and many of their faithful left the 17-16 loss to the Cleveland Browns talking about a fourth-and-1 on which the team didn’t go for it in the closing minutes as the Broncos dropped to 6-8 and the brink of postseason elimination.
With 4 minutes, 39 seconds remaining, trailing 17-13 and with a fourth-and-1 on the Cleveland 6-yard line, Broncos coach Vance Joseph sent kicker Brandon McManus out for a field goal as boos cascaded down from the stands.
“I wanted points there,” Joseph said. “Had about 4:35 to go in the game. We had one timeout and the two-minute warning. I trust our defense to get a stop there, OK. If we don’t get points there, a touchdown has to win it. It was my decision — take points.”
McManus made the 29-yard field goal — after a delay of game penalty — and the Broncos did get the ball back after their defense stopped the Browns deep in Denver territory, but the Broncos couldn’t move the ball past the 50-yard line to kick a game winner.
Broncos quarterback Case Keenum said he was confident that the Broncos could have converted the fourth-and-1, but he added that he was angry he didn’t get the offense in position for the game winner after the team got the ball back.
“Yes, I felt confident [we would have converted the fourth down],” Keenum said. “I wanted to convert third down. That’s what I wanted to do. [Joseph] felt like the defense would get a stop, and [we would] get the ball back, and they did. They got a stop, and we got the ball back. I can’t complain. I had the ball in my hands with a chance to win the game. That’s all you can ask for.”
Joseph said “absolutely” the Broncos’ back-to-back runs for just 2 yards and no gain on the two plays before the field goal influenced the decision.
“Absolutely, the third-down play didn’t look great, and we had points,” Joseph said. “Again, I trust our defense to get a stop the next drive, and we did … hoping we get a stop there and get the ball back.”
While the Broncos’ defense held on a Browns fourth-down play on the next Cleveland possession, that stand came at Denver’s 13-yard line after Browns running back Nick Chubb gained 53 yards on six carries on the drive. That included a 40-yard run on the first play of Cleveland’s drive.
“That last drive, what was it: 75 yards rushing?” Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “We can’t allow that.”
In five plays, the Broncos were able to go from their own 13-yard line to earn a first-and-10 at the 50-yard line with 52 seconds to play. Joseph said he believed the Broncos needed to get to the Cleveland 42-yard line, at minimum, for McManus to have a chance at a game winner.
Keenum spiked the ball on first down and threw two incompletions to give the Broncos a fourth-and-10 from the 50. Keenum took a low snap in the shotgun and was swarmed under by the Browns’ rush for a sack to end the Broncos’ chances.
“I’m still pretty emotional about it,” Keenum said. “Man, that’s what I dream about. Man, that’s what I want. I want the ball in my hands with a chance to win the game … to get that close, it pisses me off … Lot of anger at myself. There’s some plays I could make that I didn’t.”
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