AFC North playoff race hits prime time
With their 24-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday night, the New England Patriots officially saw an incredible streak come to an end. Heading into this season, the Patriots had hit double-digit wins in 17 consecutive years as the Patriots dynasty roared to life as one of the most dominant franchises the game has ever seen.
Their loss also sets up two storylines for this Sunday: It opens the door for the Buffalo Bills to clinch a playoff berth, which would also officially close the door on any hopes New England had of securing their stranglehold on the AFC East.
Of course, even without 10-plus wins and another division championship, one losing season does not warrant calling it quits on this club just yet. If we’ve learned anything from Bill Belichick over the years, it’s that he’s simply the best at making adjustments and retooling. So, even without Tom Brady, we cannot rule out that next year’s Patriots could be back on top.
Here’s a look at this week’s clinching scenarios — a particularly big week for Bills and Steelers fans ahead of their Sunday Night Football matchup — as well as some of the storylines heading into the weekend.
WEEK 14 CLINCHING SCENARIOS
The Kansas City Chiefs (11-1) and New Orleans Saints (10-2) are the only two teams that have so far clinched a playoff spot. Both secured their playoff spots this past Sunday.
With one spot spoken for in each conference, the playoff field is still wide open with six more up for grabs in both the AFC and NFC thanks to the expanded post-season introduced this year.
In the AFC…
The Chiefs can secure the AFC West with a win or tie against the Miami Dolphins. They can also clinch the division if the Las Vegas Raiders, currently sitting second in the division, lose to or ties with the Indianapolis Colts.
The Buffalo Bills can clinch a playoff berth with a victory over the Steelers on Sunday night PLUS all of the following must also happen:
• Baltimore loss (vs. Browns) AND
• Miami loss (vs. Chiefs) AND
• Raiders loss (vs. Colts)
*The Bills also needed the Patriots to lose (or tie) to the Rams on Thursday night, which they did. One down, four to go!
The Pittsburgh Steelers can clinch a playoff berth with a win or a tie against the Bills this Sunday night. They can also claim their berth before game time, if one of the following scenarios happens:
• Raiders loss or tie (vs. Colts) OR
• Dolphins loss or tie (vs. Chiefs) OR
• Titans loss (vs. Jaguars)
The best part of this, of course, is that the Bills and Steelers go head-to-head on Sunday Night Football. The Steelers can also lock up the division title this weekend — though, we won’t know the fate of the AFC North until Monday night. (More on that later.)
Pittsburgh can clinch the AFC North with a victory against the Bills AND a Browns loss to the Ravens on Monday.
In the NFC…
The Green Bay Packers are the lone team in the conference that can claim a playoff spot this week and there are several possible paths to do so. There’s also a clear path to their second straight division title.
The Packers can clinch a playoff berth this weekend with ONE of the following scenarios:
• Packers win (vs. Lions) AND Cardinals loss or tie (vs. Giants), OR
• Packers win AND Seahawks win or tie (vs. Jets), OR
• Packers tie AND Cardinals loss, OR
• Packers tie AND Seahawks win or tie AND Cardinals tie
(There were a few additional scenarios, which required the Rams to lose, but those are now of course ruled out.)
The Packers can clinch the NFC North with a victory over the Lions this Sunday and a Minnesota loss or tie (vs Buccaneers). If Green Bay-Detroit ends in a tie, the Packers will need the Vikings to lose in order to still claim the division.
New Orleans can clinch the NFC South for the fourth consecutive time with a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles this Sunday. They can also get there with a Buccaneers loss (vs. Vikings).
WEEKEND STORYLINES WE’RE WATCHING
In addition to some high-stakes situations with berths on the line, here are three storylines we’re looking at this weekend:
Tight race in AFC South
While some division leaders are starting to really separate themselves from their rivals, the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts are all tied up atop the AFC South.
In addition to their matching 8-4 records, they’re also evenly matched on the field — they’ve split their head-to-head matchups, each winning one.
Looking at their respective remaining schedules, it appears this one’s going down to the wire, though Tennessee’s got the slight edge there. Indianapolis is 2-2 in divisional contests, with their week 1 loss to Jacksonville (the Jaguars’ lone victory of 2020) potentially coming back to haunt them.
That puts the Jaguars in a fun place heading into Sunday’s action against the Titans, who are 3-1 within the division. If Jacksonville — currently sitting second last in the league and playing only the role of spoiler at this point — defeats the Titans this Sunday, things could get really interesting. (Of course, Jaguars fans are probably just fine with another few losses at this point, as they’re in line for that second overall draft pick next spring and hoping the winless Jets pull out a victory.)
Both Tennessee and Indianapolis have two divisional games remaining, one of which will come during what might just be a do-or-die season finale. The Titans take on Houston in their final game of the season, while the Colts will take on the team that handed them their season-opening loss, the Jaguars.
End of an era for Eagles?
When the Saints take on the Eagles this Sunday, they’ll have a chance to clinch their fourth straight division title, maintaining their status as an NFL powerhouse.
It wasn’t so long ago Philadelphia was atop not just their own division, but the entire league. But the Super Bowl LII champions have fallen fast — injuries, free agency losses, offensive struggles — and now find themselves at a crossroads.
Change could be coming on the coaching staff. Management, too. But at quarterback, change is already here — for now, anyway. The Eagles’ stalling offence isn’t entirely on Carson Wentz — he hasn’t had an easy job, with few weapons and little protection, being sacked a league-leading 50 times — but the former MVP contender has played himself out of the No. 1 position. The team announced on Tuesday that 2020 draft pick Jalen Hurts will take over this Sunday, getting his first NFL start.
It’s easy to understand why — at just 3-8-1, there are coaching jobs on the line and draft picks to justify, and considering the poor quality of the rest of the division, the Eagles aren’t actually out of this one just yet.
While Sunday could mark the end of an era, it could also be a reset button that turns things around — for the team, for management, and even perhaps for Wentz.
Browns-Ravens Monday night showdown has massive implications in the North
The Cleveland Browns that defeated the Tennessee Titans last Sunday are a far cry from the club that lost its season-opener to the Baltimore Ravens by a lop-sided score of 38-6. Now with a four-game win streak in hand and an eye to extend that drive to five, the Browns have themselves a rematch on Monday night that’s about far more than simply a good dose of redemption.
Yeah, we’re talkin’ playoffs. In Cleveland. A victory Monday night against Baltimore wouldn’t quite see them secure a playoff berth, but it would up their odds to about 99 per cent. A 10-3 record would also be their best in 51 years.
A lot is riding on this game not just for the two teams playing, but also for the Steelers, with the temperature of this game greatly dependant on the outcome of Sunday night’s showdown. If the Steelers beat the Bills, the Browns can keep them from clinching the division just yet by defeating Baltimore. If Pittsburgh loses, they’ll be 11-2 after last week’s loss to Washington that exposed several cracks. If the 9-3 Browns can seize the opportunity, they’ll find themselves just one win shy of the division lead, potentially setting up one heck of a season finale a few weeks from now when Pittsburgh and Cleveland meet again.
The 7-5 Ravens, while not currently sitting in the playoff picture, are still very much on the hunt and in need of a win streak of their own. After struggling through November and being hit hard by injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak, they put on a powerful show against the Dallas Cowboys with a run game that looked like the Ravens we were used to seeing.
Neither Baltimore nor Cleveland can clinch or lose anything this weekend, but a win for either club this Monday will go a long way in ultimately determining the fate of these fierce rivals.