Normally we'd be around halfway through the season after Week 8 wrapped up (the NFL moved to an odd number of games as an annoying trampoline to 18 games all while ignoring how badly it would wreck league-wide and team season records for a league that prides itself on a deep and rich history, but I digress) but we still have teams who have only played 40-ish percent of their games for the season.
It's still far enough along to make judgments about various teams and to actually assess the playoff race in both of the conferences. It's funny, because the opposite of what we expected happened: the AFC looked very predictable heading into the year but a down year from the Chiefs clouds things tremendously. We may also actually be finally realizing the importance of Brady's departure in opening up the conference playoff race. A pandemic year with a 43-year-old QB raising his seventh trophy on a new team in Tampa Bay at the team's home stadium in his first year there just feels like a fever dream. Some things take time to settle in.
We could dive into both conferences and take a bigger picture view of how the playoff race is starting to shape up, but last week's No. 1 team in the AFC (the Bengals) just lost to the Jets, paving the way for the Titans (the Jets' only other win) to grab the top spot. The AFC is pandemonium. Even more so with the news of Derrick Henry's injury. But the NFC playoff race almost feels three quarters full a quarter and a half into the season.
The Saints' win over the reigning Super Bowl champs at home was and should be the biggest story of the week. They took down the Buccaneers despite 1) Tom Brady posting some huge numbers and 2) Jameis Winston tearing his ACL. New Orleans is 5-2 and Sean Payton needs a ton of credit here -- he's won a lot of games with Teddy Bridgewater, Taysom Hill, Winston and Trevor Siemian the last three years because of multi-week and mid-game injuries. I've seen Payton upwards of 20-1 for Coach of the Year. If Payton makes the playoffs with Siemian and a few games of Jameis, after Drew Brees retires, he'll get a ton of love.
I could go on a tangent about the Saints calling Philip Rivers, but I'll just put this tweet here instead.
Philip Rivers St Michael's varsity team finished their season on Friday night (6-3, 3-3).— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) November 1, 2021
Believe they just missed 4A playoffs.
Rivers less than 3 hours away, would consider returning to right spot.
With Jameis Winston tearing his ACL, Sean Payton should give Rivers a call.
Plus, it's more important to talk about the Saints' path to the playoffs, since they're in a weird tier by themselves, way ahead of all the flotsam drifting around the No. 7 seed, hoping to accidentally bump into the playoffs.
Up top in the NFC, the pecking order is very clear. And it can be broken out into four tiers. For fun let's give them a food theme.
Certified, Fresh, 100% Farm Raised
Occupying the top tier are the Buccaneers, Packers and Rams. I'm setting the (potentially temporary) cutoff at three here because in the last five years all three of these teams either won a Super Bowl, went to a Super Bowl or went to back-to-back NFC Championship games.
Tampa Bay lost to New Orleans on Sunday, but I tend to give more credit to the Saints raising their level of play than blaming the Buccaneers. The Saints defense is a problem when it wants to be. New Orleans gave up some big plays to the Tampa Bay pass offense, but that's going to happen with Brady playing the way he is. The Bucs lost a game where they were a pretty big favorite, but it felt like they were going to win the second Sean Payton gave Brady 1:44 to go get a field goal with some questionable game management. Brady tossed a pick-six and the game was over, but this loss -- on Halloween, in the Superdome against your only division competition and chief rival -- happens. It happened last year. The Bucs will be fine but I'll probably tuck this L in the back of my mind.
Aaron Rodgers won on Sunday, against an undefeated team with a good defense, on the road, without Davante Adams or Allen Lazard. That makes him 7-0 when Adams is missing since 2019. He's the reigning MVP for a reason. There's a very good chance the Packers end up 14-3/13-4 and in the NFC Championship Game again. Because they have Aaron Rodgers.
The Rams stomped a bad Houston team, and somehow almost didn't cover. Or maybe actually didn't, depending on what line you got. They were up 38-0 as somewhere between a 14.5- and 16.5-point favorite -- the steam on these huge faves the last two weeks has been wild -- when the fourth quarter started. Houston slapped together 22 points in the final eight minutes of the game. Matthew Stafford looks awesome and is down to 5-1 to win MVP. This offense is electric. His connection with Cooper Kupp is absurd for two guys who just became teammates this offseason and Darrell Henderson is running really well. Sean McVay's worst season is 9-7. I'm comfortable declaring them a top-tier contender.
Conditionally FDA Approved
The controversial take is putting Dallas with Arizona here, but I'd be fine adding the Cowboys to the top tier as well, especially after Cooper Rush took down the Vikings on the road on SNF in his first career start. The Cowboys couldn't really run the ball at all with Ezekiel Elliott and found themselves needing to score late. Rush tossed it around, creating history and things of that nature.
The Cooper-Rush-to-Amari-Cooper TD is the 1st in NFL history where the passer's first name & receiver's last name are an exact match— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) November 1, 2021
Cowboys also have the only pass TD where passer's LAST and receiver's FIRST were an exact match: Andy Dalton-Dalton Schultz in Wk 11, 2020 at MIN
He also threw a game-winning touchdown (Zeke set it up and was a beast on that catch and run for the first down on a third-and-long), which was probably a bigger deal. First start in his career, on the road and this Dallas team has a vibe about them. CeeDee Lamb is looking to get some game winners and Amari Cooper isn't having any of it.
Here’s the full transcript of Amari Cooper’s story about CeeDee Lamb lobbying him & Cooper Rush for the opportunity at the game-winner. pic.twitter.com/LW9lf6dreO— David Helman (@HelmanDC) November 1, 2021
Watch Dak Prescott chase down Rush and look at the hug he gives him.
Dak Prescott chases down Cooper Rush and envelopes him in a bear hug, after a dramatic win in Minnesota, and Rush’s game-winning touchdown pass to Amari Cooper. pic.twitter.com/hZAawd1EMD— Mike Leslie (@MikeLeslieWFAA) November 1, 2021
Now, watch that clip again and look at Dak doing the "washed dad with a regular Monday night basketball game twisted ankle" hobble. Rush might not be a spot start. I'm not going to use Mike McCarthy's record in the playoffs and future concerns I have as a negative here -- he's doing a great job this season and deserves COY buzz as well. Like Payton, if he navigates an in-season QB injury to waltz into the playoffs, it shouldn't fly under the radar. But that Dak limp definitely makes me want to keep Dallas in this section until we know about his health.
Same can be said for the Cardinals, who couldn't be left out of a top tier when they were undefeated. Like the Cowboys, Arizona could slide across both of these categories. Thursday night wasn't indicative of a huge lesson -- like the Saints/Bucs game, it was two good teams dealing with extenuating circumstances in a close battle that flipped one way. We just don't have any history of Kliff Kingsbury closing a season out and they just lost J.J. Watt (I think it's a bigger deal than others do, mostly for the run defense and locker room attitude/presence). Kyler Murray was in a walking boot, had a taped-up finger and has a shoulder injury. Week 8 didn't change my mind about Arizona being very good, but like Dallas there are QB injury concerns that justify a second tier at the top.
Do the math now -- we have three elite teams, two very good/probably elite teams and suddenly there are only two spots left in the playoffs.
Bayou Bourbon Beef
We covered the 5-2 Saints above so I'll just point out they look much better than anything else left in the conference and that's why we'll toss them in their own section here. The Winston injury is a huge concern, of course. Let's see how the Saints address it. Standing pat with Siemian probably leaves them here solo, but an upgrade would move them right there with the Cowboys and Cardinals. They're just a half game back in the division and separated from the rest of the NFC by a good margin.
So right now it looks very obvious there are six teams with a very good chance of the playoffs and seven -- maybe eight if the Giants beat the Chiefs Monday -- teams playing Hunger Games for the last NFC playoff slot.
Whatever They Put in the Hot Dog
Less than seven days ago the Panthers were hot and heavy in pursuit of Deshaun Watson because Sam Darnold couldn't manage more than three points against the Giants. Maybe it was MetLife ghosts? Whatever, they woke up on Monday morning as a playoff team after a gross 19-13 win over the Falcons. Both those teams are decidedly below average and just caught three-game pockets of terrible competition. Atlanta's offense runs through Cordarrelle Patterson. The Brinson household stans for Cordarrelle, but that should say something. Maybe give the Falcons some slack for Matt Ryan's hand being stepped on and gushing blood. Atlanta's offense was significantly worse after the injury. But the lack of post-breakout breakout from Kyle Pitts (six targets, two catches, 13 yards) is pretty concerning. Calvin Ridley is stepping away from football for mental health reasons and good for him on correctly prioritizing his life. More athletes should do that and it will benefit them in the long run. But the Falcons will not be better at football while he's gone.
Darnold actually made some good throws in this game, but got hosed by officials and drops. Unfortunately we don't even know if he'll play next week after he got rocked on a designed quarterback draw. Carolina has three winnable games in their next four weeks (Pats at home, at Cards, home versus WFT, at Dolphins). It will probably decide their season. 3-1 is possible but 1-3 wouldn't be a surprise at all. The Panthers have the Bills, Saints and Bucs twice in their final four weeks, with the Falcons post bye. They need to get in the clubhouse with eight wins as fast as possible and hope to get lucky.
The Vikings actively turned down a free square on Sunday night with that loss. They were 3-3 and playing a Dak Prescott-less Cowboys team. Just beat Cooper Rush and you're in great shape to control your playoff destiny. Mike Zimmer called back-to-back timeouts and chose not to do so. No, no, throw more screens and swing passes to C.J. Ham. Anytime you can guarantee a fullback gets more catches than Justin Jefferson while averaging one yard per catch, you have to do it. This is a very hard team to trust right now and they haven't even played the Packers yet.
It's probably a red flag for Matt Nagy -- Justin Fields finally found a ceiling game in the Bears offense, rushing for over 100 yards, in a game Nagy missed. Khalil Herbert looks like a nice little fantasy asset while David Montgomery remains out. We need a milk carton or deadline trade for Allen Robinson. Using the franchise tag on him for less than six targets a week feels like a pretty terrible and unnecessary effort. If you type "Allen Robinson" into Google, "Allen Robinson trade" auto populates before "Allen Robinson stats." The Bears are still on the perimeter of the playoff push at 3-5. Their schedule is really tough -- if they can go 1-1 against the AFC North over the next two weeks, we can talk about them.
The 49ers have two massive games on deck -- they're home against the Cardinals and Rams over the next two weeks and really need to make some division headway here. I'm a big-time backer of the Niners from a preseason standpoint, so I'm trying to squint and be optimistic but it's not easy. Jimmy Garoppolo has been fine but not great. Trey Lance is a wild card -- he was hurt but then not, and then he didn't see a snap yesterday, with the Niners just running Jimmy G in the red zone instead? That's concerning playcalling, even if it worked. Elijah Mitchell looks awesome, but then what was the point of drafting Trey Sermon? Deebo Samuel is a monster, full stop. Brandon Aiyuk could be too, but he can't seem to get out of the doghouse? A lot of questions about this team still linger. After these two division games, the Niners have four very winnable games. They'll need to be more convincing than they were Sunday if they went to really make a push for a playoff spot.
I thought we were planning the Eagles' funeral in Detroit as a short road dog against a winless team. But Jalen Hurts & Co. dropped a 40 burger on poor Dan Campbell. It was pretty relentless. The NFC East is probably wrapped assuming Dak's injury isn't long term, but the Eagles have enough firepower to creep in as a wild card. This seventh slot is the best logic for why the trade deadline might feature less moves -- the Eagles are 3-5, looked dead in the water and are one game out of a playoff spot. More teams will be looking for trade pieces but there are legitimately only a few teams selling this year. Philly's got the Chargers, Broncos, Saints and Giants on deck and probably need to emerge out of that 3-1. 2-2 looks more likely -- 5-7 might keep them in the race but will definitely create a severely sloped uphill battle to the playoffs.
Seattle picked up a victory in a must-win game over the Jags, with Geno Smith looking sharp against Jacksonville's toothless defense. Everything for them hinges on Russell Wilson's return. Before the season we would have marked a trip to Lambeau this week as a loss anyway. If Russ can get back after the bye, we could see them rip off some wins and climb back to .500. I can't trust Geno to make the same push, despite how good he looked on Sunday.
Call the Health Inspector
The Giants are probably toast if they don't pull off a win on Monday night. Dak's injury and the Panthers sitting in the playoffs at 3-3 keeps them alive even at 2-6, but it would be a pretty massive long shot. At 3-5 you definitely couldn't write them off.
Washington at 2-6 is also still alive, technically. But this defense is lifeless and WFT blew a ton of opportunities to steal that game from the Broncos Sunday. The Bucs are coming to town Sunday and Tom Brady might just mess around and snuff out any hope in that rematch from last year's postseason.
Dan Campbell is trying hard, but the Lions are overmatched. They need a win. Soon. Just for morale purposes. And they might celebrate it like the won the Super Bowl.