By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The playoff picture in the AFC is truly wide open. That’s a statement that many people might make every year, but in 2018, it’s really as true as it could ever be.
The Chiefs are still in the top spot with their 11-3 record, but they’ve also lost to two of the other five playoff teams, they were taken to overtime by another, and they beat one more by just five points.
The Texans are holding down the No. 2 spot, but they’ve incredibly played just one game against the current AFC playoff field. They lost that game to the Patriots, all the way back in Week 1.
Speaking of the Patriots, they’ve struggled mightily against bad teams, but have risen when facing stiff competition. They’ve lost to five teams that have a combined record of 32-28-1; they’ve beaten teams that have a combined record of 67-57-2, including wins over the Chiefs and Texans. They abruptly lost Josh Gordon, and they may be trending in the wrong direction, but the team coached by Bill Belichick and quarterbacked by Tom Brady is nevertheless difficult to count out entering January.
And it’s after that where things get a bit odd. The Steelers, at 8-5-1, are leading the AFC North and thus own the fourth spot in the postseason seeding. They’re one spot ahead of the L.A. Chargers, despite the Chargers’ being able to claim that they are the best team in the AFC.
Is that a debatable point? Sure. But the fact is that the Chargers are 11-3, and they’re fresh off beating the Chiefs, in Kansas City, in prime time (albeit in the worst-officiated game of the entire NFL season). They have three losses on their record, all of which are respectable, none of which have come since mid-November.
Yet if the season were to end today, or if the current standings hold for two more weeks, the Chargers would be facing three road games if they want to reach the Super Bowl. That seems … wrong.
The NFL schedule is made with simple structure. Teams play divisional opponents twice apiece to make up for six out of 16 games. They play all four teams in one AFC division and all four teams in one NFC division, combining with the divisional matchups for 14 of the 16 games. The other two games are played against one team apiece from the remaining AFC divisions, with teams matched up against the team that finished in the same position in the previous year. And, presto, you have yourself a 16-game schedule.
Obviously, with each team playing just 16 games, there’s no way to ensure or even come close to ensuring that all playoff teams face a fairly level playing field during the season. But there’s something to be said about a potential 13-3 team not being able to play a single playoff game at home, while a 9-6-1 team may get that honor, and while an 11-5 team may secure a first-round playoff bye.
This is the NFL, and there will be no tears shed for any team in any position. That’s just not how it works. But, again, with the Chargers arguably being the very best team in the AFC right now, how does it make any sense that they may not end up with a bye, and they may not end up with a single home playoff game? If they do end up with those benefits, then it will come at the expense of the Chiefs, who likewise have to feel they’re either the best or second-best team in the AFC at the moment.
I need not run through a million possible fixes, but here’s a simple suggestion: Rank the playoff teams by best record. If the two best teams in the conference happen to share a division, then so be it. That would, in this scenario, give the Chiefs and Chargers first-round byes, thus sliding the Texans down to the three seed and the Patriots to the four spot. Pittsburgh and Baltimore could hit the road for the first round of the playoffs, which we’d have to rename from “wild card weekend.” But that seems like an easy adjustment.
Essentially, the question comes down to this: Why is a team punished simply because it shares a division with another very good team? It’s an issue that’s popped up before, but with two teams having the potential to win 13 games this year, it may stand out more than ever. It feels like this is something that can be tweaked.
Ah, but of course, we need not jump ahead to January just yet. We’ve got two full slates of football left, so it’s time to savor what we have.
(Home team in CAPS; Friday lines)
Tennessee (-10) over WASHINGTON
I love me some Saturday football. I truly, truly do. But this one is pushing the limits.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (-4) over Baltimore
Now we’re talking. Give me the December playoff game, baby. That’s the good stuff.
Obviously, after that comprehensive preamble in which I argue that the Chargers might be the best team in the AFC, I can’t go out and say the Ravens (automatically inferior, based on my argument) are going to go out to L.A. and win against a rested and confident Chargers team that’s getting Melvin Gordon back on the field.
Green Bay (-3) over NEW YORK JETS
My oh my, how the Green Bay Packers have fallen. Suffice it to say, nobody expected the Packers to make this trip to the Meadowlands while sporting a 5-8-1 record.
The Jets should give one-hundred dollars to each and every person that attends this football game. It’s the absolute least they could do.
PHILADELPHIA (-1.5) over Houston
I want to come right out and say that I actually don’t believe this pick. If I’m picking with my head, I’m going with Houston and I’m not thinking twice about it.
How can you not, at this point, just adore the whole Nick Foles story line? I suppose if you have a Patriots tattoo, you may not be entirely amused with the Resurrection Of Foles. But everyone else? This is massively entertaining. If it weren’t for Foles, there’s not a chance in the world that Philly would be favored in this game. Yet here we are. Oh, the drama.
There is also some more reason to doubt Houston. For one there’s that whole warm-weather/indoor team playing outdoors in December, which can be unpredictable. And also, as mentioned in the intro, the Texans are lacking experience against quality opponents. Of the 11 other current playoff teams, they’ve faced just two, beating Dallas in early November and losing at New England in Week 1. Philly obviously isn’t quite a playoff team at the moment, but we’ve yet to see how the Texans might handle a big game like this.
Indianapolis (-9) over New York Giants
I don’t want to talk about this game but I do want to talk about Adam Vinatieri’s sweet facial hair.
I know that nobody likes to have politics mixed in with their sports stories, but I don’t care: Adam Vinatieri for president.
Jacksonville (+4) over MIAMI
I bet you that the Dolphins win the football game by three points.
(The Jags — MY Jags — are BACK, baby!)
CLEVELAND (-9) over Cincinnati
The Browns have the absolute greatest playoff scenario I’ve ever seen. Outside of some other results, in order to make the playoffs, they need the Colts and Titans to tie in Week 17. I’m no mathematician — in fact, I can’t even spell the word without some technological assistance — but I know that those odds are fairly low.
Would be the most perfect way for the Cleveland Browns to make the playoffs, though. The entire country would be locked in if the Titans and Colts headed to overtime with a Cleveland playoff spot on the line.
This is one of those times where I wish sports were actually rigged.
DALLAS (-7) over Tampa Bay
Getting shut out last week has likely made a dent in the number of Cowboys believers, but you have to like their defense at home against Jameis Winston and Co. for a big bounceback week.
Buffalo (+14) over NEW ENGLAND
Is this just the automatic line for a Week 16 Bills-Patriots game in Foxboro? Yeesh! The Patriots just lost their leading receiver and they have to face the No. 1-ranked pass defense in the NFL? I suppose a blowout victory is always a possibility when Brady/Belichick/Buffalo Bills are all used in the same sentence, but this does not feel like a ripe opportunity.
On another note, I’m struck by just how awful I’ve been at picking Patriots games this year. I live in New England. I theoretically cover the Patriots. Yet I’m 6-8 while picking their games against the spread. I’m a dreadful 2-4 when picking against them. Yowza. That just plays into my theory and my belief system that I ignored this year, and that thought is this: Only pick against the Patriots two or three times all year. You’l win a lot more than you lose. (They are just 8-6 against the spread this year, but shush. I’m making a point.)
I suppose, if you’re one of the people I mentioned earlier with a Patriots tattoo, you should be very happy with my pick this week.
Atlanta (-3) over CAROLINA
Jets Panthers should give one-hundred dollars to each and every person that attends this football game. It’s the absolute least they could do.
Minnesota (-6) over DETROIT
The Vikings have been terrible against good teams this year. Fortunately for them, the Lions aren’t a good team this year. (I think I said the same thing about the Lions last week. I’ll never apologize.
Los Angeles Rams (-15) over ARIZONA
Know what’s funny? I was doing some research (hashtag RESEARCH, not to brag) this week and came upon the obvious fact that the Cardinals rank dead last in the NFL in scoring. But something I actually said aloud (in my head, which counts as aloud) was this: “Wow, 13.7 points per game. That’s more than I thought!”
Chicago (-4) over SAN FRANCISCO
The Bears’ defense ranks third in yards allowed, third in points allowed, they’re tied for fourth in sacks, they’re first in opponent passer rating, and they’re first (by a wide margin) in total takeaways, leading the world with 26 interceptions.
What I’m trying to say is that the 49ers probably won’t score on Sunday.
Thank you and happy holidays.
NEW ORLEANS (-6) over Pittsburgh
Look, folks, I don’t make the rules. But I do abide by them. And the rules are simple: When you beat the Patriots, you incur the wrath of hell when you next take the football field. The facts are incontrovertible here:
Week 2: Jacksonville 31, New England 20
Week 3: Tennessee 9, Jacksonville 6
Week 3: Detroit 26, New England 10
Week 4: Dallas 26, Detroit 24
Week 10: Tennessee 34, New England 10
Week 11: Indianapolis 38, Tennessee 10
Week 14: Miami 34, New England 33
Week 15: Minnesota 41, Miami 17
It’s a clear and obvious trend, and it’s only getting more severe. So, I must accurately predict …
Week 15: Pittsburgh 17, New England 10
Week 16: New Orleans 806, Pittsburgh 9
Facts are facts, folks.
Kansas City (-2.5) over SEATTLE
Are the Chiefs still great? Are the Seahawks good, or did they just go on a run against some bad teams?
We’re going to learn a lot this Sunday night, but when you realize that the Chiefs’ only road losses were in New England and at the Rams, you’ve got reason to like their chances. But mostly, there’s this: The Seahawks’ strength of victory shows that they’re not actually in the class of playoff teams. The Seahawks’ only “quality win” was over Dallas in Week 3; the other seven victories since that early-season matchup came against Arizona, Oakland, Detroit, Green Bay, Carolina, San Francisco and Minnesota — teams with a combined record of 33-63-2. Yuck!
In conclusion, despite public opinion wavering this way and that, we should settle on this: the Chiefs are good, the Seahawks are not.
Again, thank you for your time, and again, happy holidays.
Denver (-3) over OAKLAND
The players shouldn’t even play this game. They should just huddle at midfield and talk about how much they dislike their coaches. A part of me wants to say the Raiders will win at what appears to be their last ever game in Oakland, but, well, they’re just too terrible for me to start believing in higher powers, even on Christmas Eve.
Speaking of which, some haters may say that I’ve gone soft (hashtag SAWFT), but whenever a sporting event takes place on a major holiday, and specifically when a bad/stupid/useless/meaningless sporting event takes place on a major holiday (like a Sixers-Knicks game on Christmas Day at noon, for example), I always just feel terrible for the people who have to work. Not the players; they have pretty sweet jobs. But I always think about the people scanning tickets at the gate, or selling peanuts, or cleaning up poop in the bathroom, or standing in an ice-cold parking lot collecting thousands of dollars for The Man while getting paid the cost of one parked car, or breaking up fights between two drunken bozos. Those jobs aren’t great, and they’re especially not great when they keep said workers away from their families on, say, Christmas Eve.
I don’t really ever advocate anything to anyone, but I guess I’d just suggest that if you ever find yourself attending a sporting event on a major holiday, at the very least you ought to be a little nicer to every paid employee you encounter along the way. That applies especially to folks who have to work on Christmas Eve for an Oakland Raiders game in 2018.
Oh, and also, do your best to not be the fighting, drunken bozo. Unless you’re decked out in a full Santa suit, nobody wants to see that.
Last week: 8-7-1