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Ten Thoughts on the NFL

Musings on the NFL entering the final stanza

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

1. I’m not sure I can avoid it any longer. The Dallas Cowboys are really good. I have, admittedly, been timid in my thoughts on the Cowboys as they get hyped up to Texas-sized levels before falling flat on their face every year. Sunday night’s decisive win against the Eagles extended their winning streak to five and padded their point differential to +188, best in the league. They finish out the year traveling to Buffalo and Miami, home for Detroit, and back on the road against the Commanders. They’ll have to earn it the next couple of weeks, but the Cowboys are in the thick of it for the top seed in the NFC. I’ll save more NFC talk for next week.

2. Speaking of the Miami Dolphins, what the heck happened?! I go to bed after Raheem Mostert salts the game away with two fourth quarter scores only to wake up to a big comeback from the Titans. Miami had a chance to take control of the AFC playoff picture by taking care of business against Tennessee and the New York Jets before finishing with the Cowboys, Ravens, and Bills. Dropping a heartbreaker like that is something new for the Fins as they’ve handled every bad team on their schedule this year. I think it’s a blip, but it’s a costly blip for a team that could have seized home field advantage in the playoffs.

3. The team now best positioned to host the AFC Championship game is the Baltimore Ravens. Surviving a shootout against the Rams kept those hopes alive as the Ravens are the only 10-win AFC team. The schedule-makers really do need to get a pay raise as the Ravens will finish with road games in Jacksonville and San Francisco before returning home to take on the Dolphins and Steelers. That’s a combined 34-18 record from their final four opponents. If they do earn that top seed, no one should question the path they took to get there. They have the best point differential in the AFC while Lamar Jackson continues his campaign for his second MVP award. They’re a legit contender.

4. The Ravens and Dolphins have the top two point differentials in the AFC. The third best mark belongs to the 7-6 Buffalo Bills, who escaped a classic match up with the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday to keep their playoff hopes alive. Buffalo has been on the short end of most of their one-score contests this year so it was refreshing to see the tide turn in a must-have game for them. They finish with the Cowboys, Chargers, Patriots, and Dolphins. That’s two games against playoff teams mentioned above so again, they will absolutely have to earn it to get back in the dance. Josh Allen’s volatility makes them a team that exactly zero teams actually want to see in January.

5. The other team in that game, the Kansas City Chiefs, flat out embarrassed themselves after the game. I have all the respect in the world for Patrick Mahomes, one of the most talented quarterbacks to ever play the game and a tremendous amount of respect for Andy Reid, but they both looked silly in the post game. For those that missed it (and I’m assuming you were sequestered in jury duty if you did), Kadarius Toney lined up offsides before one of the coolest plays you’ll ever see, with Travis Kelce catching a ball downfield and firing a lateral to Toney who scampered in for a go-ahead score. Mahomes threw a fit on the field, after the game when talking to Josh Allen, and continued into the press conference. The argument was... that the call had nothing to do with the play and took away a special play in Travis Kelce’s Hall of Fame career and that they should’ve been given a warning first.

Ummm, okay. It was such an obvious call that Toney forced the hand of the official. It’s been called more this year than in the past, making it a clear emphasis by officiating. The Chiefs have been helped out plenty of times by penalties and should receive exactly zero sympathy for getting called for a penalty they clearly committed. Officiating in the NFL is in a rough state, but this was just sad for Mahomes. Do better.

6. The other divisional leader in the AFC, the Jacksonville Jaguars, stumbled in their last two games against AFC North foes, falling to 8-5. Does anyone want the top seed in the AFC?! The losses to a Burrow-less Bengals squad followed by the Flacco-led Browns puts the Jags two games behind the Ravens for the top seed. Lucky for them, they get those Ravens this weekend followed by the easiest closing schedule of any team we’ve discussed with the Bucs, Panthers, and Titans. Their path to the top seed would require a lot of help plus running the table in the final stanza.

7. All this AFC talk and I’m a little worried about the Chiefs somehow finishing the season with the number one seed. They currently sit at 8-5, but they own the head to head tie breaker over the Dolphins and Jaguars with wins against both. They did not play the Ravens this year but they currently have a better conference record. If the Chiefs win out against the Patriots, Raiders, Bengals, and Chargers - all games they will be favored in - the 12-5 Chiefs would win a tie-breaker with a 12-5 Ravens team. This would require the Ravens to split their final four games but remember, they finish with Jacksonville, San Francisco, Miami, and Pittsburgh. That’s absolutely on the table.

8. The Cleveland Browns were able to knock off the Jacksonville Jaguars for a shocking victory with Joe Flacco leading the way. The Browns are somehow sitting in the top wildcard spot at 8-5 above a half dozen teams clawing for the final spot. They’re weird but they’re absolutely in the thick of this thing with games against the Bears and Jets at home spaced between road trips to Houston and Cincinnati. They’re favored this weekend against the Bears and should be against the Jets. Splitting the final four games would get the Browns to ten wins and a spot in the playoffs. Again, they’re weird but they’ve got a talented defense that could get hot in what’s become a wide open conference.

9. As for the 7-6 scrum, in addition to the Bills, I’m most fascinated by the Texans and Broncos out of this group. The turnaround from the Broncos is nothing short of stunning. This team was beat 70-20 in Week 3 and sat at 1-5 after a loss to Kansas City where they mustered 8 whole points. Winners of 6 of their last 7, Sean Payton’s Broncos have righted the ship with solid defense and enough juice on offense to squeeze out some wins. With games against the slumping Lions, Patriots, Chargers without Herbert, and Raiders left on the schedule, the Broncos are in the best position to stamp their ticket to the playoffs. Stunning.

The other squad coming out of nowhere is the Texans. After starting off 0-2 and looking like they were in for another long year, the Texans have looked like a legitimately fun team for most of the year. Yes, they lost against the Panthers (I mean...imagine if they just would’ve taken care of business the percentage on the #1 pick would be for the Bears). The Texans finish the year with the Titans, Browns, Titans again, and the Colts. Divisional games are always tough and the Titans will drag you through the mud, but those are winnable games for the upstart Texans. I’d like to see them make the dance.

10. I’m not particularly interested in seeing the Steelers in the playoffs. They bore me. I get enough Iowa Hawkeyes football living in Iowa, I don’t need another black and gold team without offense on my TV. The Steelers have three road games against the Colts, Seahawks, and Ravens and one home game against the Bengals left on the schedule. All four of those teams are above .500 and fighting for a playoff spot. After dropping the last two contests against two of the worst teams in the league (thank you, Mitchell Trubisky!), I think they’ll fade away.

I don’t have much of an opinion on the Colts or the Bengals, both teams missing their starting quarterback. I’d rather they were boxed out of the postseason. In summary, I’d like to see Baltimore or Miami take the top seed and I’ll take the Bills and Texans or Broncos to join the Browns in wildcard spots. Which means, we’ll get Kansas City with the top seed and Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis earning playoff spots!

What’s on your mind? Hit up the comments below.