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Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Playoff Picture Is Starting to Come into Focus

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 13:  Alex Smith #11 of the Kansas City Chiefs throws a pass against the Carolina Panthers in the 2nd quarter during the game at Bank of America Stadium on November 13, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Mike FreemanNFL National Lead WriterDecember 7, 2016

Sorting out the playoff picture, understanding the Jets' woes and reassessing our view of Todd Gurley. 

   

1. Contenders, Pretenders and Frauds

In a league where often there are few surprises, one thing has legitimately shocked me: how many people across the NFL believe the Kansas City Chiefs are the best team in football. 

I think it's Dallas, Oakland or New England. Take your pick. But the Chiefs? What was I overlooking?

In speaking to several front-office executives and veteran players, I was given three main reasons: 1. They are a conservative, defense-oriented team built to win in the postseason; 2. They are well-coached by Andy Reid and his staff; and 3. Their quarterback, Alex Smith, makes few mistakes.

In theory, it would seem the Kansas City offense would need to take more chances, and be more aggressive, to stay with prolific offenses like those in Oakland and New England (though Chiefs backers say the loss of Rob Gronkowski is another reason the Chiefs are better). But the executives with whom B/R spoke think Kansas City is so top-heavy with defense and special teams that it can make up for its conservative offensive ways. 

All of us will have a better idea Thursday night, when the Chiefs play the Raiders. If Kansas City wins that contest, then, hell, it might be just that good.

Now in the thick of the playoff stretch run, let's break down the contenders, pretenders and frauds.

 

Contenders (in order of contender-ness)

Cowboys: For all those waiting for Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott to hit a rookie wall, it's time to say it won't happen. This team is for real, the best in football.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 1: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys hands off the ball to teammate Ezekiel Elliott #21 against the Minnesota Vikings during the game on December 1, 2016 at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Patriots: They lose Gronkowski but have, you know, Tom Brady.

Raiders: An argument could be made they are the best team in football. Why? They have two vital elements for a Super Bowl team—a hot quarterback and excellent coaching. 

Chiefs: They are making me a believer. What they did in Atlanta shows a versatility few other teams (if any) possess. And they can boast of road wins against the Falcons, Broncos and Raiders.

Seahawks: Seattle has suffered some nasty injuries, but I'm a believer in Russell Wilson. Sorry, all you Wilson haters.

Packers: If they make the playoffsand they will—no team will want to play them. 

   

Possible Pretenders (in order of most pretender-ness)

Dolphins: I wrote recently that it's safe to finally start believing in Ryan Tannehill. Can I take that column back?

Ravens: A brutal, hard-hitting defense. The problem is Joe Flacco. He might be great in the postseason. Or he might not.

Steelers: The defense just isn't that good, ranking 14th in yards allowed per game.

Broncos: Good defense, obviously, but the quarterback play is still worrisome.

Lions: They have shown a great deal of heart, but the Lions simply cannot keep winning games with comeback after comeback. It will eventually catch up with them.

Buccaneers: I debated this one long and hard. Jameis Winston is the real deal, but I'm not convinced there's enough talent on the roster to make a run.

Giants: Which Eli Manning will the team get down the stretch?

   

Frauds (in order of putridity)

Texans: Two wordsBrock Osweiler. 

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 4: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons paces the sideline during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at the Georgia Dome on December 4, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Falcons: Not a believer in Matt Ryan at the end of the season and especially in the playoffs.

Cardinals: It's over. They're not catching anyone unless Carson Palmer plays more consistently.

Titans: The remaining schedule includes the Broncos, at the Chiefs, at Jacksonville and home against the Texans. The Jaguars are a vacation, but those first two games are nasty.

Vikings: No way Sam Bradford leads this team anywhere except to call Uber for a ride to the airport and home for the playoffs.

Bills: The collapse to the Raiders likely doomed their playoff hopes.

I'm not certain where to place one team in particular, and that's the Colts. They are confusing. I could see this team making a Super Bowl run or flaming out. The defense is still a sieve, and as talented as Andrew Luck is, he is still prone to mental errors.

     

2. It's Not Easy Being Green

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 1: Head coach Todd Bowles of the New York Jets looks on during the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 1, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Jets 14-6. (Photo b
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Coach Todd Bowles isn't the problem for the Jets. The lack of talent is. 

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been dreadful. Matt Forte is a borderline Hall of Famer, but he's 30. (That's like 45 in NFL running back years.) Brandon Marshall has taken a step back. And the offensive line isn't that good. Other than that, things are terrific.

It's also hard for me to buy the narrative circulating throughout parts of the league that the Jets quit on Bowles. Has he been perfect? No. But a genetically engineered version of Bill Belichick, Tom Landry, Don Shula, Bill Walsh, Spider-Man and James T. Kirk wouldn't do much better with a team that has this little talent. 

    

3. Playing QB Is a Roller Coaster

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 27:  Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers reacts after the Panthers scored a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders during an NFL football game on November 27, 2016 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California.  (P
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon offered some interesting thoughts about Cam Newton on CBS' NFL Monday QB:

Cam is a good leader when it comes to his work ethic and what he does as far as putting time in to prepare for football games and leading by example that way. But he definitely has a problem learning how to handle losing and the low points that happen throughout an NFL season. You have to keep your emotions a little bit more in check and [be] a little bit more even-keeled. He has a tough time doing that.

This is pretty accurate. Newton isn't a front-runner, which has become a common refrain on social media. The issue is that he doesn't handle losing well.

And that, in many ways, is an admirable quality. We want our athletes to care, and he does—a great deal. 

But a quarterback also has to ace the balancing act Moon references. He has to exhibit the same demeanor whether things are going well or not. That's what you see with Russell Wilson or Tom Brady or most of the great quarterbacks.

That isn't the case with Newton. And while coach Ron Rivera's rule of requiring players to wear a tie for road games is silly and typical NFL, a quarterback with more situational awareness simply says: "I hate this rule, but my teammates are watching me, and I need to lead."

Then the quarterback puts on the stupid tie, rolls his eyes and plays football.

    

4. The Unforgiving Game

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 04:  Free safety Earl Thomas #29 of the Seattle Seahawks leaves the field after getting injured against the Carolina Panthers at CenturyLink Field on December 4, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

When the leg of Earl Thomas was shattered on what looked to be a routine collision, it once again showed just how nasty this game can be.

Players make lots of money. They aren't soldiers fighting in a war or firefighters saving kids from a burning building. They're playing a game; they're not heroes.

Yet over the course of several decades covering the sport, I am regularly shell-shocked at how quickly it all ends for some players. A shattered ligament or a broken bone not only can change the career arc of a player, but an entire franchise as well.

One second, they are the baddest athletes on the planet. In the next, they are gone, wondering about their futures. The journey from one path to the next takes just a moment.

I've seen this over and over and still can't quite get used to it. I know a lot of these players. I know their families and friends. But even for players I don't know personally, there's a jarring aspect to it.

Men and women lose jobs every day and don't have millions to fall back on. But that doesn't make what I see happen to NFL players every week any less important.

    

5. Peppers Rushing to Canton

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 16: Outside linebacker Julius Peppers #56 of the Green Bay Packers hits quarterback Carson Palmer #3 of the Arizona Cardinals during the first half of the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 16, 2
Norm Hall/Getty Images

One of the best pass-rushers I ever covered was Michael Strahan from the Giants. A Hall of Famer for good reason, Strahan was, at times, almost unstoppable.

For a player to pass him on the sack list, he has to be special.

After recording a sack last week against Houston, Green Bay linebacker Julius Peppers now has 142.5 for his career, moving him past Strahan and into fifth place in league history.

Peppers is an easy choice for the Hall of Fame. That doesn't mean he'll get in; Terrell Owens is an easy choice and hasn't made it in yet. But Peppers remains as good as this game has ever seen. 

    

6. One of a Kind

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 04:  Eric Berry #29 of the Kansas City Chiefs walks off the field after their 29-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons at Georgia Dome on December 4, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  Berry returned an interception from a failed two-point conver
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The story of Chiefs defensive back Eric Berry and his fight against cancer is one of the greatest in NFL history. Maybe in sports history.

On Sunday, Berry became the first player to ever return a two-point attempt for a score and record a pick-six in the same game, the NFL says.

His remarkable story continues…

    

7. Did We Overrate Todd Gurley?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 27:  Kenny Vaccaro #32 of the New Orleans Saints tackles Todd Gurley #30 of the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 27, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Saints defeated the Rams 49-21.  (Photo by Wesley H
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

I have some smart editors at Bleacher Report. Yes, I am totally sucking up to them right now, but it's also true. One of them raised a point with the Rams running back that had not occurred to me.

I've blamed, almost exclusively, Gurley's running woes this season on the Rams offensive line. While the line is a huge part of the problem, what if another crucial element is Gurley himself?

Gurley has carried the ball 211 times this year and doesn't have a single run of 25 yards or more. Last season, Gurley broke off nine plays for 25 yards or more in 229 total rushes.

So it is a fair to ask: Is something wrong with Gurley? Is he hurt? Did he hit a wall in his second season?

Or is Gurley not as good as we thought?
      

8. New-Look Cowboys

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 1: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys is surrounded by cameras after the game against the Minnesota Vikings on December 1, 2016 at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Cowboys defeated the Vikings 17-15. (Photo by A
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

When the recent, Tony Romo-led edition of the Cowboys made the postseasonthe few times they didthey carried the air of a one-and-done team, because, well, that's what usually happened.

This year's version feels different. They've shown resiliency. They've won in different ways. And now that the Cowboys are the first team to officially make the postseason, I think we're going to see a much different Dallas playoff team than in recent years.

This iteration has far more edge and the potential to develop into a massive force in the league for a long time.

    

9. These Aren't Your Father's Lions

If you want one piece of data that shows the Lions are no longer Lions-y, here it is, brought to you by the NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano: Before winning this past week, when Detroit beat the Saints 28-13, the Lions had lost 22 consecutive road games the week immediately following Thanksgiving.

    

10. Mr. Ambassador?

ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 15: New York Jets owner Woody Johnson talks on the sidelines before the game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on September 15, 2016 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Michael Adamucci/Getty Images)
Michael Adamucci/Getty Images

I read with particular interest a story that Jets owner Woody Johnson is under consideration to become ambassador to the United Kingdom, per Ian Mohr and Emily Smith of Page Six (via Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk). This reminded me of one of the more interesting stories I ever heard about the Jets owner, one I reported in a book about the future of the NFL.

In the fall of 2014, Johnson had a fundraiser at his home. Lots of money. Lots of powerbrokers. But what Johnson didn't know was that a civil rights leader also was in his home. The man's name was Ray Halbritter.

Halbritter, the lead representative of the Oneida Nation, a group of Native Americans who were this country's first allies during the Revolutionary War, fought against the use of the Washington team nickname for years. 

Halbritter had somehow gotten an invite to the fundraiser and wanted to query Johnson about why he backed Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington franchise, in using the nickname. Halbritter and Johnson were introduced.

"Hi, I'm Ray Halbritter," he said. "Very nice to meet you. I'm working on the team mascot issue."

"You mean, to keep it?" Johnson asked.

"No, I'm actually working to change it," Halbritter responded.

"To what? To what?" Johnson responded. "Dan is never going to change it. Ever."

Then Johnson walked away.

Does that reveal what kind of ambassador he might be? Maybe or maybe not. Still, I found it an interesting glimpse into Johnson's approach.

   

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.  

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