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Monday Morning Hangover: An Anarchist's Guide to the Wild-Card Race

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterNovember 9, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 08:  Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after the 27-24 win over the Denver Broncos at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 8, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

So the Colts beat the Broncos, who cruised last week against the Packers, who lost to a Panthers team Sunday that needed extended overtime to beat the Colts on Monday night? 

That's not normal football, even in the "any given Sunday" NFL. It's a weird four-way version of rock, paper, scissors. It's anarchy.

So the Vikings and Steelers both beat decent opponents by three points to prove their playoff worthiness, but both the Vikings and Steelers lost their starting quarterbacks in the process, and neither team looked particularly playoff-worthy despite the victories? Anarchy.

So the 49ers either traded or benched stars from their Super Bowl team three years ago...and they got better as a result? Peyton Manning came within three yards of passing Brett Favre's all-time passing-yard record but threw a fourth-quarter interception and spent the last six minutes watching from the sideline as the Colts ran out the clock? Anarchy.

So there are only 11 teams over .500 right now, with one division leader at 4-5? That's not parity, it's...

Anarchy in the NFL.

The Pats are the best,

And then there's the rest,

Mired in mediocrity!

It's Hangover's job to make sense of all of this senselessness. So let's sort things out as much as possible:

  • The Patriots, Bengals and Panthers are very good.
  • So are the Broncos and Packers. Back-to-back road losses may indicate the Packers are something less than a championship team, but one look at the clubs listed below tells you we will see them in January.
  • Among the teams on bye: The Cardinals are in the same bin as the Broncos and Packers, the Seahawks are too tough to ignore, and the rest are onion dip.

Everyone else is just jockeying to get hot down the stretch, finish with nine wins or so and crash the playoffs. In other words, it's:

Anarchy in the playoff chase!

Bad news for the human race!

Is this the NFL?

Or are we at the gates of hell?

Or FIFA runs this sport as well?

OK, someone please shut the Pandora punk rock channel off so we can get some work done.

Let's sort through the unwashed masses of the NFL's could-be, would-be, by-any-means-necessary second-tier contenders in order of their records and see if we can use Week 9's results to make some sense out of the second half of the season.

Minnesota Vikings (6-2)

The Best: Adrian Peterson; a defense that looks great when shutting down bad offenses.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 8:  Adrian Peterson #28 of the Minnesota Vikings carries the ball for a touchdown in the first quarter against the St. Louis Rams on November 8, 2015 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty I
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

The Rest: Teddy Bridgewater left the Rams game with a concussion. The Vikings have feasted on a lot of bad offenses, as they did Sunday.

Path to the Playoffs: The Vikings and Packers are tied atop the NFC North, and the Vikings can blaze their own wild-card path in the second half against opponents like the Falcons, Seahawks and Cardinals. If you like back-and-forth incomplete-passing duels, the Vikings should be your Super Bowl favorites.

Atlanta Falcons (6-3)

The Best: Slayers of NFC East opponents and legends of September football.

The Rest: Peaked at approximately 4:25 ET on Oct. 17 and have been retreating ever since.

Path to the Playoffs: Rushing for 17 yards in a loss to a Blaine Gabbert-led team has to qualify as bottoming out. The second-half schedule looks a little tougher now that the Colts are coming around, but there are still some Jaguars and Buccaneers to munch upon and no top contenders but the Panthers (twice) to cope with. The Falcons will still cruise to a wild-card berth if they can just get the heck out of their own way.

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4)

The Best: Antonio Brown caught 17 passes for 284 yards in a 38-35 win against the Raiders.

The Rest: Ben Roethlisberger injured his foot in the loss. The Steelers might resort to Brown running the option and throwing passes to himself if the injuries continue.

Gene Puskar/Associated Press

Path to the Playoffs: The late schedule is full of Bengals, Seahawks and Broncos. It will be a nearly impossible road to travel without both Le'Veon Bell and, if he's not back soon, Big Ben.

New York Giants (5-4)

The Best: The Giants are getting healthy at the right time and have an established history of looking like nothing special until the end of the Super Bowl.

The Rest: The five teams the Giants have beaten, including the Buccaneers on Sunday, have a combined 15-26 record. They are also the Giants, and for every two players who get healthy, three must take their place on injured reserve.

Path to the Playoffs: A loss to the Patriots next week will plop the Giants right back at .500, which may actually be good enough to win the NFC East. A victory over the Patriots will put us smack in the middle of 2007 or 2011 territory. Overall, the Giants' playoff chances are surprisingly good.

The AFC East Also-Rans (Between 5-3 and 3-5)

The Best: The Bills are a much better team with Tyrod Taylor, Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy healthy, as they proved in a 33-17 victory over the Dolphins. The Jets rebounded from back-to-back losses with a solid win against the Jaguars, who had tripped up both the Bills and Dolphins. The Dolphins have an MP3 player full of vintage heavy metal and fond memories of those two weeks when Dan Campbell was cool.

The Rest: The Bills are not the Patriots. The Jets are not the Patriots. The Dolphins are not even the Bills or Jets.

Path to the Playoffs: The winner of this round-robin could easily earn a wild-card spot. Keep your eyes on the rejuvenated Bills, who have swept the Dolphins and face the Jets next week. The Jets have both Bills games and a Dolphins game coming and a manageable overall schedule. The Dolphins have gotten as far as they can with Campbell's one trick and should start preparing the stable for their next pony.

Philadelphia Eagles (4-4)

The Best: DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns in the overtime 33-27 victory over the Cowboys.

Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

The Rest: No matter how quickly Chip Kelly shuffles among his seven offensive plays, the Eagles only have about seven offensive plays, and better opponents know how to stop them. Cole Beasley and Dez Bryant torched the Eagles secondary for 216 yards and three touchdowns on 14 catches. The Eagles defense is opportunistic but has its moments when it makes Matt Cassel look like a sharpshooter.

Path to the Playoffs: The Eagles are about as likely to get hot and go 12-4 as they are of having a meltdown and finishing 4-12. If they split the difference and build a little momentum from Sunday night's wild win, they can use a Dolphins-Buccaneers-Lions stretch to turn the NFC East into a two-team race. That's a step up from the no-team race it looked like earlier in the season.

St. Louis Rams (4-4)

The Best: Todd Gurley, though Gurley rushed for just 89 yards in his duel with Adrian Peterson (who rushed for 125 yards) in a 21-18 overtime loss to the Vikings; the defensive line.

The Rest: The Rams appear to have exactly two offensive plays. Either Gurley runs up the middle with Tavon Austin faking the end-around or Austin runs the end-around while Gurley fakes off tackle. Opponents have figured out both plays.

Path to the Playoffs: The Rams are anchored to .500 with six-inch cement screws. They need a simultaneous Seahawks-Cardinals collapse to become more than a Gurley highlight generator.

Oakland Raiders (4-4)

The Best: A lovable bunch of dynamic young playmakers.

The Rest: Those playmakers are awfully young, as are the players around them. You aren't going to win when you fumble five times. The Raiders are also coming to grips with the fact that their best cornerback is their 39-year-old safety.

Path to the Playoffs: It's the AFC. An 8-8 record could get them in if the whole AFC East substrata goes kablooey. An upcoming Titans-Lions road trip will reveal a lot about these Raiders.

Indianapolis Colts (4-5)

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 8: Griff Whalen #17 of the Indianapolis Colts reacts after a play in the fourth quarter of the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 8, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Colts defeated the Broncos 27-24. (Photo by Joe Robbins/
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Best: Look like contenders on paper. Played like contenders for much of Sunday's 27-24 win over the Broncos and portions of last Monday's overtime loss to the Panthers.

The Rest: Would be about 2-7 in a good division. May be enjoying a one-game "we fired a coordinator" bounce.

Path to the Playoffs: They're all but in. In the AFC South, anarchy rules!

New Orleans Saints (4-5)

The Good: Drew Brees.

The Bad: A defense that makes Marcus Mariota look like Drew Brees.

The Path to the Playoffs: The Saints won't catch the Panthers for the NFC South title. Their playoff hopes hinge on outscoring enough of the Redskins, Jaguars, Lions and Buccaneers on their upcoming schedule to work a wild-card berth. One look at the Redskins, Jaguars, Lions and Buccaneers suggests it's very possible.

Stock Watch

Jason Pierre-Paul

JPP's protective glove looks like an oven mitt rated for handling brick-fired pizzas. It's so big, gray and fluffy that it could pass for a naked mole-rat Muppet. If you are ever asked to stick your hand in a vat of liquid nitrogen, ask to borrow JPP's mitten first.

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 8: Defensive tackle Jason Pierre-Paul #90 of the New York Giants warms up before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers  at Raymond James Stadium on November 8, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff McBride/Getty Images)
Cliff McBride/Getty Images

OK, that's it for the yuks. It's great to see JPP back on the field, if only on a situational basis. He looked like his old dynamic, athletic self against the Buccaneers, and he wasn't afraid to use that new bear claw (last one!) while rushing Jameis Winston.

Pierre-Paul finished with two tackles and two hits on Winston. He may be a little rusty, but he looks ready to work his way back into the flow and help the Giants. Rising.

 

New Decision-Makers

Rob Chudzinski enjoyed a fine debut as the Colts offensive coordinator. The Colts were more run-pass balanced than they were under Pep Hamilton. Frank Gore carried 13 times in the first half and 28 times overall. Some of the rushing was non-productive, but the balance helped keep the Broncos pass rush at bay.

Coach Chud's greatest moments came in the final six minutes of the game. The Colts executed 16 plays—some of them were negated by penalty, but they still ate the clock—while forcing the Broncos to burn all three timeouts. The Colts got some boosts from Broncos penalties on their final drive but also mixed a pair of productive passes with lots of Gore runs. It was the kind of smart, under-control situational play the Colts have been looking for all season. Rising.

New head coach Mike Mularkey's Titans overcame a flat start to rack up 483 offensive yards. There were obvious differences between Mularkey's offense and Ken Whisenhunt's, starting with the fact that the Titans actually looked comfortable running it.

Players like Dorial Green-Beckham (five catches, 77 yards) and Justin Hunter (three catches, one touchdown) were involved in the game plan instead of being trapped in some doghouse/trainee limbo. The Titans also ran effectively throughout the game instead of abandoning the run when down by more than three points. Rising.

Blaine Gabbert

He had exactly the kind of game backup quarterbacks for controversy-riddled franchises always have, the kind that start weird little bandwagons that fall into culverts and shatter their axles after about four weeks.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Gabbert threw a pair of touchdowns to Garrett Celek and distributed lots of short easy-to-execute passes to the likes of Shaun Draughn and Vance McDonald. He also threw two interceptions and needed a huge game from his defense for a 17-16 win. Gabbert enjoyed a standard Kirk Cousins-type win, which is only appropriate considering his Cousins-like circumstances. Rising.

Kirk Cousins Myth- and Meme-Making

Poor Kirk Cousins: He loaned his narrative-spinning victory to Gabbert and didn't keep an extra one for himself.

Pierre Garcon got wide open early in the Patriots game, but the receiver volleyball-set an interception straight to Logan Ryan. Derek Carrier streaked up the seam with no defenders around him but whiffed on a perfect pass.

Jay Gruden decided that 4th-and-11 from the New England 36-yard line in the first half was the right time to suddenly get daring and go for it—Cousins threw an incompletion to Garcon with Ryan draped to his back. Before Cousins knew it, the Patriots had a 27-3 lead, and it was stat-padding time.

Cousins must listen to Gruden talk about how he's the right quarterback for this Redskins team and wonder: "What does that say about me?" Falling.

DeAngelo Williams

Williams rushed 27 times for 170 yards and two touchdowns, adding 55 yards and a two-point conversion on receptions. With Roethlisberger out for a while, Williams had better get ready for more 25-carry afternoons.

Don Wright/Associated Press

Longtime Todd Haley observers know the Steelers offensive coordinator loves to give his backup running back exactly one carry per game, as if one carry is enough to give the starter a breather or get the backup into the flow of the game. Jordan Todman carried once for three yards against the Raiders. Let's hope that prepares him for his role in the Steelers' Williams-Todman Wildcat next week. Rising.

Vernon Davis

Davis was targeted once but caught no passes. Maybe the Broncos should have traded for a running back instead. Falling.

Performance Bonuses

Offensive Line Bonus

Cam Newton was not sacked and took just two official quarterback hits in the Panthers' defeat of the Packers. The Panthers rushed for 130 yards, despite the fact that Hangover favorite Philly Brown was charged with a 12-yard loss on an end-around. Let's give the undefeated, unheralded line of Michael Oher, Amini Silatolu, Ryan Kalil, Trai Turner and Mike Remmers a little love!

Justin Tucker Special Teams Bonus

Adam Vinatieri. Fifty-five-yarder to take the lead against the Broncos. 'Nuff said.

Unsung Defensive Hero Bonus

Tom Brady wins this award for making a touchdown-saving tackle on Keenan Robinson's interception. Yes, Keenan, Brady is so good that he can rob you of your "unsung hero" bonus and upstage you on your own highlight even after throwing an interception.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown Bonus

Jordan Reed earns this bonus for the short touchdown reception that cut the Patriots' lead to 27-10 following the extra point with 25 seconds left. If Reed is your fantasy tight end, YOU LIKED THAT.

Fantasy Leech Bonus

Michael Hoomanawanui hung around New England for so long that you would think he had earned a lifetime achievement award for fantasy-touchdown leechmanship. But Hoo-man caught just one touchdown pass in three long years of going in motion at the goal line against defenders who thought they were supposed to be covering Rob Gronkowski.

Hoo-man has two touchdowns on eight catches since joining the Saints, including a one-yard "backup tight end special" in Sunday's loss to the Titans.

Hoo-man now has more touchdowns than Marques Colston, which is the kind of leeching Bill Belichick simply would not be a party to.

Gonzo Fantasy Waiver Bid Bonus

Shaun Draughn sounds like the name of a former rapper-turned-fashion mogul who sells $125 black bow ties. But Draughn is actually a former Redskins, Chiefs, Ravens, Colts, Bears, Chargers and Browns roster-clinger who somehow slipped off the back of Cleveland's depth chart and into the 49ers starting lineup this week.

Draughn, who hasn't carried more than 10 times in a season since 2012, has suddenly become the focal point of the 49ers offense. Well, someone has to be. Draughn rushed for 58 yards and added four catches for 38 yards in the upset over the Falcons.

Unclaimed featured running backs are worth their weight in fantasy-bid diamonds this time of year. If you really need the guy who takes handoffs from Gabbert to win your fantasy league, expect to offer the deed to your house as a minimum waiver claim.

Mystery Touch Bonus

This bonus is usually reserved for defensive players contributing on offense. Julius Peppers has played a little offense in the past, but Sunday he was just easily offended.

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 08:  Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers talks to Julius Peppers #56 of the Green Bay Packers in the 1st half during their game at Bank of America Stadium on November 8, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Le
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Peppers earned this week's bonus by grabbing the ball away from Cam Newton after Newton extended for a goal-line touchdown and throwing the ball toward the sideline so Newton could not celebrate. Newton quickly retrieved it from a ball boy, gave it to a child in the stands and embarked on an extra-celebratory celebration.

Newton's antics can be a little unctuous, but if a defender doesn't like to watch the celebration, it's his job to prevent the touchdown.

Peppers also got into a sideline spat with fellow defender Ha Ha Clinton-Dix late in the loss to the Panthers. B.J. Raji intervened. Raji is the best person in the world to break up a fight; the combatants get exhausted just trying to run around him.

Last Call

This week's Last Call takes some parting shots at this week's biggest stories.

Trademark Tact

The Washington Redskins defended their federal trademark registration in court this week, as the Washington Post's Ian Shapira reported, by comparing their name to other arguably offensive but legally approved trademarks: Midget-Man condoms, Take Yo Panties Off clothing, Baked by a Negro cookies (h/t Deadspin) and some even squickier-sounding producers of adult entertainment and such.

As Mike Florio pointed out at Pro Football Talk, the tactic makes sense legally but is a terrible public-relations move. The Redskins are practically acknowledging that their name is offensive, just to cross the plane of legality's end zone.

The Redskins effectively undermined themselves by dredging some of the smallest, strangest trademarks they could find from the depths of the free market. We are not like the Patriots, Seahawks or Yankees, let alone Apple or General Motors, they seem to be saying. We are not an international mainstream brand meant to appeal to the widest possible audience. We are more like an edgy little start-up that makes condoms, dirty movies or small-batch baked goods to a select market.

The Redskins will win their trademark suit, and it will be an example of free speech at its finest. The government should not be in the business of telling businesses they are making foolish business decisions. Over time, the market will decide just how offensive the name "Redskins" is and what the consequences will be.

Each generation is a little more savvy and sensitive than the last about branding and what their brand choices say about themselves. If the Redskins choose to market themselves like a manufacturer of naughty novelties with annual revenues a small fraction of what a typical NFL team makes, then that's what they will be in danger of becoming.

Opting Out

SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 08:  Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers watches Blaine Gabbert #2 play quarterback during their game against the Atlanta Falcons at Levi's Stadium on November 8, 2015 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

We'll never see another quarterback contract like the one Colin Kaepernick signed in June 2014.

Kaepernick's deal contained so many trap doors and opt-outs that the 49ers can release him in the offseason while only sustaining a moderate cap hit. Agents saw the contract as a white elephant from nearly the time it was signed. Later deals by everyone from Ryan Tannehill to Russell Wilson steered well clear of the non-guaranteed Monopoly money the 49ers somehow managed to pour into even the middle years of the contract.

Kaepernick clearly believed when he first signed the extension he would easily reach many of the incentives in the deal while remaining so important to the 49ers that the lack of full guarantees would be a moot point for several years. He had no idea his organization would become one of the NFL's most dysfunctional franchises just a few months after he signed.

The 49ers are arguably better off for having crafted such a team-happy deal, because it allows them to quickly move on from Kaepernick. Then again, a little extra commitment from both sides can often be beneficial. If you have three years of car payments left, you get the oil changed instead of running it into the ground and dreaming of a Porsche.

Worth a Thousand Words

On Friday, Deadspin released graphic photos and other evidence from Greg Hardy's 2014 domestic violence arrest. The release of the photos caused a predictable fallout: outrage, a breathless game of who saw what and when between the media, the Cowboys and the NFL, and a curious amnesia about the fact that Hardy's case had already been tried, the description of his acts widely reported and his NFL suspension already enforced.

Brandon Wade/Associated Press

The photos really offered no evidence that we did not have from his victim's testimony and other reports that have been public since a judge found Hardy guilty of assault and communicating threats in July. (Hardy requested a jury trial, and the case was thrown out when the victim refused to cooperate.)

What did people think domestic violence, especially of the kind outlined in the Hardy testimony, looked like before they saw these photos? Ralph Kramden yelling "Bang! Zoom! Straight to the moon!"?

The Ray Rice video should have taught us what domestic violence looks like. Domestic violence is welts, bruises, scars, tears, blood, broken glass, panicky 911 calls and utter terror that doesn't completely fade when the perpetrator calms down. It's violence.

I have spoken to enough experts in the last 18 months to know that domestic violence is preventable. The primary treatment is education.

"Education" doesn't just mean counseling and therapy for both perpetrators and victims, though that's a critical component to rehabilitation. Education is creating policies that do not tolerate domestic violence, rearing children who do not find such behavior acceptable or turn a blind eye to it and becoming neighbors, family members and citizens willing to take a stand against a crime that was met with silence for generations.

Look at the Hardy evidence. This is what domestic violence looks like. Sear those images in your mind so that they are the ones you recall when you next hear about domestic violence involving an NFL player, celebrity, neighbor or loved one.

Don't wait for CNN or Deadspin to show you that domestic violence is visceral and ugly. Act like you already know. Because you do. Assuming innocence until someone is proven guilty is all well and good, but be absolutely certain that you know exactly what guilty looks like.

As for Hardy, the NFL punished him as hard as it really could. Prosecutors cannot do much when faced with lenient statutes and a system that will always favor the side with the greatest resources.

The Cowboys did all they needed to do legally and absolutely nothing more—effort and ethics like those tend to be their own punishment. Hardy also muttered something below the bare minimum of remorse through various channels, like a not-so-penitent schoolboy apologizing to his teacher with mom's fingers pulling his ear. It's too little, too late, but then the national outrage that prompted him was also much, much too late.

The Hardy case is closed, really. It's all of our jobs to stop hand-wringing about what happened last time and vow to do better next time.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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