The Patriots are in deep trouble after two straight losses. Deep, desperate trouble without Rob Gronkowski. Nerve-jangling, colon-quaking trouble when Tom Brady has to dance in the pocket and search for unfamiliar receivers...
Mmrph...(sounds of violent struggle).
The Panthers have proved they are the best team in the NFL, possibly ever. They will go 19-0. In fact, there is no reason for playoffs this year: Just give the Panthers the trophy now. Forget "Cam Newton for MVP." Cam Newton for emperor!
Grrrph...(sounds of an even more violent struggle).
Get out of here, writers of obvious storylines and sizzling angles! This is Monday Morning Hangover, not Monday Morning Boilerplate!
We know their thrilling 41-38 win over the Saints and 12-0 start puts the Panthers two car lengths ahead of the rest of the NFL. We know that Brady targeting Keshawn Martin when trailing by seven in the final seconds is not nearly the same as Brady targeting Gronkowski. We also know that no NFL team is unbeatable and that annual Patriots obituaries (followed by winning streaks measured in months) are a Patriots tradition.
We know the Cardinals and Bengals won blowouts. We know the Broncos are 10-2, with their new quarterback still undefeated, after a drab 17-3 win over the Chargers. We know the Seahawks and Chiefs won statement games Sunday and are racing past the chase group to join the leaders.
We know the seven teams we just listed are the seven best clubs in the NFL right now, with all apologies to the Packers (who needed a late-game miracle to beat a bad opponent Thursday), Vikings (make that reality check payable to "Wilson, Russell"), Steelers (living and dying on Ben Roethlisberger bombs) and anyone who emerges from the increasingly insane NFC East.
The important question is not "who is best right now" but "who has the best chance of winning in the playoffs?"
To find out, let's rank the best and worst teams among the Super Seven in a variety of playoff-important categories: quarterback play, defense, big-play capability and so forth. After we run the best of the best through this gauntlet against one another, a clear winner or two should emerge.
Let's get started:
Category 1: Quarterback
It's hard to win without a good one.
Best: Tom Brady
Runner-Up: Russell Wilson. This is a strong field, of course. Newton and Carson Palmer can each stake claims to the runner-up position. Wilson has 11 passing touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 76.7 percent completion rate in the last three games. (Newton, for comparison: 10 passing touchdowns, one interception, a 63.7 percent completion rate.) Wilson, like Newton, can also run. He has won six playoff games to Newton's one and Palmer's zero.
Worst: Brock Osweiler. He threw for 166 yards, one touchdown and an interception against a mediocre-at-best Chargers defense Sunday. The Broncos offense generated 10 points. Given the choice between Alex Smith and Osweiler in the playoffs, we'll take the known commodity who has managed more than one big game in his career.
Category 2: Offensive Depth/Diversity
The ability to win by both running and passing, with a variety of offensive weapons, can keep a playoff defense from easily shutting you down.
Best: Bengals. A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Jeremy Hill did most of the heavy lifting in a 37-3 blowout of the Browns. When they have to, the Bengals can turn to Tyler Eifert (out this week), Giovani Bernard, Mohamed Sanu and situational players like Rex Burkhead, who would have regular roles on many teams but can barely find the field for the Bengals.
Runners-Up: Cardinals. Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Michael Floyd and J.J. Nelson form the NFL's best four-man wide receiver corps. Jaron Brown would start for about a dozen teams, but the Cardinals cannot even find touches for him.
David Johnson responded to a running back emergency with 99 rushing yards and a receiving touchdown in a 27-3 rout of the Rams. When Palmer has time to throw, he has the tools to beat any quarterback in the NFL in a shootout.
Worst: Chiefs. The Patriots have a bad receiving corps right now—you know times are tough when running back James White is targeted 13 times and Keshawn Martin eight times—but Gronkowski will be back for the playoffs.
The Panthers and Seahawks have weak receiving corps, but they can get baseline production from their third receivers, second tight ends and so forth. The Chiefs got 11 receptions for 137 yards from Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce and five catches for 25 yards from everyone else on their roster against the Raiders.
Category 3: Defensive Consistency
Solid week-to-week, situation-to-situation defense.
Best: Broncos. The Broncos' only truly bad defensive game was the Week 9 loss to the Colts. Assuming the offense doesn't keep turning the ball over to set up opponents' field goals, the Broncos can consistently slow down better offenses like the Patriots' and pre-slump Packers'.
Runners-Up: Panthers. The Saints scored 38 points Sunday, but there was a defensive touchdown and a first-ever defensive two-point conversion in the mix, plus some old-fashioned Drew Brees heroics. Like the Broncos, the Panthers clamp down on weaklings while playing within themselves against better offenses.
Worst: Patriots. The Patriots defense played well Sunday; it's their special teams and offense that abandoned them for three-and-a-half quarters.
There are no truly bad defenses among the Magnificent Seven. But recent weeks have demonstrated that the Patriots are the most likely team of the bunch to get into a shootout with the Giants or a quarterback making his second start.
Category 4: Big-Play Capability
This applies to both sides of the ball and special teams. The ability to quickly put six points on the board makes a huge difference in any game, but particularly a postseason game.
Best: Cardinals. The Cardinals have 55 passing plays of 20-plus yards (a league high), 16 defensive interceptions and four return touchdowns this year.
Runners-Up: Seahawks. Explosive in the running game, passing game, on defense and on special teams.
Worst: Broncos. The Broncos returned an interception for a touchdown against the Chargers on Sunday, giving them five return touchdowns for the year. But the Broncos have generated just 32 pass plays of 20-plus yards, the NFL's fourth-lowest total.
Yes, they have changed quarterbacks, but the Chargers game provided little evidence of new big-play capability. The Chiefs aren't exactly the Greatest Show on Turf when it comes to offensive highlights, but they have more 20-plus pass plays than the Broncos (36) and 17 interceptions to the Broncos' 11.
Category 5: Victory-Manufacturing Capacity
This covers field goals, field position, avoiding penalties, getting plays from third-stringers and so on.
Best: Chiefs. The Chiefs came back Sunday to convincingly beat a pretty good Raiders team 34-20 with Frank Zombo filling in for Justin Houston with two sacks while their offense possessed the ball for just 25 minutes and 32 seconds. There's no NFL team better at combining turnovers and field goals into victories.
Runners-Up: Panthers. The Panthers help themselves in lots of little ways. One way is well-known: Riverboat Ron fourth-down conversions. The Panthers were 2-of-2 on fourth downs against the Saints, with both conversions (one was a late-game necessity) leading to touchdowns.
Worst: Seahawks. All of the Magnificent Seven teams have something to offer when it comes to situational football:
- The Bengals are great in goal-to-go situations.
- The Broncos have Brandon McManus to nail 50-plus-yard field goals.
- The Cardinals are good at just about everything situational except goal-line offense.
- The Patriots had every answer when it came to special teams edges and two-minute offense before Chip Kelly Jedi mind-tricked them somehow.
- The Seahawks generally play smart special teams, but there are three good reasons to rank them last: close losses to the Bengals, Panthers and Cardinals.
Category 6: Home-Field X-Factor
Will this team get home-field advantage? And if so, what will the club do with it?
Best: Patriots. No one wants to play there.
Runners-Up: Broncos. You were expecting the Seahawks? The Seahawks will have a hard time earning any home playoff games. The Broncos are suddenly in position to host the AFC playoffs. That's a big deal.
Worst: Bengals. The Bengals remain the most schedule-dependent team of the Magnificent Seven. Their battle with the Broncos in Denver in Week 16 keeps getting bigger. If the Bengals can win once at Mile High, they probably won't have to prove they can win twice.
Let's add up all the real categories and see what we have. Each team's record against other Magnificent Seven opponents is listed in parentheses.
Bengals (2-1): One best, one worst
Broncos (2-1): One best, one runner-up, two worst
Cardinals (2-0): One best, one runner-up
Chiefs (1-2): One best, one worst
Panthers (1-0): Two runners-up
Patriots (0-1): Two bests, one worst
Seahawks (0-3): Two runners-up, one worst
The AFC is too close to call now that the Patriots have fallen back toward the pack. The team that emerges with home-field advantage in the playoffs will probably reach the Super Bowl.
The Panthers' edge over the Cardinals isn't huge, and Charlotte is not Seattle or Green Bay when it comes to home-field advantage. The Seahawks are probably more likely to prey upon some poor NFC East team in the playoffs than climb into the Super Bowl because of the early-season hole they dug.
Yes, the Packers and Steelers probably are still in this mix somewhere. And, yes, it's interesting that the Patriots and Panthers have faced fewer top contenders than the others.
In other words, we know all of these teams can be very good, but they have to face each other to determine who is best. That's too obvious to be a headline, which is why it was buried here.
Stock Watch: Face to Face
This week's Stock Watch names winners among wild-card hopefuls who engaged in face-to-face battles with archrivals, similar opponents or (dum Dum DUMMMM) themselves Sunday.
Odell Beckham Jr. vs. the Buster Skrine Archipelago
Here's a brief summary of Beckham's busy afternoon against Darrelle Revis' backups and, with Marcus Williams also injured, their backups.
- Beckham caught a 72-yard touchdown on a slant against some zany Jets coverage. Buster Skrine lined up against Beckham but slid into short-zone coverage in the flat, leaving safety Marcus Gilchrist to cover Beckham across the middle of the field. Um, bad idea there, Todd Bowles.
- Beckham caught six passes on 11 targets for 149 yards and the aforementioned touchdown. But he was quiet for most of the second half as the Jets double-covered him and dared the Giants to try to win with Will Tye and Myles White. The tactic worked, with the Giants settling for short field goals or fourth-down interceptions near the goal line.
- Beckham beat Darrin Walls for a deep third-down pass in overtime but suddenly suffered a case of "arm shrinkage" when he should have extended for the ball. Hey, it happens to all dudes once in a while. Beckham then kicked the ball he should have caught in frustration, costing the Giants five yards on fourth down.
- Beckham partially made up for his third-down mistake with a 20-yard catch on fourth down. That led to a 48-yard field-goal attempt that Josh Brown missed, giving the Jets a 23-20 win.
The moral of the story: Beckham and Revis each provide plenty of storylines by themselves. Letting them face off against each other in the heat of the playoff chase would be too much of a good thing. Winner: the Buster Skrine Archipelago.
Finding Ways to Win vs. Actual Great Quarterback Play
Oh, Matt Hasselbeck, we loved your winning streak as the Colts starter. Who can resist a Magic Plucky Geezer Quarterback who wins games with grit, side-armed passes, moxie, pass-interference penalties, determination, mistake-prone opponents, blue-collarness, winner sauce, luck and more luck?
But sometimes a Magic Plucky Geezer Quarterback must face an actual Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback in his prime. The results look a lot like Sunday night's 45-10 Steelers victory.
Ben Roethlisberger continues to pinpoint 40- to 60-yard passes to his receivers like someone wired military-grade missile-guidance technology to his central nervous system. Hasselbeck plucked and gutted his way down the field a few yards at a time but committed three turnovers. Roethlisberger launched satellite touchdowns to Antonio Brown (two of them), Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton.
Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? In real life, the hare wins 99 times out of 100. Winner: Actual Great Quarterback Play
Passing Russell Wilson vs. Rushing Russell Wilson
Rushing Russell Wilson carried nine times for 51 yards and a touchdown in the Seahawks' 38-7 blowout of the Vikings. Passing Russell Wilson completed 77.8 percent of his passes for three touchdowns.
The competition between the Wilsons was close until Rushing Wilson ran 53 yards on an option for a touchdown that was negated by a Luke Willson (Blocking Willson, not Catching Willson) holding penalty. Passing Wilson then floated a picture-perfect 53-yard touchdown to Doug Baldwin on the very next play.
Winner: Passing Wilson, but NFC contenders had better start preparing for both.
DeAndre Hopkins vs. Sammy Watkins
Hopkins and Watkins are former Clemson teammates with nearly identical roles on the Texans and Bills offenses, respectively. Each is tasked with making a career-backup quarterback look good and provide most of his team's big-play capability by acting like a human vacuum cleaner on deep passes in his general direction.
Watkins caught three passes for 109 yards Sunday when his Bills met the Texans, including a three-yard touchdown in a tight corner of the end zone. Hopkins went 5-88-1, including a 19-yard touchdown that featured a pushy uncalled push-off.
The Bills won the game 30-21 with an offense that rushed away from J.J. Watt 36 times for 187 yards. The Texans left the ball in Brian Hoyer's hands. And Watkins didn't obviously push off to score his touchdown. Winner: Sammy Watkins
Dolphins Turmoil vs. Ravens Stability
The scoreboard at the start of a Ravens game might as well read 0-6 as long as Matt Schaub is their starting quarterback. That way, the scoreboard operator can run to the bathroom or get a soda while Schaub is throwing his weekly pick-six.
The Dolphins beat the Ravens 15-13, but because of the obligatory Schaub pick-six and a two-point conversion, the non-Schaub score was Ravens 13, Dolphins 7. The non-Schaub score does not count in the standings but definitely counts when analyzing the Dolphins' coaching and front-office situation.
Under new offensive coordinator Zac Taylor, the Dolphins ran 26 times and threw 19 times. Offensively, they were more balanced than they were under Bill Lazor.
If "balance" is their primary offensive goal, instead of "quality" or "scoring ability," this was a big week for the Dolphins. If they are actually trying to improve, the Dolphins should worry about their eight total first downs, 86 passing yards and 21:51 of time of possession against a bad defense.
W.C. Fields performed a classic comedy routine where a shocked society matron accused him of being drunk. "Yeah, and you're crazy," Fields replied. "I'll be sober tomorrow, and you'll be crazy for the rest of your life."
Winner: Ravens Stability, because next year the Ravens will have their players back while the Dolphins will still be crazy.
September-October Falcons vs. November-December Falcons
Over the course of the Buccaneers' 23-19 victory over the Falcons, Hangover figured out what is wrong with Matt Ryan!
- Ryan's defense can't stop opposing running backs from running straight up the middle for 151 rushing yards.
- Ryan's offensive line was never very good; it just faced NFC East defenses early in the year that were worse.
- Ryan's coaches get strangely pass-happy in the red zone. When Ryan throws interceptions or suffers sacks, they respond by calling more passing plays.
- Ryan's No. 2 receiver and starting tight end led your fantasy team to victory in 2010. His third and fourth receivers are guys you have never heard of. His second tight end is a guy who wore a Tony Gonzalez jersey to a Halloween party Thomas Dimitroff attended in 2013.
- Hey, Ryan has always been good, but he has never been Tom Brady.
Winner: the November-December Falcons, who are here to stay. We'd like to thank the September-October Falcons for two months of entertainment and relevance.
Austin Davis vs. What Johnny Manziel Would Have Done
Davis played well early in the 37-3 Browns loss to the Bengals, making some plays with both his arm and his legs. But the game slowly got out of hand because the Browns cornerbacks cannot cover anyone, their offense has no running game and minimal big-play capability, Davis himself is not all that good and the Bengals are excellent.
Sound familiar? Manziel had the same game against the Bengals in Week 9 (31-10 loss) and Steelers in Week 10 (30-9).
There may be some logic in playing Manziel, so the Browns can evaluate him. But because Davis played about as well in similar circumstances as Manziel did, it means that either: a) Manziel is not much better than Davis; b) the Browns are too pitiful to allow for the evaluation a young quarterback against any decent opponent; or c) both.
That's the kind of multiple choice that forces us to declare No Winner.
Offensive Line Bonus
The Cardinals rushed for 175 yards without their top two running backs. Carson Palmer endured a pair of sacks, but the Rams are little more than a defensive line and a bad attitude these days. Let's give a bonus to the line that helped Palmer control the clock for 39 minutes and 47 seconds: Jared Veldheer, Mike Iupati, Lyle Sendlein, Ted Larsen and Bobby Massie.
Special Teams Bonus
Eagles punt returner Darren Sproles shares the award with special teams ace Chris Maragos. Sproles returned a punt for a touchdown, while Maragos blocked the punt that Najee Goode returned for a touchdown in the 35-28 win over the Patriots.
Kevin Williams and Stephone Anthony of the Saints earn honorable mention for scoring the first-ever defensive two-point conversion: Williams blocked Graham Gano's extra-point attempt, and Anthony ran it back. Yes, that's the same Kevin Williams who was a member of the Williams Wall on the Vikings long ago. Even their big plays are reminders that the Saints are an old football team with much rebuilding to do.
Also, Justin Tucker lost his naming rights for this weekly bonus by failing to make a 55-yard field-goal attempt near the end of the Ravens-Dolphins travesty. You have one job, Justin.
Unsung Defensive Hero Bonus
The Hangover team put this category to a crowdsourcing vote. The winning answer:
Jenkins recorded two tackles for losses and seven total tackles. But the 99-yard interception return to give the Eagles a lead they never relinquished, try as they might, was what earned him this bonus.
Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown Bonus
The Jaguars and Titans share this prize for their meaningless-yet-awesome 42-39 shootout, which featured five Blake Bortles touchdowns, an 87-yard run by Marcus Mariota, three touchdown catches for Allen Robinson and plenty of production by the Titans and Jaguars players who actually show up on fantasy rosters: T.J. Yeldon, Antonio Andrews, Julius Thomas and Delanie Walker.
It was as if both teams were trying play spoiler in your fantasy league.
Fantasy Leech Bonus
The Bears hammered Matt Forte and Jeremy Langford into the line 33 times, hoping to force the usual 49ers surrender. They then gave Ka'Deem Carey a carry from the 4-yard line. Carey punched in a touchdown on an afternoon that turned out to be equally miserable for Bears fans and folks counting on Bears fantasy production.
Bold Coaching Decision Bonus
After collecting their pick-six from the Matt Schaub Defense-Entitlement Program, the Dolphins struggled to convert the extra point.
Andrew Franks missed the first attempt, but the Ravens jumped offsides. The Ravens blocked the second attempt and nearly ran it back—blocked kick returns are the centerpiece of the Ravens offense these days—but a second offsides penalty negated the big play.
Given the choice between a chip-shot extra-point attempt or a chance at a two-pointer from the 2-foot line, Dan Campbell ordered Jay Ajayi to run into the end zone, which he did.
Mystery Touch Bonus
Kendall Lamm, an undrafted rookie free-agent tackle from Appalachian State, caught a seven-yard rollout pass for a Texans first-down against the Bills.
It's great to see that the Texans have evolved beyond the need to put J.J. Watt on the field as the extra blocking tight end, which of course makes the whole defense focus on him, which doesn't stop the Texans from throwing to Watt anyway. Trick plays always work better when they have the possibility of actually tricking someone.
Jake Fisher nearly caught a touchdown pass for the Bengals. Fisher, a reserve tackle used as a short-yardage tight end, now has four targets on the season, with one 31-yard reception. Fisher has been targeted more times than Brandon Tate—Bengals kickoff returner and official fourth wide receiver.
Also, Tom Brady caught a 36-yard pass from Danny Amendola on a trick play Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels were probably saving for an emergency playoff situation. It was a little like watching Eric Clapton sit down behind a drum kit, only more awesome.
Some quick advice to wrap up the week:
Rams: Fire Jeff Fisher. But wait until the end of the season. The only person we want to see coaching a team less than Fisher right now is Gregg Williams.
Vikings: When the local media writes articles around the theme of We Don't Need a Passing Game Because Our Running Game Is So Awesome, it's really a sign that your passing game is terrible and you are about to get the snot pounded out of you by teams that can do more than run between the tackles.
Titans: You aren't getting Chip Kelly. You were probably never getting Chip Kelly. Please seek some other head coach who will use Marcus Mariota's mobility as part of the base offense, not someone who thinks options are "devil handoffs."
49ers: No, Blaine Gabbert is not your quarterback of the future. Don't say it. Don't think it. San Francisco fans: If a friend suggests it, stage an immediate intervention.
Bengals: Great win this week. We can do without the A-11 three-lineman formations in the fourth quarter of a blowout, however. Running up the score won't make you more Patriots-like; it will just expose Andy Dalton to frustrated pass-rushers.
Bills Fans: Those "wing head" hats are cool. But...did you just think of them? Packers fans have been wearing cheeseheads since the first European settlers arrived in Wisconsin. Even imitators like Philly's cheesesteak heads have now been around for years. Has all of upstate New York spent a decade thinking, "Boy, novelty hats at football games are fun. If only we were known for some kind of food item..."???
Football Fans: Everyone over the age of 27 looks ridiculous when "dabbing." Folks under 27 look ridiculous too, but they are generally young and sexy and look kinda OK when blowing their noses. If the Panthers make the Super Bowl, anyone I catch "dabbing" at media day or any other event is getting an atomic wedgie. Even Coldplay. ESPECIALLY Coldplay.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.