Monday Morning Digest: Can the Patriots Survive the Decline of Tom Brady?
There's so much to get in the Week 10 edition of Monday Morning Digest, including:
- Head coaching hot seats you could grill a steak on;
- The Bills finally find a quarterback. No, not a good quarterback, just a human being who actually qualifies as a quarterback;
- A pair of storied rivals square off for the coveted prize of second place in the horrid NFC East;
- The Rams and Saints maintain their dominance over the NFC but suffer some worrisome injuries;
- Leonard Fournette returns to produce big wins in fantasy leagues everywhere (but can't manage one for the Jaguars)
and much, much more.
Stop snickering. It's really true this time!
The Decline of Tom Brady, Part XIV: This Time It's Really Happening
Tom Brady's arm looks like overcooked fettuccine right now.
There, we stated the obvious, and no fiery hail rained down upon us. So it's OK to say it out loud. Brady looked like a knuckleball pitcher in the Patriots' stunning 34-10 upset loss to the Titans, and he didn't have much of a fastball against the Packers or Bills in his last two games.
Long Brady passes now flutter out of bounds or bounce before they reach receivers. Short ones take too long to reach their targets, allowing defenders to swat them away. Passes toward the sideline arrive low and outside.
The Patriots offense has become a succession of touch passes over the middle, intricate screens and increasingly desperate trick plays. The Titans caught on, and other opponents are about to figure it out as well.
Don't act shocked that we're saying it. Patriots fans may deny it on the comment threads, but they whisper it among themselves when us Muggles are not around. Other analysts might tiptoe around the topic, but that's just because we've all been writing End of Brady fanfic since 2009, and none of us want to read the "this didn't age well" tweets when Brady throws four touchdown passes against the Jets after the bye.
Brady may well throw four touchdown passes against the Jets after the bye, because Matt Barkley just threw two touchdown passes against the Jets, and Barkley's arm is a slingshot made out of hair scrunchies. But Brady can barely muster any velocity right now, and unless he's harboring some secret injury that Alex Guerrero can heal with eye of newt or something, the 41-year-old's arm isn't going to suddenly spring back into 2007 form.
And what does that mean for the Patriots' playoff fortunes, you ask?
For now, very little.
The Patriots get the Jets twice and the Bills once down the stretch. That gets them to 10 wins, even if they must build their whole offense out of Cordarrelle Patterson Wildcat plays.
The Vikings, Steelers and even the Dolphins provide tougher tests, but the Patriots proved against the Packers last Sunday night that they have a lot of ways to manufacture wins with defense, scheme, special teams and Brady's knowledge of his own limits.
If that "manufactured wins" talk sounds familiar, the Broncos faced the same dilemma when Peyton Manning faded fast in 2015. They played vicious defense, ran the ball and even turned to Brock Osweiler in relief. Manning overcame an injury spree and started playing within the confines of what he had left, and the Broncos clawed their way to a Super Bowl win.
The Patriots can win yet another championship in a similar way, especially with Brady not yet rusted out as badly as Manning was. But the first step is admitting Brady's mortality, which isn't their organizational strong suit.
It's time for the Patriots to run the ball like a normal team: with rookie Sony Michel, not a moonlighting wide receiver. It's time to clean up all the mistakes on defense and play like every stop matters. It's time to anticipate that defenses will creep up to take away those little flair passes. It's time to get Rob Gronkowski back if possible, to get Josh Gordon as involved as he can be, to wring every available point and yard from the special teams.
Most of all, it's time to think of Brady as a wily old quarterback, but not one of the best in the league anymore.
Sure, Brady won shootouts against Patrick Mahomes and other young guns just a few weeks ago. But the end came fast for Manning, and for Brett Favre, and for many other quarterbacks who were outstanding enough to hang on a little too long.
The great ones can compensate for losing a little velocity here and a little athleticism there until one day they are compensating their way through whole games just to stay competitive. That's what Brady has done for three weeks.
He can probably do it well enough for two more months to keep the Patriots in the Super Bowl picture.
But tomorrow is guaranteed to no one, not even Tom Brady.
Game Spotlight: Cowboys 27, Eagles 20
A sloppy, frustrating, mistake-filled game for both teams turned into a late shootout once the Cowboys ran out of healthy defensive linemen and the Eagles ran out of healthy cornerbacks.
The Cowboys took a 13-3 halftime lead on a 75-yard touchdown drive before halftime against an Eagles defense that played like it thought there were 19 seconds left on the clock instead of nearly two minutes, sitting back and allowing chunk plays along the sideline.
The Cowboys offense then stalled in the second half until an injury to Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby gave Dak Prescott his choice of open receivers. Carson Wentz matched Prescott touchdown for touchdown against a depleted Cowboys front seven before falling short on two fourth-quarter last-ditch drives.
Ezekiel Elliott produced 187 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns, hurdling an Eagles defender without breaking stride to set up one score. Prescott threw for 270 yards and one touchdown. But this game was all about short-handed defenses—the Cowboys, already banged up on the defensive line, lost Maliek Collins and Daniel Ross—fourth-down and clock-management miscues by the Eagles, slow-trigger sacks and blooper-reel fumbles by Prescott and a general atmosphere of second-tier football that won't get a team very far in the NFC.
What it means
Jason Garrett outcoached Doug Pederson and his staff, calling a fake punt to help manufacture offense, finding a way to drive the length of the field before halftime and calling just the right combo of screens and swing passes to take advantage of the Eagles defense until their secondary became too thin to fight back. Garrett and his staff are off the hot seat until the next ugly loss, which won't be too far in the future.
The Cowboys and Eagles are now each 4-5, placing them two full games behind the Redskins, who gutted out an ugly win of their own over the Buccaneers. Washington's upcoming schedule is loaded with winnable games, while the Eagles face the Saints and Rams and the Cowboys get the Saints and tricky Falcons and Colts matchups.
Could the Eagles or Cowboys overtake Washington or find their way into the wild-card picture? It's possible. Can they do it by throwing screens on 3rd-and-long, missing tackles and making the kind of blunders they traded Sunday night? No way.
Eagles at Saints, Cowboys at Falcons: a chance for the NFC South to double-knockout the NFC East from the wild-card race.
Quick Hitters from Week 10
Thoughts and impressions from around the league:
• We just did that thing where the Titans recorded a big upset but all we talked about was the more popular team that got upset. Well, let's rectify that. The Titans are a much better team offensively now that Marcus Mariota is healthy enough to properly grip a football. They have one of the NFL's fastest defenses and are stingy at giving up big plays. Look for them to have more playoff-picture staying power than teams like the Bengals and Dolphins.
• Mitchell Trubisky had his best game on Sunday since his six-touchdown explosion against the Buccaneers in September. Trubisky threw for 355 yards and three touchdowns, rushed for a touchdown, fired lasers to receivers downfield and, most importantly, avoided silly mistakes, bad decisions and wild pitches that plagued him earlier in the season. The Bears have won their last three games by a combined 99-41 score. Sure, they are beating up on weaklings (and the semi-motivated Lions), but deep playoff runs are often built upon blowouts against bad teams.
• Drew Brees completed 22 of 25 passes on Sunday, bringing his completion rate to 77.3 percent. The NFL record, set by Brees last season, is 72.0 percent. A quarterback is completing three-fourths of his passes more than halfway through the season, but NFL passing and scoring have increased so much that it's just another thing that's happening.
• The Rams lost Cooper Kupp to an injury late in their victory over the Seahawks, and Sean McVay is bracing for the worst. The top of the NFL standings is an arms race for offensive weapons, so every loss is significant. The Rams host the Chiefs next week, and the winner may be the first team to reach 60 points. That's why the Saints tried to add Dez Bryant, and it's why the loss of someone like Kupp could make a big difference.
• Andrew Luck has not been sacked since the first quarter of the Week 5 game against the Patriots on October 5. Credit goes not just to the offensive line, but to Luck and Colts coach Frank Reich. Sound game plans and decisive quarterbacking have as much to do with pass protection as great blocking. The Colts are enjoying all three right now.
Watched on Purpose: Bills 41, Jets 10
In the name of providing the most comprehensive NFL coverage possible, Digest sometimes goes out of its way to watch the least appealing game on the Sunday schedule. So instead of in-depth coverage of the exciting Jaguars-Colts game, you get this: the Matt Barkley-Josh McCown matchup you never asked for, wanted or needed.
With recently-signed free agent Matt Barkley filling in for Nathan Peterman -- who filled in for Derek Anderson, who filled in for Josh Allen, who replaced Peterman -- at quarterback, the Bills shrugged their shoulders and decided to actually try to score points for the first time in a month.
An early 47-yard bomb to someone named Robert Foster to set up a LeSean McCoy touchdown set the tone for the Bills. They later scored on a fumble recovery after a catch by Jason Croom and a tackle-eligible touchdown by Dion Dawkins. Meanwhile, McCoy, Marcus Murphy and Isaiah McKenzie combined for 212 rushing yards. None of those names were made up just to trick you. Go ahead and check.
McCown threw for 135 yards, two interceptions, at least two dropped interceptions and multiple passes batted back in his face. McCown is earning $10 million to mentor Sam Darnold this year. He'd better be turning Darnold into a Jedi, because McCown has no business being on an NFL field anymore.
What it means
While it was fun to see the Bills play with pride and open the playbook beyond the table of contents, Barkley's deep passes looked like jelly beans flung from a spoon across the cafeteria. That he appears to be a better player than Peterman and Anderson speaks more about the Bills braintrust's taste in quarterbacks than about Barkley. That his fluttering quails kept landing in the undefended hands of receivers (and offensive linemen) is testament to the fact that the Jets have problems that go well beyond the quarterback position.
It's time for the Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan eras to both end for the Jets. They have flat-lined on both sides of the ball over the last month, with opponents outscoring them 115-43 over four games. This is an organization going backwards right now, and players are playing like they know it.
Bye weeks. But don't despair: these two juggernauts face off again on December 9!
Coaching Hot Seat Digest
Todd Bowles isn't the only coach feeling his Brussels sprouts broiling after a blowout loss Sunday. Here are some others whose hot seats may soon catch fire.
Hot: Matt Patricia, Lions
Patricia probably gets a first-year pass for this season, and he still has some coordinator sacrifices at his disposal (offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is dangling by a thread; special teams coach Joe Marciano was let go last week) if management gets really antsy.
Patricia can point his pencil at other positions all he wants, but one of the biggest problems in Sunday's 34-22 loss to the Bears was a defense that looked like the one he coached in the Patriots' Super Bowl loss, except with twice the miscommunication and half the effort.
Hotter: Marvin Lewis, Bengals
The NFL's reigning tenured professor has salvaged his career for many years by avoiding embarrassing losses like Sunday's 51-14 debacle at home. Yes, the Bengals are beaten up on offense. That's not an excuse for being so inept on defense that the Saints were never even forced to punt.
A 5-4 record, upcoming Browns (two) and Raiders games and the injury excuse could give Lewis a .500-ish record and deniability at the end of the year. In other words, it's another Bengals season, and it's hard to believe ownership will keep settling for more of the same.
Even Hotter: Adam Gase, Dolphins
The Packers kept handing the Dolphins the ball in great field position on fumbled punts and blocked kicks, and the Dolphins kept settling for field goals. Meanwhile, the Dolphins run defense quit against a team that spends most weeks looking for any excuse it can find to abandon the run.
Like Lewis, Gase has some early-season wins and an injury excuse to fall back upon. There are going to be a lot of coaches trying to convince their bosses they deserve to be rehired because they managed to beat the Jets, Raiders and each other.
Hottest: Dirk Koetter, Buccaneers
Koetter took back play-calling duties from rising-star coordinator Todd Monken in Sunday's 16-3 loss, which is exactly the type of thing you do when you feel threatened by your subordinates and are more interested in exerting authority than accomplishing something.
The Koetter-called offense generated 501 net offensive yards but went 0-of-5 in the red zone because of a Ryan Fitzpatrick interception, fumble and that staple of Buccaneers football: a pair of missed field goals. No problem ever gets better on Koetter's watch.
On the other side of the ball, the Buccaneers faced a Washington team missing three-fifths of its offensive line but mustered just three sacks. Maybe Koetter should take over defensive play calls, too. And switch quarterbacks again. And maybe lock Monken in a boiler room so ownership cannot locate Koetter's obvious replacement. Because no coach is on a hotter hot seat right now.
Except, of course, for Bowles.
Inside the Numbers
Derek Carr, Raiders: 24-of-37 for 243 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INT; 4 sacks, 1 lost fumble
Carr completed 11-of-14 passes for 78 yards in the first half. It takes some dedicated dinking and dunking to produce a line like that. Carr threw two- and six-yard passes to Doug Martin, a six-yarder to Jalen Richard, a one-yarder to Martavis Bryant and his masterpiece: a zero-yard completion to Dwayne Harris on 4th-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
Carr's longest pass of the first half was a 15-yard completion to Brandon LaFell, and you better believe it was 3rd-and-19 when he threw it.
Carr's signature Sunday moment was his decision to throw the ball away on 4th-and-5 from the Chargers 19-yard line while trailing in the fourth quarter. Tune in next week, when Carr starts kneeling to kill the clock in the red zone in the first quarter.
Leonard Fournette, Jaguars: 24 carries for 53 yards, 1 TD; 5 catches for 56 yards, 1 TD
The return of Fournette marked the return of the Jaguars' low-percentage Fournette-centric offense. Fournette took handoffs on the Jaguars' first seven first downs and got three straight shots to punch a touchdown in from inside the 4-yard line (the third time was a charm).
How effective were the battering-ram tactics? Well, Colts running back Jordan Wilkins gained the exact same number of rushing yards on one carry that Fournette did on 24.
Fournette was more useful as a receiver, with a 31-yard screen-and-rumble and a one-yard touchdown on a rollout. But the Jaguars prefer Fournette's three-yard dives into the line to the alternative: Blake Bortles doing pretty much anything.
Sony Michel, Patriots: 11 carries for 31 yards
Michel rushed seven times for 22 yards in the first half of his first game back from a knee injury he suffered in mid-October. He disappeared from the game plan once the Patriots fell behind by two touchdowns, and he appeared to be an afterthought in a game the Patriots thought they could win by throwing the ball. It's time for them to start rethinking that, and carving out a bigger role for Michel.
Corey Davis, Titans: 7 catches for 125 yards, 1 TD
Davis caught passes of 24, 23, 20 and 27 yards, often adjusting to Marcus Mariota's on-the-run throws. Davis' most impressive catch, however, may have been a leaping eight-yard grab on 3rd-and-5 late in the third quarter.
Davis went 9-161-1 to beat the Eagles earlier in the year, and he caught two touchdown passes against the Patriots in the playoffs last year. So he has four career touchdowns against last season's conference champions and zero against the rest of the NFL. He's a big-game player!
Golden Tate, Eagles: 2 catches on four targets for 19 yards
The new arrival in the Eagles offense caught just two short passes and a doomed lateral from Zach Ertz on the last play of the game. Tate was also the target for an incomplete 3rd-and-1 pass at the Cowboys' 20-yard line early in the game. The Eagles failed the fourth-down conversion on the next play, leaving points on the board in a game full of mistakes. While Tate may help the Eagles as his knowledge of the offense grows, he cannot solve any problems in the secondary or eliminate mental errors by teammates and coaches.
Offensive Line of the Week
The Saints rushed for 244 yards and three touchdowns, and Drew Brees was not sacked. Another perfect day for Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Max Unger, Larry Warford and Ryan Ramczyk, right? Not quite: Armstead left the game with a shoulder injury, and Jermon Bushrod finished the game at left tackle. The Armstead injury bears close watching, but it sure is nice to have a 12th-year veteran with 123 career starts like Bushrod hanging around on the bench.
Block of the Week
Peat earns individual recognition for smothering a Bengals defender on a screen pass when Saints-Bengals was still close, springing Mark Ingram II up the sideline for an easy touchdown.
Defender of the Week
Aaron Donald was credited with 2.5 sacks and was a disruptive force on many other plays, including Dante Fowler Jr.'s fourth-quarter strip-sack of Russell Wilson, which helped give the Rams much-needed breathing room.
Donald and the Saints offensive line winning awards? We better mix in some new names for the rest of this segment.
Special Teamer of the Week
Rookie Raiders punter Johnny Townsend took a fake punt 42 yards for the team's only unironic highlight this week. Extra credit goes to teammates Lee Smith and Dwayne Harris for big blocks to give Townsend a safe lane up the sideline.
Would-Be Special Teamer of the Week
Colts lineman Denico Autry blocked a Jaguars extra-point attempt, and linebacker Anthony Walker scooped the ball for an apparent two-point return. But the Colts were flagged for clipping on Walker's run. Autry still deserves credit for a block that helped keep the Jaguars behind the Colts all afternoon.
Would-Be Special Teams Goat of the Week
Bears kicker Cody Parkey doinked a pair of field goals off the right upright as if he were aiming for it. Luckily for Parkey, the six lost points (and two missed extra points) did not matter, because the Bears offense produced plenty of touchdowns and the Lions didn't feel much like playing football Sunday.
Mystery Touch and Fantasy Leech of the Week
Bills offensive lineman Dion Dawkins now has as many touchdown receptions as Kelvin Benjamin after getting a seven-yard pass from Matt Barkley to nestle in his belly against the Jets. Barkley tried to float one to Benjamin earlier in the game, but Benjamin let a defender swat the ball from his hands, because he thinks "50-50 ball" stands for his effort level and not the probability of success.
Bury This Play with a Shovel Moment of the Week
The Patriots resorted to a Philly Special-type play again this week. Julian Edelman took a reverse toss on 3rd-and-7, floated the ball to Tom Brady, and Brady tripped over his own feet and crumpled to the ground one yard shy of a first down. Nope, no one in the organization is in denial about Brady's deteriorating skills at all, no sir.
The Titans ran the same play on the very next series, and Marcus Mariota gained 21 yards. You know it's not your day when the Titans offense is trolling you.
Don't Bury This Play Yet Moment of the Week
The Browns used a full-house backfield formation several times in the first half against the Falcons, with Baker Mayfield playing quarterback like a 1950s-style "pivot," faking handoffs and tossing pitches. The Browns abandoned the fun, effective wrinkle after a tricked-up version led to an interception, but if teams gave up on offensive concepts after one turnover, the Bills would be punting on first downs.
Taysom Hill Moment of the Week
Hill attempted a Tim Tebow-style jump pass at the goal line, pretending to sneak up the gut before leaping into the air to float an entry pass to Benjamin Watson in the low post. Watson bobbled and dropped an easy touchdown and then bowled over several photographers behind the end zone. That's two different sports metaphors in one sentence: Hill and the Saints do things to your mind.
Telling Moment of the Week
How boring was the 16-3 Redskins win over the Buccaneers? When Washington finally scored and the netting to catch the extra point was lifted into position, it was so tangled and lopsided that it looked like one of those webs spun by a laboratory spider tripping on MDMA. Or like a field goal net that Dirk Koetter was left in charge of.
Digest Sportsbook: Spreads Gone Wild!
Sunday was a big day for major underdogs and zany spreads. Sportsbook rounds up who covered and who needed to run for cover in games with outlandish lines.
Buffalo Bills +7 at Jets
You know it's a wacky week—and that the Bills have been really, really bad—when the Jets are touchdown favorites. This game actually slid down from a Bills +9 opening line on the news that Josh McCown would replace injured rookie Sam Darnold; the public must not have watched Darnold play for the last three weeks.
If you ever had the urge to take a bad team as a heavy favorite, Buffalo's 41-10 victory over the Jets should cure you of it forever.
Miami Dolphins +10.5 at Green Bay Packers
This line started +7.5 but moved because there are millions of Packers fans around the country and maybe a half-dozen people outside Dade County who truly believe in the Dolphins as anything more than wild-card oatmeal.
The Dolphins kept things tight for a while—they trailed just 14-12 midway through the third quarter—but then the reality of a Brock Osweiler-Frank Gore-Danny Amendola offense set in. The Packers pulled away for a 31-12 win.
The smart money avoids wagering on, watching or thinking about the Dolphins in most weeks.
Los Angeles Chargers -10 at Oakland Raiders
The Chargers haven't played a true home game since October 7 (or 2016, depending on what you consider their home), and the Raiders were coming off a mini-bye. Neither the house nor public seemed to care, because neither do the Raiders these days. The Chargers won 20-6 and should hold their own as favorites in upcoming weeks; avoid the Raiders, even as a backdoor cover option, until they pull out of this self-inflicted free fall.
Seattle Seahawks +9.5 at Los Angeles Rams
Five of the last seven Seahawks-Rams games entering Sunday finished within a six-point margin, and a sixth resulted in a 24-3 Seahawks win (albeit in the 2016 Rams Dark Ages). Factor in last Sunday's Rams loss, some cancelled midweek practices and a scrappy Seahawks team that hasn't lost by more than eight points all year, and Digest just had to play the Seahawks against this over-ambitious spread.
Sure enough, the Seahawks led at times and kept things close throughout, scoring a late touchdown for the backdoor cover and coming within one drive of an upset.
The Rams are 4-6 ATS this year. Approach those big lines against quality opponents with caution.
Atlanta Falcons -5.5 at Cleveland Browns
Nothing illustrates the public's lack of faith in the Falcons like this spread: They entered Sunday on a three-game tear and averaged over 28.5 points per contest, but they didn't quite qualify as touchdown favorites against a team with a makeshift offensive coaching staff.
Naturally, the Browns won outright 28-16. That's because many of you were starting to believe in the Falcons, and the Falcons are an organism that feeds on your belief, digests it and excretes it as steaming heaps of regret.
Arizona Cardinals +17 at Kansas City Chiefs
Nothing wacky here: just your basic two-plus-touchdown spread in early November. The Chiefs played about as well as they needed to in a 26-14 win that couldn't have been much fun to watch if you wagered on a Chiefs runaway.
Monday night action: New York Giants +3.5 at San Francisco 49ers
Eli Manning faces a dude whose Twitter account wasn't even verified two weeks ago...and is a road dog. And you want to wager on this catastrophe? Isn't there a nice NBA game on Monday night to play instead?
If all you want to do is climb aboard the Nick Mullens bandwagon, you can play props: his passing yards over/under on DraftKings on Sunday was 240.5 (-115), his touchdown total 1.5 (-134). Both are enticing, especially if these two bad teams get into a slapfest, but the moneylines (-115 for yards, -135 to go over in yards) are nothing to stay up late about.
Your weekly roundup of off-field issues and answers, and Digest's not-so-serious analysis.
Bills fans start GoFundMe page to pay Nathan Peterman to retire.
POINT: Peterman tried to donate $20 himself to show he was a good sport, but the money was intercepted by Russian hackers.
COUNTERPOINT: Gosh, if this anti-Peterman sentiment among Bills fans keeps up, it could become one-ten-thousandth as severe as last year's anti-Tyrod Taylor sentiment.
Former Jets CB Darrelle Revis named the spokesperson for the PointsBet digital sportsbook.
POINT: With Revis on board, you can be sure that the service is outstanding but expensive and somehow a little overrated.
COUNTERPOINT: Tell 'em you are a Buccaneers fan when you sign up, and Revis might just throw in a complimentary "Sorry about 2013" wager.
Niners quarterback Nick Mullens tries to talk back to head coach Kyle Shanahan on the (one-way) helmet headset.
POINT: Mullens must be the guy who yells at the hosts when listening to podcasts. That happened in The Force Awakens, not The Last Jedi! Why don't you do some prep before you start recording!
COUNTERPOINT: Jon Gruden lost by 31 points to a kid who didn't know how a helmet communicator worked. But don't worry, Raiders fans: Gruden has a rock-solid plan in place!
Patriots make players wear ugly orange sweatshorts in the locker room after many pairs of the gray ones go missing.
POINT: The team remains puzzled about the identity of the prankster who stole exactly 69 pairs of gray sweatshorts.
COUNTERPOINT: There's no truth to the rumor that the players filed a grievance claiming that the orange shorts humiliate them—not by making them look like prison inmates, but by making them look like the Cleveland Browns.
Josh Norman to dance in a local theater production of The Nutcracker in December.
POINT: Big deal. Dan Snyder has been playing the part of Scrooge for decades.
COUNTERPOINT: In related cornerbacks-in-the-arts news, Marcus Peters will skate with Marvel Heroes on Ice as The Human Torch.
Eric Reid says he has been "randomly" drug tested five times this year.
POINT: Digest got ahold of the league's randomization technique: "Heads, we mess with Reid; tails, we behave ethically." It's an adapted version of the policy used to decide whether roughing the passer counts as a penalty against Cam Newton in any given week.
COUNTERPOINT: If Colin Kaepernick is ever signed by an NFL team, he'll have to search his home every morning for microphones in flower pots.
Future Schedule Digest
Let's look ahead at who has the toughest and easiest roads to the playoffs, with the help of the Football Outsiders' future schedule rankings, which are much more accurate than just tallying upcoming opponents' wins and losses.
Toughest upcoming schedule: Oakland Raiders
They face the Chiefs twice and the Steelers, plus pesky opponents like the Ravens in Baltimore and the Bengals in Cincy. But the tough final stretch falls into Jon Gruden's master plan to tank this year and use his three first-round picks to fill the 30 holes in the roster.
Toughest upcoming schedule that actually matters: Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings visit the Bears, Patriots and Seahawks after this week's bye, hosting the Packers in between. This is what they're paying Kirk Cousins big bucks for.
Easiest future schedule: Houston Texans
Football Outsiders ranked the Dolphins' and Patriots' upcoming schedules as easier than the Texans' schedule entering Sunday, but future games against the Bills may be skewing the rankings. (The Bills offense looked so bad before Sunday's win that statistical models could be fooled into thinking they were capable of losing twice per week).
After this week's bye, the Texans get the Browns and Jets, road games against injury-plagued NFC East teams (Eagles and Redskins) and home games against division rivals Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee. The Texans don't even have to play lights-out football to go 5-2 or 6-1 down that stretch and waltz into the postseason.
Toughest end to season: Carolina Panthers
Now that we've seen the Steelers make corned beef hash out of the Panthers offensive line, that Saints-Falcons-Saints sandwich in the final three weeks looks like a brick wall standing between Carolina and the playoffs. Winnable Buccaneers, Browns and Lions games can get the Panthers to nine victories before those end-of-season boss battles, but all three of those possible wins are on the road, so there are no gimmes.
Most spoilerific future schedule: Detroit Lions
You don't need Football Outsiders' deep analytical breakdowns to tell you that the Lions lead the league in "variance" (week-to-week unpredictability): You saw them beat the Patriots and lose to the Jets, and upset the Packers and get walloped by the Bears!
The Lions face the Bears again in just 10 days on Thanksgiving (yeah, that crept up on us, too), and host the Panthers and Rams as part of a three-game homestand before they finish the year with the Packers and Vikings.
Will the Lions upset the Rams and then lose two straight to the Cardinals and Bills? Will their up-and-down performances reshape the entire NFC playoff picture? Will they crawl into the postseason picture themselves? Let's not get carried away. But when it comes to the Lions, expect the unexpected.