You’re going to start reading columns about the NFL needing to re-think its playoff format if the Rams have a strong December. Dismiss them.
Despite losing in Seattle on Monday night, the Vikings look like they’ll be able to get to 10 wins, which will be where L.A. could get with an upset of the Seahawks or 49ers. They’ll visit the Cowboys mid-month for a Week 15 matchup and for the sake of this column, I’d like you to go ahead and pencil in Dallas as a loser. Yeah, yeah, Cowboys fans, it’s a big stretch. Work with me here.
“America’s Team” could lose to the Rams after falling in Chicago on Thursday night and they would still control their playoff destiny. The Philadelphia Eagles have been that bad, losing in Miami on Sunday. The Redskins and Giants have been worse.
Because of the way the league’s 32 teams are configured, someone has to represent the NFC East, a four-team house of horrors this season despite historically being among the league’s most competitive. The NFC East has been so bad that the ‘Skins came into the week with a chance to reach the playoffs if they win out, Philadelphia beats Dallas and both teams lose the rest of their remaining games.
Washington enters Week 14 with a 3-9 record.
With a combined record of 16-32 the NFC East has a winning percentage of .333 and an opportunity to finish with the cumulative worst record of all-time, matching a 2008 NFC West that Arizona won at 9-7. There have been a couple of eight-game division winners since the NFL realigned in 2002. Carolina won the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record in ’14 and Seattle edged the Rams for the NFC West in ’10 with a 7-9 mark. The Seahawks then went out and upset the Saints in the famous “Beast Mode” game that served as Marshawn Lynch’s coming-out party.
In other words, there’s still hope for either the Cowboys or Eagles even if they become the third division winner with a sub -.500 record. Both teams are talented and even though they’ll be undeserving of a playoff spot, the system we have in place demands that somebody represent each of the eight divisional families even if there’s a rough year or two to overlook.
You spend 38 percent of your 16-game schedule playing the teams in your division and fan bases grow to hate the other three teams they’re pitted against. This is how it’s been for nearly two decades, and while the NFL has its share of issues, its playoff system isn’t one of them.
Perhaps we can revisit this discussion if the players union gets its way and we see the preseason reduced and an 18-game regular season take shape. But until then, having an ugly duckling among the swans isn’t worth scrapping the entire system over.
The Cowboys must still go into Philadelphia on Dec. 22 in a game that will command a ton of attention despite the struggles of both teams. We’ve had divisions with much lower profiles like the AFC South have similar instances over the years, so my take isn’t about appeasing major markets. Unless the schedule is altered to where teams are playing most of their conference mates once and no longer playing those in their four-team grouping twice, it’s right that the champion gets in, even if you want to put that title in asterisks.
Should they be seeded in the top-four? While that’s another debate altogether, I don’t see a reason why they wouldn’t be the No. 6 seed, so maybe we can find a way to compromise there.
On to the picks:
Cowboys -3 at Bears: Dallas is hoping that its visit to Philly will be meaningless since they’re rooting for the Eagles to sputter over the next few weeks while they hit their stride.
This won’t help. Mitch Trubisky has picked up his level of play with options emerging other than No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson, while Dak Prescott has struggled of late and has to face a defense that is capable of being awfully stingy at Soldier Field. BEARS
Panthers at Falcons -2.5: Neither of these NFC South teams are going anywhere, but both continue to put their best foot forward. Carolina has dropped four straight due to red-zone struggles and Kyle Allen coming back down to earth after a great start. But the Falcons’ post-bye surge has run its course as well. Julio Jones was inactive on Thanksgiving and battling through a shoulder injury, while Panthers’ RB Christian McCaffrey remains upright and productive. PANTHERS
Broncos at Texans -9: Drew Lock picked up a win in his first pro start thanks to a well-thrown ball drawing a last-second pass interference penalty, but we won’t see a winning streak from Denver. Hitting the road for the first time, he’ll struggle to keep pace with a Texans’ offense that has produced 20 or more points in seven of eight and has Deshaun Watson’s receiving corps fully-stocked and producing. TEXANS
Chiefs at Patriots -3: Everyone is sprinkling dirt on Tom Brady and this offense again, which is typically when they’re most dangerous. The Chiefs come off a lopsided win over Oakland that basically wrapped up the AFC West, so the Patriots have a greater sense of urgency in their favor in addition to a defense that will be the toughest Patrick Mahomes has seen all year. New England is perfect at home and will remain so. PATRIOTS
Steelers -3 at Cardinals: Ducky Hodges has helped Pittsburgh vault into playoff contention by doing just enough not to kill his team and allowing his defense to carry the bulk of the load. Considering how much top pick Kyler Murray has struggled of late, playing hurt and learning on the go, the Steelers’ D appears to have an advantage.
In a decade’s time, we’ll look back in amazement that an undrafted FCS quarterback helped take down the 2019 No. 1 pick in his own house. STEELERS
Giants at Eagles -8.5: Carson Wentz is having accuracy issues due to a finger injury and his receivers struggling with drops, while the Philly defensive backfield has been bullied by teams with competent passing games. Expect rookie Daniel Jones and Pennsylvania native Saquon Barkley to show out on Monday night, picking up at least a cover. GIANTS
Last week: 3-3