NFL

Bills beat Patriots, NFL playoff pictures, power rankings and more

On Sunday, the Buffalo Bills essentially ensured themselves the AFC East title with a critical win over the New England Patriots.

Josh Allen was the best player on the field in Foxborough on Sunday.

His counterpart, Mac Jones, was arguably the worst.

If you needed two sentences to sum up why the Buffalo Bills beat the New England Patriots 33-21, and all but locked up the AFC East, there you have it.

The NFL loves to trumpet parity and the importance of team play over the star individuals. While those tenets are reality to a large degree, the great quarterback is the exception.

Against the Patriots, Allen was sublime. He threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns, ran for a team-high 64 yards and posted a QBR of 85.1. Furthermore, he extended a litany of plays, including converting a fourth down into seven points on Buffalo’s first drive, and helping the offense go 6-for-12 on third down against one of the league’s best defenses.

As for Jones, the rookie struggled mightily. New England desperately needed its youngster to make plays against a Buffalo defense that struggles to generate pressure and is without star corner Tre’Davious White. Instead, Jones flopped, only throwing for 145 yards with two interceptions, and converting a measly 1-of-10 third down opportunities.

In short, when the Bills needed a play from the most important position in sports, they consistently got it. When the Patriots needed one, they got nothing.

No, this isn’t a referendum on Jones’ season or career. He might well turn into a top-end starter who enjoys 15+ years in the league. But the conversation around him most of the season on network TV has been absurd.

Jones is not 2001 Tom Brady, or any version of Brady thereafter. He’s not the leading man but more a supporting member of the ensemble in Bill Belichick’s production. There’s nothing wrong with his performance, but when asked to step to the fore, he’s not ready yet.

Meanwhile, Allen, who struggled through his first two years, has blossomed into a superstar. He can beat defenses every way, and although he’ll make the occasional head-scratching throw, those moments are far superseded by his penchant for breathtaking moments.

Barring a home loss to the Atlanta Falcons or New York Jets, the Bills will win their second straight AFC East title. They’ll host at least one playoff game, perhaps even against the Patriots depending on how seeding falls. Buffalo won’t be the AFC favorite — that’ll likely be the Kansas City Chiefs — but they’re arguably in the best position to challenge the two-time conference champ, blessed with savvy veterans and a wunderkind in the gun.

For New England, this beautiful song of a season has struck a sour note, but the overall piece is a good one. The Patriots are 9-6 and almost certain to be a playoff team. Come the postseason, nobody will count Belichick out, even with a limited offense on the road. After all, it’s Belichick and a defense that can carry any day.

But the story of the AFC East isn’t about Belichick. After all, he coaches but doesn’t play.

This is about the difference between two good teams and there being the presence of only one great quarterback between them.

On Sunday, it was unmistakable who had him.

Power rankings

Top 10 wild card teams of all time

1. 1969 Kansas City Chiefs (11-3, won Super Bowl)
2. 1997 Denver Broncos (12-4, won Super Bowl)
3. 2010 Green Bay Packers (10-6, won Super Bowl)
4. 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5, won Super Bowl)
5. 2007 New York Giants (10-6, won Super Bowl)
6. 2000 Baltimore Ravens (12-4, won Super Bowl)
7. 1980 Oakland Raiders (11-5, won Super Bowl)
8. 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5, won Super Bowl)
9. 1999 Tennessee Titans (13-3, lost Super Bowl)
10. 1975 Dallas Cowboys (10-4, lost Super Bowl)

Quotable

“I can tell you right now it wasn’t because of the coaching. It wasn’t because of what a person may have said or done. The truth of the matter is, we’re all playing for jobs. If you don’t think as a coach you wouldn’t do the right things to win and build your tenure here, you wouldn’t do it.”

– Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on head coach Matt Rhule

Let’s say Rhule is very fortunate to have a large, lengthy contract. The Panthers started the year 3-0 and have gone 2-9 since. Rhule, thought to be an offensive guru when hired away from Baylor, has proven anything but at the NFL level. Frankly, it’s a mess.

Podcast

Random stat

The Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions have only faced off in one playoff game despite sharing the NFL for a combined 194 seasons. Oddly enough, it was the league’s first postseason contest.

The Bears hosted the Portsmouth Spartans in the 1932 NFL Championship Game after an argument about who was the rightful champion after the regular season’s conclusion forced further action. Chicago won 9-0, with the game played at Chicago Stadium on a shortened 80-yard field to fit inside the building.

Info learned this week

1. Bengals roll to AFC North lead, and the Ravens are on the ropes

Joe Burrow. The Cincinnati Bengals. An unstoppable pair of forces on Sunday.

In their 41-21 demolition of the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals rolled up 575 yards of total offense, with Burrow going for a team-record 525 through the air. It was a comical showing from Baltimore’s depleted secondary, which has struggled all year and finally bottomed out on the banks of the Ohio River.

Burrow and his trio of aerial weapons took turns embarrassing Baltimore, with receivers Tee Higgins (12 catches, 194 yards, 2 TDs), JaMarr Chase (seven catches, 125 yards) and Tyler Boyd (three catches, 85 yards, TD) accounting for 404 receiving yards.

While the Ravens were down to their third-string quarterback in Josh Johnson, it feels almost as if an academic point. If Lamar Jackson played, maybe the score is 41-28? Cincinnati, for a second time this year, hung 41 points on the Ravens while Burrow went ballistic.

All told, in his season sweep of the Ravens, Burrow totaled an astounding 941 passing yards.

With the win, Cincinnati needs to beat either Kansas City or the Cleveland Browns to secure its first division title since 2016.

As for Baltimore, the road is daunting. The Ravens likely need to beat both the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers to have a real shot at the playoffs, by way of the division or a wild card. Incredibly, the Steelers and Browns also have paths to the postseason, but each needs to win out as well and get some help.

2. Rams in prime position, while the Cardinals are reeling once again

The NFL regular season is a grind. Things chance. Just look at the NFC West.

Initially, the Rams were the favorite while the Arizona Cardinals were plucky upstarts. Then, the Rams faltered in the middle months while the Cardinals won despite injuries to Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins.

Now? Back to the Rams being favorites.

With Los Angeles beating the Minnesota Vikings, 30-23, and the Cardinals losing a third straight game earlier in the weekend, the Rams are now ahead of Arizona with two games remaining. Oh, and the Cardinals have to play the red-hot Dallas Cowboys at JerryWorld this upcoming Sunday. Have fun.

For Los Angeles, there’s plenty to be excited about. Quarterback Matthew Stafford was bad against the Vikings with three interceptions, and the game was still never in doubt. The team has been reeling for weeks under the crush of COVID, and still Los Angeles is peaking at the right time, bucking a curious trend of the reverse in recent years under head coach Sean McVay.

Should the Rams win out, they’ll at worst be the No. 3 seed in the NFC, guaranteed of a home game in the Wild Card round and potentially another down the line.

3. Chargers show they aren’t primetime ready, while Chiefs certainly are

Experience matters. Look at the AFC West.

Last Thursday, the Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers waged an epic overtime battle, with Kansas City winning 34-28. In the ensuing week, each squad has battled with COVID while trying to keep their place in the AFC playoff picture.

On Sunday, the Chargers failed emphatically, while the Chiefs showed the focus of a champion.

Los Angeles bumbled through a crushing 41-29 loss to the Houston Texans, who intercepted Justin Herbert twice and ran for 189 yards on 5.3 yards per carry. The defeat dropped head coach Brandon Staley’s club to 8-7, putting it out of the top seven AFC seeds and in position to hope for other teams to lose.

Back in Kansas City, the Chiefs hosted the Steelers and blasted them 36-10, pulling most of their starters after three quarters. Even without All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, Kansas City cut through Pittsburgh with ease, as Patrick Mahomes threw three touchdowns and the Chiefs staked themselves to a 23-0 lead at halftime. It was a master class in how to remain focused.

Additionally, Kansas City has now won six consecutive division titles, a feat accomplished by just five other teams in NFL history. In fact, only one team — the Patriots from 2003-07 and 09-19 — had done it in the salary cap era before these Chiefs.

At 11-4, Kansas City needs two more wins to be the AFC’s top seed. Next up: Cincinnati.

4. Cowboys continue to look dangerous, and not because of the offense

The Cowboys scored 42 points in the first half of their 56-14 blowout win over the Washington Football Team. Somehow, that wasn’t the most impressive outcome from the game.

Dallas intercepted Taylor Heinicke twice in the first 30 minutes, and returned one for a touchdown. The Football Team managed seven first downs and allowed three sacks, all while being down four scores as both teams went into the locker rooms.

Over their last five games, the Cowboys have been dominant defensively save for a bad showing on Thanksgiving against the Las Vegas Raiders. Dallas hasn’t allowed more than 20 points once, even holding the Chiefs to 19 points in a defeat. More incredibly, the Cowboys did that to Patrick. Mahomes and Co. without edge rushers Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence.

If Dallas can stay healthy these next few weeks, it has an elite pass rush, a shutdown corner in Trevon Diggs and an offense capable of scoring 30 points any week.

The Cowboys are absolutely capable of a Super Bowl run, led by their defense.

5. Dolphins have opportunity to make historic run

If the Miami Dolphins make the playoffs, no team has ever made a move like this.

After starting the campaign 1-7, the Dolphins have on six straight and with three more victories, would be 10-7 and a likely postseason participant. While we’ve seen incredible turnarounds before, this would be the all-timer in NFL history.

The craziest prior to Miami’s potential run? In 2015, the Chiefs began 1-5 before ripping off 10 straight wins, eventually beating the Texans in the Wild Card round before falling the following weekend. In 1970, the Bengals were 1-6 and won seven consecutive victories to go 8-6 and win the old AFC Central.

Regardless of how things play out, Miami and head coach Brian Flores deserve applause. Most teams would have quit and fractured along the way. It’s a sign of strong leadership and a commitment to winning.

Gambler’s game

Take the Los Angeles Chargers to beat the Denver Broncos, but not cover the spread of six points over at WynnBet. Los Angeles is better, but Denver head coach Vic Fangio gave the Chargers fits in their November matchup, and he’ll limit them enough here for a one-score game.

Two cents

Stop paying attention to mock drafts (except the one at FanSided).

We’re still four months away from someone being made the No. 1 overall pick, and we don’t know which team will make that selection. Of course, the Jacksonville Jaguars look good for it after losing to the New York Jets.

Going into January, there are a million variables: the Senior Bowl. The Scouting Combine. The in-person team interviews. The pro days. The leaked stories to tank stocks. Agents getting the right ears in the media and NFL buildings. So on and so forth.

Go look at a mock draft from this time last year. As an example, here’s one from FOX Sports, dated Dec. 28. It nails the first two picks, then whiffs on the next 30. Ten guys mocked here didn’t end up being first-round picks. Hell, Jaylen Twyman was a sixth-rounder, while Marvin Wilson, who McIntyre has going No. 22 overall to the Browns, wasn’t drafted. However, credit where it’s due, he signed with Cleveland as a UDFA.

The point isn’t to knock an outlet — everyone, including us, does them, because readers enjoy the content — but to make a broader point. They’re all shooting blind. Hell, if NFL general managers were asked to create one, it’d be about as accurate as the example above.

We’re too far out, and the testing, medicals and interviews haven’t been conducted. We have a long, long way to go.

Inside the league

A little light-hearted reminder of how teams get in trouble scouting quarterbacks.

A few weeks back, I was chatting with a personnel executive who relayed a story about former University of California quarterback Kyle Boller during his pre-draft process in 2003. During his pro day, Ravens head coach Brian Billick was intently watching, considering taking him with the 19th-overall pick but had reservations.

At the conclusion of the workout, Boller got on his knees and threw the ball 50 yards. Billick turned to an assistant coach and said “that’s why we’re going to take him.”

Boller proceeded to throw 48 touchdowns and 54 interceptions in his NFL career, washing out of Baltimore after 42 starts.

The lesson? Teams talk themselves into these guys so often for all the wrong reasons.

History lesson

Fifty-one years and one month ago, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik hit New York Giants halfback Frank Gifford so hard, the latter missed more than a year.

On Nov. 27, 1960, Philadelphia and New York met at Yankee Stadium for a key game. The Eagles were 7-1 and shocking the NFL world as a contender, while the Giants, fresh off two title game appearances, were 5-2-1.

In the second half amidst a Philadelphia comeback, Gifford caught a pass and turned upfield. Bednarik met him with incredible force, literally laying Gifford out as he fumbled. A few teammates believed Gifford was dead. The future Hall of Famer and Monday Night Football broadcaster was injured so badly, he missed the remainder of the 1960 season, retired for ’61 and returned in ’62 before playing three more seasons.

As for Bednarik, the last of the 60-minute men, he helped lead the Eagles to an improbable NFL championship, beating Vince Lombardi’s Packers at Franklin Field before retiring.

Parting shot

COVID is unfortunately playing a huge part in the end of this NFL season. It shouldn’t be a surprise.

And frankly, teams who have higher vaccination rates are benefitting, and rightfully so.

The league begged players to do the responsible thing and get vaccinated against COVID-19 either before or even during the season. More than 94 percent did so, in some cases creating a few teams with perfect marks in this regard. However, others lagged, and the result is now a competitive disadvantage.

With the new protocols in place, vaccinated players can return within a few days provided they’re asymptomatic and can test negatively once. Furthermore, players with said status aren’t being tested nearly as much. This could prove massive come the postseason, or even over the next two weeks.

One can argue the merit of vaccination, but the league is valuing and incentivizing the jab. And teams who have taken the initiative to get it are in better shape than those with stars who refuse.

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