Wild and crazy season ends with lots of playoff uncertainty
By Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer
In a wild and crazy season, the biggest remaining tumult is in the AFC South.
Houston leads and takes the division title by beating struggling Jacksonville. A Texans loss, however, gives the winner of the prime-time game between the Colts and Titans in Nashville the crown, dropping Houston into a wild card.
“When you start off 0-3 and you’re sitting here at 10-5 with a chance to win the division on Sunday you’ve done a lot of good things over the course of those games since we were 0-3,” star defensive end J.J. Watt says. “But we have to make sure that we do what we need to do to make sure that doesn’t all go to waste.”
There are two other AFC division crowns to settle, in the North and West, but at least the Chiefs and Chargers already are into the postseason. So while avoiding having to suit up next weekend — and the likelihood of having the conference’s best record — becomes paramount, Kansas City and Los Angeles both have a comfort zone.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh do not. If the Ravens win at home over Cleveland, they take the North. If they lose and the Steelers defeat spiraling Cincinnati, Pittsburgh advances.
The winner of the night game in Music City will, well, be making sweet music as a playoff qualifier.
“We’re just blessed to be in this position to be playing for a playoff game, so that’s all the motivation that guys need,” Titans safety Kevin Byard says. “They’ll be motivated, we’ll be motivated. It’ll be a fun game.”
Jacksonville (5-10) at Houston (10-5)
Watt needs one-half sack to join Reggie White as the only players since 1982 with four or more seasons with 15 or more sacks. Watt has 4½ sacks and has forced three fumbles in the past four division games.
On offense, Deshaun Watson had two touchdown passes and ran for two more scores last week in a loss at Philadelphia. He has nine touchdown passes and no interceptions in his past four home games.
Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, who was benched after a loss to Buffalo on Nov. 25, will start, perhaps for the last time for Jacksonville. Bortles has 13 TD passes and 10 interceptions this season.
Indianapolis (9-6) at Tennessee (9-6)
Advantage Andrew Luck in this rivalry: he is 10-0 in his career starts vs. the Titans. He could become the only player since 1970 with an 11-0 mark against one team.
Colts K Adam Vinatieri can break a tie with Jeff Feagles (352) for third-most games played in league history and can join George Blanda, Morten Andersen and John Carney as the only players to appear in a game at age 46.
Titans QB Marcus Mariota is recovering from a stinger that knocked him out of the last game against Washington. Backup Blaine Gabbert has started twice and come off the bench in three other games this season for Mariota and fared relatively well.
But Tennessee’s route to the playoffs likely is Derrick Henry toting the ball. Nobody has more yards rushing or TDs in December than Henry, who has 532 yards rushing and eight TD runs.
Cincinnati (6-9) at Pittsburgh (8-6-1)
Pittsburgh has won 10 of the past 11 meetings with Bengals, while the Bengals are 8-25 vs. the Steelers under coach Marvin Lewis. But last year, the Bengals won at Baltimore 31-27 in the final game, knocking the Ravens out of contention and giving a playoff berth to Buffalo. Of course, those Bengals were a lot more healthy than this injury-wrecked group.
Pittsburgh is hopeful Pro Bowl running back James Conner returns after a three-game absence (sprained left ankle).
“It’s out of our control,” says guard David DeCastro. “You’re going to feel a lot worse than you do now if you were to go out there and see Baltimore lose and us lose, too. It’s definitely deflating, it’s been a long season. We’ve put forth a lot of effort.”
Cleveland (7-7-1) at Baltimore (9-6)
Cleveland certainly has lots of incentive, including a winning record after going 0-16 in 2017, and making an emphatic statement about the work of interim coach Gregg Williams.
That doesn’t likely trump the motivation of making the playoffs, especially in a season with no overwhelming favorites. The Ravens are 9-1 against Cleveland at home under John Harbaugh, who took over in 2008. Ravens QB Lamar Jackson is 5-1 in his first six career starts, tied for third-best start in NFL history. RB Gus Edwards leads Baltimore with 642 yards rushing, with Jackson second at 605. Both are rookies.
Philadelphia (8-7) at Washington (7-8)
With last year’s hero, Nick Foles, taking over once more for an injured Carson Wentz, the Eagles have made a late playoffs push. They win here and Minnesota fails and the Eagles get a chance to defend their crown.
Foles threw for a franchise-record 471 yards last week vs. Houston. He’s the only QB in franchise history with multiple 400-yard passing games and has averaged 279.5 yards passing in his past four starts vs. the Redskins.
Chicago (11-4) at Minnesota (8-6-1)
A huge challenge for the Vikings, because a loss could ruin their season one year after making the NFC title game. But the Bears have lost six straight games in Minnesota and doing so again likely sends the Vikings to Soldier Field the following week.
Matt Nagy is the first Bears coach with a winning record in a debut season since Paddy Driscoll went 9-2-1 in 1956, when George Halas took a two-year hiatus.
Oakland (4-11) at Kansas City (11-4)
The Chiefs can clinch the AFC West and No. 1 seed in the playoffs with a win and they have handled Oakland in seven of the past eight meetings. But a loss and Chargers win drops Kansas City to fifth seed.
KC’s top-ranked offense could be challenged a bit by a Raiders D that has not allowed an opposing QB to throw for 300 yards in nine straight weeks. Raiders QB Derek Carr has an NFL-best streak of 325 passes without an interception.
Los Angeles Chargers (11-4) at Denver (6-9)
LA has in large part made its rush to the playoffs away from its temporary California home: The Chargers have won five straight on the road, tied for the franchise’s longest since the merger. Although QB Philip Rivers is 12-15 vs. Denver, including the playoffs, he’s having a special season.
San Francisco (4-11) at Los Angeles Rams (12-3)
A win or tie gives LA a wild-card round bye. But the Rams haven’t been as dynamic with the ball recently, and star running back Todd Gurley is battling knee issues, though C.J. Anderson filled in well last week against Arizona. DT Aaron Donald leads the NFL with 19½ sacks, and is in striking distance of Michael Strahan’s record of 22½. Donald had four sacks in the Rams’ first meeting with the Niners.
Carolina (6-9) at New Orleans (13-2)
With nothing to accomplish as a guaranteed top NFC seed, the Saints could rest people. Drew Brees leads the NFL in completion rate at 74.4 percent (364 of 489), putting him in position to break his own single-season record of 72 percent, set in 2017. New Orleans never has won 14 games in a season, though such an achievement might not be high priority.
Carolina goes with rookie quarterback Kyle Allen for his first career start. He completed all four pass attempts last week after starter Taylor Heinicke left with an injury. No. 1 QB Cam Newton was shut down after 14 games.
New York Jets (4-11) at New England (10-5)
A victory would clinch New England’s 13th first-round bye in the AFC playoffs since 2001. The Patriots would also earn a first-round bye with losses by Baltimore, Houston and Tennessee. New England also can clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win and losses by Kansas City and the Los Angeles Chargers. New England has won five in a row over Jets, who have been feisty the past few weeks as rookie quarterback Sam Darnold improves.
New England is the only team without a loss at home (7-0) and is looking to complete an undefeated home regular season for the seventh time since 2002. A win would be the Patriots’ 500th in the regular season and extend the team’s NFL record to nine straight years with at least 11 victories.
Arizona (3-12) at Seattle (9-6)
The Seahawks’ superb retooling has landed it an NFC wild card. Coach Pete Carroll signed a contract extension through 2021 season this week.
Russell Wilson is the first QB with a winning record in each of his first seven seasons in the NFL, but this year much of it has been built on the league’s top rushing game, protecting the ball — a plus-14 turnover differential — and solid defense.
A Cardinals loss would lock in the No. 1 pick in next April’s draft.
Dallas (9-6) at New York Giants (5-10)
Good chance for the Cowboys to get folks healthy as they are locked into the fourth seed and will host a wild-card game next week. Dallas won six of its past seven overall and has won three straight against the Giants. Ezekiel Elliott leads the NFL with 1,434 yards rushing and has 2,001 yards from scrimmage. He’s looking for a ninth straight game with 100 yards from scrimmage, but how much action will he see?
Giants RB Saquon Barkley ranks third in rushing (1,198 yards) and yards from scrimmage (1,886). He needs 114 yards from scrimmage to join Eric Dickerson (2,212 yards in 1983) and Edgerrin James (2,139 in 1999) as the only rookies with at least 2,000 scrimmage yards in NFL history.
Miami (7-8) at Buffalo (5-10)
A December road game in Orchard Park never is enviable and the Dolphins have lost five of the past six games there. This could be QB Ryan Tannehill’s final game as Miami’s quarterback given his inconsistency and frequent injuries.
Bills RB LeSean McCoy’s 488 yards rushing are 149 shy of his career low set in his rookie season with the 2009 Eagles.
Atlanta (6-9) at Tampa Bay (5-10)
The Falcons have won four straight in this NFC South rivalry that has little meaning Sunday.
Falcons WR Julio Jones leads the NFL with 1,539 receiving yards and has 104 catches.
Bucs WR Mike Evans averages a league-leading 17.7 yards per catch (minimum 50 receptions) and ranks third in the NFL with 1,418 receiving yards.
Detroit (5-10) at Green Bay (6-8-1)
Two of the NFL’s most disappointing teams play out the string. Detroit is trying to win consecutive games at Lambeau Field for the first time since 1990-91.
Packers WR Davante Adams has 111 catches, two shy of breaking Sterling Sharpe’s single-season franchise record (112 in 1993). Adams needs 134 yards to break former teammate Jordy Nelson’s single-season yardage record of 1,519 in 2014.
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