The 2021 NFL regular season is over. With 14 teams remaining, we look at the playoffs and decide which teams are in the best position.
After one of the wildest NFL Sunday’s in memory, it’s all over.
Fourteen teams continue in their quest for the Lombardi Trophy. Eighteen more have gone home, including some painful trips in some instances including the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers (more on those two below).
What’s left is seven teams in each conference, with six matchups on Wild Card weekend. Of the 12 head coaches in action, four have won Super Bowls and two others have reached them. In total, eight of the dozen have at least coached a conference title game, while the other four are coaching in their first playoff games, with two — Zac Taylor and Rich Basaccia — facing off.
Let’s break down the games in order of the schedule, starting in Cincinnati.
(5) Las Vegas Raiders at (4) Cincinnati Bengals – Sat., 4:30 p.m. ET
The Bengals have the longest current draught without a playoff win, dating back to 1990. The Raiders haven’t tasted postseason victory since 2002. We get quarterbacks and coaches who have never been in this spot. Expect the unexpected.
Watch the line play, particularly whether the Raiders can get pressure with Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue on Joe Burrow. If they can, perhaps Burrow makes a mistake or two and gives Las Vegas an opportunity for an upset. Should the Bengals hold up against the dynamic duo, though, Cincinnati figures to enjoy it’s specialty; long touchdowns.
(6) New England Patriots at (3) Buffalo Bills – Sat., 8:15 p.m. ET
The Bills and Patriots split their season series with each winning at the other team’s barn. Buffalo’s offense has struggled offensively in bad weather this year, and the early forecast calls for 18 degrees and a 50 percent chance of snow. New England is praying for a system which limits quarterback Josh Allen’s effectiveness.
Also, the other x-factor is whether Patriots coach Bill Belichick comes up with a new wrinkle. This is his third crack at stifling Buffalo, which has become one-dimensional outside of Allen’s scrambles. Don’t be surprised if Belichick devises a scheme hellbent on keeping him inside the pocket, forcing him to throw into the elements.
(7) Philadelphia Eagles at (2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Sun., 1 p.m. ET
Of all the NFC games, this is the mismatch. The Eagles haven’t beaten a team all year with a winning record, and the Buccaneers are defending champions with Tom Brady at the helm. In no game this weekend is there a bigger disparity in experience at head coach and quarterback, nor between win totals.
If the Eagles are to stay in this one, it’ll be on Philadelphia’s rookie head coach Nick Sirianni to be creative in his passing game. Sirianni loves to run the ball, but against Tampa Bay, that’ll make for a quick exit in blowout fashion.
(6) San Francisco 49ers at (3) Dallas Cowboys – Sun., 4:30 p.m. ET
This is the best game of the weekend. First off, fans of older generations — be it the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s will be nostalgic about this one. And it’s on CBS, which is awesome. The Niners are dangerous after rallying from a 17-point deficit to beat the Rams, while the Cowboys are division champs and loaded with skill players.
If San Francisco can run the ball effectively, it makes the offensive line’s job much easier against Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. It’s the key for the 49ers, who have a very good chance of pulling the upset and going to Lambeau.
(7) Pittsburgh Steelers at (2) Kansas City Chiefs – Sun., 8:15 p.m. ET
And … this is the biggest mismatch of the weekend. The Steelers hit on the river and got into the playoffs thanks to a litany of good fortune in Week 18. They have a -55 point differential on the year, though, and Ben Roethlisberger has struggled mightily all year. For Pittsburgh, this is a great run, but now it comes to Arrowhead Stadium, where it lost 36-10 in Week 16.
For the Chiefs to lose, they’d need to commit a slew of turnovers and penalties. Anything resembling a clean game and Kansas City should advance. The oddsmakers see a landslide, with the Chiefs laying a whopping 13 points in the affair.
(5) Arizona Cardinals at (4) Los Angeles Rams – Mon., 8:15 p.m. ET
We get a Monday night game for the first time in ages (it’s happened before) as the Rams and Cardinals square off. Like the Bills and Patriots, these teams split their two games and each won on the road. Arizona could be getting receiver DeAndre Hopkins and edge rusher J.J. Watt back, giving them energy heading into the game.
Perhaps more than any other contest this weekend, this is about which quarterback plays better. Both Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford are capable of winning the game with a show-stopping performance, or making a few mistakes that cost their teams dearly. Who makes the big play, or the crushing mistake?
Alright, it’s time for the playoffs. Let’s do it.
Top 10 non-QBs who can win game for their team in the postseason
1. Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
2. Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers
3. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
4. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
5. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
6. Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams
7. Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
8. Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
9. T.J. Watt, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers
10. Micah Parsons, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys
“You’re tired of looking for help. Always looking for help when we can’t help ourselves. We go into a game, this team [Jacksonville] is 2-14, not taking anything away from them, but how do we expect to win or want to get in if we can’t even beat the team we were supposed to beat.”
– Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard on his team’s stunning 26-11 defeat
More on this game below, but as far as regular-season games go, this is one of the worst losses in league history. Just a mind-boggling defeat.
The New York Jets and New York Giants are both slated to pick in the top six of the NFL Draft for the fifth time since 1980.
This is the third occasion in the last five drafts.
Info learned this week
1. Colts suffer an all-time loss; what to do with Wentz, offseason?
Plenty of teams have lost in the regular season’s final week to miss the playoffs. Not many have done so against a two-win team with fans dressing like clowns in the stands as an attempt to mimic their franchise.
On Sunday, Indianapolis lost 26-11 in a shocking blowout to a Jacksonville Jaguars team which will be picking first-overall for the second time in as many years. The Colts, who some believed was a Super Bowl sleeper, lost at home in Week 17 to the Raiders before getting pummeled by the league’s worst team in a win-and-in situation.
Predictably — and understandably — Colts fans are irate. Fire Frank Reich. Replace Carson Wentz. All of it. While Reich isn’t going anywhere after signing a five-year extension earlier this year, Wentz is a more interesting case. The quarterback has three years remaining on his deal but would represent a $13.3 million cap savings while eating $15 million if cut in 2022. In ’23 and ’24, Indy would save a total of $53 million with no dead money.
So what does general manager Chris Ballard do? Without the first-round pick he traded for Wentz, Ballard has no chance of trading for or drafting a replacement. In free agency, there isn’t going to be a better option than Wentz, limitations and all.
However, Indianapolis has more than $53 million in cap space this winter. Ballard, who has eschewed big spending in past offseasons, can’t be frugal again. Not after this collapse. The Colts only have Michael Pittman Jr. with more than 500 receiving yards. They don’t have a consistent pass rush save for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. Ballard should be aggressively pursuing ways to remedy those problems.
No team exits its season with a worse feeling than the Colts. Expect Reich and Wentz to return, but also expect Ballard to spend some cash around them.
2. Brandon Staley’s decisions will be debated after crushing overtime loss
One kick, three teams. The Chargers ended up holding the proverbial bag.
In a wild, instant classic, the Raiders won 35-32 as the final seconds of overtime expired, sending both they and the Steelers to the postseason while Los Angeles went home. As the world knows, a tie would have put Las Vegas and the Chargers into the playoffs, with Pittsburgh home watching.
Instead, Los Angeles went home, and head coach Brandon Staley will be reminded of it for awhile.
Staley had two critical calls on the night, both arguably dubious. The first, 4th and 1 from his own 16-yard line trailing 17-14 midway through the third quarter. Instead of punting, Staley called a dive into the line. It went for no gain, and although the Chargers defense held, the Raiders tacked on an easy three points.
The second was Staley’s timeout with 38 seconds remaining in overtime. With the Chargers gassed after almost 70 minutes of action, it’s reasonable to stop the game and get a breather. Did that alter how the Raiders played things out? Impossible to know, but it stopped the clock and also gave the Raiders a chance to regroup as well.
In the first case, the decision-making lacks logic. While the analytics would argue the Chargers were wise to gamble on 4th and short, basic game theory says otherwise. It was far too early and far too reckless. Los Angeles was playing well defensively sans its penalties. Punt and play it out. Instead, Las Vegas got cheap points. Without them, perhaps Justin Herbert’s game-tying touchdown to Mike Williams on the final play of regulation would have won the affair.
While this space doesn’t have an issue with the overtime timeout — it likely had little impact — the Chargers should have won the game. They took a legion of penalties, turned the ball over twice and dropped ample throws.
Ultimately, Los Angeles lost because it wasn’t good enough, coach included.
3. Joe Judge should be fired for decision against Washington
Two consecutive decisions says everything about the Giants under head coach Joe Judge.
Trailing 3-0 in the second quarter at home against the Washington Football Team, New York faced 2nd and 11 at its own 2-yard line. The Giants called a quarterback sneak, gaining two yards. Then, 3rd and 9. New York quarterback Jake Fromm lined up behind a power set, took the snap … and snuck forward again.
The crowd booed lustily, and the Giants punted.
Look, the Giants know Fromm can’t play. They’re trying to avoid a turnover. But Judge needs to read the room, and keep his room together. New York was 4-12 entering Sunday and essentially turtled. The Giants had four consecutive three-and-outs to end the first half and only had two drives of 50+ yards all afternoon.
Judge has seen his program slid backwards into chaos. Any incoming general manager would be insane to accept the job with marching orders of keeping Judge and quarterback Daniel Jones in place.
Owner John Mara needs to make a statement and let his fanbase know this nonsense is unacceptable. If he doesn’t, that’s a statement in itself.
4. Coaching vacancies all have differing levels of intrigue
So far, there are three coaching jobs available. More will be coming.
While the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings haven’t fired Matt Nagy and Mike Zimmer respectively, one imagines that’ll come soon. Others could come — such as Judge — but let’s roll with the Denver Broncos, Jaguars, Raiders, Vikings and Bears as the openings.
Here’s how I’d rank them in terms of attractiveness for candidates:
1. Las Vegas*
*Rich Basaccia should keep the job, but we’re including the Raiders because he’s an interim
The Raiders take the top spot for a few reasons. They play in a desirable location for free agents, Nevada has no state income tax and Derek Carr is a top 10-12 quarterback who can win games but isn’t signed to an outlandish deal.
Behind them, Chicago. The Bears have a talented, young quarterback in Justin Fields, a city who will build a statue for a winner (ask Mike Ditka) and a ton of cap space in 2022. However, if Chicago retains general manager Ryan Pace, the job goes down a peg.
In Denver, another great football city but a horrid quarterback situation and uncertainty regarding ownership. The Broncos, though, have the best roster of these teams around the signal-caller, but that means little without a clear answer at the sport’s most important position.
As for Minnesota and Jacksonville, they have issues. The Vikings are locked into an absurd cap situation typified by Kirk Cousins’ $45 million salary. In Duval, the Jaguars might have their franchise quarterback in Trevor Lawrence but ownership hasn’t proven to be wise or committed to Jacksonville, and general manager Trent Baalke isn’t a positive in the eyes of many. Tough sell.
5. Mike Tomlin deserves COTY votes with Steelers in playoffs
A quick note on Tomlin, who might have done his best coaching job this year.
Pittsburgh has no clear identity, struggling on both sides of the ball. Ben Roethlisberger has been a bottom-tier starter this season, the offensive line is rebuilding and the defense has issues against the run without a quality linebacking corps. Yet Pittsburgh is 9-7-1 and in the postseason, even with a tough schedule including the AFC West and a competitive division.
Tomlin has famously never had a losing season, speaking to his consistency. He’s also won a Super Bowl and reached two, all while notching seven AFC North titles. Yet Tomlin has never been NFL Coach of the Year, and in a campaign where there isn’t a clear choice, he should get ample love.
Bet everything in your possession on the Bucs’ while the spread stays below 10 points at WynnBet.
You can play the spread as well, but the way to beat Tampa Bay is throwing, and the Eagles want to pound the ball. Also, Jalen Hurts is a promising quarterback, but beating Tom Brady in a playoff game in his building seems highly unlikely.
The Baltimore Ravens have a fascinating offseason ahead.
After finishing their disappointing and injury-wrecked 2021 campaign with an overtime loss to the Steelers, Baltimore heads into uncertainty.
The Ravens have a projected $20 million in cap space but have a litany of free agents including defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams, corner Jimmy Smith, edge rusher Justin Houston, fullback Patrick Ricard and others. While all are veterans who could be allowed to walk in the pursuit of a younger roster, general manager Eric DeCosta must be confident he can find replacement who can play both now and later.
Additionally, what of quarterback Lamar Jackson? Jackson appeared on track for a mega extension early in the season before he and the Ravens fell off. Baltimore went from 7-2 to missing the playoffs, while Jackson was sidelined the final month of the season with a bum ankle. When he did play, the former MVP threw eight interceptions and 10 interceptions over his final seven games, never eclipsing 270 passing yards.
For DeCosta, the choice of whether to extend Jackson or play out the fifth-year option is tricky. If the Ravens opt for the former, they have to fully believe Jackson can elevate a reshuffled roster to championship-level heights. If they opt for the latter, they’re telling the face of their franchise they don’t totally believe in him. Dangerous game.
Ultimately, smart money says Baltimore pays Jackson in excess of $40 million per year. He’s proven electrifying and largely durable despite the past month. But the Ravens are gambling, because if Jackson’s passing acumen doesn’t continually improve, Baltimore could be stuck with a good team that keeps stalling in January.
Inside the league
Last week, University of North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell officially declared for the NFL Draft. At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, Howell is a bit undersized but had a prolific career for the Tar Heels, throwing for 92 touchdowns against 23 interceptions.
In a draft without a clear-cut first-round quarterback, Howell is a name to watch. He should be considered a borderline top-50 prospect with a chance to climb if he performs well at the Scouting Combine and Pro Day.
Since 1941, there have only been three teams to use the No. 1 overall picks in consecutive drafts. The 1986 and ’87 Buccaneers did so, along with the ’99 and 2000 Cleveland Browns, and Cleveland again in ’17-’18.
Provided the Jaguars don’t trade their selection, they’ll become the fourth team on this dubious list.
We’ll get to free agency and the draft in due time, but the first milestone of the offseason could well be a Deshaun Watson trade.
According to an NFL Network report, the Houston Texans want to agree in principle on a trade for Watson before March 16, when the new league year begins. Their disgruntled quarterback was the subject of myriad rumors throughout the spring before 22 civil suits alleging sexual misconduct — which remain in place — are brought against him.
Should Watson’s legal situation clear up, the Miami Dolphins remain the heavy favorite. The Dolphins have three first-round picks over the next two years and Watson, who has a no-trade clause, would reportedly waive it to play on South Beach. The only teams with more draft capital are the Giants and Eagles, but would Watson go there, and would Philadelphia go that route even if he did?
In an offseason where quality quarterbacks aren’t populating the draft, any veteran star is going to fetch a massive price. One the Dolphins could very well pay.