NFC East comes down to final week
The NFC East, they are who we thought they were.
For the third time since the NFL playoffs were reformatted in 2002, a losing team will be heading to the postseason. Going into the final week, the NFC East is still up for grabs, with only Philadelphia out of contention.
In contention are Washington and Dallas, both 6-9, and the 5-10 New York Giants.
Washington, which plays the Eagles in a finale, faces a win-and-you’re-in situation. But if Washington loses, the winner of the Cowboys-Giants game advances.
Whereas the Cowboys have won three in a row, the Giants have dropped three straight. Washington followed a four-game winning streak with back-to-back losses. Basically, the division is a mush pot of mediocrity.
The 7-9 Seattle Seahawks made history in 2010 as the first sub-.500 team to reach the postseason. It was Pete Carroll’s first season as coach, and his team knocked off defending champion New Orleans in the first round with the “Beast Quake” game, when the crowd reaction from Marshawn Lynch’s rollicking touchdown run jiggled the seismic needles.
And in 2014, the Carolina Panthers won the NFC South at 7-8-1. They too exceeded expectations by beating 11-5 Arizona in a first-round game, and holding the Cardinals to 78 yards.
The Cowboys were 3-9 earlier this month but beat Cincinnati, San Francisco and Philadelphia in succession to maintain a faint postseason pulse.
Put bluntly by Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott after a 37-17 rout of the Eagles: “If you gave up five, six weeks ago, we wouldn’t even want you on our side.”
Less reliable of late are the Los Angeles Rams, who lost to Seattle for their first back-to-back defeats of the season. Like a pass slipping through their fingertips in slow motion, the Rams cannot seem to secure a spot in the playoffs, blowing their opportunity to do so first against the winless New York Jets and then against the Seahawks.
Both defeats followed a troubling pattern. When the Rams are clicking, they make it look easy. But when met with resistance, or playing from behind, they look lost. That doesn’t bode well for a postseason run, should they get there.
They have a final chance. If the Rams beat Arizona at SoFi Stadium on Sunday - and they have never lost to the Cardinals under Sean McVay - they will get in as either the fifth or sixth seed. Then again, the Rams have lost back-to-back games for the first time all season, so there’s no banking on anything.
The most likely scenarios, should the Rams advance, would have them playing first-round games at Green Bay, Seattle, or the NFC East champion.
In beating the Rams, the Seahawks claimed their first NFC West title since 2016 and fifth in the Carroll era.
“Cherish these moments,” said linebacker K.J. Wright, Seattle’s longest-tenured player. “It’s been a while since we’ve been NFC West champs. And this team, especially our brotherhood, our togetherness, brought us to this moment.”
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers understand. They pounded Detroit on Saturday, 47-7, to clinch their first playoff berth since 2007.
Chicago, which at one point lost six in a row, can secure the NFC’s seventh playoff spot with a victory over Green Bay in its finale, or by Arizona losing to the Rams.
With a seventh playoff team added this season, only the No. 1 seed gets a first-round bye. That’s still up for grabs in the NFC among Green Bay, New Orleans and Seattle.
In the AFC, Kansas City locked up the No. 1 seed with a 17-14 victory over Atlanta. It’s the second time in three years the Chiefs have been the top seed.
Pittsburgh overcame a 17-point deficit to Indianapolis to beat the Colts, 28-24, and win the AFC North for the first time since 2017.
The victory halted a three-game losing slide for the Steelers, who won their first 11 games of the season.
“It’s a fine line between drinking wine and squashing grapes and sometimes it was very subtle,” said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, who sensed his players were close to turning it around.
With Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Buffalo having won their divisions, and Tennessee strongly favored to do so, the intrigue in the AFC comes down to four teams - Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland and Indianapolis - jockeying for the three remaining playoff spots. As they stand, the Colts are not in the playoffs. However, if the Colts beat Jacksonville and any of those three teams lose, Indianapolis qualifies.