Without a ton of marquee games on the Sunday slate, Week 12 still gave us enough to chew on along with the Thanksgiving leftovers. Now that the holiday has passed us by, it’s full sprint mode towards the postseason. There was plenty of jockeying in playoff seeding and there should be more to come in the ensuing weeks. Let’s take a look at a few things to come out of the past week in the NFL.
New Orleans’ secondary matters
In what was expected to be the game of the week -- the highest leveraged game between two top NFC contenders -- the New Orleans Saints lost a road game to the Los Angeles Rams 26-20. The loss for the Saints dropped them down to the No. 4 seed in the conference with an 8-3 record. Despite the loss, New Orleans was able to mostly hang with Los Angeles -- a late touchdown got the Saints within one score, but the onside kick failed -- without their top two cornerbacks.
Most of the attention in the New Orleans secondary has been focused on rookie Marshon Lattimore, which is deserved. Lattimore has immediately made an impact at a position where rookies do not often do so and the ones who do are typically special. Per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders, Lattimore ranks eighth among 66 qualified cornerbacks in yards allowed per pass and 28th in Success Rate. However, Lattimore’s teammate Ken Crawley -- a 2016 undrafted free agent -- has been even better by both statistics: sixth in yards allowed per pass and fourth in Success Rate. However, neither suited up against the Rams on Sunday.
Without the top two corners, New Orleans had De’Vante Harris -- another 2016 undrafted free agent -- covering Sammy Watkins for much of the day. Watkins had one of his best days as a Ram and beat Harris easily on a slant for a touchdown to cap Los Angeles’s opening drive.
This takes nothing away from the Rams, who are clearly a legitimately good balanced team, and there’s little gained by proclaiming any kind of moral victory, but the Saints looked like a team able to hang with one of the best teams in the conference on the road without two of their best defenders.
The head-to-head tiebreaker now puts the Rams over the Saints in playoff seeding, but there might not be as big of a need for New Orleans to play at home as it appeared before.
Kansas City is in trouble and the Chargers are … sigh … charging
2017 has been a crazy football season. The one constant in the beginning of the year, though, was the Kansas City Chiefs were good. Now we don’t even have that. After a 5-0 start, the Chiefs have fallen to 6-5 and are not the No. 4 seed in the AFC. Kansas City has completely fallen apart while losing five of their last six games -- including one to the Giants.
What was once a high powered offense filled with big plays, misdirection, and creativity now showcases little to none of that. Kansas City has struggled to run this ball over the second half of the season, between poor run blocking, a less dynamic Kareem Hunt, and just giving up on it all together. Against the Buffalo Bills -- a team that allowed nearly 300 yards on the ground to the Saints -- Hunt had 11 carries for 17 yards. Alex Smith was the team’s leading rusher five five carries for 35 yards.
After being among one of the league leaders in yards per attempt to start the season, Smith has thrown below 7.0 in three of his past four games and has been below 6.0 in each of the past two. This offensive futility also now comes at a time when the Los Angeles Chargers are hitting their stride.
The Chargers tore through the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving with Philip Rivers averaging 13.2 yards per attempt. Los Angeles is still just 5-6, but the team has been playing some of its best football over the past two weeks. Even the two previous games were a close loss to the New England Patriots and an overtime loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
ESPN’s Football Power Index projects both the Chiefs and Chargers to finish the season at 9-7, though it does give the Chiefs much better odds of winning the AFC West -- 72.5 percent to 23.5 percent. There’s a meeting between these two teams Week 15 in Kansas City that should mean much more to the playoff race than anyone would have guessed in Week 5. Outside of that, the schedules are close. The Chiefs have road games against the Jets and Broncos and home contests against the Raiders and Dolphins. Meanwhile the Chargers will host the Browns, Redskins and Raiders with a road game against the Jets in Week 16.
There’s no hole in Philadelphia
Carson Wentz gets most of the credit, but the Philadelphia Eagles are easily the best team in the NFL right now. It’s not just the 10-1 record, it’s been how they’ve been beating teams in route to that lately. One of the surest signs of a good team is not closely beating other good teams, rather the ability to blow out bad teams. Over the past four games, the Eagles have been the San Francisco 49ers 33-10, the Denver Broncos 51-23, the Cowboys 37-9, and the Chicago Bears 31-3 on Sunday. Philadelphia holds the league’s best point differential (160) by a significant margin, 37 points over the Rams.
Right now it doesn’t look like there’s a clear weakness on this Eagles team. That doesn’t mean they’re unbeatable, but there’s no obvious place for opponents to attack. Through Week 11, the Eagles were first overall in Football Outsiders’ DVOA -- third on offense, fourth on defense, and 11th on special teams. That’s about as balanced as a great team can get.
Though even with the Eagles rolling, they’ll face their toughest two-week stretch coming up, on the road against the Seahawks and Rams. Philadelphia is already favored by four points in Seattle. Even a hiccup in those two road games would be unlikely to lose the Eagles a first-round bye. They have a one-game advantage over the Minnesota Vikings and two games over the Rams, Saints, and Carolina Panthers.
Live by the run, die by the Bortles
The Jacksonville Jaguars have been one of the most fun stories of 2017: a team built on a fun defense comprised of young players and premium free agents carrying an offense centered around a rookie running back. When it’s good, it was great. There were points in the season when Jacksonville has the league leader in point differential. Even now they’re second in the AFC, just four points behind the Patriots.
But when that formula doesn’t go exactly as planned, the Jaguars are in trouble. That’s what happened in the 27-24 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. Jacksonville trailed for most of the game and had to come back from deficits of 13-0, 16-3, and 24-17. The Jaguars were able to do that, but never come back enough to take a comfortable lead. The only lead Jacksonville had in the game was at 17-16 after former Cardinal Calais Campbell recovered a fumble forced by Yannick Ngakoue for a 10-yard return touchdown. That lead only lasted until the next drive.
Arizona kept the Jacksonville ground game in check -- Leonard Fournette rushed just 12 times for 25 yards. Blake Bortles carried the load with six rushes for 62 yards and two touchdowns, but throwing the ball was a different beast. Bortles averaged 4.8 yards per attempt and threw an interception on Jacksonville’s second-to-last drive of the game.
With the loss, the Jags are now a wild card team after a looking like clear contender when the run game/defense plan is working. At 7-4, Jacksonville loses a tiebreaker to the Tennessee Titans for the AFC South lead because of a head-to-head loss in Week 2. The two teams don’t play again until Week 17. The Jaguars still have a 97.4 percent chance of making the playoff per ESPN’s FPI, but there’s a big difference for this team hosting a game on wild card weekend and having to hit the road likely against the AFC West winner.