NFL

NFL AM: Playoff Hopefuls Jockey for Position

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Seattle’s Offense Sends a Message

That the Seahawks won in Arizona on Sunday night, handing the Cardinals their first home loss of the season, was not especially surprising. The Cardinals entered as significant underdogs, forced to start a third-string quarterback and coping with several other key injuries as well. But the way the Seahawks won the game — rolling up nearly 600 yards of offense against one of the top defenses in the league — should have everyone scared about the prospect of facing the defending champions in the playoffs.

“That’s a lot of yards against a really tough group,” said Seattle coach Pete Carroll. “It happened with extraordinary execution by a lot of guys.”

Russell Wilson was a big-play factory all game long. He connected with seldom used tight end Luke Willson on a couple of huge plays, including touchdowns of 80 and 20 yards. Wilson put in work as a runner, as well, with 55 of his 88 rushing yards coming on a single scramble.

Marshawn Lynch got in on the act in the fourth quarter, too, ripping off a 79-yard touchdown run that was reminiscent of his “Beast Quake” run against the Saints in the 2010 playoffs.

“I’ve never seen a better run than Marshawn’s run,” Carroll said. “It reminded me of O.J. Simpson against Ohio State, cutting back and finishing and all that stuff. It was as good a run as I can ever remember seeing. It was so much fun to watch that.”

The Cardinals defense won more snaps than it lost. But Seattle made plays that were both timely and explosive, which is the mark of a championship offense. Given how well the defense is playing for the defending champions, they appear to be the most complete team heading into the tournament.

The Seahawks are a win away from locking up the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC. All they have to do is win at home next week against the Rams and they will earn a week of rest of the right to stay put the West Coast for the rest of the season. Beating St. Louis is no easy task; the Rams have bested some contenders already this season, including a win over Seattle in Week 7.

The Rams will need more than some gadget plays to sweep their division rivals from the Pacific Northwest. The good news for coach Jeff Fisher? The rest of the NFC is rooting for him.

Controlling Destiny

Everyone knows the cliché “control your down destiny” is logically impaired, as destiny if predetermined and therefore cannot be controlled. But with 17 games remaining (tonight’s Monday Night Football game in Cincinnati, plus a full docket in Week 17), there are four teams that have not yet clinched playoff spots yet control their ability to do so.

It starts in the NFC South, where the Falcons will host the Panthers in a game that will decide which sub-.500 team will host a playoff game. Both teams are clicking right now, with the Falcons winning in New Orleans on Sunday to eliminate the Saints and the Panthers taking care of business at home against the Browns to record their third consecutive victory.

If the Falcons win their division, they will have exploited the terrible NFC South even more than the AFC North has. Atlanta is 5-0 inside the division (including a 19-17 win over the Panthers in Week 11) and just 1-9 against the rest of the league. Interestingly enough, that one non-division win came against the Cardinals, which is who the Falcons will likely play should they sneak into the tournament.

“I was really proud of the way our football team came out and performed,” said Falcons coach Mike Smith. “They did an outstanding job.”

The Chargers also control their own path to the playoffs, thanks to a massive comeback in San Francisco and a Baltimore loss in Houston. That pair of flameouts by Harbaugh-led teams means if the Chargers win in Kansas City next week, they will make the tournament for a second consecutive season. If the Chargers lose, it opens to door for the Ravens to get back in, while potentially giving life to the Texans and Chiefs, as well.

The Bengals are also win-and-in at this point. Cincinnati will try to wrap things up tonight when it hosts the Broncos on Monday Night Football. The Bengals have been a disaster in prime time so far this season, losing to the Patriots 43-17 and to the Colts 27-0. This is a chance for Marvin Lewis’ team to show it can rise up under the bright lights, as the pressure will only mount with the playoffs imminent.

Regardless of what happens in the Bengals-Broncos game, the Bengals and Steelers will play for the AFC North title next week in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are already assured at least a wild-card spot, thanks to their win over the Chiefs on Sunday, while the Bengals could miss the postseason altogether if they lose their final two games.

Nothing Left to Play For?

You have to give this to the parity-driven NFL: no teams are mailing in the season, even those who have long been eliminated from playoff contention.

We already made mention of Houston’s win over the Ravens. All the Ravens had to do was win two games — against the Case Keenum-led Texans and the Johnny Manziel/Brian Hoyer-led Browns — and Baltimore would have been in the playoffs. But Houston bowed up and won at home.

“Nothing’s guaranteed, but at least our last game means something, and that’s important for this organization,” said Texans coach Bill O’Brien.

The Bills entered the week still alive in their quest to snap a 15-year playoff drought. But one week after upsetting the Packers, Buffalo fell in Oakland to give the Raiders their third win of the season. The Raiders do not have a lot going for them, but they have the one thing Buffalo lacks: a young, franchise quarterback.

The tone for upsets was actually set on Saturday, when the Redskins knocked off the Eagles in a game that resulted in Philadelphia officially being eliminated from playoff contention (combined with the Cowboys’ win over the Colts in Dallas).

More upsets are likely in store for Week 17, with nothing but divisional games on the docket and exactly half of the league still alive in the playoff chase.

Want to talk more about these and other headlines? Join Michael Lombardo for his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … ask your question now!


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.