Way back in week seven, Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports declared ‘Separation Sunday’, the day the teams likely to be playing meaningful January football emerge from the pack while the pretenders fall by the wayside. Given that he raved about the Cowboys, you can see he probably jumped the gun a little with his prediction.
This week, however, there’s a real chance we can see a significant shift in the playoff picture.
By the time you read this, Atlanta’s playoff hopes could well be dashed or they might be right back in the mix with victory over the Saints on Thursday Night Football.
The Panthers and Vikings go head-to-head in a game that could have a massive impact on the seedings in the NFC — as will the Eagles v Rams — while the Packers need a win over the Browns to give themselves any chance of reaching the postseason (especially with the expected return of Aaron Rodger next week).
Tennessee need to keep winning to stay on pace with the Jags but face a tricky trip to Arizona in a game they could slip up in, but — as I’ll discuss later — Jacksonville have no easy task themselves hosting Seattle.
And with three teams tied atop the AFC West, week 14 could prove crucial in the outcome as the Chargers host Washington while the Raiders and Chiefs face off against each other.
Oakland Raiders (6-6) @ Kansas City Chiefs (6-6) – Sunday, 6 pm
Remember when the Chiefs were undefeated and everyone’s Super Bowl favourites? Remember when Alex Smith was odds-on to be named the league’s MVP? It seems like a different season, doesn’t it? And much of their fall — which has seen Andy Reid’s side drop five of their last six — can be traced back to their loss to Oakland after time expired on Thursday Night Football in the aforementioned week seven.
With much of the focus on their struggling offense, Reid reportedly handed play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy last week against the Jets and it looked to have worked as they raced into a 14-0 lead. However, the Kansas City defense gave up 38 points to New York — their highest points total of the year in a devastating loss that puts the Chiefs level at the top of the AFC West with the Chargers and Raiders.
Oakland’s win over the blue half of New York last weekend wasn’t always pretty. But, without both Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, the Raiders conservative game plan gave Marshawn Lynch his first 100 yard game for his new team. While Crabtree will be back for the trip to Kansas City, Cooper’s status is still unclear.
They say in football it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish and Oakland are certainly showing signs of life on defense since the sacking of Ken Norton Jr after week 11.
The Raiders defense started last week by forcing the Giants into three three-and-outs; they had failed to do that once in their previous 11 games. Additionally, they’ve had eight sacks in their past two games after registering just four in the previous four. And they’ve conceded just 31 points combined in their last two wins, having given up 30 or more points in five of their opening 10 games.
The Chiefs have won seven of the last 10 meetings between these two sides which goes some way towards explaining how they are four-point favourites in this game. However, after losing four on the skid earlier this year, Oakland is actually 4-2 over their last six — with one loss coming to the Pats — so I’ll be taking the Silver and Black. I’ll also be taking the under (47) as this game kicks off at 10 am for the Raiders and noon for the Chiefs.
Seattle Seahawks (8-4) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (8-4) – Sunday, 9.25pm
Sunday night (GMT) brings us the clash of a team who are only in the playoff race because of their quarterback, Seattle, and one that are almost certain to make the postseason despite their quarterback, Jacksonville. Sure, the Seahawks defense came up big against the Eagles in a 24-10 win last week, while Blake Bortles showed flashes of competency in a 20-point win over the Colts, but those performances need context.
Philly put up 425 yards on Seattle, the second most allowed by Pete Carroll’s side this season despite Philadelphia’s offensive line allowing 27 quarterback pressures in the loss — eight more than any NFL team allowed in week 13 — with left guard Stefen Wisniewski and left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai conspiring to give up 21 between them.
On offense, the Seahawks only made it past midfield four times on nine full drives but converted that quartet of chances into three touchdowns and a field goal as they stayed in the race for the NFC West.
For Jacksonville, a team so often reliant on their run game and elite defense this season, Bortles completed 26 of 35 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, making it one of the best games of his four-year career. However, it’s a performance that came against a Colts defense devastated by injuries and ranked 29th against the pass by Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. There will still be many NFL punters chomping at the bit to bet against the former University of Central Florida quarterback come the postseason.
Another slight worry on offense for Jacksonville must be Leonard Fournette. Though he is still averaging 4.0 yards per carry for the season, in three of his last four outings he has failed to break three yards per carry. If the Jags do hope to go deep into the playoffs, they’ll likely have to travel to Pittsburgh or (maybe even and) New England.
In cold January games, you need a run game and the rookie will need to have the kind of performance he put on against the Steelers — 181 yards and two touchdowns — he did in early October.
This is a really interesting game and even though I think Jacksonville will get a win, I’m taking Seattle (+3) as I think it will be that close. Even at 39.5, there’s still a really good chance this game goes under the points total too.
Philadelphia Eagles (10-2) @ LA Rams (9-3) – Sunday, 9.25pm
Well, well, well. After it looking like a procession to the number one seed in the NFC for the Eagles for much of the season, we now have a proper race and two of the four contenders (the others being the Vikings and Saints) meet in what should be a brilliant game on Sunday with Philadelphia particularly keen to bounce back from a week 12 loss.
I’ve already mentioned how they can take heart from the yardage they put up on Seattle last week, and they also had an advantage in time of possession. But, time and again, they came up short when it came to putting points on the board.
But you have to ask yourself, how often is Carson Wentz likely to fumble the ball just inches from the end zone? Between that and the non-call on the illegal Wilson lateral for a first down that ultimately sealed the game for the Seahawks, the Eagles, despite the loss, have lots to feel good about still.
The Rams and Eagles are tied at the top of the NFL rankings in terms of scoring (31.1 points per game), over the course of the season, but LA is only ranked 17th (21.7) by the same metric over the past three weeks.
Indeed, much of last week’s 32-16 win can be credited not to offense or defense, but to a special teams unit that might be the best in the league.
Greg Zuerlein kicked four of four field goals, including a 56-yarder, while the unit also blocked both an Arizona field goal and extra point attempt.
This is leg three of a four-game playoff caliber stretch for the Rams (Arizona aside) and they’re 1-1 after a loss to the Vikings and a win over the Saints. With the Seahawks up next, their chances of getting home advantage throughout the playoffs probably requires them to go undefeated throughout the rest of the season. That’s a lot of pressure for a young head coach and a second-year quarterback.
Home advantage doesn’t really count for much for LA, so I’ll be taking the Eagles (+2) to come back fighting after last week’s unexpected loss. Even though it seems high (49.5), I’m not sure of a way this game stays under the points total.