Fri Dec 14 10:44am ET
By BARRY WILNER
AP Pro Football Writer
In this Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018 file photo, Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Fred Brown fumbles between New Orleans Saints defensive back Marcus Williams (25) and linebacker Nate Stupar (54) as he is tackled by New Orleans Saints cornerback Kam Moore in the second half of an NFL preseason football game in New Orleans. The NFC is a two-team race between the Saints and Rams, who met in a high-scoring affair won by host New Orleans in early November. Both are 11-2, making their final three weeks critical in that race.(AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)
In this Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018 file photo, Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel watches play against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half of an NFL football game in Nashville, Tenn. Titans coach Mike Vrabel is trying to ignore any playoff chatter as his team heads to the Meadowlands to face the Giants, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2019.(AP Photo/James Kenney, File)
Forget Carrie Underwood. Well, don't forget her, she's terrific.
But the NFL's theme song these days belongs to Maren Morris, Zedd and Grey. You know, ''Meet Me In The Middle.''
That's where a bevy of NFL teams sat through Week 14 - all with shots, both reasonable and long, at making the playoffs.
Take a deep breath and consider:
-Seattle and Dallas at 8-5.
-Pittsburgh at 7-5-1.
-Indianapolis, Baltimore, Tennessee and Miami at 7-6.
-Minnesota at 6-6-1.
-Philadelphia, Carolina, Denver and Washington at 6-7.
-Green Bay and Cleveland at 5-7-1.
And, yes, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Cincinnati and the New York Giants at 5-8.
All are alive for the postseason.
Even Atlanta, at 4-9, if you can imagine, isn't eliminated.
Just what the league loves heading toward Christmas: charity for nearly all.
So let first-year Titans coach Mike Vrabel play the Grinch, trying to ignore any playoff chatter as his team heads to the Meadowlands to face the Giants.
''We haven't talked much. We try to eliminate all the scenarios,'' he says. ''The only scenario that we try to focus on is our preparation right now as we head into a road game against the Giants.
''You could talk about scenarios all day. There's scenarios where the Dolphins give up two punt blocks and score on a 70-yard hook-and-ladder; a scenario where a player jumps offside on a third-and-1 in a four-minute situation; a situation where a team executes a 50-yard hook-and-ladder and then the kicker slips. Those are all the scenarios that are crazy that happen in this league every week, so the one we're going to try to focus on is our preparation versus the Giants.''
Fair enough, because all of the playoff-qualifying scenarios for this week are enough to spark a migraine.
The questions that should be raised are:
-Is all of this competitive balance or simply mediocrity? Oasis or swamp?
-Is it good for the NFL that such spiraling messes as the Falcons and Bengals remain in the running?
-Do people really want to see a .500 (or worse) team playing in January, perhaps against a 14-2 opponent?
LEVEL OF PERFORMANCE
Nearly all the teams in the middle of the standings belong there. It's fair to point out that the Redskins, Bengals and Falcons have been severely damaged by injuries - hey, Cincinnati was once 4-1 and Washington held the top spot in the NFC East until its current four-game slide.
Still, there's a flawed bunch of ''contenders'' for the playoffs. They are profiting because they are keeping company with equally blemished clubs.
All of them have had impressive stretches and pretty much unwatchable ones, though Seattle and Dallas probably don't deserve to be lumped with the stragglers because they seem to be legitimate threats to do something in January.
What's missing with the others is the consistency that the top teams possess. Look at the Colts, who went from 1-1 to 1-5, then won five in a row, only to get blanked at lowly Jacksonville before going to Houston, the league's hottest team, and winning.
Do fans in Atlanta and Cincinnati and Washington envision any sort of turnaround in the final three games that would lift those teams into the postseason? Do those clubs' front offices?
They shouldn't, even as the NFL boasts that 26 teams still have a shot at the Super Bowl.
One likely good thing about such deficient teams being in the running in mid-December is that it should cool talk of expanding the playoff field - something that virtually would guarantee impostors getting in.
Once in a while, a team scrapes into the postseason and catches fire. Wild-carders have won the Super Bowl often enough to keep that dream alive once you get in.
But should, say, a 7-8-1 Packers or 8-8 Lions sneak in, does that make for must-watch TV in the playoffs? Is a game with 8-8 Miami at 12-4 Houston enticing?
What is nice about the chase in December is the intrigue of seedings. The general feeling in the AFC is that avoiding a trip to Foxborough in January is necessary. So, the other division winners not only want and likely need to win their games, they're hoping the Patriots, currently seeded second, don't win out. Kansas City tops the conference right now, but barely.
The NFC is a two-team race for the top spot between the Saints and Rams, who met in a high-scoring affair won by host New Orleans in early November. Both are 11-2, making their final three weeks critical in that race.
And then they have the prospect of sitting out wild-card weekend while a team or two emerging from the quagmire stokes up its fan base before probably getting routed.
New England Patriots running back James White caught four passes for 49 yards, including 23 rushing yards, in the team's 37-31 win over the Chiefs to advance to the Super Bowl. One week after White caught 15 passes, the veteran running back was targeted only six times in the passing game. White already has one Super Bowl MVP under his belt and has enjoyed a career season with 85 receptions and 12 total touchdowns. He will certainly have to share time in the backfield with teammates Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead but White will see plenty of action against the Rams on February 3.
New England Patriots running back Sony Michel carried the ball 29 times for 113 yards with two touchdowns in the Patriots 37-31 victory over the Chiefs to reach the Super Bowl. The rookie running back was fantastic from the jump and the Patriots leaned on him to move the chains. Michel punched in a 1-yard score to get New England on the board and then sprinted untouched for a 10-yard score in the fourth quarter. Michel is hot at the right time and will have tons of sleeper potential as a possible Super Bowl MVP heading into the Patriots matchup against the Rams on February 3.
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski caught six passes for 79 yards in the Patriots 37-31 win over the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. Gronk was targeted a team-high 11 times and delivered some huge plays in the wild final minutes of the game. He was counted on to pick up some huge first downs, none more important than a big-time 25-yard catch to set up a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. Gronkowski has not looked like himself this season but with one game left, the Patriots will do all they can to unleash Gronk against the Rams in the Super Bowl on February 3.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady completed 30 of 46 passes for 348 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in the Patriots thrilling AFC Championship victory over the Chiefs 37-31 in overtime. The Patriots offense got off to a slow start but the future Hall of Famer turned it on when it mattered the most. From the beginning of the fourth quarter, Brady nearly doubled his passing yards with some nearly perfect drives. When the chips were down, the Patriots put the ball in Brady's hands and delivered strike after strike as the team scored 20 points in the final quarter in addition to overtime. Brady will now play in his ninth Super Bowl on February 3, striving to win an all-time record sixth Super Bowl.
New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman caught seven passes for 96 yards in the Patriots 37-31 overtime win over the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. Edelman was quiet for most of the game but was heavily targeted in the games final minutes, delivering clutch catch after catch. Edelman is clearly quarterback Tom Brady's preferred target in crunch time and the veteran receiver made some fantastic receptions in traffic. Edelman will be a top choice to lead the team in targets when the Patriots take on the Rams in the Super Bowl February 3.
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas caught four passes for only 36 yards in the Saints 26-23 overtime loss to the Rams in the NFC Championship Game. Thomas was targeted seven times but disappointed for a player that caught 125 passes in the regular season. The Saints offense revolved mostly around teammate Alvin Kamara and Thomas was a non-factor. Despite the disappointing end to his season, Thomas will remain a top choice among wide receivers in fantasy heading into next season.
Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley's lack of involvement in the offense against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game was because of the 'flow' of the game, according to head coach Sean McVay.
Fantasy Spin: Gurley rushed just four times, and while he did drop a couple of passes, it is almost impossible to believe that the reason he spent most of the game on the sidelines wasn't related to the knee injury he suffered late in the year. If he is banged up, he will have two weeks to prepare before the Super Bowl.
New England Patriots LB Kyle Van Noy finished with 10 tackles, including eight solo stops and a tackle for loss, and two sacks in a 37-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Jan. 20.
New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski caught six of his 11 targets for 79 yards in a 37-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: There have been rumblings that Gronkowski may hang it up after the season, but for now he has to prepare for another trip to the Super Bowl. He isn't the overwhelming force he was a few years ago, but he is still capable of putting up big numbers compared to a majority of the other tight ends in the league.
New England Patriots RB James White rushed six times for 23 yards and caught four of his six targets for 49 yards in a 37-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: It was a relatively quiet game for White, but you only need to look back one week at his 15-catch performance against the Los Angeles Chargers for a reminder of the type of production he is capable of providing.
New England Patriots WR Phillip Dorsett caught one of his three targets for a 29-yard touchdown in a 37-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Jan. 20.
New England Patriots RB Rex Burkhead rushed 12 times for 41 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning score in overtime, and caught four passes for 23 yards in a 37-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: Burkhead often takes a backseat to Sony Michel and James White, but he still is capable of delivering when his number is called and is up to three touchdowns this postseason.
New England Patriots WR Julian Edelman caught seven of his 10 targets for a team-high 96 yards in a 37-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: Edelman was particularly clutch on third downs throughout the game, and he has been Tom Brady's favorite target this postseason. Heading into the Super Bowl, Edelman has 16 catches on 23 targets for 247 yards in two games.
Kansas City Chiefs WR Sammy Watkins caught four of his eight targets for 114 yards in a 37-31 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: Injuries remain a constant issue for Watkins, but he wasn't bad when he was on the field. He topped 60 yards in five of his final six games, including the playoffs, and even as the No. 3 option in the Kansas City passing attack, he will have WR3 upside in 2019.
New England Patriots QB Tom Brady completed 30 of his 46 passes for 348 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in a 37-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: It wasn't the prettiest game of Brady's playoff career, and he had a third in interception that would have ended the game wiped out by a penalty. Still, he made enough big throws to put New England back in the Super Bowl, and he will try to add his incredible legacy in a couple of weeks.
New England Patriots RB Sony Michel rushed 29 times for 113 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: Michel has been a monster in the postseason, logging 53 carries for 242 yards and five scores in two games. He will try to add to those numbers in the Super Bowl in a couple of weeks.
Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce caught three of his five targets for 23 yards and a touchdown in a 37-31 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: It marked just the second time all year and the first time since the season opener that Kelce failed to top 40 receiving yards. His season may have ended on a sour note, but that doesn't change the fact that Kelce may be the top fantasy option at his position heading into 2019.
Kansas City Chiefs RB Damien Williams rushed 10 times for 30 yards and a touchdown and caught five passes for 66 yards and two scores in a 37-31 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: Williams didn't do much on the ground, but an early deficit had a lot to do with that. Still, he showcased his versatility once again, and since taking over as the starter, he has left no doubt that he can be a workhorse for the Kansas City backfield. Williams will have RB1 potential entering 2019.
Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes completed 16 of his 31 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns and rushed twice for 11 yards in a 37-31 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: Mahomes led the Chiefs back from an early deficit, but he never saw the ball overtime. His impressive season doesn't end with a Super Bowl appearance, but it will put him in the conversation to be the first quarterback selected in drafts in 2019.
Kansas City Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill caught one of his three targets for 42 yards in a 37-31 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: As the Patriots often do, they took away the best offensive weapon for their opponent. It was a quiet end to the best season of Hill's career, but he looks poised to deliver WR1 numbers for the foreseeable future as the top target for Patrick Mahomes.