AFC South: A new sheriff in town
The Tennessee Titans still lead their division – by one game. They might end up hosting a playoff game like they’ve been supposed to all season long. Tennessee could somehow sneak out a win in the Wild Card Round if that’s the case, but that should be their ceiling.
Another scenario is (almost) as likely: the Titans won’t host a playoff game, but the Jaguars will. There’s a new sheriff in town in the AFC South, and his name is Trevor Lawrence. After their 40-34 overtime win against Dallas, the Jags now control their destiny regarding the AFC South divisional race. Jacksonville is one game behind the Titans but won the first matchup against them. In Week 18, it will likely come down to a significant AFC South crown clash between the Titans and Jags in Jacksonville. If the Jaguars finish the season 3-0, they will win their division.
Not only is the Jaguars’ offense red-hot right now, but they’ll also have a manageable path. On Thursday, they’ll visit the New York Jets, who will likely start Zach Wilson instead of Mike White, before traveling to the 1-12-1 Houston Texans. If nothing major occurs on the injury side, the Jags will likely be home favorites against the Titans.
Meanwhile, the Titans will also face the Texans this week, but then they’ll have to deal with Dallas at home. There could be an outside chance that Dallas won’t have anything to play for in Week 17 if they “clinch” the No. 5 seed next week. However, on the surface, hosting Dallas and Dak Prescott is a more challenging quest than facing the Jets and Wilson on the road. As long as the Jaguars win more or the same games as the Titans over the next two weeks, they’ll get their finale in Week 18.
Whether the Titans somehow survive into the playoffs or not, there will be a changing of the guard in the AFC South, either next month or next season. After 15 weeks, there’s enough evidence to believe that Lawrence is the real deal. He’s been playing like a clear-cut top-10 quarterback for weeks. Their defense is nowhere near an average unit, but it’s a young group of players with some upside. The most crucial part of team building in the NFL is getting the QB right and building a good offensive infrastructure that provides a decent floor and allows the signal-caller to play up to his ceiling. The Jaguars have come a long way, but it seems like they are there.
The Titans are due for a (complex) reset. Tennessee is 7-7 with one win against a playoff team. That was Washington in Week 5 with Carson Wentz under center, who threw a goal-line interception on the potential game-winning drive. Injuries have crushed their defense, and their offense is below-average. The run game – which was supposed to be their identity – ranks 25th in EPA/play and 23rd in success rate. Treylon Burks is their only bright spot offensively that provides future value.
It’s doable to move on from Ryan Tannehill after this season. The offensive line is horrible and needs a complete overhaul. Derrick Henry will be 29-and-a-half years old when the 2023 season starts. Robert Woods will be 31.
The Titans and Jaguars are trending in different directions. Maybe the Vrabel train of sustained success will take a break as soon as January.
Los Angeles Chargers: Good enough for the playoffs, but…
After beating the Titans 17-14 late, the Bolts hold the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff picture. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Chargers have an 83% chance of making the playoffs. That seems reasonable, considering their closing schedule to be Colts, Rams, and Broncos. They’ll be favored by at least a field goal in all three matchups. A 2-1 finish should seal it.
However, all the concerns about the Chargers remain the same after watching the Titans game. Let’s frame the context: L.A. closed as a 3-point home favorite against Tennessee. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are back healthy. With the return of Trey Pipkins, the Chargers offense was entirely healthy except for left tackle Rashawn Slater – who could potentially be back for the playoffs after tearing his biceps in Week 3. On the other side, the Titans went into that game without cornerbacks Caleb Farley, Kristian Fulton, Elijah Molden, and safety/nickel Amani Hooker. Stud linebacker David Long is on IR, and defensive line starter Denico Autry was inactive. The Titans lost backup cornerback Terrance Mitchell and backup safety Andrew Adams during the game.
To summarize: The Chargers offense around superhero Justin Herbert reached its healthiest point of the season, playing against a highly short-handed Titans pass defense that got shredded by the Eagles and Jaguars, and still they needed a game-winning drive with 46 seconds left to reach 17 points in this matchup. That’s hard to explain. It was a combination of penalties, mental errors from Herbert, and, once again, schematically challenging play-calling. It’s tough for any quarterback to sit back on third down and try to hit four tightly covered, isolated routes, even for Herbert. This would have been an excellent spot for the Chargers offense to explode and score 30 or more points.
Brandon Staley is making above-average decisions regarding timeouts and fourth downs. He has also done a terrific job of game-planning lately. Joey Bosa might be back for a potential playoff run to be paired with Khalil Mack. Los Angeles has all the ingredients, but Joe Lombardi could ultimately be the guy who holds the Chargers back regarding playoff matchups against the elite teams in the AFC.
NFC Wild Card race: It’s roaring
New York Giants: On Sunday Night Football, the Giants needed a strip-fumble return touchdown from Kayvon Thibodeaux and some crazy refereeing sequence to survive the Commanders. The G-Men were outgained by 99 yards and 2.1 yards per play. On their last two drives of the game, the Commanders had seven plays inside the Giants’ 11-yard line and came up with zero points. New York is somehow getting the minimum necessary out of their offense while their defense ranks bottom-five in many statistical categories. The most significant difference for them has been big plays in critical moments, like the ones against Washington. But the Giants will most likely play on Wild Card Weekend, as the 87 percent playoff probability by FiveThirtyEight indicates. After winning the head-to-head tiebreaker, they are one and a half games ahead of the Commanders.
Washington Commanders: The Commies have a stout pass rush and run defense, primarily due to their dominating defensive line, but there’s not much else to point to. The pass defense is above-average at best because the defensive line alone cannot solve all the problems. Since Taylor Heinicke took over, the pass offense ranks 24th in EPA/play and 19th in success rate. FiveThirtyEight only gives the Commies a 35% playoff chance.
Detroit Lions: Restore it. The Lions survived the Jets. The most significant question mark was whether the Lions' offense would look as good outside a dome in cold weather conditions against an elite defense. After watching the game, my take is that the Jets defense did a phenomenal job for the most part, but the Lions offense made enough key plays and flashed why they are so dangerous. Detroit indeed scored on a punt return touchdown, but had a turnover on downs at the goal line before that. Jared Goff underthrew Jameson Williams on what should have been an easy touchdown. Detroit had three red zone drives on which it scored six points. With the Panthers, Bears, and Packers on deck, the Lions have the best chances to get the last wild card spot—a 41% playoff chance from 538. Austin Mock from The Athletic is significantly higher on the Lions, giving them a 73% chance to make the playoffs, according to his simulations.
Seattle Seahawks: Seattle is cooling off. Geno Smith has been making too many mistakes lately, and Tyler Lockett could be done for the season with a broken hand. The defense can barely stop anyone. And the remaining schedule will not be easy to navigate with games against the Chiefs, Jets, and then Rams in Week 18. A 30% chance for a wild card spot, according to 538.