NFL Week 10 Wrap-up: Sorting Through the Clumps

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Week 10 didn’t exactly wrap up with the most loaded Sunday you’ll ever see, but it took us to an interesting place. It featured just two games between teams with winning records, and even those games were the relatively low-profile matchups of Bills-Chiefs and Dolphins-Lions, but that didn’t stop teams from further complicating the league’s trickier playoff races.

By my count, there are now 22 teams with realistic shots at a playoff spot — 12 in the AFC and 10 in the NFC. The AFC has three teams all but locked into playoff spots, while the NFC might not have any. Just about everything is still up for grabs. With that in mind, let’s reset the playoff picture after Sunday’s events, put everything in perspective, and get an idea of what’s going to play out over the final seven weeks.

“Tiers” is probably the wrong word to use here, as it’s more like clumps of teams that need to work themselves out for one or two spots as opposed to value judgments about the quality of those teams. And teams with chances of winning a division title or settling for a wild-card spot might fit into more than one clump. The numbers next to the teams are their current seeds within their respective conferences, per ESPN’s playoff standings page.

AFC Playoff Picture

Clump 1: The Locks
1. New England (7-2)
2. Denver (7-2)
3. Indianapolis (6-3)

It would basically require a season-ending injury to a starting quarterback for one of these teams to miss the playoffs, and if that injury doesn’t happen soon, even that might not stop them.

The Patriots had a great week without even playing, as their two rivals for the AFC East title, Buffalo and Miami, both lost. They’re now two games ahead of the Bills and Dolphins with seven to play. New England has already beaten Buffalo and lost to Miami, with a game remaining against each to determine those tiebreakers.

While New England holds the tiebreaker over Denver by virtue of its blowout win last week, Indianapolis could quickly become a problem. The Patriots are 2.5-point underdogs for Sunday’s trip to Indianapolis, and if they lose, they would fall out of the top spot in the AFC. A Broncos win and a Patriots loss would push Denver into the top seed and drop the Patriots below the Colts to third place.

If the Colts beat the Patriots and all three teams end up with the same record at the end of the season, they would split the first tiebreaker (as each would be 1-1 versus the other two) and determine their record by performance inside the conference. The Broncos hold a narrow lead in that category, as they’re 5-1 within the AFC, while the Patriots and Colts are each 5-2. If the Patriots win Sunday, they would hold head-to-head tiebreakers against both teams and have a massive leg up on the top seed in the AFC.

Clump 2: The AFC North
4. Cleveland (6-3)
6. Cincinnati (5-3-1)
7. Pittsburgh (6-4)
8. Baltimore (6-4)

Oh, messy life. The AFC North was once all defense, but now it’s a bunch of offenses cycling through bad days. Yesterday was the Steelers’ turn for an ugly loss, as they went down 17-0 to the Jets by the end of the first quarter in an eventual 20-13 defeat.

The Steelers didn’t do themselves any favors against a Jets defense that had been allowing 28 points per game, turning the ball over four times and settling for two fourth-quarter field goal attempts inside the 10-yard line — one of which they actually missed — while down 17 points. It’s hard to fault Todd Haley after what Ben Roethlisberger did over the previous two weeks, but he actually took Antonio Brown off the field on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line so Roethlisberger could throw a pass to James Harrison, which should actually be its own segment on Too Cute!

Meanwhile, Baltimore survived a horrific first-half performance against Tennessee to win 21-7. Even with the win and a division-best point differential of plus-80, the Ravens are in trouble; they have a 2-3 record in the division and a 3-4 record in the conference, which will hurt them in tiebreakers. It’s extremely unlikely they’ll need to go to a tiebreaker with the Bengals (it would require the Ravens to tie a game), but they would lose any tiebreaker to Cincinnati, which has the North’s best intra-division record at 2-1. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati still have two games versus one another, which could be massively influential or result in a split that does nothing to push either team forward.

That could leave Cleveland, which ended the weekend in first place in the AFC North. The Browns played the league’s easiest schedule by a comfortable margin during the first half, but that will rise to the eighth-toughest slate during this second half, which they began by melting Andy Dalton down into useless chemical components. That was the first of their five road games during the second half of the season, which includes a Week 17 trip to Baltimore that may decide the division.

Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati BengalsJohn Grieshop/Getty Images

Clump 3: The Prime Wild-Card Candidates
4. Cleveland (6-3)
5. Kansas City (6-3)
6. Cincinnati (5-3-1)
7. Pittsburgh (6-4)
8. Baltimore (6-4)

It’s likely that three of these five teams will make the playoffs, with one qualifying as the champion of the AFC North and the other three teams competing with Kansas City for the two wild-card berths.

Kansas City has worked its ass off to get back into the race after starting 0-2, and it has a great résumé, with a blowout win over the Patriots, head-to-head tiebreakers via wins over wild-card contenders in the Chargers and Dolphins, and a 5-2 record in the conference that will help mightily in tiebreakers. The Chiefs still have a home-and-home to come with the Raiders, which should be two wins; pencil those in and they’re 8-3, and they probably make the playoffs if they can go 2-3 in their five other games. The problem is that those five other games are against the Seahawks, Broncos, Cardinals, Steelers, and Chargers. Kansas City’s trip to Pittsburgh in Week 16 could very well be a de facto playoff game.

Clump 4: The Long Shots
9. San Diego (5-4)
10. Buffalo (5-4)
11. Miami (5-4)
12. Houston (4-5)

I was tempted to put the Chargers up in Clump 3, but I think they might have already blown their chance. Their three-game losing streak leaves them at 5-4 and with major holes exposed on their roster. Philip Rivers’s performance, once at an MVP level, has been mediocre the past three games. They do get home games against the Raiders and Rams over the next two weeks to get back on track, but they finish with one of the more brutal schedules in football: They start at the Ravens before a homestand against the Patriots and Broncos, followed by a season-ending road trip to the 49ers and Chiefs.

Everyone else is hanging on by a thread. The Bills probably knocked themselves out with a frustrating loss to the Chiefs that included a Bryce Brown fumble as he was running in for a touchdown, a Leodis McKelvin fumbled punt that set up a Chiefs score, and an underthrown Kyle Orton pass on a game-deciding fourth down. The Bills wasted a dominant performance from their defensive line, including a three-sack, four-hit performance from Marcell Dareus, who is playing as well as any mortal1 interior lineman in football. The Bills now lose tiebreakers with the Chiefs, Chargers, and Texans, and will only win a tiebreaker with the Dolphins by beating them Thursday night. At 2-4 in the conference, Buffalo is cooked.

Miami will need that win Thursday after losing to Detroit despite having the football and a 16-13 lead with 3:47 to go. A limited Lamar Miller forced Miami to turn over its running game to Damien Williams and Daniel Thomas, who did little, and the Dolphins were forced to punt to Matthew Stafford, who led a 74-yard drive that culminated in an 11-yard touchdown pass to Theo Riddick with 36 seconds left. The Dolphins lost left tackle Branden Albert for the year with a knee injury, a crucial blow, and still must face the Broncos, Ravens, and Patriots. They hold a tiebreaker over the Chargers, but they’re down in matchups against the Bills and Chiefs.

The Texans are on the outside looking in, but if any team could make a sudden leap, it’s them. They’re getting Jadeveon Clowney back for good (we think) after the bye, they might have just made an upgrade at quarterback to Ryan Mallett, and the schedule is soft as silk: two games against the Jaguars, and one each against the Titans, Bengals, and Browns, with the Ravens and Colts the two tough spots. If Mallett is OK, the Texans are the long shot that could go 6-1 and streak into the playoffs. And if he’s awful, well, they could go 1-6 and finish high enough in the draft to go after a top quarterback prospect.

Miami Dolphins v Detroit LionsLeon Halip/Getty Images

NFC Playoff Picture

Clump 1: The First-Round Byes
1. Arizona (8-1)
2. Detroit (7-2)
3. Philadelphia (6-2)
5. Dallas (7-3)
6. Seattle (6-3)
7. Green Bay (6-3)

Oh, you know, there are just six teams with realistic chances of coming away with the top seed in the NFC. While the Cardinals held on to the top spot after producing a fourth-quarter comeback at home against St. Louis, they might also have lost Carson Palmer for the season with a torn ACL, which could either throw their plans into disarray or not change things whatsoever. (More on that below.)

Their grip on the NFC West isn’t as firm as it might seem, given that they still have two games against the Seahawks, who finally got a comfortable win by dropping 21 fourth-quarter points on the Giants after starting that final frame 17-17. Seattle still has those two games against Arizona, two against San Francisco, and both Kansas City and Philadelphia to come, but if it can win its home games and come away with one road win, that would take Seattle to 10-6 and likely be enough to make the playoffs. Tiebreakers could come into play for the Seahawks based on those outcomes; they’re winning the tiebreaker against Green Bay and losing it with Dallas.

The Cowboys also righted the ship this weekend, beating the Jaguars 31-17 while paying some sort of weird stupidity tax by keeping Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray in the game with a 24-point lead in the second half. Murray had only four touches after Joseph Randle’s 40-yard touchdown run put Dallas up 31-7, but those four touches went for zero yards on a bad field in London; his workload is so heavy that every touch counts, and anybody could have done what Murray did. Dallas now gets the late bye week before finishing with three easy matchups (Bears, Giants, Washington) and three tough ones (Colts, Eagles home and away). Dallas already holds tiebreakers over New Orleans and Seattle, although Philadelphia would likely hold the divisional record tiebreaker with a split.

This all leaves the Lions in a very interesting spot. After narrowly beating the Dolphins, the Lions have now won three straight games by four points or less, which is pretty impressive for a team that had the NFL’s worst record in close games over the previous two seasons. They’re about to face the toughest two-week stretch of their remaining schedule with a road trip against the Cardinals and Patriots, but they’ll likely get the Cardinals without Palmer, which should help. If they win the Cardinals game, they go to 8-2 and claim the top spot in the NFC on a tiebreaker, with a 6-1 conference record that should settle a lot of other tiebreakers their way. After that stretch, it’s the Bears, Bucs, and Vikings at home, so the Lions will have nobody to blame but themselves.

I can’t talk about what the Packers did to the Bears on Sunday night on a Disney-owned website.

Clump 2: The NFC South Survivor
4. New Orleans (4-5)
10. Carolina (3-5-1)
11. Atlanta (3-6)

YES! This dumb division continues to go on. New Orleans could have taken a massive leap forward by beating the 49ers at home, but after taking the lead on Jimmy Graham’s second score to go up 24-21 with 1:55 left, the Saints couldn’t stop Colin Kaepernick from finding a wide-open Michael Crabtree on fourth-and-10, setting up a 45-yard field goal that pushed the game into overtime. Well, it set up an incredible game-winning pass to Graham, if not for the first offensive pass interference on a Hail Mary in a generation. In overtime, the Saints punted after a fourth-and-1 in Niners territory and Drew Brees fumbled the ball away on the next possession, giving the 49ers an easy win and saving their season.

That opens up the door for the … I can’t believe I’m saying this … Falcons? Because they beat the Saints in Week 1, the lowly Falcons would actually be in first place if the Lions hadn’t iced their own kicker with a delay of game penalty two weeks ago. Pulling out a victory against Josh McCown and Tampa Bay isn’t anything to write home about, but Atlanta does get Carolina and Cleveland over the next two weeks before a stretch against Arizona and Green Bay. Carolina is right back in the thick of things, too, if it beats Philadelphia on Monday night.

One of the three teams in this group will host one of the six teams in Clump 1 in a wild-card game. That seems so stupid.

Clump 3: The Wild-Card Hopefuls
1. Arizona (8-1)
2. Detroit (7-2)
3. Philadelphia (6-2)
5. Dallas (7-3)
6. Seattle (6-3)
7. Green Bay (6-3)
8. San Francisco (5-4)

I’m not adding the ninth-ranked Vikings (4-5) to this grouping. Five of these seven teams will make the playoffs. The only addition to this group is the 49ers, who saved their season with that last-minute comeback against the Saints. At 4-5 and behind in the tiebreaker to the Cardinals, they would have been dead in the water with a loss to the Saints. Now, they at least have a glimmer of hope, albeit not much of one unless the Seahawks or Cardinals totally collapse.

Of course, even though they have the best record in football, the Cardinals might very well be the team that collapses. Losing a starting quarterback will do that to you.

St Louis Rams v Arizona CardinalsChristian Petersen/Getty Images


The biggest injury news revolves around Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, who went down with a noncontact injury while eluding a Rams pass-rusher. Reports suggested that Palmer had torn the ACL in his left knee, an injury that would bring his season to a close and force Drew Stanton into the starting lineup for the remainder of the campaign. It would be the latest chapter in Palmer’s star-crossed career, which has seemed to stutter and falter at exactly the wrong times.

What makes the injury particularly cruel is that it comes just two days after Palmer signed what was announced as a three-year, $50 million extension to stay with the team. It’s not the first time Palmer has suffered a knee injury immediately after signing an extension. Palmer tore his ACL and MCL in that left knee during the 2005 wild-card game against the Steelers, just 11 days after signing a six-year extension with the Bengals. That injury was obviously severe and remains hard to watch. Palmer fortunately didn’t appear to be in quite as much pain Sunday, but the impact of this new injury might be even more brutal.

It’s hard to find a quarterback who came back from a torn ACL this late in his career. If Palmer is diagnosed, he would be the second quarterback to go down with a torn ACL this season, after Sam Bradford, but it’s not a particularly common injury for quarterbacks. (The remainder of this article assumes that Palmer’s injury is actually that torn ACL.) It’s not unreasonable to speculate that changes in Palmer’s throwing mechanics after his first torn ACL led to the elbow injuries that slowed him down toward the end of his time in Cincinnati, and it’s natural to wonder whether Palmer might lose another chunk of his ability by virtue of this injury. The difference between then and now is that the 2005 version of Palmer was one of the best quarterbacks in football, while this Palmer was something closer to competent.

Palmer’s contract extension complicates things for both parties. The full terms of the deal aren’t yet publicly available, given that the deal was only signed this weekend, but we know enough from tweets by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen and CBS’s Jason La Canfora to figure out how the deal is generally structured. The terms of quarterback contracts are always inflated, and this deal is no exception, especially after Palmer’s injury. While Palmer might have realized the contract’s full value had he stayed healthy, the deal is structured with three large base salaries (between $15.9 million and $16.6 million per year) that make up virtually all of the reported $50 million contract. The 2016 and 2017 base salaries aren’t guaranteed, meaning the Cardinals can get rid of Palmer after 2015 without owing him any future money.

The problem for the Cardinals is 2015. While Palmer was technically under contract for the 2015 season before the extension, his previous deal was set to void five days after the Super Bowl.2 After signing his extension, the Cardinals gave Palmer a base salary worth about $16 million for the 2015 season that’s guaranteed for injury, meaning they owe him that much regardless of whether he’s on the roster. Timing is everything.

The Cardinals are not doomed by any means by having to turn to Stanton, but he remains a question mark. The backup did lead a four-play, 89-yard drive after coming in to give the Cardinals a 17-14 lead, but Arizona broke the game open on two fluky defensive touchdowns involving tipped passes and fumbles. Stanton’s two wins as a starter this season came in games in which his defense allowed 14 points, but his numbers are actually better than Palmer’s in some places:

Palmer has a better traditional passer rating, but Stanton has a better QBR, which splits out the work Stanton did versus the accomplishments of his receivers after the catch. He’s also basically matched Palmer in terms of points per possession (PPP) and yards per possession (YPP).3 I’d rather have a healthy Palmer, all things considered, but it’s not obvious that Stanton will bring the Cardinals down to earth.

Instead, a correction might have been coming for Arizona even before Palmer got hurt. Chase Stuart noted this morning that Arizona’s plus-53 point differential is the third-worst ever for a team with eight or more wins in its first nine contests. Cardinals fans rightly won’t care about their point differential, because those wins are banked, but point differential does give better insight than win-loss record into how a team will play in the future. Arizona is surely a playoff team, even with Stanton, but a tough future schedule (including Detroit, Kansas City, and a pair of games against Seattle) and some natural regression means it might be more likely to hit the playoffs at 11-5 as opposed to 14-2. That could be the difference between a first-round bye and an extra stop on its trip to, um, Arizona for the Super Bowl.

As for Palmer, I can’t help but feel bad for the guy. It’s hard to think of a player more snakebitten by injuries at precisely the wrong times in his career. Yes, it’s a good thing he got paid after suffering his two serious knee injuries as opposed to missing out on massive paydays. Palmer also undoubtedly feels a sense of guilt for getting paid and immediately failing to live up to the expectations from that deal. Even worse, he’ll have to sit on the sideline and watch as the most successful team he’s been on since that 2005 injury tries to fend its way through the NFC without him. This was probably Palmer’s last chance at playing in a Super Bowl, let alone a home Super Bowl. Time is ticking on his career. It remains to be seen whether time will run out on his Cardinals.

Denver Broncos v Oakland RaidersThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Carry the Zero

Everybody expected the Raiders to lose to the Broncos, even after Oakland got out to an early 10-6 lead. The Raiders obliged, allowing Denver to score the next five touchdowns en route to a 41-17 walloping. Everybody expected the Raiders to be bad this year, and despite some competitive games against good teams, they’ve lived down to those expectations. Oakland clinched its third consecutive losing season Sunday, and it hasn’t posted a winning season since its run to the Super Bowl in 2002.

What’s happened this year might be beyond the pale, even for the most skeptical of Raiders observers. Sunday’s loss dropped the Raiders to 0-9, the team’s worst start since 1962, the year before hiring Al Davis. Al’s son, Mark, was in elementary school at the time. He’s now the steward of a team that might be going to a place Al Davis never could have imagined, and it isn’t San Antonio. The Raiders have a very serious chance of going 0-16.

How serious? Well, we can estimate their chances of losing their final seven games with the Log5 method, a Bill James creation that uses win percentages to estimate each team’s chances of winning a particular contest. Winning percentages aren’t always the most accurate measure of team performance in football, so we’ll improve on them by using each team’s point differential to create its Pythagorean expectation. We’ll also account for home-field advantage over each of the seven games.

The Raiders are better than their win-loss record suggests, although that’s not exactly difficult. Even after getting blown out by the Broncos, they have the point differential of a team that would have won 1.9 of their nine games. 2-7 is bad, but 0-9 is scandalous. And given how the Raiders are set to face one of the toughest remaining schedules in football, that scandal isn’t about to go anywhere. Oakland fans might want to shield their eyes now:

It’s scarier than you might have expected. The Raiders play six teams with point differentials greater than .500 over the next seven weeks, with the Rams as the only exception. That stands out as their most obvious shot at a victory, but the Raiders will have to travel to St. Louis, and St. Louis’s point differential of minus-88 is still a step ahead of Oakland’s figure of minus-106. Only the Jaguars (minus-124) have a worse point differential than the Raiders. Oakland still has four games left within its wildly difficult division, including a home-and-home against the Chiefs and road trips to San Diego and Denver.

That Broncos game, strangely, may be the contest that leaves the Raiders with their actual best chance of victory. On a typical day, the Raiders would be something close to a 17-point underdog in Denver. Week 17 is not typical. The Broncos might very well have their seed in the AFC playoff picture sealed, in which case they might choose to sit Peyton Manning and some of their other stars and let Brock Osweiler loose on the Raiders. Osweiler went 2-of-5 for 13 yards against Oakland in mop-up work Sunday. Drop Denver’s win expectancy in Week 17 to, say, an even 50 percent and Oakland’s chances of going 0-16 fall to 11.7 percent.

My guess is that Osweiler would still be a comfortable favorite at home against the Raiders, which speaks to how bad they looked at times Sunday. While Oakland got out to that early lead, it came from two interceptions, one of which was on a tipped pass by Justin Tuck. I strongly doubt that Manning throws two first-half interceptions every time he plays the Raiders.

Derek Carr, who has been the most impressive rookie quarterback from the 2014 class, went 30-of-47 for 192 yards, but most of that came in garbage time. His first 40 passes produced just 96 yards, which would have been a record; no player since 1960 has finished a game with 40-plus pass attempts and fewer than 100 passing yards. His favorite target was James Jones, who caught eight of the 12 passes thrown to him for 20 yards. Not per reception. Total. No wideout since 1960 has produced fewer yards in an eight-catch game than Jones did Sunday. His first target was a catch for 10 yards, which tells you that Jones’s next 11 targets produced a total of 10 additional yards. Even worse, that 10-yard catch was Oakland’s fourth-biggest play of the game. James Jones was good once!

And even more than the record, that might be the thing that should worry Mark Davis and the fans of his franchise. Regardless of whether the Raiders move to San Antonio or stay in Oakland, there’s just not a ton of talent here to work with. The team spent heavily on veteran stopgaps this offseason to try to field a competitive roster, and most of them just haven’t delivered.

2013 first-round pick D.J. Hayden, general manager Reggie McKenzie’s first first-round pick, has struggled to stay healthy. In his 11th professional game on Sunday, Hayden came up with the first interception of Manning, only to pay for his insolence by allowing a touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders before leaving with a groin injury. 2014 first-rounder Khalil Mack is a star talent, and second-rounder Carr has exhibited signs of competence, but the only other cheap asset on the roster might be 2013 third-rounder Sio Moore. Going 0-16? That’s embarrassingly bad.4 Going 53-132, as the Raiders have over the past 12 seasons? That won’t attract quite as many headlines, but it’s even worse.

Filed Under: NFL, Carson Palmer, Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals


Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell