Five big questions for rest of season: No. 1 seed for Patriots?
What’s in store for the second half of the 2018 campaign? With the midway point behind us, Jim Trotter offers five big questions — and answers for each — as we enter the final eight weeks of the regular season.
1) Will the NFC South send three teams to the playoffs for a second consecutive year?
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In a word: Yes. That didn’t seem likely several weeks ago, when the Falcons were 1-4 and losing starters to injury as regularly as they were losing games. But they have won three in a row, with only two games remaining against clubs with a winning record. Not only that, but after putting six starters on injured reserve, they are finally getting healthy and could see top linebacker Deion Jones return from a foot injury in a couple of weeks. Equally notable is that the offense has found its rhythm in Year 2 under coordinator Steve Sarkisian. The unit was 1 of 5 in the red zone in Week 1, but has gone 17 of 21 since then. Also, its third-down conversion rate has been above 53 percent in four of the last five games, including 62 percent or higher in three of the games, with two at 73 percent or higher. That is a formula for going at least 6-2 the rest of way, and 10 wins should be enough to join division brethren New Orleans (7-1) and Carolina (6-2) in the postseason. Currently, I can’t see wild-card candidates in other divisions reaching 10 victories, based on schedule, health or performance.
2) Is this the year Philip Rivers uses the playoffs to make his case for true greatness?
It’s been a tough go for Rivers in that department. He has only one playoff win in the last nine seasons and is 4-5 overall. He has thrown 11 touchdown passes and nine interceptions and is averaging just 240 yards passing in the postseason. For a quarterback who has had so many memorable regular-season performances — and who has a shot at finishing his career among the top five in league history in completions, yards and touchdowns — Rivers has yet to have that signature playoff performance where he puts his team on his back and carries it to victory.
To this point, his most memorable postseason moment was playing through an ACL tear in the 2007 AFC Championship Game. But his most recent playoff games have been underwhelming. In a 24-17 loss at Denver in January 2014, he threw for only 20 yards in the first half and trailed 17-0 early in the fourth quarter. In a 17-14 loss to the Jets in January 2010, he threw interceptions on back-to-back third-quarter possessions, the second deep in his own territory, to set up the go-ahead touchdown. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about quarterback legacies this season, with Drew Brees breaking the league’s all-time passing record, Eli Manning likely on his way out as the Giants’ starter, and Tom Brady doing Tom Brady things. It’s time for Rivers to cement his case for greatness with a deep playoff run, and I believe he will.
3) Does the road to the Super Bowl go through Kansas City in the AFC?
No. It will go through New England, as it typically does. The Chiefs currently hold the top seed, with an 8-1 record, but they will lose at least one game over the second half of the season (they still play the Rams, Chargers and Seahawks) while the Patriots will run the table. That would leave both teams with 14-2 records, but the Patriots would win the tiebreaker (and home-field advantage) based on their 43-40 victory over the Chiefs in Week 6. That bodes well for the Patriots, who have won 11 of their last 12 home playoff games, including the last nine.
4) Will the Jags finish last in the AFC South one year after nearly making the Super Bowl?
Yes. It’s often said that success can be tougher to handle than failure, and the Jags are an example of why. One year after reaching the AFC Championship Game, they have lost four in a row and five of the last six. Yes, they have had injuries. But more notably, they have had in-fighting, which is never good for a young team. Which is why I believe they will return to the division basement after a one-year absence.
5) Who will clinch the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft?
The Oakland Raiders. They are tied with the Giants for fewest wins (one) this season, with the Bills, Browns, Cardinals and 49ers having two wins each. But the Raiders will win the race for No. 1 because they won’t win another game this season. The prediction isn’t based solely on their schedule, which includes two games against the Chiefs and contests against the Chargers, Steelers, Bengals and Ravens; it’s also based on their difficulties putting points on the board and keeping opponents from doing the same. To wit: They were held to three, 10 and three points in three of their last four games, and in all but one game this year, they have surrendered 26 or more points. A big issue is their inability to pressure quarterbacks, which doesn’t bode well with Patrick Mahomes, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger still on the schedule.
The Giants should give them a good run for the No. 1 pick because poor O-line play contributes to poor QB play, which contributes to poor production from OBJ and crew, which contributes to the likelihood of more losses. The sense is that this is the beginning of the end for veteran QB Eli Manning, which likely means much of November and December could be used to evaluate younger players, including at the quarterback position. The only winnable game I see for the Giants is Tampa Bay at home on Nov. 18.
Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter @JimTrotter_NFL.
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