The New England Patriots face the Buffalo Bills in a key week 16 match-up. The Patriots are 11-3 and have clinched the AFC East. However, they still have much more for which to play in 2017. New England needs to close 2017 strong. The 8-6 Bills are fighting for their playoff lives on Christmas Eve. Lastly, the surprisingly competitive New York Jets will look to play spoiler on New Year’s Eve in Foxboro.
The numbers are ridiculous looking back at the Patriots’ dominance of the AFC East: they have won nine straight division titles and 15 of 17. In those two seasons (2002 and 2008) they tied for the division lead with nine and 11 wins respectively but lost the division to tie-breakers. Since 2001 they have won 79 of 102 games (.774 winning percentage) since 2001. This is now their ninth consecutive division title and eighth consecutive 11 win season (per Patriots.com).
New England has wrapped up neither home-field advantage, nor a first-round bye. They can attribute this due to their slow start (losing two of their first four games to Kansas City and Carolina) and then, dropping their December Monday night match-up to Miami two weeks ago. They lost 27-20 in a listless and uninspired performance without tight end Rob Gronkowski and were caught looking ahead to Pittsburgh. Playing their fourth of five (and soon to be fifth of six) straight games on the road including two weeks out west in Denver and Mexico City in November.
Quarterback Tom Brady has had a tough stretch in the past three weeks on the road against the Bills, Dolphins, and Steelers. He has thrown interceptions in four straight games and four picks in these past three games with just two touchdowns (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). That is in contrast to throwing just one pick and 13 touchdowns over his previous five games. Brady needs to get back to his regular performance and clean-up his play to keep from turning the ball over. Part of that blame falls on the offensive line which has had some struggles keeping pass rushers off him.
New England has strong competition behind them in the AFC and needs to stay strong down the stretch to earn a bye week in the Wild Card round and home-field throughout the AFC playoffs. One slip-up versus Buffalo or the Jets could result in being on the road in the playoffs.
Don’t Sleep on the Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers are also 11-3 and in position for the bye week along with the Patriots. After a heartbreaking and controversial loss to New England last week after tight end Jesse James failed to “survive the ground” led to a “Three Stooges” sequence on their final play as time ticked down and no one knew what they were doing, the Steelers need to avoid a let-down.
The Steelers have played down to their competition too often in 2017: Losing to the Bears, three-point wins over the Browns, Colts, Aaron Rodgers-less Packers, Bengals, and having to mount a furious comeback to edge out the Ravens by a point two weeks ago. The Steelers close the season on the road against the Texans and at home against the winless Cleveland Browns.
Traveling to Houston on Christmas Day should be an easy win, but that game points to “trap game” between being played on a Holiday on the road, an opponent easy to overlook (4-10 record), losing superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown for the rest of the regular season, and the lingering resentment of losing a game they had already celebrated scoring the go-ahead touchdown with less than thirty seconds to play.
It is hard not to overlook the significance of the loss of Brown for the next two games for the Steelers. Juju Smith-Schuster did make an almost game-winning catch-and-run with his 69-yard reception against New England, but his moving to the top role puts pressure on Martavis Bryant, Jesse James, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Eli Rogers to make plays with extra attention from the defense. What happens when defenses focus on shutting down Le’Veon Bell in these last two weeks without Brown available to make them pay?
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Those Surprising Jaguars
Breathing down the backs of the Patriots and Steelers are the feel-good story of the 2017 season: the Jacksonville Jaguars. A strong defense and stability at the head coaching position with Doug Marrone at the top coordinating all the talented players drafted and signed by general manager David Caldwell has allowed Jacksonville to clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2007 when the Jack Del Rio led team fell to the undefeated Patriots in the Divisional round.
This Jaguars team has an all-star coaching staff on defense led by underrated defensive coordinator Todd Wash who came to Jacksonville after stints as defensive line coach in Tampa Bay and Seattle. Former Bills and Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is a valuable resource for Wash as a part of his staff coaching the defensive backs. But the Jaguars defense is about the players.
Calais Campbell signed as a free agent as Arizona chose to pay Chandler Jones rather than the veteran interior defensive lineman. Campbell has a ridiculous 14.5 sacks through 14 games. Last year’s third-round draft pick from Maryland Yannick Ngakoue has 11 sacks while former Denver Broncos interior pass rusher Malik Jackson has another eight. “Sacksonville” has Dante Fowler–number three overall pick in 2015–contributing with 7.5 sacks after a slow start to his career.
On offense, the Jaguars were written-off after losing number one wide receiver Allen Robinson to a torn ACL in week one. Allen Hurns has missed five games with an ankle injury and Marqise Lee is out until the playoffs. So obviously, quarterback Blake Bortles lights up Indianapolis, Seattle, and Houston to the tune of 309 yards, 268 yards, and 326 yards passing completing 74%, 67% and 72% of his passes with a combined seven touchdowns and no interceptions over the past three weeks scoring 105 points in those three games.
Rookie running back Leonard Fournette has led the ground-and-pound offense much of the season and has 923 yards rushing in just 11 games, but now Bortles is making plays with Dede Westbrook, Keelan Cole and Jaydon Mickens making plays at wide receiver. Is Bortles ready to make an Eli Manning/Joe Flacco run through the playoffs as a hot quarterback with a strong defense? Do we call him Eli Flacco or Joe Manning if he continues this play?
Jacksonville–if they win out and the Patriots or Steelers lose a game–have the advantage in tie-breakers with Pittsburgh (head-to-head) and New England (conference record) to sneak into the second or first seed and steal a bye week and home-field in the Divisional round. They finish on the road for the last two weeks facing Jimmy Garoppolo (who owes the Patriots a favor for not trading him to Cleveland) and the Tennessee Titans (who are fighting for a Wild Card spot).
All three teams at the top of the AFC are favored on Sunday. The Patriots are at home against a team they beat by 20 points just three weeks ago on the road. The Steelers are on the road facing a team that lost its best defensive player (J.J. Watt) and the most exciting rookie in the league (quarterback Deshaun Watson) and has lost seven of eight games down the stretch.
Jacksonville is the most likely to falter in week sixteen traveling cross-country to face the undefeated Jimmy Garoppolo at Levi Stadium. This could be Garoppolo’s toughest test so far. After lighting up the sub-par defenses of the Bears (293 yards) and Texans (334 yards) he dissected a solid Tennessee secondary (381 yards). If Jimmy G. can do the same to the best defense in the NFL—and two of the top cornerbacks in the league in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye– how many more millions of dollars can he squeeze out of San Francisco to stay off the free agent market and away from quarterback-needy teams such as Denver, Cleveland, Miami, the Jets, the Giants, and Arizona?
If I had to predict…I think the Patriots, Steelers and Jaguars all hold serve over the final two weeks of the 2017 season. New England and Pittsburgh finish 13-3 and secure the bye weeks. New England takes the number one seed. Jacksonville hosts a Wild Card round game with a 12-4 record and then travels to Pittsburgh. That should make for one heck of an exciting Divisional round game.
–Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01