Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 10: AFC South well on its way to two playoff spots


In one of the bigger upsets over a year full of surprising twists, the AFC South appears to be a functional and competent division in the NFL, and that fact was only emphasized on Sunday as the Jaguars and Titans held on for close home victories. 

Let’s not crown either team just yet, but the chance of them both making the playoffs jumped exponentially thanks to them taking care of business. The Jags snuck out a surprising 20-17 victory over the Chargers in overtime because the Chargers Chargered it up at the Chargeriest time and couldn’t close. The Titans kept the Bengals at bay just long enough to win 24-20 and keep pace with the Jags.

Jacksonville now has a whopping 93 percent chance of making the playoffs: get used to seeing them win because they have the Browns, Cardinals, Colts and 49ers on the schedule. Ten wins is a borderline lock; 12 is not out of the question. Tom Coughlin is probably having a good chuckle behind closed doors, because the Giants are the most dysfunctional franchise in football (non-Browns division) right now less than a year after chasing him out of town, and he has the Jags on the cusp of something great. 

Betting against Blake Bortles in the playoffs sounds like a fun thing to do, but the former first-round pick is starting to play pretty well. Don’t read too much into the stats from Sunday — he averaged 5.4 yards per pass attempt and completed 54.9 percent of his passes — because they ultimately weren’t good. The one thing that stands out to me, though, is the Jaguars managed to win by throwing the ball 51 times. That’s not a formula you should expect to see often; they’ve spent the season hiding Bortles and leaning on their defense (arguably the best in the league) and Leonard Fournette. They now have wins without Fournette and with the run game struggling. 

There were some ugly moments for sure. The taunting flag on Marqise Lee after an end zone incompletion nearly derailed the game, and Bortles threw one back-breaking pick that should have ended things too. But the Chargers gift-wrapped a short field goal with a defensive delay of game (!) penalty in overtime and former Chargers kicker Josh Lambo mashed a blocked field goal just far enough that it got over the crossbar. Move back five yards and it’s probably no good, and maybe we’re talking a different story here.

Jacksonville is currently sitting at the No. 5 seed in the AFC, but it should not be a surprise to see them end up with a bye. Say that out loud. With the schedule they’ve got left, it would be a bit shocking if they somehow did not win the division, but the two division contenders are playing each other in Week 17. 

The Titans, who are also 6-3 and technically in first place, have a 69 percent chance of making the playoffs. The odds are lower because instead of the Browns, the Titans get the Steelers (this Thursday), which could easily be a loss. But Tennessee is in good shape to make the postseason too, with games against the Cards, Colts, 49ers and Texans remaining. Ten wins should be in the cards for them. 

The other reason to be optimistic about the Titans is the hope that Marcus Mariota can get healthy for the stretch run. He certainly didn’t look like he was having an issue with his hamstring on Sunday afternoon when he tossed on the afterburners.

The Titans played some of their best football last year during the middle stretch of the season, ripping off chunks of points as the offense found its groove. We haven’t seen them really explode yet, but it could be coming, especially with the potential emergence of rookie receiver Corey Davis, who should have finished with a big game but had a would-be touchdown turned into a fumble/touchback out of the end zone. Davis definitely gives this offense a new dimension and a true weapon on the outside.

DeMarco Murray scored three times, while three different players had over 40 rushing yards and three different players had a rush of 20 yards or more for Tennessee. They need to get better on defense, but they have a friendly schedule and an explosive offense. 

The wildest thing about this division is that it is the only division in football where you feel comfortable penciling in two teams to make the playoffs. The AFC South! One of Jacksonville and Tennessee is going to make the postseason, obviously. The Colts and Texans are not threats in the division. And because the AFC wild-card scenario is so wide open, there is a really strong chance the second-place team in this division ends up getting in.

Anyone who is 3-6 or 4-5 remains firmly in the hunt. At 6-3, it would be borderline hard to miss the playoffs. 9-7 is probably going to get a wild card berth, worst case. There are no other AFC divisions with two teams who you would feel great about making the postseason. And while the NFC has multiple divisions with a pair of good teams, you wouldn’t feel comfortable locking in the Panthers, Cowboys or Seahawks at this point of the proceedings. 

The AFC South is the safest bet for a pair of playoff teams. 2017 is something else, man. 

A familiar formula

The 2017 New Orleans Saints are just as big a shock: the Saints are a run-heavy team with a good-to-great defense and aren’t depending on Drew Brees to throw five touchdown passes every week. No one saw that coming, not with the injuries to pass rushers and a lot of youth on the back end. But here we are and the Saints are continuing to roll teams up with their approach, the latest result coming in the form of a 47-10 obliteration of the Bills in a mid-November road game.

New Orleans did this despite Drew Brees not throwing a single passing touchdown and not even hitting 200 yards passing. The Saints simply dominated in the ground game, feeding Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram once again. 

The biggest addition may have come via subtraction: by jettisoning Adrian Peterson in a trade to the Cardinals, the Saints opened up more touches for the rookie Kamara, who has been an absolutely electric runner in this system, and a perfect fit for what the Saints want to do. He complements Ingram so well, and the team knows it. 

“Those guys are so versatile, we can plug n’ play in any situation with either of those guys,” Brees said in the on-field postgame interview. “They’re a great complement to each other so well.”

All said, the Saints ran for 295 rushing yards and six (!) rushing touchdowns, something that hasn’t been done since 1957. They are a throwback football team, somehow. 

But it’s not just the backs doing work. The offensive line has been superb in the run game. Per ESPN, the Saints ran nine times against eight-plus defenders in the box and ran for 128 yards and three touchdowns on those plays. Terron Armstead took someone’s manhood on Brees’ rushing touchdown.

Looking at this from a larger, macro standpoint, what should really stand out is the familiar way in which the Saints have had success like this before. The last time the Saints averaged more than 29 carries per game over a full season was 2009, when New Orleans won the Super Bowl. They are averaging 30.7 carries per game this season. They have only averaged over 130 rushing yards per game twice since then, once in 2009 and again in 2011. This year they are averaging 142.2 yards per game.

The spike in points when they rush the ball well should be notable. 

2009

29.3

131.6

31.9

2010

23.8

94.9

24.0

2011

26.9

132.9

34.2

2012

23.1

98.6

28.8

2013

24.4

92.1

25.9

2014

25.4

113.6

25.1

2015

24.8

93.2

25.5

2016

25.3

108.9

29.3

2017

30.7

142.2

29.8

It flies in the face of convention, but the Saints are a more explosive offensive team when they run the ball more. That’s just balance working itself out, and having balance means life gets easier on the defense. 

This is a Super Bowl caliber team that checks all the boxes — strong coach, high-end quarterback, powerful run game and a defense that can shut people down. They only have three more road games left on the schedule, and one is in a dome. There is potential for them to walk down the Eagles and secure the top seed. 

Quitters

The Giants are toast. We’ve known that for a few weeks. But there should be major concern in Ben McAdoo’s head right now, because there’s a decent chance he becomes the rare Giants head coach to get fired in the middle of the season. A week after having no answer — literally, none — for what he said to motivate his team at halftime of their embarrassing home loss to the Rams, McAdoo had a weird explanation for his players remaining motivated.

“They’re pro football players. They need to be self-motivated,” McAdoo said after the game. “Everybody gets a paycheck this week.”

He’s not wrong, but these sort of things sound like empty, bizarre verbiage amid a nightmare season. The Giants, who were one of the best defenses in football last year, let C.J. Beathard roll up over 400 yards on them as they were kicked around by a previously winless 49ers team. 

There are leaks about players quitting on McAdoo and the Giants are getting upset about it, understandably. There are questions about the Giants possibly benching Eli Manning, because that will surely fix everything. 

McAdoo claims he hasn’t seen any quit from his team over the last two weeks. The tape says otherwise. 

There are guys out there for the Giants actively making business decisions. Maybe McAdoo should go back to showing his players viral videos involving kangaroos getting punched.

A decision on firing him could come as soon as Monday morning, although it would put the Giants in a tough spot. Perhaps it motivates the players (the old dead cat bounce). But it would force whoever is the interim — we’ll guess Steve Spagnuolo — in a position to coach two games in 10 days, thanks to the Giants playing on Thanksgiving. A home matchup against Andy Reid after the bye and a road trip to Washington four days later for a night Thanksgiving game is a brutal 10-day stretch. 

It is possible the Giants are just too far gone. Jim Fassel and owner John Mara agreed on an exit strategy with two games remaining in the 2003 season. It wouldn’t be unprecedented to fire a coach midseason, but it would be a surprise. The losses might just be too brutal to keep watching at this point.



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