Back in 2013, Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs started the season on fire, running up a 9-0 record as quarterback Alex Smith had the best statistical year of his career. Then the Chiefs lost five of the next seven before blowing a 38-10 lead in the AFC Wild Card game against the Colts. There followed further criticism of Smith being a game-manager and not a playoff quarterback. When, last season, Kansas lost four straight between Weeks 9 and 14 and were bounced from the Wild Card by a Titans team down 21-3 at halftime, Smith was gone.
Smith’s replacement Patrick Mahomes started the season on fire, running up a 9-1 record, having the best statistical year of his career… But in the last four weeks, things have taken a turn and, this time, there’s no Smith blame.
Mahomes threw 13 touchdowns in the first three games of the season and has thrown at least four scores seven times, but in the last four weeks the Chiefs have released starting running back and leading scorer Kareem Hunt, squeezed past Baltimore in overtime, beaten Oakland by a touchdown and lost to both LA teams. No-one is calling Mahomes a game manager but this Sunday night, KC visit Seattle, a team nobody wants to meet in December, especially at home and at primetime (they’re 16-2 at home in nationally televised games under Pete Carroll). The Chiefs would clinch a division title with a win but we’re picking the Seahawks and their famed 12th man fans to come out on top and take a step to clinching their own wild-card berth.
Seattle trail the Rams in their division and, in parallel with the Chiefs, all has not been rosy since Los Angeles came out 54-41 shootout winners against Kansas, a game touted as the future of football. A win over Detroit followed that clash but since then they’ve managed just 29 points in losses to Chicago and Philadelphia.
“We’ve got to get it figured out fast,” said head coach Sean McVay after last week’s loss to Philly. “These last couple weeks, we’re doing things that are total uncharacteristic of what good football teams.”
The Rams turned the ball over nine times in those three games, with Jared Goff throwing six interceptions, doubling his total through Week 11, and offensive focal point Todd Gurley has only carried the ball 11 and 12 times in the last two games. Fortunately for the Rams, they get to take out their frustrations on the 3-11 Cardinals and their patchwork offensive line. Arizona has been starting three rookies on the left-hand side of its line in tackle Korey Cunningham, guard Colby Gossett and centre Mason Cole, to protect first-year quarterback Josh Rosen. LA, meanwhile, boasts perhaps the best interior tandem in football in Pro Bowler Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Rosen has been sacked 35 times, tenth in the league. That sounds reasonable until you realise he’s only started 11 games and everyone above him has started 14. Talented running back David Johnson has also found it tough going with the line’s struggles and will do so this week as the Rams clinch the division with a win.
When starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo blew out his knee in Week 3, the San Francisco 49ers were expected to fold up their tent and go home. When back-up CJ Beathard injured his wrist five games later, no-one would have blamed them. The blessing in disguise, however, was the elevation of undrafted second-year man Nick Mullens to the starting role. The former University of Southern Mississippi passer – alma mater of Hall of Famer Brett Favre – has led the 49ers to two straight wins, his second and third victories in six starts with a QB rating of 96.0. This week, he faces a stern test in the monstrous Chicago defense that leads the league in turnovers and is restricting opposing QBs to an NFL-low 33.9 rating. With their victory over Green Bay on Sunday, the Bears secured their first playoff spot since 2010 and won the NFC North. A win against the Niners gives them an outside shot at a first-round bye in the postseason.
Since Gregg Williams took over as interim head coach from the hapless Hue Jackson, the Browns are 4-2 and rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield is a player transformed. In the six games offensive co-ordinator Freddie Kitchens has been calling plays, Mayfield has thrown 13 touchdowns to five interceptions for a rating of 111.1. The run has the Browns still mathematically alive for a playoff spot, but the maths would likely require a terrible Christmas yachting accident to befall the entire Ravens, Colts, Titans and Dolphins teams. This week’s match-up will be extra-spicy for another reason though. When Jackson was canned by Cleveland, he returned to Cincinnati where he’d spent seven seasons at over two stints. That didn’t go down too well with the young passer, who did his level best to blank his former coach after the game, a 35-20 Browns away win, leading to an awkward, arm’s-length handshake.
“Didn’t feel like talking to him,” Mayfield said of the incident. “He was here trying to tell us to play for him. Left Cleveland goes down to Cincinnati. I don't know. That's just somebody that's in our locker room asking for us to play for him. Then he goes to a team we play twice a year. That’s how I feel.”
Cleveland’s Dawg Pound will have a warm welcome in store for Jackson this Sunday as he returns to the scene of his criminal 3-36-1 record over two and a half seasons. The Browns defense, that trails only the Bears in takeaways, will also be rolling out the red carpet for the depleted Bengals offense. Already shorn of quarterback-receiver tandem Andy Dalton and AJ Green, wideout Tyler Boyd could be out this week and John Ross and rusher Joe Mixon are dinged up.
The 12-2 Saints can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win and the Superdome is a happy home for Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense. They’ve scored at least 40 points in three of their past four home games and they average 38 overall. They welcome the explosive Steelers into their dome this weekend. The Steelers would win the AFC North with a victory combined with a Ravens loss but the opposite scenario could be disastrous. With Indianapolis and Tennessee having identical records to Baltimore, Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh could end up missing out on postseason action altogether.
Browns over Bengals
Rams over Cardinals
Bears over 49ers
Seahawks over Chiefs
Saints over Steelers