The NFL‘s final two weeks of the regular season are always full of divisional action, pitting teams that are seemingly rolling into the playoffs against their annual rivals. These matchups create dynamics between teams that are playing for everything and those that are simply playing “spoiler.” The results are typically wild, unexpected, and usually turn the league on its head. With Week 16 in the books — aside from Monday Night Football, which will be a pivotal contest — here are five key takeaways from the weekend’s NFL action, along with some insight on what it all means.
The Redskins are a threat
All season long, the NFC East has been full of mediocre, underachieving play. The Dallas Cowboys were decimated with injuries, the New York Giants couldn’t get out of their own way, and the Philadelphia Eagles were, well, a mess. With how poorly the division has played overall, no one expects the champion of the NFC East to do much of anything in January. However, now that we know who that champion is, it seems like the division might be able to do some damage in the postseason.
The Washington Redskins weren’t supposed to do anything this season, but after defeating the Eagles on Saturday night on the road, they basically “stumbled” upon a division title. Along with tight end Jordan Reed, Kirk Cousins has helped Washington play exceptionally well on offense (throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns). Washington’s defense has also been essential to the team’s three-game winning streak, which helped them clinch the division. The Redskins will likely face off with the Seahawks or the Vikings in the wild-card round of the playoffs at home and they shouldn’t be dismissed; this team could win that game or even more.
The Jets are for real, too
Games between the Jets and the Patriots always produce enthralling, memorable outcomes — no matter what the two teams’ positions involve. It was no different when the teams met in East Rutherford on Sunday, as the Jets used a crazy coin toss in overtime to get a critical win over their division rival, moving them into position to clinch a playoff berth. Of course, New York needs to take care of business against the Buffalo Bills in the season finale. If they do that, they may make some postseason noise.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is playing the best football of his career (easily), and Brandon Marshall leads a solid receiving corp that suddenly created a productive offense. Everyone knows what Darrelle Revis and New York’s defense is capable of as well, so when you put the two together, the result is a strong football team. The win over the Patriots should do wonders for the Jets’ confidence. And as a team that could ride a six-game winning streak heading into January, these division winners in the wild-card round need to be on alert.
No team is more inconsistent than the Steelers
Could the real Pittsburgh Steelers please stand up? One short week ago, Pittsburgh turned heads with a terrific come-from-behind victory against the Denver Broncos that saw them jump into a prime position to clinch a playoff berth. Following that performance, many said — as they had in previous weeks — that the Steelers are a dark horse Super Bowl team in the AFC. Well, they might not even get a chance to play for February following their abysmal Week 16 loss to their division rival, the Baltimore Ravens.
It was clear that the Steelers couldn’t deal with the pressure on Sunday, and the Ravens (who have experienced one of the more frustrating NFL seasons) were ready to spoil their hopes and dreams. While Pittsburgh still has a chance at the playoffs, they now have to rely on beating the Browns (who knows?) as well as a Jets loss in Week 17. Ultimately, Pittsburgh’s inability to remain consistent this season may cost them in the end. They’ve had the big wins (like the one against Denver), but have faltered in other games (now twice against Baltimore).
Carolina needed to lose
Losing is never fun. It stings. It can stick with you for days, even weeks. In the NFL though, feeling the bitterness of defeat is key in the development of a championship team. That’s part of the reason why only one team in the era of the Super Bowl has been through an entire regular and postseason unbeaten. Through 15 weeks, it felt like the Carolina Panthers could double the size of that club. However, the Atlanta Falcons had other ideas.
Matt Ryan and Atlanta, who were fighting for their lives, found a way to get past Cam Newton and the Panthers at home in Week 16, providing Carolina with their first loss of the season. While it’s disappointing that the Panthers’ potentially historic run is over, the loss will only benefit them going forward. For one, it felt like the Panthers were becoming cocky (not breaking news) and needed a slap of reality with a loss.
Also, it’s not as if the loss really means anything; if Carolina wins next week, they will clinch home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. Most importantly, there is no longer the pressure created by the “Can they go undefeated?” scenario. This is an exceptionally good football team that may have a better chance at going to the Super Bowl following their Week 16 defeat.
Arizona = dominance
The Arizona Cardinals continue to churn out wins and look utterly brilliant while doing it. With an obliteration of the Green Bay Packers in Week 16, Arizona has now won nine straight games (tied with Kansas City for the longest active streak in the NFL), clinching a first-round bye in the playoffs. A perfect balance of defense, special teams, and offense causes many to believe that this is the best team in the NFL. This balance was on full display against the Packers.
Carson Palmer and the offense were solid on Sunday, but it was the defense that really stood out. The Cardinals sacked Aaron Rodgers 8 times (recording 9 in the game overall) and forced 4 turnovers, leading to 28 points. Arizona’s Jerraud Powers and Cory Redding also scored defensively, holding the Packers to just eight points in the blowout. If things line up for the Cardinals, they could have home-field advantage in the postseason. At this point, it may not matter. If they keep playing with the intensity and precision that they’ve shown, this team is unbeatable. Plain and simple.