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It’s getting to that time of the season where the games take on added significance through context as whilst each game is still one sixteenth of a team’s season, we are now seeing teams fall out the hunt of the playoffs and the consequences are pretty immediate. Gone are the days when teams waited until the Monday following the final game of the season to make their coaching changes and in fact some are even trying to spark a late season run, so with all that in mind let’s take stock of the week fourteen games and what’s been going on around the league. Oh yes, and I have two safeties for you luck people as well!

In the AFC, three of the division leaders lost with the New England Patriots losing in Miami in something that is fast becoming an unwanted tradition for the Patriots. The Pats’ coaching staff might have outsmarted themselves by having Rob Gronkowski on the field to defend an unlikely Hail Mary from Ryan Tannehill (who was nursing an ankle injury as well as only recently coming back from a shoulder injury) but what they came up with was still a fantastically exciting play that will be part of every season roundup.  The best thing to do if you somehow haven’t seen it, or missed Dan writing about it is to have a look at the highlights here. Whilst the Patriots should sail into the playoffs still, they look to be settling into the number two seed which they will have to hope is not too costly if the Chiefs continue their current streak into the playoffs. Meanwhile the Pittsburgh Steelers saw their hopes of taking the Raiders into overtime dashed when their kicker Chris Boswell slipped on his last second field goal attempt and missed for the second time that game. The bigger question is what took them so long to get Ben Roethlisberger back into the game in the second half once his rib injury had been cleared as he was seen stood on the sidelines whilst Josh Dobbs struggled to do much as his replacement. As for AFC South, the Houston Texans had their nine game winning streak ended by an Indianapolis Colts team looking to bounce back from their loss to the Jaguars and hoping to stay in contention for the playoffs.

The Colts are one of five AFC teams with seven wins trying to make said playoffs. The Dolphins are still in the mix, although they could just as easily finish eight and eight but given the injuries they have suffered Adam Gase has pulled off another impressive coaching job to keep them in contention. It feels like whatever happens in Miami they need to find a quarterback who can play effectively who is not as prone to injury as Tannehill. The Ravens remain on seven wins thanks to their narrow loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, but they were at least competitive and it looks like the competition for the AFC North will go down to the wire and perhaps the Bengals will have one last say in events in week seventeen when they face the Steelers. I should point out that Patrick Mahomes threw a no look pass and an impossible across the body throw on fourth and nine that very few other quarterbacks could plausably attempt and likely only Aaron Rodgers could carry off. The Tennessee Titans literally ran out winners in their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars with Derrick Henry amassing two hundred and forty-three yards and an amazing ninety-nine yard touchdown that featured three separate stiff arms as he rumbled the length of the field.

These five teams with seven wins are involved in two interconnected races, for whilst the Ravens and Steelers are duking it out for the AFC North, all look to be competing for one last wildcard spot as with a three game lead and still in with a chance of winning the AFC West – the LA Chargers should make the playoffs having already hit the magical ten win total with three games left. They did enough to beat the Bengals without extending themselves in a game that featured one of my worst picks of the year.

On the NFC side of the league, three out of the four division leaders won with the Dallas Cowboys riding their luck in overtime to beat the Philadelphia Eagles in a game that was marred by more officiating controversies. The Chicago Bears won a defensive game with the LA Rams that featured lots of interceptions and provoked questions about the Rams ability to function in the cold. It’s an easy narrative to grab but we shall have to see if over more games if it is genuinely a thing. However, it’s not often that we have seen Sean McVay struggle and I’m excited to see how this team does in their second trip to the playoffs under this regime. Meanwhile the New Orleans Saints got back to winning ways with a comfortable win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and remain in contention for the number one seed in the NFC.

It seems likely that we know the winner of each division of the NFC and like in the AFC, there is a clear contender for the first wildcard place as with their convincing win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Seattle Seahawks have a two game lead onver any other challenger.

The Vikings are one of four teams with six wins and so need to make a push in these last three games if they are to claim the last wildcard place. As a team with a high profile quarterback free-agent and an offence that hasn’t quite come together it is perhaps not a surprise that the Vikings have let go their offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, but it is a blow to the coordinator who was being quoted as a likely head coaching candidate before the season. There is however, a big difference between being the quarterback coach for a Super Bowl winning team and being the offensive coordinator, yet alone a head coach. I do idly wonder whether DeFilippo might find a quick rehire to lend a hand in Philadelphia given the struggles they have had on offence after the brain drain of the offseason, although the lack of deep threat doesn’t help either. Having lost to the Cowboys it feels like the Eagles won’t win the division, although technically it is still possible, but they have six wins and are one of the three teams that I think have actual shot at making the playoffs. Things are not exactly looking great for the Carolina Panthers as they lost on the road to the Cleveland Browns and there’s talks of issues with Cam Newton’s shoulder. The Panthers have also had changes in coaching staff, this time on the defensive time but having now lost five straight games they are running out of time to turn things round. I suspect it is already too late for six win Washington who at least scored some points when they brought on recently signed quarterback Josh Johnson, but when you lose to the New York Giants this badly it is a sign of a team who needs to rethink their approach.

That pretty much covers all the teams in the playoff race, but I thought I should mention the Green Bay Packers because of the news that’s surrounding them. Having fired Mike McCarthy last week they got back to winning ways against woeful Falcons and now stand at 5-7-1. It will be interesting to see how they try to retool on the fly given the age of Aaron Rodgers, and it was interesting that long-time coach Winston Moss tweeted about, ‘…Find somebody that is going to hold #12 and everybody in this building to a #LombardiStandard!…’ shortly after McCarthy was let go. The team may have bounced back with a win this week but after such a period of stability who can foresee how the offseason will go with the recently hired GM and his search for a new coach?

Finally, or at least the last thing before I finish up with the week fourteen safeties, I have to comment on one the teams whose major effect on the playoffs could well be that win against the Steelers this week. On Monday the Raiders let go of general manager Reggie McKenzie, which possibly wasn’t a surprise given that the Raiders have traded away such draft picks as Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper. The power dynamic for the Raiders obviously shifted when they handed Jon Gruden a ten-year $100 million contract and they will now have to find someone to work closely with Gruden but whoever they hire won’t have the power of a usual GM so only time will tell whether this will ultimately result in a more competitive team. However it works out, it is pretty clear that Gruden is central to the Raiders’ plan and the defining factor in the success of the team is the design and execution of Gruden’s plan by Gruden. There won’t be much room to hide whatever the result.

So we had two safeties this week and I got lucky enough to pick both games to watch anyway. The first took place in the Thursday night game and re-affirms the importance of special teams play when the Titans’ Cameron Batson muffed the catch and recovered the ball to be tackled into the end zone. In one play the Jaguars scored two points and got the ball back, they just failed to capitalise on that chance. The second took place early in the third quarter and is the kind of thing that drives an offensive coordinator round the bend as on second and fifteen on their own eight yard line Jared Goff took the snap and drifted back into the end zone where Eddie Goldman just beat Akiem Hicks to the sack and the safety. It’s the kind of play where situational awareness is so important and there is so much for a quarterback to learn so I don’t want to judge Goff too harshly but it makes you appreciate the Tom Brady or Drew Brees who stilllmake mistakes and take sacks but you think would have got rid of the ball in that situation. Still, the important thing is that the quarterback got sacked for points because that is what should happen to the glory hunters every now and again to keep them grounded. Let’s hope for some more next week and for those counting these were the ninth and tenth safeties of the season.