NFC playoff picture remains blurry following stunning Sunday
No result Sunday – no upset, no injury — affected the playoff picture as much as what happened in the testing facilities and laboratories earlier in the week.
The Omicron variant exploded upon the NFL starting on Monday, sending 163 players into quarantine by Saturday, emptying rosters of dozens of starters, precipitating an overhaul of the league’s protocol on testing and return to action, forcing the rescheduling of three games – including two with huge NFC implications — and stripping away the feeling of certainty that the postseason field would be mostly determined during games.
Only one thing compared to the impact of the pandemic on the playoffs this week.
The Detroit Lions.
Their 30-12 stunner over the Arizona Cardinals caused tumult at the top of the playoff field and of the draft order. The Lions might have ruined their chance to get the first overall pick in notching their second victory of the season, but the damage they did to the Cardinals was nearly as great.
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The Cardinals entered last week’s games as the NFC’s top seed. After two straight losses, though, they are now the fourth seed and are at risk of falling even further by losing the NFC West to the Rams, to whom they lost last week.
The Green Bay Packers held onto the top seed after beating the Baltimore Ravens Sunday to win the NFC North, becoming the first team to clinch a playoff spot. With the COVID-ravaged Browns, Vikings and Lions left on the schedule, the Packers, who have won their division three years in a row, are in excellent position to be the NFC’s No. 1 seed. The first-round bye would be especially useful for the Packers – and bad news for everyone else — because it would give Aaron Rodgers time to rest the fractured toe that has been keeping him out of practice. Inactivity wasn’t a problem for Rodgers this week. He was 23 of 31 for 268 yards and three touchdowns, albeit against an injury- and COVID-19-depleted Ravens pass defense.
Rodgers, whose future is the story that will hover over the playoffs, said he would savor the division title before discussing how much he cares for his teammates. He also said he thought his offensive teammates could win no matter what the defense or special teams do.
“These last two games, we’ve played some pretty damn good football on offense,” Rodgers said.
At 10-4, the Cardinals can’t say the same about their offense right now, but they will still make the playoffs even if they are caught by the Rams. The NFC West remains the best division in the NFL, with a good chance to put three teams in the playoffs. On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers beat the Atlanta Falcons, their fourth victory in the last five games. At 8-6, the 49ers are currently the sixth seed.
Of all of those teams — of all the teams in the NFL, perhaps — the biggest enigma is the Cardinals, whose level of play has sagged in recent weeks, calling into question how much of a threat they will be in the postseason. They allowed the Lions — the Lions! — to go on a 15-play opening drive that took 8:50 off the clock. They gave up 248 yards in the first half. Kyler Murray, who admitted the team lacked “juice” on Sunday, was shaky, missing throws high and wide, and could not escape from the Lions when he tried to run. His quarterback rating is 78.7 with three touchdowns and five interceptions in the four games since he injured his ankle late in the Week 8 loss to the Packers.
Against the Lions, the offense gained just 84 yards in the first half. The absence of DeAndre Hopkins surely has something to do with the lack of explosion, but in the fourth quarter, when the Cardinals were trailing by three touchdowns, they were oddly somnolent, letting precious seconds drift off the clock when they had the ball. Over the last two weeks, the offense has managed just three touchdowns and they are 2 of 8 in the red zone. Only the Cowboys, whose offense still looked out of sync even against the Giants’ COVID-depleted defense, gave air to as many questions in a victory as the Cardinals did.
It feels familiar to last season, when the Cardinals started strong, only to fade in the second half of the season and miss the playoffs. That won’t happen this season, but with games against the Colts (bad news for the struggling Cardinals run defense), Cowboys and Seahawks remaining, going into the postseason on an upswing is no given and continuing struggles, particularly for the offense, will raise questions about Kliff Kingsbury’s ability to push a team into a deep playoff run.
“This is nowhere near where we were last year, and we’re not going to allow it to be,” Murray said.
What might help save the Cardinals from their slide? The Rams are one of the teams struggling with a wave of players with COVID-19. Last week, they had more than 25 players out, and their game against the Seahawks was one of those postponed to Tuesday, along with the Washington-Philadelphia game because the Football Team had more than 20 players on the COVID list.
Rams Coach Sean McVay said Saturday he was contemplating multiple game plans given the roster uncertainty — one for the players they know will be available on Tuesday, and one for players who have a chance to be cleared from the COVID list before the game.
Not surprisingly, the Seahawks and Eagles were not happy with the postponements and, on Sunday, they had good reason to be even angrier. While the Rams and Washington are starting to get players back from the COVID list thanks to a quicker return-to-play timeline under the new protocols, the Seahawks and Eagles — who had not suffered the massive outbreaks the Rams and WFT did — put players on the COVID list on Sunday. The domino effect of the postponements can’t be ignored either. All four teams – with the Rams, Eagles and Washington all in the playoff mix — are scheduled to play next Sunday on a short week, a potential competitive disadvantage.
That was certainly the New Orleans Saints’ situation Sunday night in their 9-0 victory over the Bucs, the shocker that provided the other bookend to Sunday.
The Saints, who are now 7-7 and the NFC’s seventh seed, were without head coach Sean Payton, who had COVID, and the Bucs entered the game with a four-game lead over the Saints in the NFC South. The Bucs will almost certainly win the division despite Sunday’s result. But the Saints have beaten the Bucs in the last seven regular season games and they hit Tom Brady over and over Sunday, inducing a fumble and an interception. The Saints had almost no offense of their own, but it didn’t matter. The Bucs were shut out for the first time in the Brady era — the Saints held the Bucs to their previous Brady low (three points) last season — and injuries to receivers Mike Evans (hamstring) and Chris Godwin (knee), and running back Leonard Fournette (hamstring) left Brady to attempt a comeback with only Rob Gronkowski as a reliable weapon.
The potential absences of so many targets from what had been the league’s top scoring offense pose problems for the final three games of the regular season, with playoff position still very much in flux – the Bucs are 10-4, the same record as the Cardinals and Cowboys. Receiver Antonio Brown, who served a three-game suspension for misrepresenting his vaccination status, is expected to return to the active roster on Monday and the sputtering offense and Brady’s frustration explain why the Bucs are so quick to forgive Brown’s fake vaccination card. The Bucs have two games against the Panthers and one against the Jets remaining – entirely winnable if the offense is even partially intact.
Like the Cardinals, the Bucs missed an opportunity Sunday to seize some certainty in what looks likely to become a very uncertain final month of the regular season. With the pandemic a significant factor for the first time this season, only the Packers got what everyone wants now – a guarantee they’re in the playoffs no matter when the games get played and who is available to play them.
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