The correct route in the Patriots' offense is the one that Tom Brady expects his receiver to run. Brady, like so many NFL figures entering the season's final quarter, is not getting what he expects. That leaves the Patriots' streak of playoff byes in more peril than appeared possible a few weeks back.
Some NFL offenses spell everything out for the quarterback. Former Browns and Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins, who spent one offseason with the Patriots, explained to me recently that a Kyle Shanahan offense, for instance, gives the quarterback the right answer on every play. That's partly why Shanahan loves Kirk Cousins, who knows how to follow a lesson plan. In New England, the right answer is up to Brady and his receivers to figure out, without words and mostly after the snap. When both sides read coverages in unison, easy completions follow. When trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu or rookies N'Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers see things differently than Brady, a performance like the one in Houston on Sunday night occurs. Brady threw 19 passes to wideouts not named Julian Edelman for nine catches, 75 yards and an interception. The image that sticks with me from the Texans' 28-22 victory is of Brady repeatedly pointing where he wants his receiver to go during the play, only to throw the ball into oblivion.
The sky is not falling in New England. The 10-2 Patriots will finish their tour of AFC division leaders this Sunday against the Chiefs, and a victory would put Bill Belichick and Brady in strong position to host a playoff game in the NFL's quarterfinals for the 10th straight season. If Kansas City wins, however, the Chiefs, Texans and Bills will all be in the mix with the Pats in the fight for the No. 2 seed (Baltimore is currently looking like the favorite for the top spot). More importantly, the Patriots will have lost the three biggest tests on their schedule to date, all in the second half of the season. I'd argue that it's the biggest AFC game left because of what it says about the Ravens' most serious challengers and whether a loaded Chiefs team will have to win three playoff games, with two likely being played on the road, just to reach the Super Bowl.
The 2018 Patriots, 2012 Ravens and 2009 Cardinals are examples of teams that played their best in the tournament despite ugly December performances, but they are the exceptions. Most eventual Super Bowl participants showed some ability to beat quality competition before the playoffs, and the Patriots' only two wins against teams currently above .500 came back in September. If Brady doesn't find the right answers on Sunday against a stingy Chiefs pass defense, the Patriots will be confirmed as clearly the weakest of the four AFC division leaders, no matter what the standings say.
The Chiefs-Patriots matchup will be massive in the pursuit of an AFC bye. So what else is at stake in the season's final quarter?
The AFC South: Sunday's results all but knocked the Colts out of the division race, as 6-6 Indianapolis (which lost to Tennessee) now trails the 8-4 Texans by two games with four to play. Tennessee (7-5) and Houston face off twicein the final three weeks, a scheduling annoyance that clarifies what The Fighting Tannehills need to accomplish. It could take a sweep by the Titans to win the division, partly because the Texans will be favored in their other two games, against Denver and at Tampa. The Texans have a real chance at securing a playoff bye if they win out because of their tiebreaker over the Patriots.
The Bills' pursuit of 11 wins: The Bills are playing their best at the right time. Quarterback Josh Allen and the team's defense are coming off their best three-game stretch of the season, and of Allen's career. The schedule gets tougher with upcoming matchups against Baltimoreand New England sandwiched around a Week 15 trip to Pittsburgh that's been flexed to Sunday Night Football. If the 9-3 Bills go 1-2 in those games, they will be in excellent shape to get their 11th win of 2019 in Week 17 against the Jets and likely earn the AFC's No. 5 seed. Go 2-1, with one of those wins coming against the Patriots, and the AFC East will be in play.
Buffalo's strong recent showing is one reason why it looks increasingly unlikely that a nine-win team will make the playoffs as a wild card in either conference. (Aside from the 6-6 Cowboys in the East, the top six teams in the NFC all had at least eight wins heading into Week 13.) The Bills are a strong bet for 10-11 wins, which leaves the 7-5 Titans, 7-5 Steelers, 6-6 Colts and 6-6 Raiders with very little margin for error the rest of the way. Claiming the No. 6 seed will probably require 10 victories and perhaps some tiebreaker help.
Sean Payton's Coach of the Year candidacy and the Saints' home-field advantage: Next Sunday's Saints-49ers matchup looms just as large as the Chiefs-Patriots game. A win by 10-2 New Orleans would put the Saints in prime position to get the No. 1 seed in the NFC again and make Payton's award resume impeccable in a season where he won five games with Teddy Bridgewater at QB. A Saints loss would open the door for a far messier battle for byes and help the chances for John Harbaugh, Kyle Shanahan, Pete Carroll and Mike Tomlin to get Coach of the Year votes.
Gardner Minshew's 2020 starting prospects: The Jaguars have lost four straight games by at least three scores, making them a strong candidate for the position of NFL's worst team at the moment. Nick Foles started three of those games. While I was convinced Jacksonville's offensive struggles went far beyond the veteran QB in his first two starts, Foles was the problem Sunday in Tampa. It doesn't get much uglier than three three-and-outs and three turnovers. Foles, who was sacked three times, was a sitting duck behind perhaps the worst tackle combination in football, both high draft picks by general manager Dave Caldwell (LT Cam Robinson was picked in Round 2 in 2017 and RT Jawaan Taylor was picked in Round 2 in 2019). Minshew's mobility gave the Jags a spark off the bench before he turned the ball over twice himself, but it was no surprise on Monday when coach Doug Marrone announced Minshew will reassume the starting job in Week 14.
Jaguars ownership surely wants to evaluate Minshew's ability to start in 2020 after the rookie's promising eight-game stint starting in place of the injured Foles earlier this year. The ultimate decision on Minshew -- and Foles, signed as a free agent last offseason -- will probably be made by the team's next general manager and coach, but what happens in the next month will go a long way toward determining Minshew's viability. Compared to the five years with Blake Bortles, the Jaguars' quarterback position is in good shape. It's the collapsed defense, pass protection and offensive philosophy built around Leonard Fournette that's the bigger problem. The 2017 Jaguars and 2018 Bears should serve as reminders that building around epic defenses is fool's gold.
Here are the other head coaching situations I'd monitor in December:
Jacksonville Jaguars: Doug Marrone won his job in Jacksonville by helping Blake Bortles play well in the final two games of 2016, back when Marrone was the Jaguars' interim head coach. So he knows that improvement in otherwise "meaningless" games can be life-changing. At 4-8, the entire Jaguars regime, from the front office on down, could be facing an uphill battle to stay.
Washington Redskins: Bill Callahan has quietly gone 3-4 as the interim head coach following Jay Gruden's firing with a run-heavy approach, but the Redskins figure to be starting from scratch again in the offseason.
Dallas Cowboys: Before the season, I believed Jason Garrett needed to reach the NFC Championship Game in 2019 to keep his job. That hasn't changed; it just looks more unlikely now than ever.
Detroit Lions: It's hard to get a read on Matt Patricia's future, but the last head coach in Detroit was fired after posting three winning seasons out of four. Patricia is 9-18-1 since taking over for Jim Caldwell, and Patricia's fate is likely tied to general manager Bob Quinn, who figures to stay loyal to his former Patriots co-worker.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons have played harder since their bye four weeks ago, but it appears that Dan Quinn is coaching out the string of a five-year run that included three playoff wins.
New York Giants: Big Blue once had a reputation for being patient with its head coaches. Pat Shurmur is now 7-21 since taking over in 2018, and if he's fired, the Mara family will be looking for its fourth coach in the last six years.
Cleveland Browns: Other than Atlanta, no team has squandered more talent this season than the Browns. They are consistently sloppy, with first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens' offense looking especially erratic. Owner Jimmy Haslam has already fired four head coaches since taking over the franchise in 2012, without logging a single winning season in that span. Finishing strong -- perhaps getting to 8-8 -- would help Kitchens' case.
Lamar Jackson's slight lead in this two-man MVP race grew a bit larger this week with his game-winning drive against the 49ers, but Wilson still has time to catch up. For this week, however, I want to spotlight Saints wideout Michael Thomas, who probably doesn't have a realistic chance at the award despite a ridiculous season. His average game thus far is nine catches for 108 yards, which is particularly impressive considering that the Saints are only 14th in the NFL in pass attempts. Opponents know that Thomas is getting boatloads of targets each week -- consider that no other Saints receiver has gained even 500 yards this season -- yet Thomas' huge volume hasn't hurt his efficiency. He's averaging a career-high 9.8 yards-per-target while splitting his time between Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater. The Saints offense survived without Brees; I'm not sure it could survive without Thomas.
UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Ravens' offensive line
On a blustery day during which passing was difficult, it was amazing to see Lamar Jackson and Baltimore's offensive line take over on the 12-play, 39-yard, 6:28 field-goal drive that clinched Sunday's 20-17 victory over San Francisco. The Ravens can win with big plays, and they can win with Jackson going 3-for-3 for 27 yards as a passer on a station-to-station drive, picking up a crucial fourth-down conversion with his legs. The Ravens narrowly beat the NFC's best team while logging 38 rushing attempts and 23 passes in the year 2019. On those 23 dropbacks, the Ravens' offensive line wasn't credited for giving up a QB hit or sack, according to Pro Football Focus. (The 49ers' one sack was blamed on Jackson.) It all starts with Lamar, but the symbiosis between Jackson, his coaching staff and his line is remarkable.
HONORABLE MENTIONS:49ers linebacker Fred Warner is playing as well as any off-ball linebacker over the last month. His ability to blow up running plays and play in coverage is so impressive. He's the secret sauce to San Francisco's defensive success. Tampa linebacker Devin White showed off similar versatility Sunday with an interception, a QB hit, a touchdown and seven tackles. The No. 5 overall pick has come on strong over the last month.
Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.