For the first time all season, we officially know one of the members of this year’s playoffs. We’re closing in on learning a few more.
That is usually the key point and takeaway from a given week: the clinched playoff berths.
We strive for more. We want to know where we can find value and which playoff races should create buying opportunities between now and the end of the year.
Week 15 moved us in the direction of learning more.
The AFC South is Not Over Yet
One of the first division races that appeared to be over weeks ago was the AFC South, and it unofficially ended when the Titans knocked off the Colts to sweep the season series. Since then, the Titans have played .500 football to the tune of a 3-3 record. It’s not a problem for Tennessee since it owns the tiebreaker over Indianapolis and had a massive lead.
That is, until we factor in that the Colts have gone 5-1 over that span, and they are now within a single game in the division.
Again, the tiebreaker is going to force Indianapolis to still win two more games than Tennessee before the season ends — and there might not be enough time for it — but the Colts are hitting their stride and making things interesting in a division that appeared to be devoid of drama.
The only trouble we face is that the Colts have grown in popularity to the point that we will not find many bargains.
The Green Bay Packers Win the NFC North… Again
Unlike the aforementioned AFC South, the race for the NFC North is over, and the champion is one to which we have grown accustomed. The Green Bay Packers have claimed the division title for the third consecutive season and eighth time in the last eleven years. As I have written in countless places over the last few weeks, the bigger story is that the Packers of 2021 look like one of the most complete teams we have seen in a long time.
The same Packers that had all of the offseason drama.
The same Packers that started the year with a 38-3 embarrassing bloodbath at the hands of the Saints.
That team is now 11-3, in the playoffs, and with an inside track to the top seed in the conference.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate what has been accomplished.
And recognize that we can’t possibly buy in at this high point.
The Detroit Lions Win a Massive Upset and Reshuffle the League
I know that we are supposed to “learn” something from the games listed in this column, and we will, but we also watch sports because we have the opportunity to witness the impossible. The Cardinals losing outright to the Lions was borderline impossible, and yet it happened.
It was not without its impact.
The Cardinals ended Sunday tied with the Rams in the loss column for the NFC West while also falling behind in the race for the conference’s top seed.
The Lions moved out of the first pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
And the Jaguars moved into it. That might be the most important one of all. Jacksonville is certainly rebuilding, but it selected Trevor Lawrence last year and has every intention and hope of him being the “Franchise Quarterback” for the next decade. It won’t turn down the first pick, but that wasn’t the plan. If anything, the Texans need to be in position to take any player they want.
We have long known and accepted that the Lions will compete in games despite their pathetic record, but we now need to consider how the Jaguars will follow suit. Maybe they will hold serve and end up with the league’s worst record. If so, we can sell Jacksonville and still have some value doing so.
The San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins Have Arrived
Prior to the start of the season, the 49ers and Dolphins were two of the “hot picks” to make the playoffs. Both were complete failures. Immediately. The Dolphins were 1-7 through eight games while the 49ers hit a low point of 2-4. Now, Miami is back to .500 on the heels of a six-game winning streak, and San Francisco is 8-6 and currently inside the playoff picture.
Where do we go from here?
That’s the operative question. What both teams have done is remarkable, and it helps to justify the hype and confidence placed on them in the off-season. But we also know that flaws exist, as evidenced by the poor starts.
The Dolphins, specifically, are approaching fragile territory where this winning streak might have left them too far extended.
Once Again, the AFC North is Undecided
I’m not even sure what I can write about the AFC North anymore that wouldn’t be a direct copy-and-paste from a prior article. The division refuses to declare a winner, and it’s almost certainly going to have a fantastic conclusion. For those of us who live for drama in sports, we can’t complain. But for those of us who are looking for a predictive edge…well, we can’t complain either! We do have an edge.
One of the characteristics of this division is that it is so tough to win easily. That has been true of the AFC North for a long time and, even when a winner separates itself from the pack, that happens more in an outlier year than one that follows the trend. Therefore, we can proceed through the final few weeks with the expectation that no single team will stake claim to the title immediately.
There will be a fight, and we can prepare for it.
Mario Mergola is a featured writer at FantasyPros and BettingPros, as well as the creator and content editor of Sporfolio. For more from Mario, check out his archive and follow him @MarioMergola. He has also been one of the industry leaders in NFL against-the-spread picks over the last 7 years.