Denver Broncos QB Paxton Lynch was understandably upset about his first start of the 2017 season. Image credit: CBS Denver Broncos QB Paxton Lynch was understandably upset about his first start of the 2017 season. Image credit: CBS

After all the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone, the playoff push in the NFL begins

Unless you are a fan of the Cowboys, Lions or Giants, you probably enjoyed your Thanksgiving last week. A triple-header of Thanksgiving football made for a slightly lighter Sunday of NFL football, but that doesn’t mean there was any shortage of games to watch. It was a great Sunday for some of the top teams in both the AFC and NFC, including the Los Angeles Rams.

Rams make a statement with win against Saints

The Los Angeles Rams have been the biggest surprise of the 2017 NFL season, hands down. However, even with all of the success they have had this season, losses in NFC play against Washington, Seattle and Minnesota have left some doubt as to whether or not the Rams should be taken as a serious contender. The Rams have heard your doubts and your criticisms, and on Sunday they responded with a critical 26-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints.

Jared Goff passed for 354 yards and two touchdowns to out-sling veteran Drew Brees (246 yards, 1 TD) in the showdown of young, up-and-coming franchise quarterback vs. Super Bowl champion veteran on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in just a matter of years. But the real news was the Rams slowing down the Saints running game. Mark Ingram was limited to just 31 yards on 11 carries. Alvin Kamara had a 74-yard run, but had just 13 yards on his other four carries.

Meanwhile, Rams running back Todd Gurley rushed for 74 yards on 17 carries and caught four passes for 54 yards to supplement the offensive workload led by Goff with top targets Cooper Kupp and Sammy Watkins. It was a big challenge for the Rams and they passed with flying colors.

The Rams really needed a win like this to validate themselves in the NFC and, more importantly, build some more confidence in the locker room. Last week, the Rams were shut down by the Vikings in a road game that was no contest, a 24-7 setback.

Being able to bounce back with a win against a team many have been calling one of the top contenders in the NFC is nothing to overlook. The win also kept the Rams in first place in the NFC West, one game ahead of the Seahawks. Still, there is plenty of work to do and no time to take a breather the way this NFC playoff race is heating up.

In two weeks, the Rams host the Philadelphia Eagles, who pushed their NFL-best record to 10-1 on Sunday afternoon. That’s going to be a good one. After that? A road game at Seattle.

The Denver Broncos may need to draft a QB in 2018

The Denver Broncos moved up and drafted Paxton Lynch out of Memphis with a late first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Past the midway point of the 2017 season, it is difficult to argue this has not been a waste of a pick.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of Lynch and enjoyed covering him during his college years, but I felt a first-round pick for him in a shallow year for quarterbacks was not the best move to make (and yes, I swung and missed on my outlook for Carson Wentz, and now Jared Goff looks pretty decent too). But the Broncos have been desperate to find a permanent solution at quarterback since the retirement of Peyton Manning at the end of the 2015 season.

Lynch got his first start of the season on Sunday afternoon against the Oakland Raiders, and it did not go well. He completed nine of his 14 pass attempts for a total of 41 yards and was also picked off by a Raiders defense that has been abysmal against the pass to near-historic levels. Lynch left the game with an injured ankle in the third quarter and was replaced by Trevor Siemian, who began the season as the team’s starter.

You know things are not going your way when the Raiders have an interception literally fall into a player’s lap while laying on the ground.

Drafting a quarterback, especially in the first round, has to be a pick you know will work out. If you miss on a quarterback in the first round, a franchise can dig a tough hole to climb out from. And with the way these first two seasons have gone with Lynch in Denver while other quarterbacks who debuted the same year — Wentz, Goff, Dak Prescott — have proven to be capable, Denver fans should be worried about where the franchise is going with Lynch.

Patience can be rewarding, however. Lynch has been slowed by injuries and not his lack of football ability. And with those injury issues, Lynch has been behind the curve in experience compared to the other franchise passers in the 2016 draft class. Maybe Lynch just needs a little more time. Or maybe it’s already at a point where a clean slate and fresh start somewhere else would benefit him and the Broncos.

Denver fell to 3-8 following its road loss to the Raiders. While the story of the game will be the animosity between Aqib Talib and Michael Crabtree (which will definitely keep the NFL office busy with reviewing video and handing out fines and possible suspensions), the more long-term story will be what Denver does to turn things around.

The Broncos need a quarterback. If it’s Lynch, then it will require more patience. But how much longer can the Broncos sit and wait for this first-round draft pick to produce before they start thinking about scouting a player like Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield or Lamar Jackson in the 2018 NFL Draft (if they have not already)?

The Race For No. 1 (Overall Draft Pick)

The Cleveland Browns remain the front-runner for the top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft after falling to 0-11 with a 30-16 loss at Cincinnati. The Browns remain the only team in the NFL without a win, and now the focus is shifting more to the possibility of seeing this team go 0-16. Cleveland has lost four games in a row by double-digits and the remaining schedule is not the most promising for a win. But at least Josh Gordon is coming back.

In the NFC, the owners of the worst record in the conference remain the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers dropped a home game against Seattle. Russell Wilson threw two touchdowns and ran for one more in the Seahawks’ victory, but the story for the San Francisco was the debut of Jimmy Garoppolo. Replacing C.J. Beathard with a little more than a minute to play, it would seem the new era of the 49ers got underway. Garoppolo threw his first touchdown in a 49ers uniform on the final play of the game.

The New York Giants dropped a game on Thanksgiving night against Washington, leaving the Giants at just 2-9 this season. And as mentioned earlier, the Broncos lost and now have just three wins. It’s too late for the Broncos to make a late push for the top pick, but a top-five pick is certainly in play in Denver.

Current Top Five Order in 2018 NFL Draft:

  1. Browns
  2. 49ers
  3. Giants
  4. Broncos
  5. Bears

NFL Blitz

Catching you up on what happened around the NFL on Sunday.

Eagles 31, Bears 3: The Eagles became the first team in the NFL to hit the 10-win mark, doing so in just their 11th game. Carson Wentz had three touchdown passes without an interception against the Bears, while Chicago rookie QB Mitch Trubisky was picked off twice against a feisty Eagles defense.

This one was a rather dominating performance for the Eagles, and on a day that saw the Saints take a loss, Philadelphia’s NFC playoff seeding continues to look promising. But a key West Coast swing against Seattle and the Rams is on deck. Just going 1-1 should be enough to keep that top seed.

You know things are rolling your way when you have a 1st-and-20 and LeGarrette Blount can pick it up on the ground, while hurdling a dude along the way.

And in the best special teams play of the day that won’t show up anywhere in the box score, Kenjon Barner dragging a teammate out of the way so he won’t accidentally touch the football rolling on the ground at the end of a punt…

As for the status of John Fox, it appears some want him to be fired…

Patriots 35, Dolphins 17: The Eagles may be the top team in the NFC, but in the AFC it remains the usual suspects, starting with the Patriots. Trusty Tom Brady had a four-touchdown game against the Miami Dolphins, who continue to sink in the standings.

The Dolphins have now lost five straight games after a 4-2 start. And remember when we were concerned about the New England defense earlier this season? The Patriots have now held seven straight opponents to fewer than 20 points.

The Patriots have also been winning a bunch of games for 17 straight seasons now.

Steelers 31, Packers 28: Keeping pace with the Patriots in the AFC playoff picture, the Pittsburgh Steelers needed a game-winning 53-yard field goal from Chris Boswell to slip past a valiant effort from the Packers.

Also, Antonio Brown remains good at catching footballs.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is already starting to get the buzz about an upcoming regular season matchup with the Patriots going. The two teams do not play until Week 15 on Dec. 17, but Tomlin knows the stakes will be high in what could be a preview of the AFC Championship Game.

Panthers 35, Jets 27: The Jets showed some fight, but Carolina strung together a fourth-quarter rally to come from behind and pull away from the Jets. And they did it without scoring an offensive touchdown. Luke Kuechly returned a fumble 34 yards for a touchdown to push the Panthers ahead, 26-20, in the fourth quarter. Then, about three minutes later, Kaelin Clay returned a punt 60 yards for another touchdown to extend the lead to 32-20.

Falcons 34, Buccaneers 20: Julio Jones had himself a day that pleased all of his fantasy owners. The big wide receiver caught 12 passes from Matt Ryan and accounted for 253 receiving yards with a pair of touchdowns.

Ryan had himself a 317-yard day with just one of the touchdowns to Jones. Mohamed Sanu was responsible for the other. Yes, Sanu, the wide receiver who also had 64 receiving yards on eight catches, completed a touchdown pass to Jones too.

This is a nice win for the Falcons, who remain very much in the hunt for the NFC South title, or a wild-card spot at the very least. Atlanta remains just one game back of the Saints and Panthers with a big stretch of games coming up. The Falcons will host Minnesota and New Orleans in their next two games, which will be a good opportunity to make a move in the standings. Atlanta still has a road game at New Orleans toward the end of the year too.

Bills 16, Chiefs 10: Last week, we talked about the AFC West and the possibility of the Chargers winning the division. Well, the Chargers won on Thanksgiving with a solid beatdown of the Dallas Cowboys and on Sunday, the Chiefs lost at home to the struggling Buffalo Bills. When Alex Smith is your leading rusher with 35 yards, you know you have some issues to sort through.

The Chiefs have gone from being hyped as the best team in the NFL at 5-0 to losing five of their last six games, and the offense has gone M.I.A. in the process. Kansas City has scored fewer than 20 points in each of their last three games, and their scoring output the last two weeks against the Giants and the Bills has been 19 combined points.

Could we be heading to a possible change at quarterback, with rookie Patrick Mahomes taking over for Smith? Uhh, probably not.

At least Reid still has a fan in Bills running back LeSean McCoy from their days together in Philly.

Titans 20, Colts 16: Don’t look now, but the Tennessee Titans are the third-best team in the AFC right now. A win on the road against the Colts, coupled with the Jaguars taking a loss on the road against Arizona, puts the Titans in first-place in the AFC South. And it happened without a great game from Marcus Mariota, who was picked off twice and held to just 184 passing yards.

But the Titans defense was aggressive and sacked Jacoby Brissett eight times. Tennessee had to scratch together a couple of scores in the second half to overcome a halftime deficit, but winning ugly is still winning.

Cardinals 27, Jaguars 24: Arizona quarterback Blaine Gabbert was probably a little extra motivated to beat his former team. Jags fans were in a frenzy.

All your rowdy friends are coming over tonight

We put a bow on this extended holiday weekend of football  with the Baltimore Ravens (5-5) hosting the Houston Texans (4-6). It’s not exactly a great game, and we don’t even get to watch Deshaun Watson. The Ravens are coming off a shutout of the Packers and I like them to cover tonight with another solid defensive effort against the Texans.

Updated NFL Playoff Picture

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, we can start taking a look at the current playoff picture in the AFC and NFC and start to examine the battles for playoff seeding or playoff spots. Here’s what the AFC looks like:

  1. Steelers (9-2)
  2. Patriots (9-2)
  3. Titans (7-4)
  4. Chiefs (6-5)
  5. Jaguars (7-4)
  6. Bills (6-5)Ravens (5-5)
    Bengals (5-6)
    Chargers (5-6)
    Raiders (5-6)
    Texans (4-6)

The Steelers and Patriots should be in good position to grab the top two seeds in the AFC and the bye weeks that come with them. The AFC West may end up going to the Chargers with how the season is playing out right now. That may end up being good news for the Jaguars or Titans as the No. 3 seed should go to the AFC South winner. The Bills are hanging on to the last spot for now. We’ll see how the Ravens do Monday night. A Baltimore win would put the Ravens in the sixth spot and bump Buffalo out due to a better conference record.

Now, here’s the NFC picture after this weekend of football:

  1. Eagles (10-1)
  2. Vikings (9-2)
  3. Rams (8-3)
  4. Saints (8-3)
  5. Panthers (8-3)
  6. Falcons (7-4)Seahawks (7-4)
    Lions (6-5)
    Packers (5-6)
    Cowboys (5-6)
    Redskins (5-6)
    Cardinals (5-6)

The Vikings held on to beat the Lions on Thanksgiving, which moved them into second place in the NFC and dropped the Lions down into a crowded pile of teams outside of the playoff field. That may have been an incredibly costly loss for the Lions because the NFC South could send three teams to the playoffs this year. Of course, some of the NFC South will settle a bit with head-to-head matchups, so Detroit remains in the mix if they win some games.

The Eagles are in a terrific spot to lock down a top two seed in the next few weeks, especially if they manage to go 2-0 on their West Coast swing. The Packers losing on Sunday night was expected, and without Aaron Rodgers we will probably be watching this team sputter down the stretch. Of the fringe playoffs, Seattle may be the team most likely to get in.

Forget about the Cowboys, though, after losing three straight games without Ezekiel Elliott. They’re toast at this point, and Washington and Arizona are merely a blip on the playoff radar right now.

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Previously contributed to Host of the Locked On Nittany Lions Podcast. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.