State of the NFL Week 12

By Michael LoCoco
PSDC NFL Beat Writer

Tie a bow on November sports fans, after tonight’s contest we are in December. December is one of the best months of the year in pro football because it means a race to the finish. Most of the league still has playoff hopes and those will burn until math eliminates a team. Already games of consequence are being played with Denver winning a massive game against New England. Carolina has the NFC in its grasp as they look to stay perfect and just about everyone else is in for a Wild Card. Let’s take a look around the league.

Patriots Lose and Lose

Photo Credit: Aaron Ontiveroz/Fox Sports

It’s hard to imagine the latest edition of Sunday Night Football going any worse for the New England Patriots. In addition to being beaten for the first time all season, the team suffered an injury that could only be topped if Tom Brady were to go down. New England has made a living in the Belichick era being a “patch” team, plugging in free agents to fix problems. However, you don’t just replace a future Hall of Fame talent at tight end. That is the sobering reality for the Patriots as Rob Gronkowski fell to the turf in apparent agonizing pain. Should the worst be realized and Gronk be lost for the season, a distinct possibility, it’s hard to see the Patriots as favorites for the Super Bowl with all their other injuries. Tom Brady can only cover so much.

Still, all is not lost for New England. Hope certainly remains for Gronkowski until official word is heard. Beyond that, the schedule in December is fairly forgiving. The hardest game left is against surging Houston at NRG Stadium. Aside from that the remaining games are against the Eagles, Titans, Jets and Dolphins, hardly a who’s who of the NFL’s elite. In all reality, the Patriots should still have a firm expectation of grabbing the first overall seed, or at the very least a first round bye. Brady can win with this club, but it’s uphill from here. One night has dashed New England’s hopes of the ultimate revenge season.

Carolina is All Alone

The other side effect of the Patriots loss is the end of the Champagne Watch. There isn’t much of a point running the feature when the only undefeated team left is the Carolina Panthers. Carolina should be heavy favorites in every game they play until the end of the season. However, while none of the games is a true brutal matchup, none of them are gimmes. On the other hand, every team remaining on the list appears to be cratering. The Panthers play the late afternoon game against New Orleans next week. Following that, the Panthers play four consecutive noon contests against the Falcons, Giants, Falcons, and Bucs. All four teams lost this week. With each week Carolina will feel the pressure of a 16-0 season continue to build. The feat hasn’t been accomplished since 2007 when the Patriots won every game until their Super Bowl upset. The regular season is theirs for the taking.

Beyond that, the NFC appears ripe for the plundering for Carolina. Division leading Minnesota was trounced last week by foundering Green Bay. Arizona struggled to put away bottom-feeding San Francisco. No one appears to want to win the NFC East. The Wild Card is an absolute mess too, but more on that below. With all the mediocrity in the NFL right now Carolina is staring a perfect season in the face and the prospect of an extra bye week and then only needing to win two games, at home, to advance to Super Bowl 50. Injuries to Jordy Nelson in the NFC, short-circuiting Green Bay’s high-octane offense, and now Gronk in the AFC appear to have cleared the way for Carolina. We’ll see if they can take advantage.

The Wild Card is Impossible to Predict for Either Conference

In the AFC there are eight teams within two games of the two Wild Card spots, not counting the four division leaders. In the NFC there are nine such teams and that isn’t counting 7-4 Green Bay who looks like they could fall into the mix for the final spot as well. Simply, the Wild Card race is completely up for grabs. There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon. First, while the number of injuries this season isn’t unheard of, the number of star players affected is quite high. Players like the aforementioned Jordy Nelson, Le’veon Bell, and Tony Romo have all been lost for the season, severely damaging the firepower of several Super hopefuls. Second, the NFL just plain appears more equal than in years past. A lot of teams look like world-beaters one week and bottom-feeders the next. It might be a consequence of the injuries or gameplanning, but it’s just plain harder to predict what is going to happen from one week to the next.

What all this means is that December is going to be one wacky and wild ride. We are into December and not a single team has been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Beyond that, several divisions remain heavily contested. The NFC North, NFC East, and AFC South all look as though they will come down to division contests in the final weeks with one game or less separating the leaders.  This means two basic things. First, it means there will be a lot of jockeying for position in the final weeks with the last two weeks figuring to to put teams in and out of the playoffs. Second, it means that we’ll likely see a team with a subpar record in the playoffs, possibly a .500 division winner out of the NFC East. That usually ruffles some feathers, but the bottom line is that December is going to be very very exciting this year.

Who I like on Monday Night

Browns 20 Ravens 10

Another disappointing year for Cleveland is nothing new, but this year has been disastrous for the Ravens as they’ve lost player after player to injury. With Joe Flacco gone, they have little hope of remaining competitive.

Follow Mike on Twitter: @MichaelLoCocoWI

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