By Ryan Mayer
(CBSLA/CBS Local) The month of December hasn’t been kind to the NFL’s top teams. The Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams are a combined 1-5 in the month’s first few weeks, and the losses have taken their toll on each team’s playoff standing. For the Chiefs, they have yet to clinch the top seed in the AFC and still aren’t assured of a first-round bye, as they are now tied record-wise with the Chargers in the AFC West.
For the Patriots, back-to-back losses to the Dolphins and Steelers have dropped them down to the third seed, meaning they would have to play on Wild Card weekend for the first time since the 2009 season.
Finally, in Los Angeles, the Rams are assured a playoff spot, but they are now just one loss and a Bears win away from dropping out of the two-seed and losing their own first-round bye.
Is it time to be concerned about all of these teams? Any of them? We asked those questions to NFL on CBS and Inside the NFL analyst Boomer Esiason. You can catch Boomer along with fellow analysts Phil Simms and Ray Lewis and host James Brown each Tuesday night at 9 Eastern Time on Showtime.
CBS Local Sports: Are the Chargers now the team to beat in the AFC?
Boomer Esiason: I think that they’re one of the best-balanced teams in football, although their defense is still giving up a lot of points and a lot of yards. Philip Rivers’ story is great. I think a lot of people are rooting for him to finally get to a Super Bowl. And this may be his best chance to do that late in his career.
I think the AFC is wide open. I think any given team, on any given day, can win a football game against the other teams. So there is not a dominant team, I don’t believe, in the AFC. That’s why I think the Chargers are probably the sentimental favorite at this point.
CBS Local Sports: With the Chiefs, Patriots, Rams and Saints all limping toward the playoffs, does that create opportunities for any other potential playoff contenders?
Boomer Esiason: What it goes to show you is that every single game in the NFL counts, from game 1. And Week 16 in the NFL is going to be a fabulous week, with all the opportunities to continue to fight for the playoffs, and also to knock somebody off who thinks they are going to the playoffs.
So I still think that the Colts and the Chargers are probably playing the best football in the AFC. Over in the NFC, it’s hard to argue with the Saints. The Saints defense is holding teams to 17 points or less over the last five weeks. And, of course having Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, it’s going to be hard to beat them in their building.
As far as anybody else, Minnesota, do they now capture a little bit of magic after firing John DeFilippo and going back to their old style offense from last year? They may, but it may be too little too late. Because if they do make it, they’re going to have to go on the road in the playoffs and most likely will have to go see the Bears, if things don’t change.
It’s going to be hard for a couple of these teams to get into it, from the wild-card standpoint, unless the Indianapolis Colts sneak in. Because offensive line-wise, defensive-wise and their quarterback, it’s all come together at the right time for them. And they are really playing well right now.
CBS Local Sports: Do Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and these New England Patriots have another playoff run in them?
Boomer Esiason: They definitely have another playoff run in them. And I wouldn’t be surprised if next week they have the two spot again because of Pittsburgh’s difficulties on the road with the Saints. Now this is the NFL, so nothing is a given. There are no homecomings, as Mike Tomlin likes to say. You have to play every game, until the end of the game, and until the end of the season.
And with the Patriots’ schedule, with the Bills and the Jets — two rookie quarterbacks in their building late in the year — you have to believe that they will get to 11-5. And that’s why I think they will be a number-two seed, and I think they’ll have a bye.
CBS Local Sports: What team do other teams not want to see in the playoffs?
Boomer Esiason: The Colts would be one of them. And the Colts would be one simply because of what they did to the Dallas Cowboys last week. Their defense is flying around. Chris Ballard hit on pretty much every one of his key draft picks last year. Most of those kids are participating. Darius Leonard and Quenton Nelson are going to be two foundation players for years to come. Andrew Luck and Frank Reich are in sync with each other.
The thing that was most impressive about their victory last week was not only the shut-out part of it, but how well they ran the ball with Marlon Mack. So I think this is a team that is well balanced and is really playing well. They’re a team that I would not want to play right now, if I were in the playoff hunt, knowing that they’re still fighting to get into the playoffs.
But I think this week, with the Baltimore Ravens at the Chargers, with the Chiefs at the Seahawks, with Pittsburgh at the Saints, there are some great games this week.