Quarterback Baker Mayfield led the Browns to the play-offs in Week 17Wikimedia Commons

The last weeks of the regular season are always intellectually taxing, as a certain degree of mental gymnastics is required to work out all the different play-off possibilities for each team still in contention. Going into Week 16, there was still plenty left to be decided and eight play-off spots to be shared between fifteen teams. However, once you’ve worked out what means what, the games themselves never fail to entertain. We now know which 14 teams will be playing January football.

Week 16: Rookie and Running Records Broken

As each team plays their penultimate regular season game, totals and tallies reach a point of comparison with historic completed seasons. Rookie quarterback, Justin Herbert was one player whose tally compares very favourably indeed. This week, with his second-quarter nine-yard pass against the Broncos, he broke the all-time NFL record for most touchdown passes in a rookie year (first season following the draft), taking his own total to 28 with a game still to play, beating Baker Mayfield’s 2018 record of 27.

Alvin Kamara, playing on Christmas Day against the Vikings, delivered his own gift to the New Orleans Saints in the form of a Super Bowl-era record of most running touchdowns in a single game since 1966. Scoring six different running touchdowns within an hour had previously only ever been achieved by Ernie Nevers in 1929, long before the Super Bowl was invented and only nine years after the NFL was formally organised.

The Best Games of Week 16

There were a good number of entertaining games this week, the highest-scoring of which was the Christmas Day game in New Orleans, where Kamara’s six touchdowns contributed 42 of the Saints 52 points. In the end, it didn’t matter that they allowed the Vikings to score an otherwise huge 33 points. The blockbuster game ended 52-33 and included thirteen touchdowns.

A better defensive performance was presented by the Raiders and the Dolphins who matched up in Las Vegas this week. The first half ended 13-6 to the Raiders and contained a single touchdown and a flurry of field goals. A touchdown and a field goal later, the third quarter ended 16-13 to the Raiders and set up a wildly entertaining final quarter. With veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick coming in to replace rookie Tua Tagovailoa, the game was tied at 16-16 with four minutes to play. In the remaining time the Raiders, then the Dolphins, completed huge passing plays to score a touchdown each. The Raiders missed their point-after meaning the score-line read 23-22 with two minutes to go. With 23 seconds on the clock, the Raiders scored what seemed to be a winning field goal, going 25-23 ahead. With the kick taking up 4 seconds, the Dolphins were left with 19 to salvage a crucial win. And they did just that. Fitzpatrick required just one play to launch a pass 35 yards up the field, allowing his side to set up a game-winning field goal as time expired.

Better still was the defensive display shown by the Falcons against the Chiefs, the league’s hot favourites and current champions. They allowed the Chiefs, who had scored 30+ points in nine of their previous 15 games, only 17 points and so very nearly matched their points tally. At 17-14 with 14 seconds on the clock, Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo sliced a potentially game-tying field goal to the right. This win secured the Chiefs the number one spot in their half of the play-offs, meaning they will enjoy a bye-week in the first week of January.

Other important divisional matchups (games played against one of the other three teams in their division) included the Cowboys elimination of the Eagles (37-17), the Seahawks beating the Rams to seal the NFC West title and the Bills symbolically asserting their new-found dominance over age-old tyrants, the New England Patriots (who had won the AFC East in 17 of the last 19 seasons) by soundly beating them 38-9.

The consequences of this week’s round of games was that three more teams – the Raiders, Vikings and Eagles – had the final nail put in the coffin of their seasons, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the only new team able to secure their spot in the playoffs. Elsewhere, the Browns missed their opportunity to do the same by losing 1-13 to the Jets, as did the Colts and Titans with their defeats this week.

Week 17: Washington and New Orleans Struck by COVID Implications

Following Kamara’s triumphs on Christmas Day, his 2021 started worse than his 2020 finished. Having tested positive for COVID, he was removed from the ‘active roster’. Subsequently, it became apparent that the rest of the running-back group in New Orleans, including the coach, had also been infected and were forced to join him. This left the Saints without a starting RB for their game against the Panthers. They were forced to play Ty Montgomery, formerly a wide receiver, who was able to run for a solid 105 yards.

In other big news this week, Washington decided to cut their second-year QB, Dwayne Haskins, who had been drafted in the first round (chosen very early due to his potential) in 2019. Having pinned their hopes on him for the last two years, a frustrated coaching staff lost patience following his consistently poor performances and two violations of COVID protocols this season.

The Best Games of Week 17

Since 2010, Week 17 is always a divisional week. This means that teams can only play teams, usually rivals, from their divisions of four. This increases the significance of final week games not only because these are rivals playing one another, but because the games are far more likely to impact play-off places. Unfortunately, this week, however, we had no winner-takes-all, last-minute, clutch victories to seal play-off places. The closest we came was the Giants vs Cowboys game. With a win, the Giants kept their hopes alive, while officially eliminating the Cowboys, but the result was rendered moot with a Washington victory against the Eagles later in the evening.

Equally, two impressive AFC teams, the Steelers and the Chiefs, whose results this week made no difference to their secured play-off places, chose to play back-up teams, allowing their starters to rest before the first week of the play-offs in January. Predictably, they both lost: the Chiefs to the Chargers (38-21) and the Steelers to the Browns (22-24). While the Chargers were already out of play-off contention, the Browns benefitted greatly from the lack of Steeler motivation and, with their win, were able to secure themselves a place in the play-offs.

Play-Off Picture: Finalised

After 17 weeks of football and 256 different games, we have arrived at the play-offs. This season was not without its difficulties as injuries and illness troubled every team across the league. But regardless, we have 14 teams ready to play January football.

Green Bay and Kansas City have earned themselves a bye-week and will not play next week thanks to their superior records among their conferences (AFC and NFC). Joining those already qualified are the Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens, LA Rams, Washington, Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts. Interestingly, with their 7-9 record, Washington are only the third team ever to make the play-offs with a losing record.

The Dolphins and the Cardinals were unfortunate this week to miss out, following strong seasons led by two rookie QBs (Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray) but hope remains for their upcoming seasons.