Judgements 12: Steelers loss puts Patriots in spot where nobody else wants them

The Weekend in Review: How the Steelers' loss put New England in a familiar spot … plus five things you may not know.

Talk about a ripple effect. Look what Pittsburgh's loss Sunday did to the AFC hierarchy, all trying to position themselves for January.

It had no impact on front-running Kansas City, but it did on everyone else … with the Steelers ceding a first-round playoff bye to a familiar customer: The New England Patriots.

You heard me. New England.

The Patriots, not Pittsburgh, are currently the AFC's No. 2 seed with a relatively easy schedule ahead of them. Only two opponents have winning records -- Minnesota and Pittsburgh, with the Steelers getting them at home Dec. 16.

Which is why Sunday's loss was such a blow to the Steelers. Their schedule is not as cozy, with Pittsburgh next weekend taking on the Chargers at Heinz Field, and at 8-3 L.A. is only a game behind the Chiefs in the AFC West.

So there's the Chargers, and then there's the Patriots. But that's not all. On Dec. 23, the Steelers draw New Orleans -- in New Orleans -- and good luck there.

The big problem, of course, for everyone is New England. The Patriots have been in the last seven conference championship games and been home for five of them. They've also been to four of the past seven Super Bowls, winning two.

So they're to January what Reggie Jackson was to October.

Granted, this isn't a great Patriots' team, and Tom Brady is 41. So they're vulnerable. But you don't want them home for the playoffs, and you don't want them with a first-round bye. Both are in the mix now, and blame it on Denver. The Broncos won a game Sunday they shouldn't have.

But they did. And now … unlike the NFC … the AFC playoff picture is a mess at the top, and keep this in mind: The top playoff position in the AFC virtually punches you a ticket to Atlanta, and you can look it up. The last five top seeds and six of the past seven went on to Super Bowls.

IT'S INDIANAPOLIS … AGAIN

Don't say you weren't warned. The Indianapolis Colts are alive and dangerous.

They've won their last five games. They have Andrew Luck. Their running attack is vastly underrated. Their defense is better than most. And they're a game-and-half game behind front-running Houston in the AFC South.

In short, they're making a run at just the right time.In fact, over their last five games -- three of them vs. top-10 defenses -- they've averaged 36.6 points per game, with Luck throwing at least three TDs in all of them.

But now comes the litmus test: Two of their next three games are vs. division leaders (Houston and Dallas), with the third vs. last year's division champion (Jacksonville).

"At the beginning of the year, I tried to (say) watch out for the Colts," said NBC's (and former Colts' coach) Tony Dungy. "They've got a nice formula. They've got Andrew Luck back. They've got some playmakers on offense. And I love their defense."

Translation: Don't sleep on the Colts.

NOW WE FIND OUT ABOUT COUSINS, VIKES

Minnesota paid Kirk Cousins the big bucks to beat opponents like Green Bay, and he's 1-0-1 vs. the Packers this season, with Sunday's victory critical. It not only kept the Vikings in play for a division title that looks more and more as if it belongs to Chicago; it all but buried Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

But it's just a first step for Cousins in what is a defining set of games.

Look, let's be honest: He replaced a quarterback (Case Keenum) who last year had the best season of his career and led the Vikings to a conference championship game. So anything less by Cousins could be considered a failure.

But this just in: The climb to the top is about to get steeper. Minnesota's next two games are at New England (where the Patriots are 5-0) and at Seattle, and the Vikings may be without their top cornerback, Xavier Rhodes, vs. Tom Brady and Russell Wilson.

So the pressure's not off Cousins ... or the Vikings … by any stretch. In fact, it's about to escalate.

FIRST-AND- 25

  1. In case you've forgotten, it was New Orleans that wanted to draft Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster in 2017 ... only to have the 49ers jump them at the 31st spot. The Saints wound up taking Wisconsin tackle Ryan Ramcyzk instead, and there's a lesson there. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. The Saints were both.
  2. 49ers' GM John Lynch needs someone to get him rewrite. Defending the draft of Foster over other prospects by saying he wasn't "nearly as bad as a lot of them" is … well, indefensible. As CSN Bay Area's Ray Ratto put it, that "may be the most disturbingly telling sentence Lynch will ever utter."
  3. Next time I play the lottery, I'm consulting Cleveland's Damarious Randall. He's the genius who predicted Cleveland would "kick ass" if the Bengals didn't play A.J. Green. Well, they didn't, and look what happened.
  4. Guess Baker Mayfield woke up feeling dangerous again.
  5. Say goodnight to the Packers … and goodbye to Mike McCarthy. I can't imagine him returning after this season.
  6. There's a recurring problem the Pats need to fix, and that's slow starts on the road. They've been unable to put up more than 10 first-half points in five of their six road games, including Sunday's win. They're 3-3 there, and that's an issue because they could be on the road in this year's playoffs.
  7. Coming soon to Pay-Per-View: Leonard Fournette vs. Shaq Lawson.
  8. This is all you need to know about Carolina's Super Bowl chances: Cam Newton hits all 14 of his first-half passes, Christian McCaffrey produces 237 scrimmage yards, and the Panthers lose their first home game of the year … and third straight overall. Newton is right. The Panthers "miss a lot of layups," but he was talking about the offense. I'd say it's more about the defense.
  9. More evidence that it's never been easier to play QB: Philip Rivers completes his first 25 passes, tying an NFL record … in his 15th season.
  10. I'll say it again: Russell Wilson doesn't get the attention he deserves. Forget the pass that set up Seattle's game-winning field goal. On fourth-and-3 he takes a shot at the end zone and drops a dime into the hands of David Moore. Great play by a great player.
  11. Calling the Corona hotline: Hello, Tony? Why is it a delay-of-game penalty when some yahoo spikes the ball after a takeaway … but it's not when an entire defense runs the length of the field (with football in tow) to set up a choreographed photo-op in the end zone?
  12. Luck almost surely wins the league's Comeback Player of the Year, but what about one of his teammates? I'm talking about tight end Eric Ebron, who has 12 TD catches through 11 games. He had 12 in his previous four years with Detroit.
  13. Good sign for Baltimore: Lamar Jackson's carries drop from 27 a week ago to 11. Bad sign: He makes too many inaccurate throws. I know he's 2-0, but let's not get carried away. Those wins were vs. Cincinnati and Oakland, and they were at home.
  14. That was a monster victory for Seattle, and here's why: Four of its last five games are home. And the fifth? On the road vs. San Francisco. Can you say … playoffs?
  15. Next time someone suggests the NFL adopt the collegiate OT rule, remind them of this: Texas A&M 74, LSU 72. That's more points than the A&M basketball team scored in four of six games. Worse, all the stats count. What a joke.
  16. The Jets have no takeaways and are a minus-11 in the turnover/takeaway ratio the past five games … all losses. Adios, Todd Bowles.
  17. Shame on Pat Shurmur. There is absolutely no excuse for getting Saquon Barkley four second-half touches -- especially when nobody could tackle him. I mean, somebody wanna explain why Wayne Gallman had more carries (3-2) than Barkley in a third period when the Giants had minus-seven yards in offense? Right. You can't.
  18. That makes the Giants 4-17 in their last 21 games vs. Philadelphia and 1-9 in their last 10. Just sayin.'
  19. Odell Beckham said he wanted "to attack" the Eagles' injury-depleted secondary, "but that wasn't our game plan." Oh, yeah? Why?
  20. So Josh Allen's "trash" and "a pretty stupid draft pick?" Got it. Now, let's all agree: Time to put a gag order on Jalen Ramsey.
  21. Give Miami's Adam Gase an assist for that last-second Indianapolis win. When it's third-and-10 at your 6, under three minutes are left and it's a tie game, you (cue Herm Edwards) PLAY TO WIN THE GAME. Gase did not, running Kenyon Drake into the middle of the Colts' defense, and the inevitable happened.
  22. I know they're a long shot, but don't take your eyes off the Broncos. With their defeat of Pittsburgh, they're 2-1 the past three weeks vs. heavyweights that each had winning streaks of at least five games. Plus, there's this: The schedule. Up next are cupcakes like (in order) Cincinnati, San Francisco, Cleveland and Oakland -- opponents with a combined record of 13-30-1 .
  23. It should be over-and-out for Marvin Lewis after this season. But please tell me that report of Hue Jackson succeeding him is fake news.
  24. Yes, the Eagles are depleted, especially in the secondary. Yes, they struggle at home. Yes, they have more trouble scoring in the first quarter than Florida does counting votes. And, yes they've already lost twice as many games this year (6) as all of last season (3). But, no, they're not out of anything. In fact, if Dallas loses to New Orleans this week, and the Eagles beat Washington next Monday we have a three-way tie at the top of the NFC East … with only the Giants left out. No wonder coach Doug Pederson says, "It's still right there in front of us." Because it is.
  25. Sorry, but that was one stupid idea to run a trick play with Melvin Gordon on an afternoon when he wasn't sure he'd play and with the Chargers burying their opponent. Gordon got hurt, with reports saying he suffered a sprained knee.

FIVE THINGS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED

  1. Baker Mayfield's 17 touchdown passes tie Hall-of-Famer Otto Graham for the most by a Browns' rookie quarterback.
  2. The Jets' Jason Myers is the first kicker in NFL history to nail five field goals of 55 or more yards each in one season.
  3. Saquon Barkley has three touchdown runs of 50 or more yards this season. The Giants had three of 50 or more the previous 10 years.
  4. The Patriots are 11-1 following double-digit losses since 2000.
  5. With the two ejections in the Buffalo-Jacksonville game, there have now been 11 players tossed this season -- the most in any year since 2001 when there were 13.

WHAT THESE FIVE SHOULD BE THANKFUL FOR …

(It's Thanksgiving Week, so it's time to give thanks … to those who deserve it)
  1. INDIANAPOLIS -- Josh McDaniels. If he doesn't stiff the Colts at the 11th hour, there's no Frank Reich.
  2. CHICAGO -- Jon Gruden. Without him, there's no Khalil Mack. Thank you, Chucky.
  3. DALLAS-- See above … and substitute Amari Cooper for Mack.
  4. NEW ENGLAND. The rest of the AFC East. They're a combined 12-21, with nobody having a winning record. Thanks, losers.
  5. LARRY FITZGERALD.Mike McCoy. His failure as offensive coordinator forced the Cards to replace him in mid-season with Byron Leftwich. Since then, all Fitzgerald's done is score four times.

THE SUNDAY OMG

There are five former players among the Hall-of-Fame's Class of 2019 semifinalists younger than Tom Brady. They are Richard Seymour, Steve Hutchinson, Ed Reed, Edgerrin James and Champ Bailey.

SUNDAY'S GOLD JACKET QUOTE

"Didn't feel like talking to him. He was here trying to tell us to play for him. Then he goes to a team we play twice a year. That's how I feel. We have people we believe in calling plays now." -- Cleveland QB Baker Mayfield on former coach Hue Jackson trying to embrace him after Sunday's game.

SUNDAY'S BIGGEST WINNER

BROWNS' FANS. Crack open the Bud Light fridges again. It was a great day to be Browns' follower. Cleveland dispatched more miserable records with its beatdown of Cincinnati Sunday, including winning streaks (it was their first two-game binge since 2014) and division road losses (they had dropped 25 straight before Sunday). But it was also their biggest margin of victory since a 24-3 defeat of -- who else? -- Cincinnati on Nov. 6, 2014, and you're going to love this: That one happened in Cincinnati, and it also happened with Hue Jackson on the Bengals' sidelines.

SUNDAY'S BIGGEST LOSER

SAN FRANCISCO LB REUBEN FOSTER. He didn't spend the day on the sidelines. He spent the day in jail. And he lost a job … for good … which is what happens when you're arrested (again) on domestic violence charges. The guy doesn't belong on a football field. He belongs behind bars. There's a reason pre-draft character issues scare off potential suitors, and you're looking at him.

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