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The Debrief: Race for NFC’s No. 6 seed could go to 8-win team

Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 14 to Week 15.

The Vikings upgraded their quarterback position in the offseason with Kirk Cousins and have watched their offense slowly collapse. The Seahawks said goodbye to a raft of former world champions on defense and are likely headed back to the playoffs.

Those were just two of the takeaways from Seattle’s 21-7 throttling of the Vikings that would have sounded surprising in September but made all the sense in the world on a rainy Monday night in Seattle.

Cousins’ struggles will be the national talking point coming from the game because of his contract, but the issues in Minnesota run deeper. The offensive line is among the league’s worst and new coordinator John DeFilippo hasn’t found his footing, putting him at risk of being a one-and-done coordinator under coach Mike Zimmer if the 6-6-1 Vikings can’t turn this around. Cousins played very well overall in the first half of the season, but three of his last four games have been ugly, mirroring some of the late season struggles he had in Washington.

The NFC, suddenly the thinner conference, is only five teams deep in quality. The Seahawks all but locked up the No. 5 seed with their win Monday night and have steadily improved all season. They have a clearly defined identity on both sides of the ball and will be a highly dangerous Wild Card Weekend opponent, most likely in Dallas, with Troy and Joe on the call in the late Sunday afternoon window on January 6. (NFL games are unpredictable. Broadcasting assignments are not.)

The race for the NFC’s No. 6 seed, meanwhile, could inspire a lot of hot air with little long-term significance. The Vikings, Panthers, Eagles, Redskins and Packers are all headed in the wrong direction and have shown little reason to believe they could win a tough road playoff game. Minnesota’s loss greatly increased the chances that an eight-win team will win a wild-card spot for the first time since the 2006 New York Giants. Eight-win teams that have earned wild-card berths are 0-7 all-time in the playoffs, which makes sense because eight-win teams are generally not very good.

The Seahawks, on the other hand, run the type of bruising offense that defensive coaches like Zimmer and Pete Carroll dream of. Like so many of Carroll’s teams over the last decade, this is a team that knows how to finish.

Styles make fights

Listening to Tony Romo on two straight weeks of Ravens broadcasts provided an education in how difficult they make life for opposing quarterbacks. In a league full of zone defenses bending to the point of being broken, Baltimore’s aggressive style stands out.

Ravens coordinator Don Martindale and his veteran unit forced Chiefs ingenue Patrick Mahomes to release his best material in a comeback win for Kansas City, but that shouldn’t overshadow what the Ravens accomplished on Sunday. They bent the game to their will in Arrowhead Stadium, staying even with the AFC’s top team for 60 minutes in rookie QB Lamar Jackson‘s fourth start. It was one of the most fascinating coaching chess matches of the season, and there would be a lot of talk Monday about the brilliant first-place Ravens had Mahomes not uncorked that MVP moment on fourth-and-9.

Romo, among others, loves to say that “styles make fights” in the NFL. And the style Baltimore employs, with its blitz-happy defense combined with a diverse, run-heavy offense, could be kryptonite if the Chiefs and Ravens met again in the playoffs. But that’s unlikely to happen. A rematch of Sunday’s other example of a stout defense taking the air out of a high-flying offense — Rams-Bears — in the Divisional Round is much more realistic.

The humbled Rams can take comfort in the fact that any second meeting with Chicago will likely take place in Los Angeles, as the Rams‘ playoff bye is not in much doubt, considering the team’s soft upcoming schedule (vs. Eagles, at Cardinals, vs. 49ers). Even so, it’s worth wondering if the Bears‘ bullying defense is simply a bad matchup for L.A. Weather alone — the temperature was below freezing in Soldier Field on Sunday — can’t account for the way Chicago’s defensive line manhandled the right side of the Rams‘ offensive line, and coach Sean McVay was hesitant to run all game. The Rams‘ offense has failed to reach its usual heights the last two weeks, just like the Saints.

There’s a long way to go, but the current NFC seedings project Cowboys-Saints and Bears-Rams in the playoffs. The style of those fights the first time around should have the projected top seeds rooting against January rematches.

What we know after Week 14

Andrew Luck is capable of carrying the Colts to the playoffs: With all due respect to Mahomes, Baker Mayfield and Tom Brady, Luck had the best performance by any quarterback in Week 14. After five straight scoreless quarters, with the Colts‘ playoff aspirations beginning to dwindle, Luck and T.Y. Hilton put on a dazzling display of timing, accuracy and veteran chops during the Coltswin over the Texans.

The Colts are statistically the best team in football at third-and-10 or longer because Luck is as good as any quarterback at combining pocket movement and feel. When the Texans‘ opposing defense had the right play called Sunday, Luck showed an uncanny ability to wait them out, finding throwing lanes when most quarterbacks would have given up on the play. His arm looks stronger than it did in September. The Colts didn’t stray from their aggressive approach just because they were shut out in Jacksonville in Week 13. They kept passing to take out the Texans, and it worked. Indianapolis is now 6-1 in its last seven games, and the high-energy defense improves every week. General manager Chris Ballard deserves a lot of credit for infusing this mostly young roster with spice.

Reggie McKenzie deserved better: McKenzie inherited perhaps the worst salary cap/roster situation of the 20th century when he took the Raiders‘ general manager job in 2012. He tore it all down, fixed the team’s cap issues and had the Raiders in the playoffs in 2016 for the first time since 2002. The organization hasn’t been the same since Derek Carr‘s broken leg that 2016 season, and the marriage between Jon Gruden and McKenzie was never going to work, because Gruden wants to run the show. McKenzie, who was fired Monday, made his share of mistakes directing the team, but the Raiders have long been one of the most challenging personnel jobs in football. Heading into last offseason, he had improved the roster and salary cap situation to the point that they were far better than what he’d inherited. Will Jon Gruden ever be able to say the same?

What we don’t know after Week 14

How the Dolphins are 7-6: It’s not just about the Miami Miracle. The Dolphins, who have been outscored by 55 points this season, have won in the strangest ways all season long. (Remember the longest NFL game ever in Week 1? The Albert Wilson trick-play show in Week 3? The Brocktober surprise over the Bears in 6?) The Dolphins‘ excellent special teams have accounted for a big edge in many weeks, but that wasn’t the case against the Patriots on Sunday, when a punt was blocked and another was deflected.

Frank Gore‘s victory-lap season topped itself against New England, with the veteran back generating 116 yards from scrimmage on only 13 touches. Receiver Kenny Stills logged more yards against the Patriots (135) than he did in the previous six weeks combined (128). Adam Gase is a unique coach with a knack for dialing up big plays that keep opponents off balance, but there is very little continuity in what the team looks like from one week to the next. Perhaps they are headed to 8-8 ambivalence, like so many post-Marino era Dolphins teams, but Gase deserves credit if he hits eight or nine wins in a season that included too many injuries and too much Brock Osweiler.

If Rob Gronkowski‘s game was a good sign or not: Before Gronk’s Rodney Harrison-like moment on the wrong end of an all-time classic play, the Patriots tight end had his best game of the season. He caught all eight targets sent his way for 107 yards and a touchdown, including his first red-zone catch of the season. He keyed the Patriots‘ best old-school passing-game performance in months, complete with nine Julian Edelman catches. That’s the good news. The rest of the story is not just about the Dolphins‘ final play.

On a second-and-7 in the first quarter, Gronk caught a pass with acres of open room in front of him. The 29-year-old Gronkowski’s lack of juice with room around him was tough to watch, with Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker making up ground fast to stop the future Hall of Famer short of a first down. The Patriots punted two plays later.

Playoff picture takeaways after Week 14

1) The Patriotsfinal-play meltdown in Miami didn’t cost them positioning for a playoff bye, since Houston lost to the Colts on Sunday. It’s quite possible the Patriots could lose in Pittsburgh and still wind up with their ninth straight playoff bye. But the uncharacteristic game-long struggle with situational football against the Dolphins will cost the Patriots any realistic chance at the No. 1 seed. That’s significant for a Patriots team that is 6-0 at home this season and 3-4 on the road.

2) The Browns‘ road to playoff relevance isn’t that crazy. At the very least, there are a number of scenarios in which the Browns could enter Week 17’s game against the Ravens at 7-7-1, with a path to the playoffs still open via the wild card or AFC North title. Just the fact that Browns-Broncos on Saturday night has playoff implications at all in Week 15 is a reward for a starved Browns fan base that has been bringing the noise all season.

3) The Cowboys’ win over the Eagles all but ensured Jason Garrett’s third playoff trip — and postseason home game — in eight seasons as Cowboys head coach.

“That is far cry from a month ago isn’t it, on a house cleaning?” owner Jerry Jones said after the game, probably prepping a new contract for Garrett.

4) The Broncos’ loss in San Francisco was the most destructive for a playoff hopeful Sunday, with Kyle Shanahan reminding John Elway why the Broncos should have hired The Mastermind’s son two years ago.

5) Following the Steelers’ loss in Oakland, Mike Tomlin should be concerned about missing the playoffs entirely, with the Patriots and Saints next on the schedule. Two more losses would put the Steelers at 7-7-1 on a five-game losing streak entering Week 17, with a difficult offseason of soul-searching ahead. I still believe they are too talented — especially up front — to let the slide get that far.

MVP watch

1) Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs: That fourth-and-9 throw to Tyreek Hill was his MVP moment. Mahomes is rewriting what’s possible at the position, forced to beat perfectly called defensive plays with even better throws.

2) Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints: Tampa has traditionally been a tricky place to win for Sean Payton’s Saints, so I won’t knock Brees for waiting a half to wake up from his slumber. In my mind, the MVP race is still very tight.

3) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams: The Bears did everything possible to limit Donald’s impact, double- and triple-teaming him every play. Donald’s teammates need to make opponents pay for this approach.

4) Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers: If Rivers balls out over the next two weeks in wins against the Chiefs and Ravens, he could still steal the award.

5) DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans: I believe no wide receiver is more important to his team’s success than Hopkins is to the Texans.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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