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The Debrief, Week 12: Race for AFC sixth seed takes shape

Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 12 to Week 13.

After 12 weeks, five teams in the AFC have all but made the playoffs and there’s a surprising amount of juice surrounding which squad will nab the No. 6 spot.

The Texanscomprehensive win over Tennessee on Monday night helped to calcify what all those playoff odds sites already said: Kansas City, New England, Pittsburgh, Houston and Los Angeles are almost certainly headed to the tournament and just need to figure out the order for seeding.

The seven teams within one game in the loss column for the final playoff berth is not a group comprised of the usual mediocrities at the edge of a playoff race. Three of the teams — Baltimore, Indianapolis and Denver — served notice in Week 12 that they could be among the most fascinating squads to follow down the stretch.

This Ravens season feels authored by a screenwriter out of ideas, with the hotshot rookie quarterback trying to save the job of the Super Bowl-winning head coach. It was as if the Ravens were trying to prove a point in the first half of their win over the Raiders that Lamar Jackson could excel as a pure drop-back passer. When Baltimore unleashed its multi-faceted running attack with Gus Edwards in the second half, there was no stopping them. Jackson has been fascinating to watch, but John Harbaugh knows that his defense has to play better, too, to survive a tricky gauntlet of games down the stretch.

The Colts have the best quarterback and possibly the best coach of the No. 6 seed contenders, but they were still trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter at home against Miami. Coming back in a game like that where turnovers and big plays went against them is the sign of a playoff team. So is a five-game winning streak. The playoffs would have more life with Andrew Luck back in them.

While there are other contenders for the No. 6 spot, none have a more plausible path among 5-6 teams than the Denver Broncos. After ending the six-game winning streaks of the Chargers and Steelers in back-to-back weeks after coming one kick away from beating the Texans, the Broncos face only one team with a winning record left on the schedule. The Broncos have pass rushers for days and no one is complaining about Case Keenum the last two months. Even the Browns-Broncos game in Week 14 could have more sauce than your typical Baker Mayfield start.

Too often in recent years, the final playoff spot has gone to barely-there teams without any chance to make real postseason noise. That figures to change this January in an AFC field that is deeper from the No. 1 seed on down than it has been for years.

Before getting to our weekly MVP watch, let’s look at what else we know and what we don’t after Week 12.

Things we know after Week 12

Nathaniel Hackett paid for the sins of his organization: The Jaguars hired general manager Dave Caldwell in 2013 and drafted Blake Bortles No. 3 overall a year later. The franchise’s inability to admit they made a mistake with that pick has hurt the team over the last three seasons more than the pick itself. So many decisions have been made in vain to make that pick look right.

Hackett and coach Doug Marrone both earned promotions largely because they worked well with Bortles during a two-game mirage as interim hires late in the 2016 season. Potential draft picks, free agents and trade possibilities at quarterback were passed on year after year because of Bortles’ presence, the culmination coming after last season, when the Jaguars signed Bortles to the most unnecessary contract extension in recent history. The closest thing Bortles ever had to competition in Jacksonville was Chad Henne.

The Jaguars benched Bortles this week after firing Hackett, the third coordinator to lose his job after working with Bortles. Cody Kessler will take over, presumably for the rest of a lost season that misused a talented, if diminished, defense. This is not on Bortles. He showed the type of quarterback he is over five seasons and the team shouldn’t be surprised at his level of his play. His numbers through 11 weeks are almost identical to where they were at this point last season. The Jaguars walked a tightrope act by overcoming their quarterback on the way to the AFC Championship Game last season and weren’t able to do so this year with the defense far less dominant and disciplined.

The blame for this failure primarily rests on executive VP of football operations Tom Coughlin. He ultimately supported the notion that tripling down on Bortles last February was a good idea. Bortles is due $6.5 million guaranteed next season because of the three-year contract he signed in February. The most likely outcome is that the Jaguars pay him that cash to go away and eat $16.5 million in dead money on their salary cap, which they could spread out over two seasons.

Hackett lost his job for failing to turn Bortles into something he never was: a franchise quarterback. Coughlin, Caldwell and Marrone’s inability to accept that fact wasted a lot of people’s time.

Josh Allen makes the Bills more fun to watch: That’s a low bar to clear, but it’s hard not to be fascinated by Allen. I have no idea if he can be successful as a starter, but Sunday’s performance against Jacksonville had some breathtaking moments. He completed only eight passes, but a few of them were beauties. He rushed for 99 yards, trash talking the Bills after many of them. At worst, he’s a rich man’s Blake Bortles that makes Buffalo games more intriguing down the stretch, just to see what Allen does next.

The Patriots are healthier: I agree with Tom Curran’s take that the Patriots are more vulnerable than they have been in a while (2015), but also dangerous because of the resourcefulness of their coaching staff. Just as important, the team is healthier than it has been all season. Sony Michel, who ran for 133 yards against the Jets on Sunday, has proven to be just as important to their offense as Julian Edelman. Rob Gronkowski may not be his old self, but he’s still a huge difference maker in dictating matchups. The return of guard Shaq Mason was crucial in blowing open holes for Michel and the team’s never-ending carousel of tackles has stopped for now with Trent Brown, Marcus Cannon and LaAdrian Waddle all healthy. Rex Burkhead was activated from injured reserve on Monday.

This newfound continuity — if it sticks — should allow players to settle into defined roles. 2013 Josh Gordon could beat 2018 Josh Gordon in a race, but he’s been a huge upgrade as an outside receiver on a team desperate for one. It makes more sense for Chris Hogan to be getting 28 snaps like he did against the Jets, and Cordarelle Patterson makes more sense as a role player, rather than a starting running back. The Patriots have big tests against the Vikings and Steelers coming up and are in position to play their best football in December even if their best this season isn’t as dazzling as the last few.

The NFC East is one of the worst divisions in years: There’s a strong chance that the NFC East will have three teams tied at 6-6 after Week 13. Unless the Cowboys upset the Saints or the Redskins pull off a road upset in Philadelphia, it looks like the division is headed for a three-way sprint in the final month.

The schedule overall does not help the Eagles, but having two games against Washington gives the defending champions a fighting chance. The division as a whole, with the Giants lagging behind at 3-8, could be the worst since the 2015 NFC East or 2015 AFC South, which each had only one winning team. The Redskins remain the highest-ranked team by DVOA in the division at No. 16, but that number doesn’t penalize them for losing Alex Smith. It’s quite possible that an eight-win team gets in from the NFC East, which would be the lowest win total for a division champion since the 7-8-1 Panthers in 2014.

The Colts‘ running game makes them dangerous: It’s a pleasure to see what Colts coach Frank Reich and Andrew Luck cook up each week. Sunday’s win over Miami provided a twist, as Indianapolis completed a 10-point fourth-quarter comeback with balance.

The Colts‘ first scoring drive of the fourth quarter started with two Marlon Mack runs for 35 yards combined. In the three scoring drives during the comeback, Indianapolis called 13 passes and 10 runs, with another long run from Nyheim Hines called back by penalty. That threat to break big plays on the ground makes the Colts exceptionally hard to defend, especially when Luck completes 19 of 21 passes, like he did in the second half. The loss of tight end Jack Doyle, who is headed to injured reserve with a kidney injury, will hurt the running game, because he was such a good blocker. But Reich has proven an expert at using the pieces available to him and placing a stress test on every facet of the opposing defense.

The Seahawks are in prime position to nab a playoff spot: The Seahawks won in Carolina and now have four of their final five games at home. FiveThirtyEight gives the Seahawks a 75 percent chance to make the playoffs, while ESPN’s FPI rankings gives the team a 78.1 percent chance. Pete Carroll’s path back to the postseason is a lot clearer than that of other contenders, like the Vikings and Panthers.

MVP watch

1) Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints: Spare me the “underrated MVP candidates” and guys “in the conversation.” Brees is the best quarterback in the league on the best team. It’s hard to see anyone but Patrick Mahomes having much of a chance.

2) Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs: Absence made my heart grow fonder for Mahomes during his bye week. He has two games left against the Raiders with which to pad his stats, including this Sunday in Oakland.

3) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams: Donald has 68 combined sacks, QB hits and hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. That not only leads all interior players, but it also tops any edge rushers.

4) Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams: I am fascinated to see how the Rams evolve coming out of their bye week and what they will do in Chicago in Week 14.

5) Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers: Like everyone surrounding the Chargers, Rivers is relatively under the radar. That will change with three prime-time bangers (at Pittsburgh, at Kansas City, vs. Baltimore) over the next four weeks.

Things we don’t know after Week 12

If Phillip Lindsay is human: Everything about Lindsay is a delight. His burst is outrageous, often turning what should be a 4-yard gain into a big play, because linebackers and safeties can’t find the right angle to tackle him. He’s a long shot to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, with Saquon Barkley racking up so many yards and Baker Mayfield coming on strong — but could either of them do this?

If Antonio Brown is going to go Full Antonio this season: Eleven games into the season, Brown has 181 fewer yards than Steelers teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster, despite Brown seeing 12 more targets. AB has his lowest catch percentage (58.2) since his second season in the league.

This is not to say Brown isn’t still a dominant player. Broncos coach Vance Joseph said the Broncos were determined to stop Brown on Sunday at all costs and live with whatever damage Smith-Schuster and James Conner did. It worked, as Brown gained an inefficient 67 yards on 13 targets. It’s almost unfair to compare Brown to his otherworldly numbers of years past, but it’s jarring to see him ranked 14th in receiving yards, below Robert Woods and Zach Ertz.

If Adam Gase trusts Ryan Tannehill: Gase’s decision to run the ball on third-and-10 late in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Colts was not a one-time thing. Gase cited field position as one reason for playing it safe there, an argument that holds less water because Gase made the exact same call to run on third-and-10 on the previous drive. After Tannehill missed an open Kenny Stills on the Dolphins‘ second-to-last drive Sunday, the Dolphins ran from the 25-yard line before punting the ball away. Miami gained yardage on only one of its final six plays, with two of Tannehill’s three throws being failed screen passes. These are not the play calls of a coach who is confident in his offense. Miami made a lot of impressive plays against the Colts, but it was striking how the Dolphins played not to lose in the final 10 minutes, allowing the Colts to dictate the terms of the game.

If the Bengals could possibly allow Marvin Lewis to hire Hue Jackson as head coach: Cincinnati has lost five of six games, and Lewis’ ascension to the defensive play-caller position didn’t help matters Sunday against the Browns. Even before Andy Dalton‘s season-ending thumb injury, the Bengals looked like a team that was unlikely to win many more games this season.

The Bengals managed to save Lewis’ job in the final weeks of last season, but it would be even more surprising to see this team rally under quarterback Jeff Driskel to save Lewis’ job again. That’s why the reports about Hue Jackson possibly ascending to the head coaching job seem hard to imagine. Allowing Lewis to hand-pick the next Bengals coach — and make that coach Hue Jackson, who went 3-36-1 in Cleveland — would be one of the most curious moments for a franchise that’s had too many of them.

If the Panthers are strong enough up front to make the playoffs: There was some element of bad luck in Carolina’s loss to the Seahawks, but is it really unlucky to fail in short-yardage situations three separate times in the same game? (It was four if you count Christian McCaffrey‘s fumble on the goal line that the Panthers recovered.) Gaining a yard when necessary is one of the most fundamental aspects of football, and Carolina’s overachieving offensive line failed repeatedly when it mattered against Seattle.

Worrying about the offense, however, is probably missing the point. Coordinator Norv Turner has helped make the Panthers offense more dynamic than it has been in years, just in time to watch head coach Ron Rivera’s defense go mysteriously soft. Carolina couldn’t get consistent pressure on Russell Wilson on Sunday, even when the Panthers sent extra pass rushers. There have been a ton of missed tackles in recent weeks, and Rivera’s secret sauce for coaching up disparate parts in the secondary has dried up. The defensive line could use a youth infusion. The Panthers‘ offense of today combined with the Panthers‘ defense of 2015-17 would make for a Super Bowl contender, but this year’s squad now looks more likely to be watching the tournament from home.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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