The NFL season is longer than it sometimes feels, and sometimes it has a way of jumping up late and reminding us not to overreact — or at least not to react too soon.
Coaching “hot seat” lists a couple of weeks ago had Denver’s Vance Joseph and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh on them, and people around the league who track these things spoke with relative confidence of change in both places. But each of those teams has won its last two games to significantly improve its playoff chances and now you… well, you have to wonder, don’t you?
Look, Week 10 conventional wisdom still could turn out to be right about either of those guys, both of those guys or everything it believed. But the last two weeks are a reminder of how quickly things change in this league and that this little weekly exercise of ours should be taken for what it’s worth. Overreactions are always written in sand.
Lamar Jackson will save John Harbaugh’s job
Harbaugh didn’t decide to switch from Joe Flacco to rookie Jackson. He did it because Flacco injured his hip, and it seemed like a much better idea than turning to whatever’s left of Robert Griffin III. Baltimore was on a three-game losing streak at the time but has won both of Jackson’s starts to improve to 6-5 and cling to a playoff spot with five long weeks to go. Jackson has completed 27-of-44 passes for one touchdown and three interceptions in the two games and added 190 yards and a touchdown on 37 carries. Maybe more than anything, he seems to have team and town fired up in a way they absolutely weren’t two weeks ago.
Graziano’s verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Look, this isn’t going to be easy. Baltimore still has road games against the Falcons, Chiefs and Chargers sprinkled around home games against Tampa Bay and Cleveland. Getting to 9-7 from their current 6-5 is no sure thing. But if they do, and if they get into the playoffs, then it’s going to be tough to justify moving on from Harbaugh, regardless of whether Jackson starts the final five games or Flacco gets the job back once healthy. Because what the Ravens have done to win these two games at a crucial time of the year is design and operate a game plan around Jackson in spite of how green he still is. When you do that and win the games, that’s a coaching accomplishment. And it’ll have to be taken into account when the Ravens decide on Harbaugh at season’s end.
The Eagles will win the NFC East
The defending champs saved their season Sunday with a tough comeback victory over the Giants in spite of a shredded secondary and a still-somewhat-stalled offense. The Eagles are now 5-6 and a game behind the division’s first-place tie between Washington (who they play twice in the final five games) and Dallas (who they play once).
Graziano’s verdict: OVERREACTION. Could they win it? Of course. Somebody’s got to, and in the NFC East nobody looks good for more than a couple of weeks at a time. But will they win it? That’s a different question. Their remaining game against the Cowboys, who beat them in Philadelphia in Week 10, is a road game. Their remaining non-division games are at the 10-1 Rams and home to the 7-3 Texans. Dallas still has to play the unstoppable Saints, but at least they get them at home, and they finish with games against the woeful Bucs and Giants. Washington still has the Giants to go, plus out-of-division road games in Tennessee and struggling Jacksonville. Philly’s remaining schedule looks to be the toughest of the three.
The Chiefs will win the AFC
Kansas City is off this week, recovering from Monday night’s loss-for-the-ages to the Rams. But the Steelers’ loss to Denver dented Pittsburgh’s chances of catching Kansas City for the top seed. New England sits a game behind Kansas City in the conference standings and holds the tiebreaker edge since they beat the Chiefs in Week 6. The Texans can move within a game of the top spot with a victory over Tennessee on Monday night. And the Chargers sit a game behind the Chiefs in the AFC West. It’s crowded, but K.C. remains the top dog.
Graziano’s verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. The Steelers’ loss in Denver doesn’t just hurt their chances at a bye, it brings up old questions about their ability to win on the road if they don’t. Sure, it was only their first road loss of the season, but timing, people… timing. New England’s still clearly got questions to answer on defense, no matter how excited you may be about Gronk’s return to the offense. Houston’s winning games by the skin of its teeth, and it’s hard to imagine them hanging with Kansas City’s offense in a playoff game. And the Chargers? The Chiefs have beaten them NINE times in a row, including in Week 1 in L.A. The Chargers play in Pittsburgh next week (likely without Melvin Gordon), then home against the Chiefs in Week 15. Win those two, and we can talk. Meantime, the Chiefs look like the best team in the conference, and one of these years the playoffs are gonna work out for Andy Reid. I just know they are.
The Colts need to stop throwing the ball to Andrew Luck
This week at least, he caught the pass. And he didn’t land hard on his surgically repaired shoulder, as he did last week when lunging for a futile catch attempt in the end zone. The Colts are 6-5 and obviously having fun with a five-game winning streak under creative former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich.
Graziano’s verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Look, guys this is getting serious now. A 6-5 record means you’re IN IT. This isn’t like Week 4, when you could go for it on fourth down in your own territory in overtime against Houston because where were you going this year anyway? Frankly, if that situation presented itself again, Reich would be crazy not to play it differently. Same deal here with Luck, without whom there simply is no Colts season. He’s thrown at least three touchdown passes in eight straight games. His comeback had turned the Colts from a doormat into a contender. It’s neat that Reich wants to keep trotting out and tweaking variations of the play that helped him and the Eagles win a Super Bowl in February, but keeping Luck in the pocket is the way to go at this point. No need to take any chances with a legitimate shot at the postseason.
The Browns will win the AFC North in 2019
Cleveland overwhelmed division rival Cincinnati on Sunday, winning its second game in a row to improve to 4-6-1 for the season. It’s the first time the Browns have won this many games in a season since 2014. They haven’t finished over .500 since 2007, and they still could do that with a 4-1 finish. Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield is 36-for-46 for 474 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions in Cleveland’s last two games. There’s real hope here, and the Browns look as if they’ll be a tough team to play down the stretch.
Graziano’s verdict: OVERREACTION. This one was tough, but in the end it feels like too big a jump to move them past Pittsburgh in our way-to-early 2019 AFC North projections. Sure, if Ben Roethlisberger retires, it’s a different conversation. But assuming he doesn’t, these exciting upstart Browns still have some hurdles to clear. And while they’re playing very well under interim head coach Gregg Williams, we can’t overlook the very real possibility that they change coaches (and maybe offensive systems) in the offseason. The future is bright in Cleveland, and a strong finish and another good draft will make them a trendy pick next August. But these things take time. They haven’t even finished higher than fourth place since 2010. Gotta get to third place before you can get to first, don’t you?
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