NFL Week 10 recap: Sorting through the playoff clutter

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It’s that time of year again! Bad teams masquerade as good ones for a couple of weeks and confuse us all, and good teams stumble into losses that should never have happened. Week to week, almost anybody (if you’re not named Nathan Peterman) has a shot to win in the NFL. Let’s go over how Week 10 played out and what it means going forward.

The intrigue in the AFC is at the top. Securing first-round byes and home-field advantage through the playoffs is paramount for teams in this conference — beating Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in January at Gillette Stadium is nearly impossible.

But the other AFC elite just got a little bit of help. New England sleepwalked into

Nashville and made an average-at-best Titan QB Marcus Mariota look like the dual-threat signal-caller he was supposed to be. In the 34-10 thumping, Brady did not look like his usual self, as has been the case in multiple Patriot losses this season.

The Patriots (7-3) are now fourth in the conference by record, behind the Steelers (6-2-1), Chargers (7-2) and Chiefs (9-1). Kansas City already owns tiebreakers by way of victories against Pittsburgh and the Los Angeles Chargers, so it is a heavy favorite for the one-seed.

The key to the Patriots offense, however, has always been standout TE Rob Gronkowski. Brady surely does not have a shortage of weapons. Between RB James White and wide receivers Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman, he could be doing a lot worse. But the connection between a quarterback and his tight end, specifically this one, is sacred, and the real Patriots will take form only toward the end of the season when Belichick decides to deploy Gronkowski.

The New England defense also probably deserves some words for stinking up the joint, but this year, which defense doesn’t?

Chargers at Steelers (Week 13), Chargers at Chiefs (Week 15) and Patriots at Steelers (Week 15) are games to circle on the calendar in the coming weeks. If any one of these four teams gets hot enough to win its remaining matchups, it could lock up the first seed for itself.

Over in the NFC, the top is almost settled. The Saints and Rams will likely be the one and two seeds, respectively. The drama begins further down the standings, in the fight for the prized wild-card spots.

The defending champion Eagles (4-5) have to be kicking themselves for their performance in an ugly 27-20 loss at home against the perennially mediocre Cowboys (4-5). With an easy win in Tampa Bay, Washington (6-3) now finds itself leading the NFC East race by two games. Week 10 went as badly as it could have for Doug Pedersen’s Eagles squad.

Unfortunately, this may just not be Philly’s year. The one semi-good cornerback it has, Ronald Darby, tore his ACL against Dallas and is out for the season. Its defensive backs, a mix of bad veterans and inexperienced rookies, have been left in the dust too many times this season, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better any time soon.

The Atlanta Falcons (4-5), two years removed from being NFC champs, also slipped up in what will likely be a season-ending way. A 28-16 loss in Cleveland did them no favors in the playoff race, as Gregg Williams’ defense stymied QB Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense. Fumbles and punts plagued Atlanta on this day, and Ryan strengthened his reputation for struggling on the road in outdoor games.

Washington and Chicago, meanwhile, cemented their status as division leaders and kept their playoff bids strong. Washington went into the heat and humidity of Tampa Bay and won 16-3 in what was a potential trap game against the unpredictable QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Even though Washington head coach Jay Gruden and QB Alex Smith have paired to produce nothing but a vapid offense, they somehow find themselves in a commanding division lead late in the season.

Chicago (6-3) fully outclassed Detroit 34-22, beating its playoff hopes to a pulp. The Lions (3-6) were never really a good team, and now we can safely eliminate them from contention in a messy NFC North.

Dev Navani writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].