When the calendar turns to December, we should know the lay of the land in the NFL, right? Of course.
Take last year. After 12 weeks, the Steelers were 11-0, the clear number one team in the league. Tampa Bay, on a two-game losing streak with some internal grousing about the dysfunctional offense making the rumor rounds, was 7-5, not a top 10 team as the calendar flipped to December.
This year, well, I’m going to give you the five teams who could be this year’s Bucs.
The best team in football heading into December: Green Bay, by an immunized pinky toe (thanks, Joe Buck) over Arizona.
The team that could be the ultimate spoiler: San Francisco. (You thought I’d say Cincinnati, and I almost did.)
Three points to consider:
• Look at the schedule. Who loves psycho 5-6 Minnesota? Not me, particularly with Dalvin Cook headed for the MRI tube this morning to check his troubled shoulder. But the Vikings play Chicago twice and Detroit once in the final six weeks. So abandon faith in the Vikings at your own risk.
• Envy teams with the late bye. In 2018, New England had a Week 11 bye and won the Super Bowl. In 2019, Kansas City had a Week 12 bye and won the Super Bowl. In 2020, Tampa Bay had a Week 13 bye and won the Super Bowl. I sense a trend. So many of my top teams have byes in Weeks 12, 13, 14 this year—KC, Arizona, Tennessee, Green Bay and New England. Kyler Murray, Julio Jones, the pinky toe of Aaron Rodgers, and maybe Derrick Henry will all benefit by the December break. Remember last year, when the Bucs used the first week of December to modify their offense so it wasn’t a bunch of guys just running around? Worked. They were 8-0 the rest of the way, fresh as daisies.
• Beware of teams peaking too soon. The Steelers went 1-5 after Week 12 last year, getting embarrassed in the wild-card game by Cleveland. New England, 10-1 after 12 weeks in 2019, went 2-4 after that, including the ugly Tom Brady swansong wild-card loss to Tennessee. So should you really love New England on a six-game winning streak? Should you really give up on the Rams, on a three-game losing streak? November football matters. December and January football really matters.
Now for the teams that could get hot—could, I say—and make trouble in the next six weeks:
San Francisco 49ers (6-5)
Strong run game with the Niners’ last pick in the 2021 draft, Elijah Mitchell, forced into action and playing great (693 yards, 4.8 per rush), under the tutelage of 72-year-old running backs coach Bobby Turner. And Jimmy Garoppolo, the undisputed starter, has turned it over once in the last three games—not coincidentally, all wins. The Niners cannot afford Deebo Samuel’s groin injury to be serious. He’s turned into a first-class phenom, averaging 18.0 yards per catch and 8.1 yards per rush. Road games at the Bengals, Titans and Rams will test them, but I see the Niners as a threatening sixth seed in a weakened NFC.
Cincinnati Bengals (7-4)
We knew Joe Burrow would be a threat, and he’s made beautiful music with a quartet of strong young pass-catchers. But the defense is what’s going to determine this team’s fate. In seven of 11 games, the D has allowed 21 points or less. Tough schedule to finish, with the Chargers, Niners, Ravens and KC at home. I thought Burrow would be this generation’s Dan Fouts, and the Bengals have the kind of bombs-away attack that could beat anyone, home or away. You better have a healthy secondary if you want to compete with this offense in January.
Indianapolis Colts (6-6)
Dangerous as heck, but they’ve got to make it first. After Houston this week and the bye, the Colts are home with New England and at Arizona. Miami is hot, and six other non-division-leaders have six or seven wins in the AFC. So the Colts will likely need to win one of those toughies—Pats or Cards—to be a factor in the playoffs.
Philadelphia Eagles (5-7)
Young quarterbacks are up and down, and I’d have told you before Sunday in East Rutherford that Jalen Hurts has a chance to stave off the front office from going quarterback-shopping in the offseason. Now, who knows. But Hurts leads an offense that averaged 34.5 points a game in the previous four. His run ability helps. This also helps: Four of the last five games for the Eagles are against teams under .500. Imagine a win-and-in home game to close the season against the Cowboys, with Hurts’ future on the line. Must-see TV.
Minnesota Vikings (5-6)
Too many missed chances, too much of a chance that Dalvin Cook (shoulder) could be broken down once his test results come back today. But they beat the Packers 34-31 eight days ago and looked great doing it. The Vikings could rally to make it as the seventh seed—they have two games with Chicago, one with Detroit, one with slumping Pittsburgh—and the Vikes won’t be a team the Packers would want to see on wild-card weekend, even at Lambeau.