Maybe this NFL coaching gig isn’t so tough after all.
Four first-year coaches are in the mix for the playoffs heading into the final Sunday of the regular season.
Two of those have locked down home games by winning their divisions — Sean McVay of the Rams and Doug Marrone of Jacksonville — and two others, the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn and Buffalo’s Sean McDermott, have to get the job done and get help from other teams to secure wild-card berths.
Either way, it’s a respectable showing for this crop of rookie coaches, and McVay and Marrone, who coached Buffalo in 2013-14, are in the running for coach-of-the-year honors.
“Our playoffs have already started,” Lynn said recently in reference to the Chargers clawing their way back to relevance after a 0-4 start. The team left itself no wiggle room after losing a pivotal game at Kansas City two weeks ago.
Like a lightning bolt, the Chargers’ path to the postseason is jagged, narrow and out of their control.
There are three scenarios that would get them in:
- Chargers win over Oakland + Tennessee loss or tie to Jacksonville + Buffalo loss or tie at Miami
- Chargers win + Tennessee loss or tie + Baltimore win or tie over Cincinnati
- Chargers tie + Tennessee loss + Buffalo loss or tie
There are two wild-card spots up for grabs in the AFC, with the division titles already claimed by Kansas City (West), New England (East), Pittsburgh (North) and Jacksonville (South).
In the driver’s seat for those two berths are Tennessee and Baltimore, both looking at win-and-they’re-in situations.
The teams that still have a pulse but need help are the Chargers and Buffalo, with the Bills looking to end a playoff drought at 17 years, the longest among the four major professional sports.
McDermott said he has devoted “very little” time to crunching the playoff numbers, but, “I’ll say this: I’m proud of the fact that our guys have earned the right to be in that conversation, and I’m happy for our fans.”
The NFC postseason picture is slightly murkier, even though the Rams (West), Minnesota (North) and Philadelphia (East) have won their divisions and therefore have earned the right to play host to at least one playoff game.
New Orleans and Carolina are still in play for the NFC South title, and the Saints own the tiebreaker.
If the Saints win at Tampa Bay on Sunday, the division is theirs. Carolina needs to win at Atlanta and hope for a loss or tie by New Orleans.
“There’s still a chance, there’s still hope,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera told reporters after a closer-than-expected 22-19 win over the Buccaneers on Sunday. “Sometimes that’s all you need.”
Atlanta can clinch a wild-card spot by beating the Panthers, but can’t win the division.
The only NFC team that’s still alive but can’t get in without help is Seattle. To clinch a playoff berth, the Seahawks need a victory over Arizona and a loss or tie by Atlanta. Seattle could also get in with a tie, plus a loss by Atlanta.
A few weeks ago, untangling the playoff possibilities required a beautiful mind. Now, it has largely become a paint-by-numbers exercise.
New England and Pittsburgh have clinched the top two seeds in the AFC, meaning they will get first-round byes.
In the NFC, Philadelphia has a first-round bye and Minnesota almost certainly will secure the other one.
The only NFC team with a flicker of a hope to derail that for the Vikings is Carolina, but the Panthers would need a win, plus a loss or tie by New Orleans, plus a loss by the Vikings to Chicago, plus a loss by the Rams to San Francisco.
In other words, the Panthers had better not make plans for a mini-vacation.
Ever the losers
The Cleveland Browns have lost so often, it’s almost an afterthought that they’re on their way to 0-16 after finishing 1-15 last season.
They finish at Pittsburgh after laying an egg on Christmas Eve with a 20-3 loss at Chicago.