Analysis: Gutsy calls, tight races set up wild finish in NFL
John Harbaugh again went for the win and the AFC North became even more jumbled.
The Ravens (8-6) lost their third straight game Sunday when Tyler Huntley threw incomplete to Mark Andrews on a 2-point conversion attempt after Baltimore had rallied for two touchdowns in the final five minutes to get within one point of Green Bay.
The same thing happened in Week 13 at Pittsburgh. That time, Lamar Jackson threw incomplete to Andrews and the Ravens lost to the Steelers 20-19.
Baltimore’s latest loss knocked the Ravens out of first place and set up a showdown at Cincinnati (8-6) for the top spot next week.
The Browns (7-6) are right behind those two teams and host Las Vegas on Monday. The Steelers (7-6-1) kept up with an impressive win over AFC South-leading Tennessee.
The division likely will come down to the final week when Baltimore hosts Pittsburgh and Cleveland hosts Cincinnati.
Perhaps the Ravens would be in a better position if they kicked the extra point and played for overtime against the Steelers and Packers, though there’s no guarantee they would’ve won either game.
“It goes by situation to situation,” Harbaugh said. “Those two situations you want to talk about, if you want to go back and rehash the season, I’m happy to do it. To me, in both of those cases, that gave us the best chance to win. Because we didn’t win doesn’t make it not true. It’s still true now, just as true as it was then. So, it doesn’t always work out.”
Harbaugh wasn’t the only coach whose aggressiveness backfired in Week 15. Chargers coach Brandon Staley passed up three field goals only to see his offense fail to convert on fourth down each time in a 34-28 overtime loss to Kansas City on Thursday night.
He also didn’t apologize.
“I’m never going to gamble as a coach,” Staley said. “These players mean too much to me. Our team means too much to me. I’m not gambling at all. I’m definitely not going to be reckless, ever. I felt like those were advantaged situations for us. I didn’t think any one of those opportunities decreased our chances of winning. I felt like doing that made our chances of winning increase in a big way. What we’re trying to establish around here is the mindset that we’re going to try and go win the game on our terms, and the team is going to have to beat us.”
A victory would’ve given Los Angeles (8-6) a season sweep over the Chiefs and put the Chargers in first place in the AFC West. Instead, the Chargers, like the Ravens, have a tougher task to reach the postseason.
The close race in the AFC North is a microcosm of the NFL in 2021.
Only the Packers (11-3) have clinched a division title. The Buccaneers (10-4) and Cowboys (10-4) have comfortable leads, but Tampa Bay missed an opportunity to win the NFC South and hurt its chances for a No. 1 seed by losing 9-0 to the Saints.
The NFC West suddenly got tighter with Arizona’s stunning loss at Detroit to the previously one-win Lions. The Cardinals have a half-game lead over the Rams (9-4) going into Los Angeles’ game against Seattle on Tuesday night.
The AFC East is up for grabs with New England (9-5) and Buffalo (8-6) separated by one game. Indianapolis (8-6) is one game behind the Titans (9-5) but lost to them twice. The Chiefs (10-4) have a two-game lead over the Chargers.
This is the first time since 2002 that no teams in the AFC have clinched a playoff spot after 15 weeks, although the schedule was extended to 18 weeks this season.
Eight AFC teams are within one game of one another — the Raiders (6-7) could make it nine if they beat the Browns — in the race for three wild-card spots.
The NFC will have at least five teams within one game of one another for the last wild-card spot.
With four games remaining in Week 15, only four teams have been eliminated from playoff contention.
The NFL’s first season with 17 games is setting up for a wild finish. With coaches like Harbaugh and Staley making gutsy decisions on a weekly basis, it’ll make it even more exciting.
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