NFC royalty was on display Sunday as the 49ers beat the Saints on the road in a battle as enthralling as the 48-46 score suggests. There were myriad lead changes, a showcase of offensive wizardry by Kyle Shanahan and Sean Payton, and a 30-yard game-winning field goal by Robbie Gould as time expired.
The 49ers are as stacked and well coached as any team in the NFL. San Francisco headed into Week 14 boasting the NFL's top defense, the second-best rushing attack and a quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo who proved Sunday he can thrive in big moments. Now 11-2, the 49ers should have a viable path in the playoffs. But …
What they may get instead is a wildcard weekend matchup in Dallas against the putrid Cowboys who are currently 6-7, losers of three straight and poised to fire their head coach at season's end. Because the 49ers happen to share a division with the Seattle Seahawks, also one of the NFC's top three teams, San Francisco may have to travel and face a team who are only in the postseason because NFL law says someone has to win each division and that the winner of each division gets to host a playoff game (and if the Niners win the division the excellent Seahawks, who trail them by a game, may well find themselves in the same scenario).
The NFC East is so dreadful this season that it is on pace to have the worst win-loss percentage of any division in NFL history. The whole division ought to be grounded for forcing NFL fans to watch their collective trainwreck, especially the Cowboys who have continued to let Jason Garrett waste talent.
Yet despite the possibility of a team with just three losses playing on the road against a team with eight or nine losses, the NFL reconfirmed Sunday that reseeding the playoffs has never been a consideration. The logical solution would be to stick to the formula of six playoff teams with four division winners and two wildcard entrants but seed them by record. The top four teams deservedly get to host a playoff games, while the sanctity of division supremacy is protected. It's appalling that Roger Goodell, who has blathered on for years about preserving the "integrity of the NFL", won't even consider a playoff seeding upgrade that is rooted in equality.
The reseeding idea last gained steam in the 2010 playoffs when the 7-9 Seahawks hosted, and surprisingly beat, the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, who were a wildcard team with an 11-5 record. That close contest only illustrated the importance of a home crowd.
Who knows, perhaps the Cowboys will have the same stroke of luck. Even if the 49ers - or the Seahawks for that matter - destroy the Cowboys in January, why should a 12- or 13-win team be deprived of all the benefits that come from hosting a postseason game? For the franchise there is a nice chunk of additional revenue from tickets, merchandise and concessions, plus the greater prestige and optics which come from showing off your stadium and fanbase on a grand scale. Fans will travel well to Dallas but the potential reach is clearly not the same.
The deepest layer of unfairness is to the 49ers season-ticket holders who have displayed unwavering loyalty while Levi's Stadium transformed from what felt like a morgue when it opened in 2014 to the raucous, filled-to-the-brim party it's been this year. Those fans deserve a home playoff game this year if the Niners continue their run of form, as do the players, coaches and everyone in the organization.
There is no legitimate rationale for the NFL to continue the archaic seeding system. Is it laziness? Not wanting to mess with the status quo even as the outrage is rightfully swelling? Who knows, but as displayed by their respective performances this week, the idea of San Francisco having to travel to Dallas in the postseason is beyond unfair. It's utterly ridiculous.
Stat of the week
Matt Ryan tops 50,000 passing yards for career. The Falcons QB's fortunes have ebbed and flowed down the years but his prolific passing has never waned. Ryan hit a major milestone during a 40-20 win over the Panthers when he became the 10th player in NFL history to pass for more than 50,000 yards in a career. Ryan has been a model of passing excellence since he entered the league in 2008 and has eclipsed 4,000 passing yards each season since 2011.
MVP of the week
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Tennessee Titans. Tannehill had played sound football during the Titans' three-game winning streak heading into Oakland, but Sunday's 42-21 clobbering of the Raiders on the road was a masterpiece. Tannehill's passing numbers - 21-of-27 for 391 yards and three touchdowns - were higher than any put up by Marcius Mariota in his four years as the Titans starter.
Since Tannehill took over as starter, the Titans are 6-1. They are 8-5 overall with Week 15 and 17 contests against the Texans, who have the same record, that will decide the division. A pretty remarkable comeback for Tannehill who many left for dead in Miami. Lamar Jackson continues to be the MVP frontrunner and barring catastrophe will win the award but Tannehill has played well enough to be considered a deep sleeper at this point.
Quote of the week
"I'm trying not to get fined" - the Patriots' Matthew Slater on the officiating during their loss to the Chiefs.
Another week in the NFL marred by bad officiating. This time the Patriots were the most aggrieved in a 23-16 loss to Kansas City. Two would-be touchdowns were taken away, one on a Stephon Gilmore strip of Travis Kelce that didn't count because the official wrongly called the play dead. On the other, the officials said rookie wideout N'Keal Harry stepped out of bounds at the three-yard-line when in fact it was a clear score. The Patriots were out of challenges and it wasn't a scoring play so the call stood. Both calls had an obvious impact on the final score. Yes, even the Pats are not immune.
Video of the week
It was fourth and two, time running out in an emotional, hard-fought battle in New Orleans. 49ers tight end George Kittle turned into a superhero and muscled his way into game-winning field-goal range. An incredible display of physicality.
Elsewhere around the league
-- The Baltimore Ravens won their ninth straight game, topping Buffalo 24-17. Lamar Jackson put on his usual show but it was the Ravens defense, particularly the defensive front, dominating the Bills offensive line, that was the difference.
-- The Miami Dolphins followed up last week's remarkable trick play with more magic, this time from Ryan Fitzpatrick who executed a beautiful long run and lateral. Not bad for a 37-year-old quarterback on a team that is supposedly tanking. The Dolphins, however, went on to lose to the Jets 22-21.
-- Devlin Hodges and the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to be a revelation. Hodges smoothly ran the Steelers offense (16-of-18, 152 yards, one touchdown, no turnovers) as Pittsburgh toppled Arizona 23-17. The Steelers are now 8-5, winners of three straight and poised for a wildcard berth in the AFC. Given what Mike Tomlin has produced without Ben Roethlisberger and following the departures of Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, a Coach of the Year honor seems well deserved. And if the NFL ever create an award for Best NFL QB Twitter Account, Hodges is a shoo in.
-- According to Fox's Jay Glazer, Odell Beckham Jr could be one and done in Cleveland and has reportedly told opposing players and coaches throughout the year, "come get me." Beckham also revealed over the weekend that he has been playing with a painful sports hernia and will need surgery after the season.
-- The Kansas City Chiefs escaped having to forfeit their game against New England after their equipment was accidentally sent to Newark, New Jersey. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the equipment did arrive on time and also humorously clarified that, "Kansas City was responsible, not the Patriots or the league."