As the late great Biggie Smalls once said, “It’s time to separate the game from the truth.”
We have entered the NFL home stretch run. With four weeks left until the playoffs, some early barnstormers have hit a wall like the Cincinnati Bengals and the Carolina Panthers.
The Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles are finding a groove and distancing themselves from the rest of the NFC Least division. The Ravens, Denver, and Houston, however, are catching stride at the right time and surging towards a playoff birth.
1. Houston Texans (9-3)
After a 0-3 start, Deshaun Watson has led the Texans to nine straight wins. The streak is now the NFL’s longest winning streak since the Saints lost last Thursday night.
It is also the longest in franchise history and the longest in league history for a team that started the season 0-3.
Watson has quietly put together an MVP season in his first full year as a starting quarterback.
Maligned by the fans earlier in the year, Watson is producing clutch plays and putting up points when needed. His leadership and Houston’s defense has been the key to this scorching stretch, opponents have been held to 10 or fewer first-half points in nine straight games.
2. Ravens (6-6)
Put all of the technical jargon and skills analysis aside. Lamar Jackson is a straight up winner and that’s what it’s all about in the NFL.
The Ravens are undefeated (3-0) since Jackson took over as the starter and have rushed for 715 yards over the past three games, which is the most in a three-game stretch in franchise history. Jackson has contributed 265 of those rushing yards.
The fact that the Ravens have completely transformed their offense to suit Jackson’s skills at this juncture of his career shows the evolution of coaching in the NFL. While Jackson’s ground and pound game is a throwback style, the versatility, adaptability, and willingness of offensive coordinators to implement a totally different game plan to make the QB more comfortable is something that guys like Mike Vick didn’t initially have.
The Ravens’ approach with Lamar Jackson has produced positive results. Instead of forcing a young QB into a system that is not tailored to his specific talents, Baltimore is striding towards the playoffs by letting Lamar be Lamar.
3. Denver Broncos (6-6)
The Denver Broncos are on a three-game winning streak and have returned from the brink of death, catapulting back into the AFC playoff race with a 6-6 record.
The magic of undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay has driven the team’s resurgence. He is only the fourth undrafted rookie since 1970 to record at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage in his first NFL season.
All-Pro linebacker Von Miller says the key to Denver’s success is “just treating every week like it’s the playoffs. Treating every week like it’s our last game. We try to go 1-0 every single week.”
They are also playing to save their coach’s job. If Vance Joseph wants to return as head coach he has to run the table. It’s a tough reality but probably true.
Entering final four games, the Broncos have what should be three wins coming against teams out of the playoff race. ESPN’s calculations give the Broncos a 19 percent chance to make the playoffs. They play the 2-10 San Francisco 49ers on Sunday with an opportunity to win four straight for the first time since 2016.