Christian McCaffrey, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

ESNY’s Russell Baxter provides his weekly NFL afterthoughts, this time hitting on Christian McCaffrey and the AFC East stranglehold. 

Russell Baxter

One week to go. A total of 16 regular-season games, all to be played on Sunday. Six division champions have been crowned. It’s worth noting that all four teams that finished in first place a year ago in the AFC – the New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs – claimed the top spot for a second-straight year.

In the NFC, the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints are division champions. The NFC East will be won by either the Philadelphia Eagles or Dallas Cowboys. The NFC West will be decided Sunday night at Seattle when the 11-4 Seahawks host the 12-3 San Francisco 49ers.

The Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings are also postseason bound. And as for the final spot in the AFC, it will be filled by the Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers or Tennessee Titans.

Got it all? Once again, here are some observations and a few numbers as well when it comes to Week 16 (and beyond) in regards to the NFL’s 100th season.

5. Defensive turnaround

A season ago, the Kansas City Chiefs scored 565 points – the third-highest single-season total in NFL history. Andy Reid’s team also surrendered 421 points, which would have been the most ever by a Super Bowl champion if the Chiefs had managed to win a Lombardi Trophy.

last offseason, the team dismissed defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and brought in Steve Spagnuolo. It switched to a 4-3 scheme and brought in such performers – via free agency and trade – such as safety Tyrann Mathieu, defensive ends Frank Clark, Alex Okafor and Emmanuel Ogbah (the latter two are now on injured reserve), linebackers Darron Lee and Damien Wilson and cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Morris Claiborne.

It’s taken some time but it looks like this group is starting to come around. In Kansas City’s last five games, they’ve allowed a total of 48 points and four offensive touchdowns. During the club’s 6-4 start, Reid’s squad gave up 239 points (23.0 PPG) and 28 offensive TDs. Talking about peaking at the right time?

4. A positive out of Charlotte

With one game to play in 2019, Carolina Panthers’ running back Christian McCaffrey leads the NFL with 2,294 yards from scrimmage. The NFL single-season record in this category is owned by former Tennessee Titans’ running back Chris Johnson, who rolled up 2,509 yards 10 seasons ago.

McCaffrey is 215 scrimmage yards away from tying that mark as this team hosts the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. The talented performer has rushed for 1,361 yards and snared 109 passes for 933 yards.

If McCaffrey gains 67 yards through the air this weekend, he will become just the third player in NFL annals to total at least 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving in the same season. He would join the very short list of San Francisco’s Roger Craig (1985) and the St. Louis Rams’ Marshall Faulk (1999).

3. The more things change, the more they…

There have now been a total of 21 seasons (minus one game) for the Cleveland Browns since the re-joined the NFL as an expansion team in 1999. Freddie Kitchens is the team’s 11th different head coach during that span. The club has enjoyed only two winning seasons (2002 and ’07) and last reached the playoffs 17 years ago.

Last week’s 31-15 home loss to the Baltimore Ravens ensured yet another losing campaign. The Browns as an abysmal 101-233-1 dating back to ’99. And since posting a 10-6 mark in 2007, the franchise owns a 51-139-1 with one game to go in 2019.

Will there be another change in Cleveland this offseason?

2. Balanced diet in Cheeseland

It looked like it was going to be a rough Monday night in the Twin Cities for Matt LaFleur and the Green Bay Packers. There were three first-half turnovers (nine in their first 14 games) and the club trailed 10-9 despite a big lead in total yards.

This was a team that had won its previous three games but had struggled to put a few opponents away. But this is a less explosive Green Bay offense these days and much less one-dimensional thanks to the emergence of running back Aaron Jones and a big commitment to the running game. He finished the night with 23 carries for 154 yards and two touchdowns.

The Packers ran for 184 yards on 32 attempts in the team’s 23-10 victory over the Vikings and clinched their first NFC North title since 2016. One year after totaling the fewest running plays in the league (333), LaFleur’s club has surpassed that total (381) with one game to play. And a team that finished 6-9-1 a season ago has doubled its win total (12) and is also still in position to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

1. Standing Pat(s)

The last time the New England Patriots did not win the AFC East was also the last time the club failed to make the playoffs. The year was 2008 and quarterback Tom Brady was knocked out of action in Week 1 and lost for the season.

Bill Belichick’s club still finished 11-5 but lost out on the postseason to the Miami Dolphins via tiebreakers. This past weekend, the Pats clinched their 11th straight division title. To put that in perspective, the previous NFL record in this department was owned by the Los Angeles Rams. That club won the NFC West seven consecutive years from 1973-77.

New England is obviously also playoff-bound for the 11th straight year, two more than the previous record owned by the Dallas Cowboys (1975-83) and Indianapolis Colts (2002-10).

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