A big week in the NFL, the Golden State Warriors, the Northwestern Wildcats and much more in Five Things From the Week.
1. The NFL had its defining week
While there is still plenty to play for in Week 17, the results of Week 16 significantly altered the NFL’s playoff picture. The Pittsburgh Steelers clinched the AFC North thanks to their first victory in four games and the shorthanded Cleveland Browns’ loss to the New York Jets. Pittsburgh’s win also kept the Tennessee Titans in control of the AFC South and made the Indianapolis Colts the first team out in the AFC. The Miami Dolphins’ dramatic comeback against the Las Vegas Raiders kept them in the playoffs and officially eliminated the Raiders.
Over in the NFC, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers punched their ticket to the postseason in dominant fashion and the Chicago Bears took possession of the final wild card spot from the Arizona Cardinals. The Seattle Seahawks are NFC West champions, making the Week 17 clash between the Los Angeles Rams and Cardinals even more intriguing. Plus, everyone except the Philadelphia Eagles are still alive in the NFC East. It appears the NFL saved most of its chaos for the end and unleashed it in the penultimate week of the regular season.
2. Steph Curry can’t get the Warriors into the playoffs by himself
The Golden State Warriors’ decision to trade for Kelly Oubre Jr. once Klay Thompson was lost for a second straight season was a signal of intent. Their ceiling might be limited, but Golden State was not going to throw away another year of Steph Curry’s prime. After the Warriors’ second game, it was clear the organization’s efforts to compensate for Thompson’s injury may very well be in vain because Curry was getting no help whatsoever from the two guys who need to support him the most.
Through two games, Oubre was 4-of-24 from the field and had scored 9 points. Andrew Wiggins had a total of 25 points on 29% shooting. That’s not to say Golden State can’t turn it around though. Wiggins was slightly better in the win over the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 27 and James Wiseman has displayed a shooting ability nobody knew he had. Draymond Green will be back shortly. As bad as it’s looked, there is no reason to overreact just yet. What is already clear, however, is that Curry does not make them a top 10 team in the West on his own, especially when he is shooting 26% from beyond the arc.
3. Playoff spots in the NBA could be determined by the first week’s results
Every game accounts for 1.22% of a team’s record in a typical 82-game regular season. That number jumps to 1.39% in a 72-game campaign like the NBA has this year. With the expanded playoff field and at least 11 teams with legitimate playoff aspirations in both conferences, the first five games of the season could very well end up being the difference between reaching the postseason or not and/or impact seeding.
The early results have only made this possibility more likely. Six teams that missed the postseason in 2019-20 — San Antonio, Minnesota, Sacramento, Atlanta, New Orleans and Cleveland — all have at least two wins. The Raptors, Warriors, Celtics, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nuggets and Wizards all have at least two losses. Of course, the standings will look much different even a month from now. Buying or selling stock in a team because of two or three games is silly. That being said, it is entirely possible another loss or two in the next couple of days by Toronto, Dallas or Denver, for example, ultimately prevents them from securing home court advantage in the first round.
4. Northwestern is finding out just how much of a grind the Big Ten is
Chris Collins’ Northwestern Wildcats were picked to finish dead last in the Big Ten in an unofficial poll conducted by media members who cover the conference. The Wildcats stunned everyone by coasting to a 14-point win over Michigan State, who was No. 4 in the country at the time. They then beat a good Indiana team on the road and picked up another top-25 win against Ohio State. Northwestern is one of three teams who are still unbeaten in Big Ten play.
The Wildcats’ reward? Eight of their next nine games are against ranked teams, starting with a trip to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They face the two other undefeated teams (Wisconsin and Michigan) three times, Iowa twice and preseason favorite Illinois in that nine-game stretch. Purdue and Indiana await afterward, followed by Rutgers, Illinois and Wisconsin, the first two of which are on the road. Northwestern defeated two ranked teams in what is one of the easiest parts of its conference schedule. Take a moment to really think about that.
5. The Steelers fixed a problem, but not the problem
The scariest part about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was that they averaged a respectable 3.74 yards per rushing attempt and still looked completely inept offensively. Ben Roethlisberger having one of the worst games of his career was the main reason why. He bounced back with a much better performance against the Colts, finishing with 342 yards, three touchdowns and zero turnovers.
Pittsburgh won the game the same way it did the other 11 times this season: on the arm of Roethlisberger. The Steelers ran for a season-low 20 yards and threw the ball 49 times. When Roethlisberger is good, that formula can be enough to beat a well above average team like the Colts and potentially win a playoff game or two. Whether such an unbalanced offense is capable of hanging with the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs in another question entirely.
Gonzaga is so good it’s not even funny. The Bulldogs became the first team to score 90 against Virginia since North Carolina dropped 93 on the Cavaliers in February 2013. Corey Kispert and Drew Timme both finished with career highs in points. Kispert hit nine 3-pointers. Nobody makes scoring on Tony Bennett’s team look that easy.
Photo by All-Pro Reels / Flickr