Things are as murky as ever in the NFL as we head into the holiday season and the playoff stretch run. It is a jumbled mess of teams, and the expanded playoff field and daily rigors of juggling the COVID-19 pandemic only make matters more complicated.
Sorting out who is going to make it and which teams are going to miss out is no easy task — but I’m going to take a shot at it, anyway. There are at least a few teams that are playoff locks, and then a massive middle class of teams in both conferences who are not separated by much at all. And with new tiebreakers potentially in place and perhaps even an eighth team added in each conference, this could really be an exercise in futility.
Yet I will attempt it anyway.
Consider this a confidence poll of sorts, with a tiered look at which teams are sitting pretty and which may end up needing a lot of help to make the postseason. And, as tends to be the case, for about a third of the league it’s already lights out. Might as well start planning for 2021. I’m going to operate as if there are seven teams from the AFC and NFC who reach the playoffs.
Welcome to the dance (4)
There are a few shoo-ins at this point. Either the Chiefs, Steelers or Saints are the best team in football. But I don’t believe anyone else really belongs in the debate at this point. These are the three teams winning with the most regularity and who have already stockpiled critical division victories. They are on pace to win their divisions comfortably and are the favorites to land a bye, with only one of them available in each conference now with the seven-team field.
And while I have far greater reservations about the Packers than I do these other three teams, and I do not see them truly competing for a Super Bowl with that defense, the rest of their division basically stinks (Vikings are the only potential ascending team, and they trail by too much to catch Green Bay and take the division title), so I feel comfortable saying this team gets in even with a few more stumbles. Having Aaron Rodgers doesn’t hurt.
Will punch a ticket soon enough (5)
The Colts beat the Titans on Sunday for a season sweep and they have the bully pulpit in the AFC South. They are one of the more balanced teams in the conference, and although they do not have a signature AFC win to this point, they have a top-three defense and that still carries in January. They get the Texans twice and Jaguars — very winnable games — and if they take care of the Titans this week as I suspect they do, there is a path to 11 or more wins. That gets you in. The head-to-head loss to the Ravens and 3-3 conference record is a concern, but Baltimore may be on the verge of falling apart.
The Bills are going to win the AFC East. That’s happening. Miami playing around with a rookie starter ain’t smart and the Pats cannot sustain anything.
And the Rams are now in pole position in the NFC West, and they have a sterling 7-1 conference record and will be favored in games against the 49ers, Pats and Jets, for starters. Love the turnaround on defense. I believe they are in.
The Seahawks have their issues on defense, too, but Russell Wilson isn’t going to have more four turnover games. They are 5-2 in the conference and have games remaining against the Eagles, Giants, Washington and 49ers — I like them to win at least three of those games — and face the winless Jets out of conference. Don’t like the fact they still have two East Coast trips left, but this team is going to get in.
The Buccaneers are not trending well right now and they very well might fall to the Chiefs this week. But can they manage to split a final four-game slate that goes Vikings, Falcons, Lions, Falcons? Come on, it’s still Tom Brady. That Week 13 bye will be a huge late break for a team older in some key spots. They are done with the prime-time game bugaboo thing and they would have to truly fall apart for that Bears loss to be a death-knell tiebreaker. The Tampa Bay defense is solid enough, and Brady does not face an elite defense the rest of the season.
More likely than not to make it (4)
The Cardinals give me some concern with Kyler Murray’s shoulder a little dinged and that defense lacking pass rush — but you have to come up with seven teams out of the NFC, and only one team is making it from the Least and one from the North (not buying the Bears at all, with more on that to come), so look around. Arizona has a legit enough plus-49 scoring margin, a 4-3 conference record and eight wins — that’s going to be enough in the weak NFC. Can they pick up a couple of wins out of the Eagles, Giants, 49ers and Pats? They manage a split there and they can probably survive being swept by the Rams if it comes to that.
The Raiders offense is a thing of beauty. They are super balanced and do enough to offset their issues on defense most weeks. The way they played the Chiefs shows me they are for real, and they face losing teams in four of their final six games. It could come down to their game against the Dolphins in Week 16 for a critical tiebreaker, and I like their chances there. They could lose to the Colts but still get in (especially if the Colts end up winning the division) as long as they take care of business against the Chargers, Jets and Falcons. The strength of victory in beating Kansas City bodes well for them, too. They are getting exceptional QB play, which gives them the nod for me among the six-win AFC teams right now.
The Browns, like the Raiders, have no recent playoff pedigree, which gives me some pause. But they can run it down your throat and are built for December on offense, and if they go 2-0 without Myles Garrett (says here they beat the Jags Sunday), they will get a big boost in December with his return. Managing to split with the Ravens by winning their second meeting would be huge, and given Baltimore’s woes up front right now stopping the run, I like the Browns’ chances (they ran it all over Baltimore in Week 1 before falling behind multiple scores). They are getting healthy by and large at the right time, and that O-line is a problem for opposing teams.
A 10-win Titans team that includes a split in their next two games (Colts, Browns) is going to get in. The win over the Ravens was massive Sunday in the standings and emotionally, and Baltimore ain’t getting to 11 wins. Tennessee finishes with the Jags, Lions, Packers and Texans, and taking three of those four, even if they get swept by the Colts and Browns, still is probably enough.
Let’s get the NFC Least out of the way (1)
Someone has to win it. Have no idea who it will be. Regardless it will be a failed team that pretty much got wrecked by most teams it faced outside of its division. But, yeah, whatever.
I don’t like the way it’s trending (3)
Baltimore has lost three of four, is facing a COVID-19 and injury crisis, has no identity on offense and has been exposed some on defense the last few weeks, including getting run over on the ground without Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams while the star-studded secondary was torched by the Titans in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Ravens can’t hold leads, have displayed no playmakers on offense besides Mark Andrews and Lamar Jackson, and have given games away with breakdowns, bad penalties and turnovers. And now they face the arch-rival Steelers, the league’s only unbeaten team, on a short week with barely enough healthy players to fill a roster.
I don’t rule out their chances of pulling an upset, and this is a great organization — but the margins get real, real slim with a loss Thursday that would drop them to 6-5 and 4-5 in the conference. That Colts win — their only signature AFC win thus far — won’t matter much if Indianapolis wins the AFC South, and sweeping the Browns is now a must. Even if they beat the teams they are supposed to beat (and John Harbaugh almost always does) in the Cowboys, Jags, Giants and Bengals, those 10 wins might not be enough. That Sunday night loss in the cold November rain in Foxborough might end up keeping them out in the end, coupled with the blown game to the Titans.
The Bears defense is totally legit and the only reason that they aren’t 2-8, at best. But the 5-1 start has been wasted, as many thought it would be. The quarterback play and offense is atrocious, and turning it back to Mitchell Trubisky at some point won’t matter. If Akiem Hicks is bothered by his hamstring injury for any period of time, forget about it. They still have four division games to play, and it took a miracle to beat the Lions the first time around. They just lost to the Vikings and face the Packers twice. Can they split those games? Maybe, and that coupled with wins over the Jags and Texans would get them to nine victories, but I don’t see that being enough the way the conference is shaping up. Bottom line is they have to split with the Packers and win the other two division games, and I just don’t see that happening.
The Dolphins have a young coach and young team without any playoff pedigree and now Brian Flores is playing head games with the fifth overall pick less than a month into his starting career. Hmm. The offense has not been great the last few weeks, but Tua Time can’t end 50 minutes into a tough game down 10, and FitzMagic ain’t taking you to the playoffs, either. Even if they take care of the Jags and Bengals, they finish with the Chiefs, Patriots, Raiders and Bills and I don’t fancy their chances in any of those games, frankly. I don’t see them getting to 10 wins, and unfortunately for them their best games of the season, by far, have all come against the NFC West.
I guess it’s possible (1)
The Patriots are like Jason Voorhees. Even when he’s dead, he’s not really dead. The axe is through his facemask, and all, but he is still stumbling around looking for a knife or something to throw back at you. OK, it’s probably not fair to compare the end of this dynasty to the undead, but at 4-6 they have a pulse. I mean, they would have to run the table, which will basically eliminate Miami and they do have the head-to-head win over Baltimore. The Cardinals, Rams and Bills games will not be easy — and this group has not been able to sustain any momentum all year — but they can run the ball, and this is a great coaching staff. It ain’t totally over until it’s over.
Everyone else (14)
Thanks for playing! Best of luck with your draft order (except you, Texans, because you already let Bill O’Brien give them all away). Jets, best of luck with the winless season. Bengals, um, good grief. Broncos may need to look at that ol’ QB draft board again. Jaguars, will you go through five QBs to get through this thing, or more? Chargers, keep on Chargering even with a generational rookie QB. Lions, Jim Caldwell is available for head coaching interviews. Vikings, the rookie class looks really promising but too little too late. Panthers, Matt Rhule will show you the way. Falcons, 0-5 will get you every time. 49ers, trade Jimmy G to the Pats and pray for better health. That Super Bowl loser jinx is a bad mamba jamba. Oh, and the three teams that don’t win the NFC Least, I refuse to mention you by name.