With just three weeks left in the season, the playoff picture is just beginning to take shape. As it currently stands, the only teams to have punched their ticket to the postseason are the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFC East champion Philadelphia Eagles. The rest of the league needs a bit more help before they can clinch a spot. The stakes are high in the season’s closing stanza, and we’re here to calm some nerves by letting you know exactly which teams will be playing come January:
- New England Patriots
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Jacksonville Jaguars
- Los Angeles Chargers
- Tennessee Titans
- Kansas City Chiefs
It’s not a secret the AFC is going through a bit of a lull this year. New England started off slow with a 2-2 record — but lost just one game in the months of October and November. Pittsburgh struggles to put away bad teams, though they have a star-studded offense which includes the league’s leading rusher and receiver. Jacksonville has shocked everybody by finally playing up to their potential. The AFC West has completely fallen apart. It’s a two-team race at the top, and every other team falls in behind.
Week 15 will be highlighted by an important game between the Pats and Steelers. Tom Brady and company are coming off an embarrassing Monday Night loss to the Dolphins. As for Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin’s group escaped last week in a shootout victory over the Ravens.
The Pats have been historically great following a loss in the Belichick era. Since 2001, New England sports a 38-11 record after taking a defeat in the previous week. Brady has also gotten the better of Ben Roethlisberger in recent memory. In the last four match-ups between these two teams, the Pats are outscoring the Steelers 146 to 85. It comes as no surprise, but they’ve also won all four games in the process.
New England takes the win in Pittsburgh, which firmly places them in the driver seat for the top seed in the AFC.
Anthony Lynn’s Chargers are the hottest team in the conference. Unlucky breaks led to a 0-4 start. However, LA has bounced back with wins in seven of their last nine. A road tilt with the Chiefs will break the tie atop the division. Kansas City’s defense looked strong against Oakland last week, but won’t hold up against the surging Chargers. LA will win out and secure their first 10-win season since 2009.
Even if they end up losing to LA, Chiefs fans can take solace in their lack of competition for a wildcard spot. The Bills and Dolphins play each other twice, and will likely split those games. Oakland loses out on most tiebreakers, and have a grueling end to their schedule.
For the last spot, it’ll likely be up to either Baltimore or Tennessee. The Titans have a tough impending sled facing off against the Rams and Jaguars. Baltimore will enjoy a cake schedule the rest of the way (at Browns, vs. Colts, vs. Bengals). Their offense has picked up over the past couple of weeks as well, combining for 82 points against the Lions and Steelers. The most interesting facet here is that the tiebreaker is still yet to be determined.
If the two teams have the same record by season’s end, it will come down to which combination of teams each squad beat to get to their record. If they both go 9-7 — and the Titans lone win down the stretch is against the 49ers — the Ravens will likely get the spot. But, if the Titans can scrape a win against the Rams or Jaguars, their strength of victory will trump Baltimore’s.
There’s still plenty of number crunching that needs to be had, but Tennessee holding a one-game lead over the other competitors will come into play. It’s tough to trust Joe Flacco leading this team to three straight wins — regardless of how bad their opponents might be.
- Philadelphia Eagles
- Minnesota Vikings
- New Orleans Saints
- Los Angeles Rams
- Atlanta Falcons
- Green Bay Packers
It’s not always sunny in Philadelphia — especially when the team’s franchise quarterback tears his ACL three weeks before the end of the season. Carson Wentz’s injury was a major letdown for those in the City of Brotherly Love. Hopefully he can come back strong in 2018.
That being said, the former second overall pick has his team in a fortuitous spot. The Eagles have upcoming games against the bottomed-out Giants, floundering Raiders and rival Cowboys. Winning just one of those games all but clinches them a first-round bye. In all likelihood they’ll be able to win at least two on the arm of competent backup QB Nick Foles.
The rest of the NFC East doesn’t look to be like much of a factor in this race. Dallas (7-6) is facing an uphill battle with losses to many of the current playoff teams. Washington and New York are looking forward to the draft in April.
Battling for the other first-round bye are the Vikings and a trio of 9-4 teams. The Rams’ road tilt against the Seahawks could either do wonders for Seattle’s playoff hopes, or boost LA’s chances for a bye. It’s difficult to pick against the Seahawks in a home game with their backs up against the wall.
There is plenty of movement to be had in the NFC South — a division that could potentially boast three playoff teams. New Orleans is still in good shape after last week’s loss to the Falcons. They hold the tiebreaker over Carolina, and will get a rematch at home against Atlanta in Week 16. Winnable match-ups against the Buccaneers and Jets will help boost their record a bit.
It still might not be enough for New Orleans to catch Minnesota. It turns out the Vikes’ victory over the Saints in Week 1 will pay great dividends as it ensures Minnesota controls any tiebreaker scenario.
Another game this week with playoff implications is the Carolina Panthers hosting the Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers looks ready to go for the first time since breaking his collarbone in Week 6 against the Vikings. I’m firmly convinced whoever wins this game will be making it to the postseason.
If Carolina wins: They would already be at 10 wins, and will have the Buccaneers at home the following week to essentially clinch a spot.
If the Packers win: Rodgers must have played well and they will have two division games to close out the year. A-Rod has owned the NFC North for as long as anybody can remember. Our money is on him.
Rounding out the field are the defending NFC champs — the Atlanta Falcons. They haven’t been nearly as explosive this season. With that said, they did show something in their win last week against the Saints. This team knows how to stay in ballgames. They’ve scraped their way to a number of tight victories, and will do so again with an NFC South-heavy schedule.
The NFC is as tough as ever this year. A group of very good teams aren’t going to make the cut. It’ll be a fun ride to see which squads can take the leap in the closing weeks.
Sources: Masslive.com, Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports, Dan Powers/USA TODAY Sports, Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports