With only one game remaining before November, the NFL playoff picture is coming into focus at the midway point of the season.
Each autumn, the NFL begins to reveal itself. Early on, a few teams come out of nowhere to surprise, only to recede back into the darkness as the schedule toughens ad injuries surface.
Then, the weather gets colder, and the standings clear up. Going into Week 9, we’re at that point.
The state of Pennsylvania has both of the current top seeds, with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles atop the AFC and NFC, respectively. Along with those teams, the only others without two losses or less are the New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and Buffalo. Bills.
If you’re counting, that’s four AFC teams and five NFC squads. As for teams with at least five losses, there are the Oakland Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants. It’s safe to say those teams will be watching the playoffs alongside all of us.
Again, if you still have your calculator and slide rule out, you’ve realized that leaves nine teams in great position with another nine out of the race. Of course, 14 teams are the ones fighting for the other three spots, including someone having to win the AFC South.
So which of those teams have the best chance of making a run to January? The Tennessee Titans need a close look. Tennessee has a comical schedule moving forward, with only one tough road game (at Pittsburgh). The Titans also get rematches against the Houston Texans and Jacksonville jaguars at home.
Houston has a tougher road. The Texans host the Steelers but also travel to take on the Baltimore Ravens, Titans and Jaguars away from home. As for Jacksonville, it has five home games remaining including a three-game homestead consisting of the Colts, Seahawks and Texans. That could be the make-or-break for the Jaguars.
As for the wild card race, keep an eye on Baltimore. The Ravens are not a balanced team, with a lousy offense dragging it down. Still, the docket is favorable, with only the Steelers being an opponent more than a game over .500. The Ravens also close with a pair of home dates against the Bengals and Colts.
In the NFC, the situation is murkier. The West should send two teams, while the North looks like a one-team town. The East has the Dallas Cowboys to consider, although their schedule is laced with tough outs including the Chiefs, Eagles and Atlanta Falcons.
Speaking of the Falcons, the defending NFC champs are 4-3 but facing a host of talented teams. Atlanta has the Saints twice, the Carolina Panthers for a pair along with meetings with the Cowboys and Seahawks.
Carolina has five of its final eight games at home, including a road date with the Jets. However, tough NFC South opponents and a tussle with the Vikings remain.
Halfway through the season, the picture is starting to clear up in some areas. In others, the madness is only beginning, with a host of teams looking to break out of a middling pack.
Top 10 trades that should happen
1. Seahawks acquire OT Duane Brown from Texans for fourth-round pick
2. Patriots acquire WR Jarvis Landry from Dolphins for second-round pick
3. Vikings acquire RB Carlos Hyde from 49ers for third-round pick
4. Titans acquire CB Vontae Davis from Colts for fourth-round pick
5. Texans acquire OL Justin Pugh from Giants for third-round pick
6. Jaguars acquire WR Larry Fitzgerald from Cardinals for sixth-round pick
7. Broncos acquire OT Anthony Castonzo from Colts for fifth-round pick
8. Eagles acquire RB Isaiah Crowell from Browns for fifth-round pick
9. Lions acquire RB Matt Forte from Jets for seventh-round pick
10. Browns acquire QB Tom Brady … because everyone needs to dream.
“Le’Veon is not as good as Le’Veon thinks he is,” Burfict retorted, per The Enquirer. “So for him to go rattin’ on Twitter to talk about my teammate, it’s a little bit beyond me. Joe is way better than him. I mean, I play Joe every day in practice and he just has better qualities.
– Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, on Joe Mixon compared to Le’Veon Bell
Joe Mixon has 253 rushing yards and one touchdown on 3.0 yards per carry. Enough said.
Go to iTunes and subscribe to Stacking The Box with Matt Verderame and Josh Hill! There’s a new hour-long podcast each week, breaking down what we’ve seen and what’s to come.
The Packers have not missed the playoffs since Aaron Rodgers’ first year as a starter in 2008. That active streak of eight consecutive postseason berths is only matched by the New England Patriots.
The longest such run in NFL history belongs to the Dallas Cowboys, who made nine straight playoff appearances from 1975-83.
Info learned this week
1. Bills are for real after demo of Raiders
Nobody is talking about them, but the Buffalo Bills are beginning to look like a true contender for their first playoff spot since 1999. On Sunday, the Bills trounced the Oakland Raiders, 34-14, running their record to 5-2. Buffalo only sits a half-game out of first place in the AFC East.
The Bills don’t have much offense outside of LeSean McCoy, but the defense is terrific and Sean McDermott should be in the conversation for NFL Coach of the Year. Buffalo might have also put the final nail in the coffin of Oakland, which dropped to 3-5 in an incredibly disappointing year.
2. NFC South is league’s highest division
Who would have thought the New Orleans Saints for a first-place team? The Saints are just that, though, after beating the Chicago Bears by a 20-12 margin at the Superdome. New Orleans isn’t just an offensive team for once, winning its last five by giving up an average of 16 points per game over that stretch.
However, the Saints have plenty of company in their rear view mirror. The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers both won on the road, keeping close tabs on Drew Brees and Co. Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are more than a game off the pace, looking all but done at 2-5.
The NFC is very tough, but the Saints, Falcons and Panthers are all above .500 and looking like teams capable of finding their way into January.
3. Watson, Wilson shine in thriller at Seattle
Deshaun Watson threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns. Russell Wilson amassed 452 yards and a quartet of touchdowns. Ultimately, it was a conservative play call at the end that may have been the deciding difference.
With Seattle down to one timeout and 1:53 on the clock, Houston faced a 3rd and 4 from its own 21-yard line. Instead of going for the throat, Bill O’Brien called a run up the gut, resulting in a two-yard gain and a punt. Predictably, the Seahawks got the ball and promptly went 80 yards on three plays for the game-winning score.
The result is a 3-4 record for the high-flying Texans, while the Seahawks pulled into a first-place tie in the NFC West alongside the Los Angeles Rams.
4. Lions lose to Steelers with red zone failures
The Detroit Lions haven’t won a division title since 1993. That futility will likely extend another season after losing 20-15 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in absurd fashion. Detroit gained 482 yards and only totaled five Matt Prater field goals despite five red zone trips.
Pittsburgh wasn’t at its best, although Ben Roethlisberger did go over the 300-yard threshold. The Steelers were a sieve defensively and committed two turnovers, but walked away with an important victory. At 6-2, Pittsburgh is leading the AFC standings with five home games still remaining.
5. Chiefs host Broncos on MNF
The Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos are both riding two-game losing streaks into Monday night, with Kansas City at 5-2 and Denver at 3-3. For Kansas City, it could all but put the AFC West away just halfway through the season with a win, moving 2.5 games ahead of Denver. The Broncos are simply trying to save their season with games against the Eagles and Patriots upcoming.
In their last three meetings, the Chiefs have scored at least 29 points in each, winning all of them. Denver hasn’t scored more than 17 points since Week 2. If the Broncos are going to escape Arrowhead with a win, it’ll be due to turnovers and improved play from Trevor Siemian, who is on the hot seat with Paxton Lynch returning to practice this week.
In 1999, the Jacksonville Jaguars had the league’s best record at 14-2, with both defeats coming to the Tennessee Titans. In the AFC Championship, the two met again, with the same result coming to fruition.
In the Super Bowl, the Titans faced the St. Louis Rams, who they beat in Week 7 in Nashville. This time, Tennessee couldn’t repeat its prior success, falling a yard short in a thrilling 23-16 defeat in Super Bowl XXXIV.
The Washington Redskins might be one of the 10 best teams in the NFL this year, and yet their season is on the rocks. After losing 33-19 to the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field, the Redskins are now 3-4 and 3.5 games behind the Eagles in the NFC East. Even worse, Washington is 0-3 within the division and now faces an uphill climb for a wild card spot in what is the stronger conference.
The Redskins still have road games against the Chargers, Cowboys, Saints and Seahawks. Additionally, the offensive line is banged upward with Brandon Scherff and Trent Williams both missing Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys. Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of Washington’s plight is a disappointing receiving core, which has seen Josh Doctson, Terrelle Pryor and Jamison Crowder all under 300 yards.
D.C.’s team has a quality roster across the board, but injuries, a tough schedule and fading hope heading into November.