Halfway through the regular season, the NFL playoff race seems more decided than it should be. Besides the AFC and NFC Norths, each division has a clear separation between the top one or two teams and the rest. Which of the stragglers can climb out of their current holes and challenge for a playoff bid?
Super Bowl hangover? The 4-4 Eagles remain in second place in the NFC East after an early Sunday morning 24-18 win in London over the Jaguars. Sitting at .500 is not where the defending champs expected to be through eight games, but there is reason for optimism. The offense is beginning to click with fully recovered QB Carson Wentz in command. The defensive line, with standouts such as Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, can get consistent pressure and hurry opposing signal callers.
Philadelphia will likely need to win the division to make the playoffs. The competition for the first NFC Wild Card spot is all but taken by the South where the Saints (6-1) and Panthers (5-2) reside. That leaves one for either the Seahawks or some combination of the three NFC North teams that fail to crack first place.
That mess will stay muddy for the rest of the season. Fortunately for the Eagles, they still have two games against the Redskins (5-2), who currently are atop the East.
The most startling weaknesses on this team are the cornerbacks. CBs Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby are not reproducing their stellar play that solidified the defense late last season.
The Eagles are also thin at RB after Jay Ajayi was placed on injured reserve last week. But between gutsy head coach Doug Pederson and an elite defensive line, Philadelphia has a decent chance of being a threat in the playoff hunt.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the AFC South is awful! The Texans winning five straight to climb out of the 0-3 hole they dug is impressive, but they have yet to beat an above-average team, while the Titans (3-4) and the Jags (3-5) are both dead in the water.
In this division, key defenders are getting arrested in London nightclub spats 12 hours before kickoff, and some quarterbacks get sacked more times than they complete a pass through 60 painful minutes.
Enter QB Andrew Luck and the Colts (3-5). They may not be the most talented team in the division on paper, but they’ve got the best QB-coach duo by a mile.
Luck and the Colts have stumbled into a run game recently; they have rushed for the century mark before the close of the first half in each of the last two weeks. RB Marlon Mack, their fourth-rounder in 2017, has come alive as of late, with 258 rushing yards and four total touchdowns in their last two.
With five division games still remaining on the schedule (two against both Jacksonville and Tennessee), Indy has an opportunity to make some hay in Luck’s first year back from his mysterious shoulder injury.
The defense still isn’t great, but it wouldn’t be the first time Luck has dragged a team to the playoffs with his skill.
The second-place AFC West team (Chargers or Chiefs) is on track for the first wild card, so the Colts would see the Ravens and Bengals in the race for the second. If the Texans (who still have tough games at Denver, Washington and Philly) fall off, Indy could even have an opportunity to steal the division late.
Dev Navani writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].