Each year, the best NFL teams comfortably make the playoffs, winning ten or more games with ease. The most intriguing drama, however, can be found a little bit lower in the standings. These teams often do not control their own destinies; they need many games to go one way or the other. That’s where the fun begins.
Wouldn’t hurt to begin praying
Green Bay (4-6-1)
Will this be the year that a healthy Aaron Rodgers misses the playoffs for the first time since 2008? It definitely seems that way, as the Packers will need to win out just to reach nine wins. In a strong NFC that, heading into Week 13, has five six-win teams, the playoffs are just not in the cards for Mike McCarthy’s team.
This team will have much to answer for if it’s on the couch come January. McCarthy is accustomed to fielding questions about his job security, but this offseason there may be some spotlight on Rodgers too. The excuse of not enough weapons does not really explain this season, with stud wide receiver Davante Adams and the emerging running back Aaron Jones. Rodgers has held onto the ball a ton, missing easy throws and taking too many sacks, and will likely lose out on the playoffs because of it.
Any time Colt McCoy is your starting quarterback, it’s probably a good idea to say a quick prayer or two before his first throw. Although the Redskins still have the luxury of an above -.500 record, the Thanksgiving loss to the Cowboys has Dallas poised to take the NFC East. Washington needs three more wins in their next five games to get to nine, but with two upcoming games against the Eagles and one at Tennessee, it’s more likely that they will end up with eight wins or less.
Cincinnati (5-6) and Miami (5-6)
Both of these teams started out hot, but have since tapered off due to injuries and stronger opponents. The Bengals are almost certainly out of it, as starting quarterback Andy Dalton has been placed on injured reserve with a thumb injury.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins still have two of their toughest games remaining on the schedule: the Patriots at home and the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Miami will need one of these contests to even have a shot at nine wins, and mediocre-to-bad QB Ryan Tannehill is not making those wins any easier to come by.
Even though Baltimore is a game up on both Denver and Tennessee, the schedule is just not in their favor. Remaining road games include at the Falcons, at the Chiefs, and at the Chargers. They even have semi-tough home games against the Bucs and the Browns. Unless Lamar Jackson is the second coming of Michael Vick, this team isn’t getting to nine wins.
Need a break or two (or four)
The biggest difference between last year’s Eagles and this year’s Eagles is the leaky secondary. Philadelphia still boasts some of the best line play in the league, but their cornerback situation is truly awful. Last week, they started the almost unknown De’Vante Bausby and Chandon Sullivan at corner.
Despite this, there is still a realistic path to the playoffs for the Eagles. Winning a home-and-home series against Washington and another game at Dallas would boost them to eight wins, with a 5-1 division record. They would then have to take at least one of the games at the Rams and home against the Texans. Nine wins could even be enough to win the division, but doesn’t have them safe for the last wildcard.
Denver (5-6) and Tennessee (5-6)
These two will be competing with the Colts for the last AFC wild card spot (the Chargers essentially have the five-seed locked up). The Broncos have a clear path to nine wins, with easy opponents remaining like the Bengals, 49ers, and Raiders. If Denver gets lucky enough that the Chargers will be resting starters in their Week 17 tilt, they could even get to ten wins, which would put them in prime position for the playoffs.
Tennessee can also get to Week 17 with nine wins (vs Jets, vs Jags, at Giants, vs Redskins). But in Week 17, they will have to face Andrew Luck and the surging Colts. If the Colts drop a game before the last week, both teams could be 9-6, and the wildcard spot could be on the line.
Three weeks ago, the 6-2 Panthers seemed ahead of everyone for the first wildcard. But three consecutive bad losses, the worst being at home against Seattle, have put them right in the middle of the murky playoff situation.
That loss stings especially bad, as the Panthers were up 27-20, but allowed 10 unanswered points in the last half of the fourth quarter to lose on a field goal. Running back Christian McCaffrey has emerged as one of the best feature backs in the league, playing in 97% percent of the Panthers’ snaps.
Carolina has to hope that the Saints will have nothing to play for in Week 17. That is probably the only way they get to 10 wins, as they still have two remaining games against New Orleans.
The Cowboys can sweep the Eagles with a win in Week 14 at home, their most important remaining game. Winning this one would all but guarantee the division championship. If they don’t, both Dallas and Philadelphia could end the season with nine wins. Division tiebreakers would favor the Eagles, as they still have to face Colt McCoy twice.
Wide receiver Amari Cooper has provided a jolt to the offense that has had them creating consistent drives for the first time in two years. The real strength in Dallas however, is the defense. A solid secondary, coupled with one of the best linebacker corps in the league (Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, rookie Leighton Vander Esch) has given the Cowboys a way to close out tight games.
Seattle (6-5) and Minnesota (6-4-1)
Both the Seahawks and the Vikings should be rooting for the Cowboys and against the Eagles. They sit one game up on Philadelphia and if Dallas takes the division, they could both make it in as wildcards.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been red-hot in close wins against the Packers and the Panthers in the last two weeks. Beating Minnesota at home and taking care of weaker division opponents (two against San Francisco, one against Arizona) would get them to ten wins and cement their playoff status.
The Vikings have a tougher schedule, with games against the Patriots and the Bears remaining, but they can make up for it with a win in Seattle. This would likely place both teams at nine wins, but they may not even be competing with one another if the Panthers and Eagles fall off.
Indy is in the best position to squeak into the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs. Tough games on the docket include at Houston and Dallas at home. Winning one, or even two of these would do them much good in the quest for double-digit wins. But with how strong the Colts look, don’t be surprised if they run the table and get to 11 wins. Quarterback Andrew Luck has shown he is able to will a team to victories in the late season, but this year he has some assistance on both sides of the ball. Running back Marlon Mack has emerged as a number one option, and the defensive front has exceeded expectations.
Dev Navani writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].