The NFL playoffs are starting to round into shape, but with just under half the season remaining there is still time for struggling teams to get in.
Heading into Sunday’s Week 10 action, the AFC currently has seven teams above .500, while over in the NFC there are nine teams playing winning football.
Looking at the teams that would be out if the NFL playoffs started today, we’re highlighting five of them that have struggled this season but still have a real shot to get in with strong play down the stretch.
Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4)
It seems unlikely that the Steelers will catch the Baltimore Ravens and win the AFC North. The Ravens are two games ahead and have beaten the Steelers once already this year. Still, given the way Pittsburgh plays defense, and given how competitive this team has been all year, it would not be shocking whatsoever to see the Steelers get into the NFL playoffs as a wild-card team.
Looking at the schedule, the Steelers have very winnable games coming up against Cleveland (twice), Cincinnati, Arizona and the New York Jets. More difficult opponents include the Los Angeles Rams, Buffalo and Baltimore to close out the season. If the Steelers can finish with nine wins or more (a very reasonable goal), they can get into the playoffs.
Philadelphia Eagles (5-4)
The NFC East is still very much up for grabs. Despite losing handily to the Dallas Cowboys a few weeks ago, the Eagles are still hunting for the top spot in the division. They have some significant challenges to overcome offensively because the receiving corps has been a big disappointment this year and DeSean Jackson is on injured reserve after undergoing surgery this week. But if the run game and defense keep playing the way we’ve seen recently, this team can absolutely win the NFC East.
Philly has New England in Week 11, but after the Pats the Eagles have a softer schedule that includes four games against teams near the bottom of the league standings (Miami, New York Giants twice, and Washington). They also have one more matchup against the Cowboys (at home this time), and could reasonably finish the season with 10 wins.
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-5)
The AFC South is wild. If the NFL playoffs were to start now, both the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts would be in, but only two games separate the top team (Houston) from the bottom two, who both have seven games left to play.
The Jaguars are undergoing a change offensively. Despite injecting the team with much-needed life, rookie quarterback Garner Minshew is out and veteran Nick Foles is in as the team’s starter. The franchise paid Foles a lot of money to start. Now that he’s healthy, and following Minshew’s worst performance as a pro, it’s time for Foles to live up to the contract. If he does, we’d expect Jacksonville to be in every game it plays down the stretch.
The Jags have two games against Indy yet to play. They also have Tennessee, Tampa Bay, the Los Angeles Chargers and Oakland Raiders on their upcoming schedule. So by no means will this be an easy path. But there is a way to salvage the season and make the NFL playoffs.
Carolina Panthers (5-3)
The Panthers have a couple of really big things working in their favor as they attempt to move up in the NFC and make the NFL playoffs. First, they feature Christian McCaffrey, who is on pace to challenge 2,500 yards from scrimmage this season (currently averaging 155.5 yards per game). Secondly, the Panthers are playing outstanding defense and, particularly, defend the pass very well.
Currently the No. 8 seed, they are only one-half game behind the current No. 6 seed (Minnesota) but have a difficult schedule during the second half of the season with games against Green Bay, New Orleans (twice), Seattle and Indianapolis looming. However, this team has gone 5-1 since Cam Newton was lost for the season with his foot injury, and so far only the undefeated San Francisco 49ers have cracked the code.
Tennessee Titans (4-5)
The Titans have been a different team since benching former No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota in favor of former Miami Dolphins first-round pick, Ryan Tannehill. The offense has taken off since that move, with Tannehill proving significantly more effective at getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers. Defensively, Tennessee is dangerous. The Titans rank eighth in total sacks (25), and are fifth in the league with nine interceptions.
Looking ahead to the remaining schedule, it’s clear the Titans have their work cut out to overcome their sub-.500 record and get into the NFL playoffs. They have games against Kansas City, Indianapolis, Houston (twice) and Oakland — all featuring winning records. But if they can get Tannehill to take care of the ball, and if Tennessee’s defense keeps creating turnovers, this team has a chance to go on a late-season run and get into postseason play.