Separating pretenders and contenders in NFL playoff race

By Michael Dixon
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) scores a touchdown ahead of Houston Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus (59) during the second quarter at NRG Stadium.

With only five weeks of the regular season remaining, the NFL playoff race is a madhouse. Most of the NFL’s teams have at least a semi-realistic chance at making the playoffs. So, the season’s final month will give us plenty of meaningful games.

But just because you have a semi-realistic chance at making the playoffs doesn’t mean you’re a true playoff contender. That’s what we’re going to sort out.

The first thing we must do is figure who’s worth looking at. Or, more to the point, who’s not worth looking at.

The Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and New York Giants are eliminated. Additionally, while technically possible, we don’t see any team not within at least two games of a playoff spot making it. With that in mind, we can eliminate the Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That still leaves us 25 teams to sort out. Of those 25 teams, who are the championship contenders, playoff contenders, and playoff pretenders?

Dallas Cowboys

Some things work in Dallas’ favor. The remaining schedule is far from daunting, as only two teams have winning records. One of them (the Seattle Seahawks) is beaten up. The other (the Philadelphia Eagles) may have everything wrapped up. The problem is that making the playoffs at 9-7 seems like a stretch in the NFC. To even reach that, Dallas can lose only one more game. Since Ezekiel Elliott started his suspension, Dallas has been outscored 92-22. Elliott will be out for three more games. Those are some bleak numbers.

Verdict: Playoff pretenders

New England Patriots 

At one point, there was reason to be concerned about the Pats’ defense. But with 17 or fewer points allowed in each of the last seven games, that’s not such a concern. Also working in New England’s favor is the schedule. Only the Buffalo Bills (twice) and Pittsburgh Steelers have winning records. At 9-2, we’d consider anything worse than 12-4 a solid disappointment. Frankly, even that’s a conservative projection.

Verdict: Super Bowl contenders

Atlanta Falcons

After looking so unimpressive in the Super Bowl rematch against New England, it looked like the Falcons were headed towards a missed playoff appearance. But in the five games since, Matt Ryan has resembled his 2016 MVP form. He’s thrown nine touchdowns with only two picks, and has a 107.4 passer rating. More importantly, the team is 4-1 in that stretch. Atlanta is bound for the postseason. Frankly, seeing the Falcons playing deep into January — or even beyond — would not be shocking.

Verdict: Super Bowl contenders

Tennessee Titans

Given the lack of depth in the AFC, the Titans are a team that we should see in the playoffs. We’re just not sure how long the run will be. Tennessee was no match for Pittsburgh when the two teams played. It’s hard to see the offense doing enough to hang with Tom Brady and New England. Expect to see the Titans in the playoffs. But objectively, they don’t match up well against either of the AFC’s best two teams.

Verdict: Playoff contenders

New York Jets

This was a team that was getting some genuine 0-16 buzz at the beginning of the year. At 4-7, the Jets have already well exceeded that. On top of that, they’ve competed in games with good teams like the Patriots, Falcons, and Carolina Panthers. But while a run is mathematically possible, it’s highly improbable. Four of New York’s remaining five games are against teams currently firmly entrenched in playoff races. Even in the AFC, we can’t expect anything worse than 8-8 making it. A 4-1 run is just not happening.

Verdict: Playoff pretenders

Seattle Seahawks

On paper, things look okay for the Seahawks. They’re tied for the last playoff spot and only one game out of the NFC West lead. At worst, this is a playoff contender, right? But with both Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman out for the year, the vaunted Legion of Boom is down to Earl Thomas. With no running game and a terrible offensive line, the offense is too often relegated to the Russell Wilson show. That’s a fun show. But with three upcoming games against teams in playoff position, the Seahawks are fighting an uphill battle.

Verdict: Playoff pretenders

Kansas City Chiefs

Objectively, things look fine for the Chiefs. They’re one game up in the AFC West and none of the remaining opponents currently have a winning record. But Kansas City, a team that once looked like a true championship contender, has now lost five of six. The once fearsome offense has managed only 36 total points over the last three games. The path to the postseason is still clear for the Chiefs. But while that precludes us from calling this team a pretender, we don’t see this team as a real threat anymore.

Verdict: Playoff contenders

Green Bay Packers

The Packers are in an interesting spot. Green Bay has made two of the last three NFC Championship Games. Realistically, if Aaron Rodgers gets back for a postseason run, the Packers are a Super Bowl contender. The problem will be making it. Green Bay is 5-6. It also finishes the season with games against the Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings, and Detroit Lions. Assuming the Packers enter those games at 7-6, they still could do no worse than 2-1. Even with Rodgers, that’s no easy task.

Verdict: Playoff pretenders

Pittsburgh Steelers

The 2017 Steelers are like a Bill Cowher-era team. While uber talented, the offense hasn’t always clicked this year. But the offense has come through when it’s needed to and the defense has been top notch. At this point, it’s hard to imagine an AFC Championship Game not matching up Pittsburgh and New England. The December 17 game between the two at Heinz Field will almost certainly decide where that game is played. Either way, the Steelers are poised for a deep playoff run.

Verdict: Super Bowl contenders

Jacksonville Jaguars

Much like Tennessee, Jacksonville should make the playoffs. The Jags are 7-4, and even a 2-3 finish should easily be enough to get them into the AFC postseason. But can they go into Pittsburgh and beat Ben Roethlisberger? Can they go into New England and beat Tom Brady? In order to get to the Super Bowl, Jacksonville will likely have to do both, and that’s after winning a game on Wild Card Weekend. This is a playoff team. But the offense has a long way to go before we can label the Jags as anything more.

Verdict: Playoff contenders

New Orleans Saints

There’s no questioning the greatness of Drew Brees. That said, him passing for 400+ yards, five touchdowns, and no more than one interception is not a realistic strategy. Not in January. Certainly not on the road. But in 2017, that hasn’t been necessary. With Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, the Saints can run the ball. The defense does allow more yards than we’d like to see. But they also allow only 20.2 points a game, which is respectable. This is a team that can win in January, both in a dome and outdoors.

Verdict: Super Bowl contenders

Oakland Raiders

Can the Raiders go on the road and beat the Chiefs, Eagles, and Los Angeles Chargers? Because in order for us to call this team a viable playoff contender, they will need to win at least two of those games. Even that assumes that Oakland will defeat the Giants and Cowboys. The Raiders are good enough to be a spoiler. But we just haven’t seen enough from this team to think that it can beat two of three playoff contenders on the road.

Verdict: Playoff pretenders

Arizona Cardinals

If the Cardinals had a back-loaded divisional schedule against the 49ers, we’d like their chances. But Arizona has already beaten up San Francisco as much as its going to. The final push includes home games against Rams and Titans, and road games against a frisky Washington Redskins team and the Seahawks. It’s hard to take any win for granted with a 5-6 team. But even if we can, the Cards have only one of those games (against the Giants) remaining. The hole is too deep.

Verdict: Playoff pretenders

Los Angeles Rams

There’s no doubt that the Rams are playoff contenders. The problem was that prior to Week 12, their biggest games of the year came against the Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings, and both times they go the deer-in-headlights look about them. But a Week 12 win against an unquestionably good Saints team was impressive. Los Angeles didn’t look lost at all. In fact, it really controlled the action. The team is still young and the NFC is strong. As such, it’s hard to see the Rams winning the Super Bowl. But it’s not a crazy longshot.

Verdict: Super Bowl contenders

Baltimore Ravens 

The Ravens are hard team to define. A 6-5 record is almost the definition of average. But Baltimore has rarely looked average this year. The Ravens have either looked really strong, or they’ve looked like one of the NFL’s worst teams. The remaining schedule is not a cupcake, but it’s not terrible, either. It feels like Baltimore’s spot in the playoffs will hinge on Week 17’s game against the Bengals. Running through the playoffs is hard to see. But the Ravens are certainly a realistic contender to get to the postseason.

Verdict: Playoff contenders

Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on Monday Night Football against the Green Bay Packers

The Lions are one game behind the Falcons, who currently occupy the NFC’s final wild card spot. That hurdle gets a little taller when we factor in Atlanta’s head-to-head victory. Still, two things work in Detroit’s favor. One is that the Lions are in just about every game they play. The second  is the remaining schedule. A 4-1 or even 5-0 finish is realistic with games at Baltimore, at Tampa, home against the Bears, at the Cincinnati Bengals, and home against the Packers.

Verdict: Playoff contenders

Cincinnati Bengals

We have to credit the Bengals for staying in the race after starting 0-3. Unfortunately, the climb out of the current 5-6 hole to the postseason is just a little too steep. Cincinnati has to play the Steelers, Vikings, Lions, and Ravens, with a game against the Bears being the Bengals’ only game against an out-of-the-mix team. Cincinnati is good enough to be a spoiler to someone. But making the playoffs will require nothing worse than 3-2. That’s just too hard to see.

Verdict: Playoff pretenders

Carolina Panthers

At 8-3, it would be a massive choke job for the Panthers to miss the playoffs. The question is, can we see this team in the Super Bowl? Cam Newton is playing better than he did earlier in the year and throughout 2016. That said, he’s still a long way from his 2015 MVP form. We can see Carolina prevailing in a tough game against the Minnesota Vikings. But beating teams like Rams, Falcons, Saints, and Eagles will also require someone else stepping up in the receiving game. The Super Bowl is possible, but it feels like a longshot.

Verdict: Playoff contenders

Washington Redskins

The Redskins are similar to the Lions in that they’re in essentially every game the play. Washington’s problem is that the offense is beaten up. We just don’t know who is going to be protecting Kirk Cousins, or who he is going to be throwing the ball to week in and week out. The remaining schedule isn’t terrible. But the Redskins can lose no more than one remaining game. This isn’t a team a contender wants to see. But Washington’s mountain is just too tall.

Verdict: Playoff pretenders

Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum Monday Night Football

It’s easy to look at the Vikings as a team that will struggle to score with the likes of Los Angeles, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. But despite his team not committing to him, Case Keenum has completed better than 66 percent of his passes, has 14 touchdowns, five interceptions, and a 96.2 passer rating. He leads a team that can score points. That, along with one of the best defenses in the NFL, makes this team viable. Minnesota will be in the playoffs and has the chops to stick around for a while.

Verdict: Super Bowl contenders

Miami Dolphins

Miami is 4-7 and frankly only in the playoff race because of a highly top-heavy AFC. Let’s look at a few facts. The Dolphins’ four wins have been by a combined 14 points. meanwhile, five of their seven losses have been by at least 14 points. Miami has also dropped five straight and has four of five remaining games against teams vying for a playoff spot. The record may tell us that it’s possible. But a second straight playoff appearance is not happening for the Dolphins.

Verdict: Playoff pretenders

Buffalo Bills 

Week in and week out, we just don’t know what to expect from this team. There are quality wins on the schedule. But that same schedule also features a three-game losing streak, with two of those losses coming by a combined score of 101-34. Buffalo has two games remaining on the schedule against New England. But even if the Bills lose both, the other three games are quite manageable. That, combined with the fact that Buffalo is tied with Baltimore for the last playoff spot, makes this team one that we can’t dismiss yet.

Verdict: Playoff contenders

Los Angeles Chargers

There is no more fascinating team to talk about. As things presently stand, the Chargers are not in the playoffs. But if we eliminate New England and Pittsburgh, Los Angeles is the most likely AFC champ. The Chargers can play to at least keep Brady or Roethlisberger in check. The offense is also good enough to put points on the board against anyone. The remaining schedule is far from a gauntlet. So, the playoffs are not a longshot. If this team makes the playoffs, it’s a viable threat.

Verdict: Super Bowl contenders

Houston Texans

For the sake of argument, let’s take it completely for granted that Houston will beat San Francisco and Indianapolis. That still leaves road games against the Titans and Jaguars, as well as a home game against the Steelers. We don’t know what it will take to make the playoffs. But right now, the Texans can’t think anything less than 3-0 over those three games will do the trick. With a healthy Deshaun Watson, we could see it. But as things are, it’s not happening.

Verdict: Playoff pretenders

Philadelphia Eagles

In a normal year, we might be concerned about a 10-1 team getting complacent at the end of the season, resting its starters, losing a meaningless game or two, and then getting punched the mouth in the playoffs. But the NFC is just too good for that. A complacent finish to the season could take the Eagles from the No. 1 seed to not even having a bye. We expect to see Philadelphia keep its foot on the accelerator, which has been a scary thought for opposing teams all year. Don’t expect it to get any less scary.

Verdict: Super Bowl contenders