As of last Monday night, every team in the NFL will have played at least eight games, and by this point the playoff picture is starting to take shape.
Last year, five of the eight division leaders after nine weeks went on to win their division, and six of the eight made the playoffs. Of the 12 teams that held playoff positions at the nine week mark last year, nine eventually punched their playoff ticket. To a significant extent, the cream will have risen to the top by this point.
Like last year, though, there will probably be a few teams that catch fire coming down the stretch. Last year, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Miami all made the playoffs, although none would have if the season had ended after Week Nine. Pittsburgh and Green Bay even made it to their Conference Championship Game. So, while most teams that look like they are in will probably be in, there will surely be some shifting of positions before season’s end.
After nine weeks last season there were three 7-win teams. All of them made the playoffs. Two of the three 6-win teams also made the playoffs (with Denver being the odd man out here). Of the five teams with five wins at this point, only Minnesota failed to make the playoffs.
At four wins, your chances at getting an invite to the dance were 3 of 11 – this is where the Steelers, Packers and the Dolphins were last year.
Ten other teams had 3 wins or fewer after nine weeks. None of them made the playoffs – although Tampa Bay fell just short.
The upheaval was limited (only three of the twelve playoff spots changed hands) but where it occurred it was very dramatic.
So, Who Holds Playoff Spots This Year
At the moment, the AFC playoff picture has New England and Pittsburgh jostling for the top seed. Both are 6-2 and leading their divisions (the Patriots by just one game in the East and the Steelers by a 2.5 in the North). Kansas City is still 6-3 and two games ahead in the West. They are the third seed at the moment. A week two victory by Tennessee over Jacksonville has the Titans officially ahead of the Jaguars by a tie-breaker in the South, although both teams are 5-3. The Jags hold one of the Wild Card positions at the moment, with Buffalo holding the other. The Bills are also 5-3.
In the NFC, the Eagles of Philadelphia sit atop the conference with a league-best 8-1 record. Their lead in the Eastern Division is solid at 2.5 games. The other three division leaders are all 6-2. They are Minnesota in the North (they lead by two games), New Orleans in the South (their lead is just a half game), and the Los Angeles Rams in the West (who lead by one). The Wild Card spots right now are held by Carolina (6-3) and Seattle (5-3).
How Might the AFC Play Out?
It won’t mean very much as far as making or not making the playoffs, but the Week 15 collision between the Patriots and Steelers looks like it will determine the Conference’s top seed. It’s a hard game to call at the moment. The Patriots are usually playing their best football by Week 15, but let’s not underestimate Pittsburgh. Ever since a bad loss to Jacksonville, the Steelers have been playing with great focus and urgency. They are probably a better team than they were last year, and the Patriots are maybe not as good. They game is played in Pittsburgh, so, for now, I give the Steelers the nod in this one, and the inside track to the number one seed.
The loss may drop the Patriots farther down than number two, though. Remember, two weeks before New England also has a tough road game in Buffalo. I don’t really know if I believe in the Bills, but their defense can be dominating and they will be fighting for their playoff lives. This game looms as the largest on Buffalo’s remaining schedule.
The loss (if they lose it) may be extra damaging for the Patriots, because both the Chiefs and Jaguars have significantly softer schedules. Kansas City has had some stumbles lately, but the only team left on their schedule that currently holds a winning record is Buffalo – and they get to play that game at home. Jacksonville will get a rematch with Tennessee at Tennessee. That will be the only road game Jacksonville will play against a winning team for the rest of the year. They also have Seattle left on their schedule, but that game will be at home. It is not beyond reason to see both of those teams pushing past New England, sending the Patriots into the Wild Card round for the first time in a while.
As to Tennessee, this is another team that I can’t quite embrace. They have won on the road in Jacksonville and at home against Seattle. They have also lost to Miami and were wiped off the board (57-14) in Houston. The Titans will have their chance to prove themselves to me, though. They play in Pittsburgh in Week 11, and then close out the season with home games against the high-flying Rams and Jaguars. Since their schedule is notably harder than Jacksonville’s, I give the Jags the nod in the division race, but still acknowledge that Tennessee’s position in the playoff race is as solid as it’s been in years.
Will Buffalo hang onto that last Wild Card spot? If they do they will have to earn it. Their next four opponents are: the torrid New Orleans Saints; the improving LA Chargers in LA; Kansas City in Kansas City; and then New England. To finish with ten wins and a pretty safe playoff chance, the Bills will probably have to win two of the four games – or, if they only win one, they will have to win in New England in Week 16. Failing that, the best they could do is nine wins, and that might not be good enough.
Sitting at 4-5, the Baltimore Ravens fly pretty far below most people’s radar. But consider their closing schedule. After their bye this week, Baltimore goes into Green Bay to play the Packers without Aaron Rodgers. Then they come home to play Houston without Deshaun Watson. They do play an under-rated Detroit team after that – but that game is at home. They follow that with a tough road game in Pittsburgh. But after that? The last three games are Cleveland in Cleveland, and then Indianapolis and Cincinnati at home. If they can get to that point at 6-7 (or perhaps better), they have a very realistic shot at finishing 9-7. If that all plays out, their conference record (potentially 8-4) would edge Buffalo’s (potentially 7-5) for the final playoff spot.
So, with eight weeks to play, here is how I predict the AFC to finish out:
1 – Pittsburgh; 2 – Kansas City; 3 – Jacksonville; 4 – New England; 5 – Tennessee; 6 – Baltimore.
How Might the NFC Play Out?
Unlike the AFC, the top competitors in the NFC all have significant challenges ahead of them. The Eagles will face Dallas twice, Seattle and the Rams. New Orleans has Buffalo, Washington, the Rams, Carolina and Atlanta twice left on its schedule. The Rams will play Minnesota, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Seattle and Tennessee before all is said and done.
That the Rams – who truly look to be for real – have both their games against New Orleans and Philadelphia at home gives them, I think, the inside track – with all three looking to me like winners in their respective divisions.
In Minnesota, the Viking do have a two game lead, but they face a tough schedule. Among their remaining home opponents are the Rams. They also play on the road in Washington, Detroit, Atlanta and Carolina. With either Case Keenum or Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, it’s hard for me to imagine this team finishing strong.
The team to watch for in the North is Detroit. The Lions are a flawed team, with an average defense and a struggling running game. They do have great resiliency. They also have an inviting schedule. In Weeks 12 and 13 they have games against Minnesota (at home) and Baltimore (on the road). Other than that, the schedule reads Cleveland, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Cincinnati and Green Bay. Especially if the Bucs are still without Jameis Winston and the Packers are still without Rodgers, this is a much softer schedule than the Vikings will face. Enough so, that I think that the Lions will slip by Minnesota for the division title – leaving the Vikes as the first Wild Card.
If that happens, that would leave the last Wild Card spot for either the Dallas Cowboys or the Carolina Panthers.
Of the two, Carolina has the decidedly easier schedule. Their most dangerous remaining opponents are New Orleans and Atlanta on the road and Minnesota at home. The Cowboys, on the other hand, play Atlanta, Philadelphia twice and Seattle. The Panther’s opportunity is better, but I still feel that Dallas (even perhaps without Ezekiel Elliott) is starting to come together. This Dallas team looks more like its built for the stretch run than the Panthers.
As for Seattle – also a 5-3 team – well, they are on everyone’s schedule. The Seahawks will be a challenge for anyone, but this imperfect team will play a who’s who of top teams from here to the end of the season. Still ahead for Seattle is Atlanta. Then, in consecutive weeks from Weeks 13-16 they will face Philadelphia, Jacksonville (on the road), the Rams, and Dallas (in Dallas). Too tall an order, I think, for this year’s Seattle team.
So, my predicted NFC playoff rankings are:
1 – Los Angeles Rams; 2 – Philadelphia; 3 – New Orleans; 4 – Detroit; 5 – Minnesota; 6 – Dallas.
Of football’s other four-win teams, Oakland and Atlanta would seem to be the most likely to put together the kind of run we saw last year from Green Bay and Pittsburgh – but both have issues. Washington could be a dark horse, but they are pretty far behind in a highly competitive conference.
As always, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.