With Week 13 having now passed, and every team having had their bye week, the NFL regular season is officially three-quarters of the way to it’s completion. For teams vying for a playoff spot, there’s very little margin for error over the next month. On both sides of the league, several top contenders have emerged, as well as a few teams who could sneak into the playoffs and shake things up for the perceived favorites.
In the AFC, it’s a replay of what we’ve seen for several of the last few seasons, with the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers leading the pack, both at 10-2. The Steelers have won seven straight games, but have struggled recently in matchups against the Colts, Packers, and Bengals. The Patriots have won their last eight games, and Tom Brady, now age 40, is once again in the race for the MVP award. The two teams seem to be on a collision course for the AFC Championship game. Before that, though, they will play in Pittsburgh in two weeks, with the winner likely having home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Behind these two teams are the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars, both tied with an 8-4 record. While some expected the Titans to improve this season, it is Jacksonville that has surprisingly made the jump from perennial loser to legitimate contender. Jacksonville boasts one of the top defenses in the league, led by playmakers Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. On offense, they are lead by rookie running back Leonard Fournette. These two teams will meet in Nashville in Week 17, with the winner likely taking the division title, and the other becoming the first wild-card team.
After the Kansas City Chiefs started the season 5-0, they’ve now fallen to 6-6, and are currently tied with the Oakland Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers for the lead in the AFC West. While the Chiefs are still favored to win the division, the Chargers are playing some of the best football in the league. Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa lead what is possibly the best pass-rush in the league, and they have revitalized their offense, not committing a turnover in their last three games. Whichever team fails to win the division will likely miss the playoffs altogether.
At the bottom of the AFC playoff picture is the battle for the final wildcard position. Currently held by the 7-5 Baltimore Ravens, winners of three straight games, this race feels like it will come down to either Baltimore or the Buffalo Bills. At this point, however, it looks like Baltimore will be able to hold on. Despite an anemic offense, they have a premier defense, responsible for a league leading three shutouts this season. However, the recent loss of cornerback Jimmy Smith to an Achilles injury could jeopardize their chances of making any real noise in the playoffs.
Over in the NFC, things are a bit less clear. While the Philadelphia Eagles have looked incredible all season behind second year quarterback and MVP frontrunner Carson Wentz, they are coming of off a tough loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday Night Football. They are still 10-2 on the season, but have only beaten one team with a winning record all season, leaving some questions about what they’ll be able to do come playoff time. It’s clear at this point that they will win the NFC East, and be a top seed in the conference, meaning they’ll play at least one game at home in the playoffs.
Trailing right behind them are the Minnesota Vikings, also 10-2. Having won eight straight games, in which they’ve only allowed two opponents to score more than 20 points. The Vikings are playing great defensive football. On top of that, quarterback, Case Keenum, has had a rebirth of his NFL career. Over his last five games, he’s thrown 11 touchdowns to just three interceptions, and has been one of the best quarterbacks in the second half of the season. If he can keep up this level of play, and the defense can continue to dominate teams as they have, the Vikings may be the favorite to go to the Super Bowl, which will be played in Minneapolis in February.
Los Angeles’ other football team, the Rams, are currently 9-3, and look prepared to make a run in the playoffs themselves. Behind first year coach, Sean McVay, and second year quarterback, Jared Goff, the Rams have an explosive offensive, as well as an elite defense lead by defensive tackle, Aaron Donald. Right behind them, however, are the Seahawks, at 8-4. Russell Wilson is continuing his dominance as one of the league’s best quarterbacks, accounting for around 80 percent of the team’s total offense. However, the Seahawks have lost several key players on defense, including Richard Sherman. These teams will meet in Seattle during Week 15, in a game which will likely have serious playoff implications.
Finally, perhaps the most exciting division in the league this year, the NFC South could be home to as many as three playoff teams. The New Orleans Saints currently lead the pack at 9-3, thanks in part to quarterback, Drew Brees, and rookie running back, Alvin Kamara. Behind them are the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, at 8-4 and 7-5, respectively. The Panthers have been consistent all year long and will seemingly be locked in to a wild card spot if they are unable to catch the Saints. The Falcons, last year’s NFC champion, are currently looking at the possibility of missing the playoffs entirely. They struggled out of the gate this season, but have recently found their rhythm offensively, with Julio Jones emerging again as a top wide receiver. Atlanta plays New Orleans twice in the final four weeks, and ends their season against the Panther, and if they plan to make the playoffs at all, they will likely need to win at least two, if not all three, of these games.
With the season quickly winding down, any teams with playoff ambitions are going to need to play their best football, or they’ll be forced to watch the rest of the league fight for a chance at the Super Bowl. It is sure to be an exciting end of the season and year, as the regular season wraps up on New Year’s Eve.