By: Brady Gardner
As I wrote about last week, things are getting pretty crazy in the NFL playoff picture for both the AFC and NFC. At this point in the year, individual storylines are taking a back seat to team ramifications, with all eyes focused on the ever-changing six playoff positions up for grabs in both conferences.
With this in mind, my NFL column will be centered around playoff football for the rest of the season, currently looking ahead as the regular season comes to a close and eventually reviewing major matchups once the postseason begins. Readers can scroll to their favorite team, or get a sense of the landscape across the entire league.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at how things are shaping up with three weeks to go in the 2018 NFL regular season. To start things off, let’s see how things look in the AFC.
In the most improbable of finishes, the Miami Dolphins knocked off the New England Patriots on a miraculous double-lateral that went 69-yards for the game-winning touchdown as time expired. While the AFC East title may be all but wrapped up for the Patriots, this was a major win for the Dolphins, who now sit at 7-6 and are only out of a playoff spot due to a tiebreaker. A favorable set of fixtures with the Vikings, Jaguars and Bills might just be enough to get the Dolphins into the postseason.
New England Patriots:
As for the Patriots, this was a devastating loss with the way it happened, but it certainly could have been significantly worse in terms of the playoff picture. The Pats still hold the second seed in the AFC, but the quest for the familiar number one seed becomes much more difficult now. In order to have any chance at overcoming the Chargers or Chiefs for the coveted first place finish, the Patriots must win out in games against the Steelers, Bills, and Jets.
Allowing the Patriots to keep the AFC’s number two seed were the Indianapolis Colts, whose victory in Houston kept the Texans on the same record as the Patriots at 9-4. Like the Dolphins, the Colts sit at 7-6, with divisional title dreams forgotten but wild card hopes very much alive. Defeating a high-flying Dallas side will be a challenge, but wins over the Cowboys and Giants could set up for a very interesting final game against the 7-6 Titans.
Prior to Week 14’s loss, the Texans had been unbeaten since Week 3. However, falling to the Colts meant becoming 9-4 on the year, and staying below the Patriots due to a head-to-head loss in New England. With matchups against the Jets, Eagles, and Jaguars still to come, the Texans have a great shot at finishing 12-4 and potentially picking up a first round bye if other results go their way.
Los Angeles Chargers:
The Bolts made a huge statement win over Kansas City on the Thursday Night Football stage. A playoff spot is guaranteed, as the Chargers now turn their attention to a division win or even a first round bye. However, the road is still tough for Los Angeles, who have to look out for playoff hopefuls in the Ravens and Broncos down the stretch.
Kansas City Chiefs:
The Chiefs had a bit of a scare against the Ravens, but were able to pull out a victory in overtime. Add on a loss at home to the Chargers, and the AFC West just opened wide up. The Seahawks will also pose a threat when the Chiefs travel to Seattle, but with the Raiders to conclude the season, Kansas City could still come away on top of the AFC.
Despite the nail-biting loss to the conference leaders, the 7-6 Ravens are still clinging to the sixth spot in the AFC playoff picture, though only through a tiebreaker. With no breathing room to be had, things will not be easy for Baltimore down the stretch, especially with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson now banged up. The Buccaneers in Week 15 and Browns in Week 17 should be winnable games for the Ravens, but facing the Chargers in between could derail Baltimore’s wild card aspirations.
Alongside the Ravens, Colts, and Dolphins at 7-6 are the Titans, who took care of business against the lowly Jaguars. Despite finding themselves in a very competitive division, the Titans have quietly put together an impressive campaign that may just warrant a return to the postseason. Defeating the Giants and Redskins shouldn’t be too difficult for Tennessee, but a final meeting with the Colts could determine which AFC South club gains playoff berth.
In a game that likely left Pittsburgh football fans sick to their stomachs, the Steelers fell to the struggling Raiders in Week 14, marking their third loss in a row. A 7-5-1 record is barely enough to keep Pittsburgh atop the AFC North, and taking on the Patriots and Saints back-to-back could easily see things go from bad to worse. With their only favorable matchup left being a meeting with the Bengals, the Steelers’ concerns have quickly shifted from gaining a first round bye to maintaining their playoff spot altogether.
A loss to the 49ers was the last thing the Broncos needed, but Denver is still somewhat in the hunt at 6-7. For any shot at leapfrogging the four teams who sit at 7-6, the Broncos will have to win out the rest of the way. However, getting three wins out of three against the Browns, Raiders, and Chargers will be no easy task for Denver.
Mathematically, the 5-7-1 Browns and 5-8 Bengals still have a chance, but it would take a miracle for either of these NFC North teams to make the playoffs. As for the 4-9 Bills, Jaguars, and Jets, and the 3-10 Raiders… let’s just say it’s time to start looking towards the draft.
That’s the AFC, now for the NFC:
New Orleans Saints:
The conference-leading Saints picked up another win to bump their total to 11 in comparison to 2 losses, this time defeating the Buccaneers. New Orleans has worked their way to the top of a talented conference, and are undoubtedly one of the league’s true powers this season. will take on the wild card hopeful Panthers twice in the season’s final three games, with a meeting with the reeling Steelers in between.
Tied on record atop the NFC with the Saints are the Rams, who were uncharacteristically quiet offensively in their loss to the Bears. While the lack of production could be a concern for Los Angeles, an underwhelming final three opponents will give the Rams a great opportunity to build some confidence and gain some momentum. With games against the Eagles, Cardinals, and 49ers the rest of the way, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Rams win out and potentially steal the conference from the Saints.
On the victorious side of the Rams’ previous loss, the Bears are now sitting comfortably at 9-4, good for third in the conference. This team has surprised some as the runaway leaders in the NFC North, but with one of the stronger defenses in the game, Chicago has been a danger to strong competition. Like the Rams, the Bears should be able to go three for three in their final games this season, taking on the Packers, 49ers, and Vikings.
The once-fearsome Vikings are in some trouble, a truth worsened by a Week 14 loss to the Seahawks. However, Minnesota is still hanging on to the sixth playoff seed in the NFC at 6-6-1, with several challengers close behind. With the Bears far out of reach in the division, the Vikings must find a way to right the ship against the Dolphins, Lions, and Bears if they hope to hold on to that wild card spot.
The Seahawks’ win was the fourth in a row for Seattle, an impressive response from a mediocre opening 9 games. While the Rams are running away with the NFC West, the 8-5 Seahawks are still likely to secure a wild card spot, as the nearest team below is the Vikings. With a meeting with the Chiefs in Week 16, Seattle must get wins against the 49ers and Cardinals in order to maintain their wild card position.
The Cowboys escaped the Eagles in overtime, picking up their fifth win in a row. Amari Cooper looks to be making quite a difference to the Cowboys offense, who have led Dallas the top of the NFC East. At 8-5, the Cowboys should have no trouble keeping their playoff spot, especially with a fairly underwhelming remaining schedule in the Colts, Buccaneers, and Giants.
Even with the loss to the Cowboys, the Eagles are still hanging around in the NFC. They may be a far cry from the team they were last season, but Philadelphia could sneak their way into a wild card spot. It won’t be easy, but in order to separate themselves from other 6-7 teams, the Eagles would need to go three for three against the Rams, Texans, and Redskins.
Level with the Eagles at 6-7, the Panthers did themselves no favors by falling to the Browns in Week 14. It was the fifth straight loss for Carolina, going from competing with the Saints to dropping out of the playoff picture completely within a matter of weeks. With two meetings with the Saints still ahead, as well as a contest against the ever-potent Falcons, this season may be lost for the Panthers.
The 6-7 Redskins were defeated lopsidedly by the Giants, and Washington’s early optimism has essentially disappeared. Injuries to both Alex Smith and Colt McCoy have forced Washington deep into the quarterback depth chart, and the team is simply not the same as it was before those losses. The Jaguars, Titans, and Eagles are all beatable opponents, but it’s hard to see the Redskins making any waves in the playoff picture with the current state of their quarterback position.
The Packers are somehow still in the conversation at 5-7-1, and the Buccaneers, Giants, Lions, and Falcons all have an outsider’s chance at 5-8.While it is possible, it would certainly take something special to push any of these clubs into the postseason. As for the 4-9 Falcons, we’ll see you next season.
That’s your NFL Round-up as of Week 14, we’ll see how things look after Week 15!