By: Brady Gardner
With 16 weeks of the NFL season in the books, the field has been more than cut in half as we close in on the postseason. With changes to the playoff picture coming from all corners of the league, this article will help you get a grasp on where we stand ahead of Week 17.
Just like before, feel free to scroll to your favorite team, or read the entire article to get a sense of the landscape across the entire league. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how things are shaping up with one weeks to go in the 2018 NFL regular season.
First, let’s check out the AFC:
On Saturday night, the Ravens got a huge road win over the Chargers to get to 9-6 on the season. While this victory meant staying ahead of playoff outsiders in the Colts and Titans through a tiebreaker, the greatest boost to the Ravens’ playoff hopes came from the Steelers’ loss in New Orleans. With this result, Baltimore claimed the lead in the AFC North, and if they are able to hold off a streaking Cleveland team next week, the Ravens will secure a well-earned divisional title and playoff berth. If the visiting Browns can pull out a win and send Baltimore to 9-7, then the Ravens will have to rely on the Steelers falling to the Bengals, because the Colts and Titans playing against each other means that one of those teams will be finishing 10-6.
Los Angeles Chargers:
The Chargers came into Saturday’s matchup with an 11-3 record, and had a golden opportunity to take over as the leaders in both the AFC West and the entire conference with the Chiefs falling to Seahawks. However, even at home, Los Angeles could not overcome a stingy Ravens team, keeping themselves below the Chiefs on a tiebreaker. It’s still difficult to decide what to expect from this LA club given their mix of impressive wins with concerning losses, but unless the Chiefs trip up against the lowly Raiders, it looks like the Chargers will end up as the wild card team. At worst, Los Angeles will finish as the fifth seed, so if the Kansas City take care of business against Oakland, the result of LA’s game against the Broncos will be inconsequential.
Kansas City Chiefs:
The 10-5 Chiefs fell in yet another testing game, this time on the road against the Seahawks. Kansas City has demonstrated indications of being a true power in the AFC this postseason, but their struggles in the spotlight against strong opposition cannot be ignored. If not for the Ravens beating the Chargers, the Chiefs could very well have fallen to a wild card spot, losing the advantage of having the playoff bracket run through the ever-energetic Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs’ still hold the conference lead, which should be sealed with a meeting with an unintimidating Raiders ahead to finish of their regular season, but if Oakland plays the spoiler role, a Chargers win could suddenly demote the Chiefs to a wild card team.
After an encouraging victory over the Patriots in Week 15, the Steelers may have ruined their playoff chances by falling to the Saints this past Sunday. It was a great effort for Pittsburgh against the NFC leaders, but a loss is a loss, and an 8-6-1 record puts them below the Ravens in the race for the AFC North. Not only that, but the Steelers also fell below the 9-6 Colts and Titans in the wild card race, suddenly moving from the fourth seed to outside the playoff picture altogether. To get back in, the Steelers will have to take care of business against the Bengals, and hope the Ravens lose to the Browns, because either the Colts and Titans will have the final wild card spot at 10-6 since the two teams play against each other in Week 17.
New England Patriots:
The Patriots bounced back from Week 15’s crushing defeat in Pittsburgh with a sound victory over the Bills, improving to 10-5 and claiming a postseason spot with their tenth straight AFC East title – an NFL record. Like with the Ravens, the biggest development for the Patriots came through a game away from their own, as the 10-5 Texans fell to the Eagles and surrendered the AFC’s second seed to the Patriots through a tiebreaker. With Tom Brady visibly banged up and the Patriots playing much better at home than on the road this season, a first round bye and home field advantage could be just what New England needs to make a deep postseason run. The Patriots could confirm their position with a home win over the Jets in Week 17, but if they should lose, only a Houston defeat to the Jaguars would keep the second seed in New England.
The Texans held a first round bye for six days, but quickly returned to the AFC’s third seed with a loss to the reenergized Eagles. While there is still a chance that they could regain the second seed, falling out of the bye position will be a disappointment for a Houston team who controlled their own destiny going into Week 16. The Texans did secure a playoff spot through the Steelers’ loss, but barring an upset from the Jets over the Patriots, it looks like Houston will be a road team once again in the later stages of the postseason. A win for the Texans over the Jaguars would mean winning the AFC South to keep the third seed, while a loss could mean falling to the sixth seed if the winner of the Colts-Titans game goes ahead through a tiebreaker.
The Colts continued their winning ways with a victory over the Giants to become 9-6 and keep themselves in line for a playoff spot, which was quickly granted to them by the Steelers’ loss. Pittsburgh’s defeat bumped everyone up a spot, with the Ravens moving to the fourth seed and Indianapolis taking the sixth playoff spot, just barely edging the Titans out on a tiebreaker. Assuming the Texans can beat the Jaguars, the Colts would keep the AFC’s bottom wild card spot with a win over the Titans. However, things in the AFC South are still far from decided, as there is a chance for Indianapolis to win the division with a win of their own and a Texans loss, or Indy could lose their playoff spot completely with a road loss to Tennessee.
The Titans kept pace with the Colts at 10-6 following their win over the Redskins, but Tennessee is still on the outside looking in through sixteen weeks. That being said, the Titans did get one spot closer to postseason berth through the Steelers’ loss, and while Indianapolis may be ahead of the Tennessee in the conference standings for now, there is still everything to play for going into Week 17. The scenarios for the Titans are virtually the same as those for the Colts: a win over Indy and a Texans victory against the Jaguars would see Tennessee claim the sixth seed. If things get crazy, the Titans could take the AFC South title with their own win and a Texans loss, or they could see their playoff dreams crushed if they fall at home to the Colts.
The 7-7-1 Browns and 7-8 Dolphins were both eliminated following Sunday’s set of fixtures, and the Broncos, Bengals, Bills, Jaguars, Jets and Raiders had already set their sights on next season weeks ago. Well, the spoiler role is still available, people!
Now for the NFC:
New Orleans Saints:
The Saints secured the NFC’s first seed with a dramatic win over the Steelers, improving to a league-best 13-2. The game meant more for Pittsburgh than it did for New Orleans, but wrapping up the conference with a week to play is still a luxury that will be welcomed by the Saints, and an accomplishment that should not be taken lightly. Comparisons have been drawn between this New Orleans team and the one that finished as Super Bowl Champions nearly a decade ago, but after last season’s devastating divisional loss in Minnesota, the Saints still must prove themselves in the postseason. New Orleans will look to finish the regular season strong against the Panthers before heading into their first round bye.
On the other end of the NFC playoff picture, the 8-6-1 Vikings maintained their spot in the sixth seed with a comfortable win over the Lions. Things were ugly for Minnesota towards the middle of the season, but the Vikings seem to be finding a new gear at just the right time, and have saved their playoff hopes at least for the time being. Still, nothing is certain just yet for the Vikings, who are the only team currently in NFC top six who have not punched their ticket to the postseason. The Vikings could climb up to the fifth seed with a win over the Bears and a Seahawks loss to the Cardinals, but the main focus will be to avoid surrendering their playoff berth to the Eagles, who would take Minnesota’s spot with their own win and a Vikings loss.
The Eagles benefitted from the heroics of Nick Foles once again in Week 16, driving down the field for a game-winning field goal as time expired to beat the dangerous Texans. It was a must-win for Philadelphia, who moved to 8-7 and kept pace with the Vikings in the race for the final wild card spot in the NFC. The Eagles may be the only team still in the hunt, but that also means that they are still on the outside looking in, and would have to rely on a Vikings loss or tie against the Bears to have any shot at advancing into the playoff picture. Of course, the first task for the Eagles would be to beat the Redskins, who put up a strong fight against Titans this past Sunday, but may be deflated after seeing their playoff aspirations dashed in the loss.
Leading the NFC East, the 9-6 Cowboys defeated the Buccaneers to secure their spot in the playoffs, and also take home an NFC East title. It was a great bounce-back win for Dallas, who fell silently at the hands of the Colts a week prior to their victory over Tampa Bay, responding well to assert their dominance in the division once and for all. Somewhat surprisingly, there is absolutely no movement in the standings that could directly impact the Cowboys this week, as the third-seeded Bears are too far ahead to catch at 11-4, and the fourth seed is guaranteed for Dallas through their division title. Nonetheless, their matchup with the struggling Giants could provide a good opportunity to gain some momentum and rest key players before the playoffs.
Above the Cowboys in the conference standings, the Bears continued their victorious form, but in a sloppy game against the 49ers that finished 14-9. Chicago is 11-4 and has had the NFC North wrapped up for a while now, but this win was still significant, keeping them closer to the battle for the second seed with the Rams than the fight for the third seed with Dallas. The Bears hold the tiebreaker over Los Angeles, so a win for Chicago against the Vikings and a Rams loss against the 49ers could propel Chicago into a somewhat surprising first round bye, at least considering their preseason expectations. That being said, the Vikings will be playing with their season on the line, so getting a victory in Minnesota could be a challenge for the Bears.
Los Angeles Rams:
Sitting in the NFC’s second seed and in position for a first round bye, the Rams overcame the Cardinals to get back to winning ways in Week 16. Two straight losses prior to this victory took Los Angeles out of the race for the regular season conference title, which was sealed this past week by the Saints, but LA still happily keeps the second seed. At this point, the main concern for the Rams will be preventing the Bears from overtaking them in line for the first round bye, but Los Angeles could hold on to their current spot with a win over the 49ers this week. San Francisco has put up solid performances against good teams late in the season, so if they should upset the Rams, then Chicago could take the second seed with a win, bumping LA to the third.
Finishing off the playoff picture in the NFC, the Seahawks currently hold the fifth seed with a record of 9-6 on the year. Seattle secured playoff berth with a hard-fought win over the AFC-leading Chiefs, a victory that featured the returned magic of Russell Wilson on offense and a stubborn defense that could even be compared to the Legion of Boom from Seattle teams of a few years ago. While the Rams may have the NFC West all locked up, the Seahawks look dangerous going in the postseason, but will first have to take on an underwhelming Cardinals team before turning their focus to the playoffs. A win over Arizona would mean keeping the fifth seed, while a loss of their own and Vikings win could bump Seattle down to the sixth seed.
The 7-8 Redskins bowed out of the playoff race with a heartbreaking Week 16 loss, while the Packers, Falcons, Panthers, Giants, Buccaneers, Lions, 49ers, and Cardinals had already seen their playoff dreams washed away. Well, you might as well end 2018 with a nice upset, right guys?
Anyway, that concludes this NFC round-up with one week left in the NFL regular season. Next week, this column will feature a preview of every first round playoff game. Happy holidays!