NFL Playoff Picture Heading Into Sunday Afternoon

By Michael Vesci
Nov. 24, 2018

After 11 weeks of NFL football, the playoffs are just weeks away and there is still plenty to decide across the league. Heading into Sunday, there are five teams tied for the final wild card in the AFC and in the NFC the top two seeds have the same record and there is a battle brewing in the wild card slots as well. Today, we break down where the top six seeds in the AFC and NFC stand heading into the slate of Sunday games.

American Football Conference (AFC)

#1 Kansas City Chiefs (9-2)

The Chiefs have dominated everybody in the AFC this year and even though they lost to the Patriots on the road, they managed to keep up with Tom Brady, despite Patrick Mahomes having turnover troubles early. Turnovers played a big part in Kansas City's most recent loss to the Rams in which Mahomes turned the ball over five times which resulted in 21 points for Los Angeles. If Mahomes can limit the turnovers, especially against the top teams in the league, KC will be golden in the playoffs and likely earn one of the two byes up for grabs.

#2 Pittsburgh Steelers (7-2-1)

That 1-2-1 start for Pittsburgh seems like a distant memory as they have rattled off six straight wins to take over the second seed in the AFC. But a date with the Patriots still looms large for the Steelers considering New England is just a half game back of the two seed in the AFC. The two teams matchup in Week 15 at Heinz Field with the winner of that game likely owning the rights to the two seed due to head-to-head tiebreaker. But if Pittsburgh keeps winning like they have been and the Patriots drop a game between now and then, the Steelers will definitely feel a bit more comfortable about earning a bye should they lose to New England.

#3 New England Patriots (7-3)

An eye raising blowout to the Titans prior to the bye has some wondering if this New England team can compete come playoff time with the way their defense has performed this season. Right when it seems like they are coming around, they play like they did against Tennessee and more questions are raised. As long as quarterback Tom Brady is behind center, this team is good as gold on offense because of his skills and ability. But if the defense cannot come around for good, then this team is in trouble like last year in the Super Bowl against the Eagles. As mentioned, they have a date with the Steelers in Week 15 which will be crucial in deciding if they earn a first-round bye. New England cannot really afford to lose another game or two if they want to be in the top two of the AFC.

#4 Houston Texans (7-3)

The Texans are one of the hottest teams in football seeing they have won seven straight games after starting the year with an 0-3 record. In winning their last seven, Houston has surged to the top of the AFC North and into the fourth seed of the AFC playoff picture behind the Patriots who they lost the head-to-head tiebreaker to after an early season loss to them. DeShaun Watson is coming around after a rusty start coming back from his ACL tear and with a mostly healthy defense, we are seeing what this Texans team can do on both sides of the ball.

#5 Los Angeles Chargers (7-3)

In a way, this team has been aided by one of the easier schedules in the NFL up to this point. Only one of their wins have come against a team above the .500 mark at the time they played them which was the Seattle Seahawks with a 4-3 record. As of now none of the teams they beat have winning records as all of them sit at or below .500 at this point in the season. The Chargers still have a two-game cushion for the five seed in the AFC, but following the game against Arizona this weekend, they face a tough four-game stretch that could prove whether they are a contender or pretender.

#6 Baltimore Ravens (5-5)

By virtue of tiebreaker, the Ravens come out of the five-way tie as the last seed in the AFC playoff standings since they have a better conference record than Miami and Indianapolis, a better division record than Cincinnati, and more complicated scenarios. But this has not looked like a playoff team as of late and even though they beat the reeling Bengals last week, the idea of them getting a similar performance moving forward is unlikely. Joe Flacco is dealing with a hip injury which put Lamar Jackson in for his NFL debut last weekend and he rushed the ball 26 times which is unheard of for a quarterback. The odds of that happening and begin effective again are slim and when Flacco returns we will have to see how the offense looks. This does not look like a team primed for the playoffs this season, though.

In The Hunt:

Cincinnati Bengals (5-5)

Miami Dolphins (5-5)

Indianapolis Colts (5-5)

Tennessee Titans (5-5)

Denver Broncos (4-6)

Still Alive But Unlikely Contenders:

Cleveland Browns (3-6-1)

Buffalo Bills (3-7)

Jacksonville Jaguars (3-7)

New York Jets (3-7)

Oakland Raiders (2-8)

Looking at the case in the AFC, it is still anyone's guess of who will emerge as the two wild card teams. It is hard to think that the Chargers have their spot locked up given their upcoming schedule and any one of the 5-5 teams could get hot starting this week and ride the momentum to the end of the season. If I was forced to make a prediction at this point in the season, I would give the Chargers the fifth seed and either the Colts or the Dolphins the final wild card spot in the AFC. I think Andrew Luck and the Colts have a chance to make some noise down the stretch seeing they are riding a four-game win streak into this week's matchup with Miami, but I also think the Dolphins could make some noise as well with the return of Ryan Tannehill at quarterback and a split schedule of home and road games.

National Football Conference (NFC)

#1 New Orleans Saints (10-1)

After losing in Week 1 to the Buccaneers, the Saints have won 10 straight games to all but take the NFC South and take control of the top seed in the conference. Drew Brees and this high-powered offense are tough to stop and opponents who face this team know that making mistakes of their own will ultimately cost them the game. New Orleans also holds the tiebreaker over the Los Angeles Rams following a win at home against them in Week 9 which means if the two teams were tied atop the conference at the end of the season, the Saints would get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

#2 Los Angeles Rams (10-1)

Other than their loss to the Saints in Week 9, the Rams have been an offensive juggernaut as well. Despite having an array of close games, Los Angeles is hard to slow down offensively but need to tighten things up on defense if they want to go far in the playoffs. Jared Goff and Todd Gurley are hard to stop when things are clicking for the Rams and the team has to feel good about their shot at earning a first-round bye considering the next closest team is the Chicago Bears who are two games back.

#3 Chicago Bears (8-3)

Winners of five consecutive games, the Chicago Bears have put their early season struggles behind them and the defense has found their rhythm after a brief hiccup along the way. Mitchell Trubisky is developing quickly in his second year at the NFL level and thrown 20 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions this season. Even in his absence, Chase Daniel stepped in at QB and did enough to get the Bears a win. Chicago's defense is what will set them apart from other teams if they make the playoffs as defense usually wins championships. The Bears have a top-five defense and have to be watched in the coming weeks.

#4 Dallas Cowboys (6-5)

Two weeks ago this seemed unlikely, but in an NFC East that is up for grabs, two straight wins has been enough for the Cowboys to take over the division due to having a better division record than the Redskins. Dallas still has a lot of work to do if they want to make the playoffs considering how close the race for the division is, but the acquisition of Amari Cooper has been pivotal in this team turning the corner. Defenses are keeping an eye on Cooper which is opening up the running game for Ezekiel Elliott and in turns leading to more offensive production for the Cowboys. For now, they can enjoy this moment but know they still need to continue stringing together wins if they want to hold on to this moment and carry it to the playoffs.

#5 Carolina Panthers (6-4)

Losers of two in a row, this seems like a week that the Panthers should be in must-win mode considering a loss could potentially drop them out of the top six in the NFC. The offense has been sputtering for the last two weeks and turnovers as well as miscues have cost this team dearly. Cam Newton looked good during the team's three-game winning streak earlier this season, but as of late has struggled to move the offense. He will eventually come around, but it will have to be sooner rather than later if the Panthers want to remain relevant in the playoff hunt.

#6 Minnesota Vikings (5-4-1)

Where this team goes from here is tough to say given how they have performed this season. They will look good for a few weeks and then take a step or two backwards, but they have been beating the teams they should this season which is important. However, now Minnesota needs to take it a step further and start beating playoff contenders. The Vikings begin a stretch in which they play three of their last six games against division opponents and four of their six games will come against teams at or above the .500 mark. Kirk Cousins has been known to perform at a mediocre level for most of his career which could explain why Minnesota is currently sitting in this position. The most important thing, for them, is to take care of business against the Packers or drop out of the top six in the NFC.

In The Hunt:

Washington Redskins (6-5)

Seattle Seahawks (5-5)

Green Bay Packers (4-5-1)

Philadelphia Eagles (4-6)

Still Alive But Unlikely Contenders:

Atlanta Falcons (4-7)

Detroit Lions (4-7)

New York Giants (3-7)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-7)

Arizona Cardinals (2-8)

San Francisco 49ers (2-8)

Similar to the AFC Wild Card, there is still a lot up for grabs on the NFC side of things. While the top two seeds look like they are locked down by the Saints and Rams, the margin of error for both wild card slots is slim to none at the moment. Either the Vikings and Panthers need to get hot if they want to maintain their current position or they will have to step aside for a team in the hunt. If I had to predict who would take the wild card slots in the NFC at the moment, I would say Seattle and Carolina because I like their offenses. Russell Wilson and Cam Newton know how to lead their teams on offense and have been doing it for years which is why I think they have the best shot at taking the NFC Wild Card spots.

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