There may not be a better time in sports that December and January—college football hits bowl season, college basketball and the NBA are underway, and the NFL playoff race is in full swing. With a lot to sort out over the next few weeks, here’s a look at the NFL playoff picture as it stands today.
- Philadelphia Eagles (11-2)
The Eagles suffered a big blow with the loss of Carson Wentz, but backup Nick Foles has proven he can win with this team—in 2013, he led Philadelphia to a 9-4 record, passing for 27 TD and 2 INT’s, earning himself a trip to the Pro Bowl. The Eagles finish the season at the Giants, and home against the Raiders and Cowboys. If Foles keeps the team afloat, they should have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
- Minnesota Vikings (10-3)
All week the Vikings have had to hear about Aaron Rodgers coming back, but they’re atop the NFC North with a commanding lead, thanks to their defense and Case Keenum. The career backup’s name isn’t normally associated with the elites, but he’s led this team to success, and a strong end to the season plus an Eagles stumble would keep the Vikings at home throughout the playoffs, Super Bowl included.
- Los Angeles Rams (9-4)
If the Rams want to win their first division title since 2003, they must beat the Seahawks this week—Seattle has already beaten them once, and it will be a tall task to head into CenturyLink to knock off their division rival. However, Sean McVay has completely turned this team around—look for the Rams to reach the postseason.
- New Orleans Saints (9-4)
The leaders of the best division in football, the Saints are not out of the woods yet—a playoff spot appears likely, but a pivotal week 16 matchup with the Falcons could decide the division. The health of Alvin Kamara will play a key role, but the Saints turnaround has come on the shoulders of their defense—last season, they gave up 28.4 PPG—this season, only 20.2 PPG.
- Carolina Panthers (9-4)
The Panthers got a huge win over the Vikings last week, and a win over the Packers in week 15 would likely be enough to secure a playoff spot. Unfortunately, they have the pleasure of facing Aaron Rodgers in his long-anticipated return. Carolina has won five of their last six.
- Atlanta Falcons (8-5)
Five weeks ago, the Falcons appeared to be dead in the water at 4-4—but they’ve been able to rip off four wins in their last five games, including critical wins over Seattle and New Orleans. The Falcons are in good shape in the wildcard race, with tiebreakers over Green Bay, Seattle, Detroit and Dallas, but they still must play New Orleans and Carolina before season’s end.
- Seattle Seahawks (8-5)
The Jaguars just earned the approval of every NFC wildcard team—in one of the strangest endings to a game you’ll ever see, Jacksonville edged Seattle to set up a pivotal week 15 matchup with the Rams that will likely decide the NFC West. Russell Wilson has been balling this season, throwing 29 touchdowns and adding 3 on the ground.
- Detroit Lions (7-6)
The Lions kept their playoff hopes alive with a last-second field goal to best the Buccaneers, but they will have to improve if they want to win out and reach the postseason. Detroit will be without two of their starting linemen in Rick Wagner and Travis Swanson in a tough division contest against the Bears.
- Green Bay Packers (7-6)
The Bad Man is back—Rodgers’ long awaited return has generated a ton of buzz this week, but he told ESPN’s Rob Demovsky that he’s “not coming back to save this team”. Brett Hundley did exactly what he was called to do—keep this team alive until Rodgers returned. The Packers don’t control their own destiny, but with a little help and a strong finish, they can reach their 9th consecutive postseason.
- Dallas Cowboys (7-6)
The Cowboys playoff path is slim, but with the following scenario, Dallas can reach the playoffs with Ezekiel Elliot returning.
- Dallas wins out
- Falcons lose to the Saints and Panthers
- Panthers beat the Packers
- Packers beat the Lions
Dallas put up only 22 points over their three-game losing streak but have bounced back nicely, averaging 34 PPG in their last two contests.
- Arizona Cardinals (6-7)
Arizona is likely out with seven losses, but they’ve had a decent season playing with 3 quarterbacks. The Cardinals have been one of the most inconsistent teams this season, especially on defense—we may be seeing the last of Bruce Arians as head coach as well.
- Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2)
The Steelers just find ways to keep winning, taking their last three contests on last second Chris Boswell field goals. But their upcoming contest against the Patriots will be their biggest test yet, and the winner will be in the driver’s seat for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
- New England Patriots (10-3)
The entire Patriots team looked mediocre, especially the 40-year old Tom Brady, against the Dolphins . If New England isn’t careful, a loss in this one could potentially cost them a first-round bye, seeing as the Jaguars currently hold the tiebreaker over the Patriots based on winning percentage over conference opponents.
- Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4)
Good for Jacksonville—it appears that the Jaguars will reach their first postseason in 10 years, and they’re doing it on the back of their lockdown defense. They currently lead the league in points per game allowed with 15.5, and if Blake Bortles steps it up, this team will make some noise in January.
- Kansas City Chiefs (7-6)
Talk about a team in shambles—the Chiefs have lost six of their last eight games, and Kareem Hunt found the endzone for the first time in 11 games last week. Their matchup with the red-hot Chargers this week could very well decide the AFC West, but their defense must improve if they want to stop a high-powered LA offense.
- Tennessee Titans (8-5)
The AFC South is slowly working their way up from no longer being the worst division in football—The Titans will look to give the division two playoff teams for the first time since 2012. However, if Tennessee wants to keep this position, Mariota will have to play better—his 10 touchdowns to 14 interceptions will see him bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
- Buffalo Bills (7-6)
If you missed the Bills game last week, go check it out—the immense snowfall made for a very funny football atmosphere, and Buffalo got a much-needed win. The rest-of-season schedule isn’t doing them any favors though—they still have to play the Dolphins twice and travel to NE.
- Baltimore Ravens (7-6)
What a blown opportunity for the Ravens—a chance to jump into the Wildcard with a win over their arch-rivals, Baltimore blew a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter—but no matter, they still have the upper hand on the Bills. They are fortunate enough to get the Browns, Colts, and Bengals to end the season.
- Los Angeles Chargers (7-6)
No team has had a better turnaround this season than the Chargers—they’re looking to be the first 0-4 team to make the postseason since…the 1992 Chargers. And if this team sneaks into January, they will be extremely dangerous with a confident Phillip Rivers and Co.
- Oakland Raiders (6-7)
A disappointing season from a team that had Super Bowl aspirations with their star quarterback back in the lineup. Carr has been subpar this season, and it’s brought the team down around him. Luckily, the AFC West is a crapshoot, so there’s hope for the Raiders, but they have a very difficult schedule ahead.
- Miami Dolphins (6-7)
Had the Dolphins even won one of the games in their five-game losing streak, they’d be in good wildcard shape after knocking off the Patriots. Kenyan Drake has proved to be an asset, and Miami can hold their heads high going forward even if they can’t slip into the playoffs.
- New York Jets (5-8)
The Jets and Bengals aren’t mathematically eliminated, but 8 losses will likely be too many to reach the playoffs. However, New York can be proud of their season knowing many experts picked them to go 0-16 this season.
- Cincinnati Bengals (5-8)
Same logic applies to the Bengals, and along with the Jets, Cincinnati can play spoiler to other playoff teams in their upcoming schedule. After yet another disappointing season, look for Marvin Lewis to (finally) get the ax.
All stats courtesy of espn.com