NFL Playoff Picture: Week 9

After nine weeks of the 2015 NFL Season, the playoff picture is slowly coming into focus.  By this point in the year, we can see the separation between the contenders and the teams who are already looking towards next year – but the real focus is on the teams in the middle. Which teams will make a late playoff push and which ones will fall by the wayside?

Playoff Locks

New England Patriots: One of three remaining unbeaten teams in the league this year, the Patriots have looked the strongest all season long.  Injuries are starting to pile up, particularly on the offensive line, but no team in the NFL handles “next man up” quite like the Pats. The offense is dynamic enough to mitigate the loss of breakout RB Dion Lewis and the defense is quietly ranked in the top 10 in Yards per Game and Points per Game. This team is not without its demons, however.  Nothing can take the sting out of consecutive Super Bowl losses to the Giants following the 2007 and 2011 seasons, but a regular season win this week would be a big confidence boost.

Cincinnati Bengals: One of the other unbeaten teams, the Bengals are in a great position to run away with the division. The Steelers can’t get (or stay) healthy while the Ravens and Browns continue to flounder. Most fans in Cincinnati and around the country are waiting for Dalton and the Bengals to melt down, but nothing so far this year has indicated a meltdown is imminent. In fact, we are seeing quite the opposite with come-from-behind wins against the Steelers and Seahawks to keep their record un-blemished. Dalton is playing well, the defense is playing well, and the upcoming schedule is largely favorable with 5/8 remaining games coming against opponents with losing records.

Denver Broncos: While Peyton Manning has looked better the past two weeks, the strength of this team is on the defensive side of the ball. Unfortunately for the Broncos, the one game this season where the defense played poorly, the offense wasn’t quite in a position to make up for it. Denver has a sizeable lead in its division and three out of their next four games come against bottom of the barrel teams (Kansas City, Chicago & San Diego). If Peyton can continue to improve his play (that sounds weird to say) and the defense shakes off what is most likely an anomaly, this team will be in the running for a potential first round bye (they do play both New England and Cincinnati this year).

Carolina Panthers: Nobody really knows how, but this Panthers team is a cool 8-0. Not to take anything away from the Panthers, but they have had the easiest schedule in the NFL so far, with the only real challenge coming last week against Green Bay – a test which they handled easily (though not beautifully). Only 3/8 remaining games come against teams with a winning record, and two of those games are against the Falcons who have been on a sharp decline the past few weeks. Carolina could legitimately go 16-0, and even a couple of losses wouldn’t jeopardize their chance at home field advantage through the NFC playoffs.

Teams on the Bubble

New York Jets: The past decade and a half have largely been spent looking up at the Patriots in the standings, and while this year is no different in terms of standings, the Jets look like a different team. They were extremely close to beating the Patriots and then had a letdown game against the Raiders, but aside from that have looked like a competent team – something we weren’t used to seeing the past few years. If the Jets want to snag a wildcard berth, it starts this Thursday against the Bills. A win and they have the upper hand for a playoff berth – a loss and they are right back in the mix with four other playoff hopefuls.

Pittsburgh Steelers: When healthy, this team probably gets to 12 wins and is a lock for a playoff berth – but in reality, the Steelers have been hit hard by the injury bug. With a season ending injury to Le’Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger’s second injury this year, this team has quickly slid down the ranks. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the AFC is fairly weak this year, with only 6/16 teams currently sporting a winning record (Pittsburgh being one of them). With six teams making the playoffs, the Steelers really just need to maintain course and altitude to have a shot at getting in – although they likely wouldn’t have much of a chance if they did happen to make it.

Indianapolis Colts: It’s not too often that division leading teams are on the bubble, but the AFC South is no ordinary division – in fact, they are downright awful. The AFC South doesn’t contain a single team with a winning record which means that while the Colts are leading – anything can still happen. This team goes as Andrew Luck goes, and even when he plays well, it doesn’t always mean victory. There is little about this team that strikes fear in anyone’s heart, but they did just hand the Denver Broncos their first loss of the season. They are one game up in the win column over the Texans, but will need a few more wins before we can confidently say they are a playoff team.

Oakland Raiders: This team has all the weapons you’d want from a playoff contender, but unfortunately just none of the experience. The future looks bright for Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, and Khalil Mack, but they are likely one more year away from being a real contender. Still, at 4-4, they have as good a shot as any to make the playoffs, particularly with the banged up Steelers likely not going on a run anytime soon and the Bills not showing much consistency from week to week. Not much would be expected from Oakland if they do, in fact, make the playoffs, but marginal success attracts more free agent interest than drafting in the top 5 every year.

Buffalo Bills: So maybe they aren’t exactly the “Bullies of the AFC East” that Rex Ryan touted them to be, but this team has shown flashes of brilliance – just no consistency.  As important as Thursday’s game is for the Jets, it is doubly important for the Bills. A win will put them in a tie for a wildcard spot and a loss will put them below .500 and likely out of the playoff race. This team feels like they can go on a run, especially with a healthy Sammy Watkins and an improving Tyrod Taylor – it’s really the defense that hasn’t been the lights-out unit we expected them to be in the pre-season. If the defense can play up to 3/4 of the potential we thought they had coming into the year, this team could finish out the year at 6-2. If they continue to play how they currently are, however – they will be nothing more than an 8-8 team.

New York Giants: Much like the Colts, being atop a weak division doesn’t mean much – and when you’re sporting a bottom 5 defense in terms of Yards per Game, it puts an awful lot of pressure on Eli Manning.  With no running game to speak of, Eli and OBJ are putting the team on their back but the Eagles in the rear view mirror are closer than they appear. Simply playing .500 ball from here on out might be good enough to clinch the division, but one slip up and they get throw into the wildcard mix with teams that are likely much better than they are.

Philadelphia Eagles: On Sunday Night Football, we saw what Chip Kelly wanted this Eagles team to be all along – at least on offense.  It was one of their best games in terms of scoring thanks to far fewer drops from the wide receivers than Sam Bradford is used to seeing. Their conditioning is far superior to most of their opponents, and if the offense picks up even a couple first downs, it usually snowballs its way into the endzone. Unfortunately, this style of offense comes with a great risk and more often than not, they go three and out, putting their defense right back on the field. The pieces for this Eagles team are there and the division lead is within reach, but they will need to probably go 5-3 to close out the year AND beat the Giants in the final game of the regular season.

Minnesota Vikings: At 6-2 and leading the NFC North it seems odd to put them on the bubble, but this is as big a bubble team as there is in the NFL right now. The offense is competent enough as long as Teddy Bridgewater is leading it, and the defense is the only team in the league to not allow more than 23 points this year. The problem is that they don’t really pass the eye test the way other 6-2 teams do. There is a good chance that they make the playoffs if they continue on this trajectory, but there is a good chance that this team regresses towards the mean and finishes at 10-6; which in the NFC isn’t exactly a lock for the playoffs.

Green Bay Packers: Another 6-2 team, they are coming off a brutal two-game stretch where they had to play undefeated teams away from the comfort of Lambeau Field.  For as many bright spots as this team has, they got absolutely demolished in both games (don’t let the final score of that Carolina game fool you – it was a beatdown). The defense has been average, which normally isn’t a problem for an Aaron Rodgers-led football team, but the lack of depth on both sides of the ball is rearing its ugly head. This is still a very good football team, but make no mistake, teams have been given the blueprint on how to pressure Aaron Rodgers, which has made the Packers look pedestrian on offense. There’s a good chance that Green Bay shrugs off the last two losses and finishes the season strong, but if they don’t they will have to fight for a wildcard spot in the tough NFC.

Atlanta Falcons: Remember when the Falcons were 4-0 and looking like the team to beat in the NFC? We barely do, after Atlanta dropped three out of four, including a home loss to the Buccaneers and a road loss to Blaine Gabbert and the Niners. We aren’t ready to brush them out of the playoff picture quite yet, but they do still have two games against Carolina and one against Minnesota. If they don’t win at least 1/3 of those games, they could find themselves on the outside looking in.

Arizona Cardinals: Another 6-2 bubble team which isn’t a playoff lock in large part to a couple of ugly losses to teams they should have beaten (Rams & Steelers). Their second-half schedule isn’t exactly favorable either, with two games against the Seahawks, and one against the Packers, Vikings, Bengals and Rams (who beat them earlier). That’s six games that the Cardinals aren’t guaranteed to win. Even if they go a respectable 3-3 in those games, they would need two of those wins to come against the Seahawks to really gain ground in the division. This team plays best when the defense generates turnovers, but lately this ball-hawking secondary has been getting burned more often than not. Arians can turn it around, but they just aren’t quite a lock yet.

St. Louis Rams: This team is one loss away from being out of playoff contention, but for now they sit atop the thinnest of bubbles. They play in a ridiculously tough NFC West division and while they share the same 4-4 record as the Seahawks, the eye test says they aren’t even close. Their remaining schedule is reasonably favorable, with games against the Bears, Ravens, Lions, Buccs, and Niners – but the Bengals, Seahawks and Cardinals still loom large on the schedule. It’s unlikely that this team finishes the year above .500 which won’t be good enough for a playoff berth.

Seattle Seahawks: If this was college football, the Seahawks would have some quality losses on their schedule, but at the end of the day, they are a 4-4 team like so many others in the conference. Two of those losses came without Kam Chancellor on the field, and this team has been noticeably better since his return – the biggest issue is that they seem to be able to beat up on the weaker teams but can’t get that landmark win against a quality opponent. They will have their chances to get back in the division race, however, with two games remaining against the NFC West-leading Cardinals and a fairly soft remaining schedule. This team will need to close out the year at 6-2 to have a shot at making the playoffs – a very likely scenario when looking at the schedule, but not a lock by any stretch of the imagination.

Better Luck Next Year

Miami Dolphins: The spark they got from the firing of Joe Philbin (or the promotion of Dan Campbell depending on whether you’re a glass half full/empty kind of person) is all but gone. They got demolished by the Patriots which wasn’t entirely unexpected and then laid an egg against the Bills when their playoff hopes depended on a win. The rest of the year will be spent deciding if they want to stick with Campbell and remove the interim tag from his office door or if they want to pursue other head coaching options.

Baltimore Ravens: There aren’t too many teams that have gone from 100-0 as fast as the Ravens have (except maybe the Niners… was that Super Bowl cursed?), but there is some major rebuilding to be done here. Joe Flacco literally has no weapons on offense, and this defense is just a shell of what it has been historically.

Cleveland Browns: McCown isn’t the answer. Manziel probably isn’t the answer. Some guy in college probably isn’t the answer either. With the most important question on any teams roster largely going unanswered, it look like the Browns will be stuck in mediocrity for the rest of the decade.

Houston Texans: If you have two quarterbacks, you really don’t have any; and if you get rid of one quarterback and ride Brian Hoyer, you really don’t have any. The Texans best hope is to get rid of Hoyer and start fresh, but if he plays moderately well, there is a slim chance of that happening. They have a bright spot in DeAndre Hopkins, but Arian Foster is never going to fully bounce back and this defense is really just JJ Watt and a bunch of cardboard cutouts.

Jacksonville Jaguars: If you had Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns on your fantasy football team, you’d probably be winning the league right now – but this isn’t fantasy football and the Jags looked overmatched in nearly every game they’ve played this year.

Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota is the future, but for the Titans, the future is still a few years away – even in the atrociously weak AFC South, they just don’t have quite enough talent to compete. If the Colts continue to struggle like they have this year, the window could open for them in a couple years, just not this year.

Kansas City Chiefs: Alex Smith isn’t the worst QB in the world, but without Jamal Charles in the backfield, this team is just not that great. Defense is solid, but even if they play well, the Chiefs can’t count on the offense to even put up 17 points on a regular basis.

San Diego Chargers: No team in the NFL has sustained more injuries or heartbreaking losses this year than the Chargers. The problem is that good teams usually find a way to win close games more often than they lose them which tells us that this isn’t a very good team – that and their 2-7 record…

Washington Redskins: Washington seems to have all but moved on from RG3, but nobody in their right mind would expect Kirk Cousins to lead this team to the playoffs anytime soon. Imagine if they hadn’t traded away all those draft picks for Griffin – they might be winning the NFC East right now.

Dallas Cowboys: Every week it has been the same story – just get a win without Romo and you can stay alive in your division. But every week it’s been the same result and the Cowboys are winless while Romo watches from the bench. They haven’t played particularly poorly – but just like the Chargers, they can’t seem to pull out the close games.

Chicago Bears: Doomed by a slow start, the Bears are actually coming together as a football team even if the scoreboard hasn’t reflected it. Thankfully, drafting high and having a fully healthy Matt Forte puts them in a good position for next year.

Detroit Lions: Everyone expected this team to get blown up at the trade deadline, but instead it remained intact. It was the front office that took the brunt of the turnover, and while they are responsible for building the team – it’s the coaches and players who are responsible for the on-field product.

New Orleans Saints: Almost had them as a bubble team, but at this rate, Drew Brees’ arm is going to fall off before the end of the season. The defense is awful which means the offense needs to put up forty-burgers every week to hang in. Not gonna happen.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Nobody really expected Tampa to go from the worst team in the NFL last year to a playoff contender, but they already have more wins in 2015 than they did all of last year and Winston looks strong. Even a ridiculous 6-2 finish wouldn’t be good enough, however.

San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick is slowly packing his things into a box, probably glad to be moving away from the high-rent San Francisco area. This team is regressing into what we saw from them in the 2000’s, which any SF fan will tell you isn’t a good thing.