NFL: The race to the playoffs is coming into focus

Over half of the 2020 NFL regular season is complete, and the playoff picture is clearing up. Unlike past seasons, 14 teams will make the playoffs this year — seven from each conference.

NFL
Courtesy of Creative Commmons
With the NFL beyond its halfway point, some NFL teams are making their cases for playoff runs.

BY
Senior Sports Reporter

Over half of the 2020 NFL regular season is complete, and the playoff picture is clearing up. Unlike past seasons, 14 teams will make the playoffs this year — seven from each conference.

That number might increase to 16, though. Team owners unanimously agreed to an expansion of the playoffs by two teams if any games are canceled due to the pandemic.

Even with the uncertainty around exactly how many teams will qualify, it is becoming clearer week by week which teams are primed to clinch a playoff spot, and which teams are heading towards early elimination.

AFC Locks: Steelers, Chiefs

Mike Tomlin’s team has come out of the gates firing with nine straight wins. While five of those victories have been by a possession margin, their success is undeniable, namely on the defensive side of the ball. The Steelers rank fourth in scoring defense and have found success in stopping two of the conference’s top teams in the Ravens and Titans. Ben Roethlisberger’s status on the COVID-19 list is a major concern, but it is hard to foresee a scenario where the Steelers fail to win at least 10 or 11 games.

Just like Pittsburgh, the Chiefs have beaten two of the AFC’s top teams, Baltimore and Buffalo. Patrick Mahomes is once again an MVP contender, and the Kansas City offense has weapons aplenty. The race for the West Division is separated by two and a half games, with the Las Vegas Raiders behind the Chiefs, despite handing them their only loss in Week 5.

AFC Contenders: Bills, Ravens, Titans

Buffalo’s Week 9 win against the Seattle Seahawks was a statement win that almost gives them enough of a safety net to be a lock. However, with the upstart Miami Dolphins only a half game behind, the AFC East is not close to being decided. Still, a wild card spot is a likely fall-back for the Bills.

For the Ravens, 2020 has been a bit of a disappointment, yet they still sit at 6-3. Both the offensive and defensive units have taken a step back from 2019, albeit minimal. With a closing stretch against the lowly Jaguars, Giants and Bengals, Baltimore sits in the same boat as Buffalo: close to being a virtual lock but still with a few more games to win.

Finally, the Tennessee Titans have an intimidating upcoming schedule, but their stellar running game led by Derrick Henry should be enough to keep the Titans in the hunt for the AFC South title. A game against division rival Indianapolis will be imperative to that race, along with non-division matchups against the Ravens, Browns and Packers. If Tennessee can escape those four matchups with two or three wins, they will be well on their way to the playoffs.

AFC Hopefuls: Colts, Browns, Raiders, Dolphins

All four of these teams sit at 6-3 through nine weeks, but only two would make the playoffs at the moment (the Raiders and Dolphins). While the Colts and Dolphins have been reliant on their resurgent defenses, the other two are leaning on young quarterbacks to lead them to the playoffs. All four teams will have marquee matchups that will be crucial to their playoff hopes as the season dwindles down.

AFC Fringe: Broncos, Patriots

Perhaps the most surprising team of 2020, the New England Patriots, sit at 4-5 along with a perennial mediocre to bad team, the Denver Broncos. Bill Belichick’s team has struggled mightily, and without a late burst, the Patriots will likely have no shot at a wildcard. Meanwhile, the Broncos have been ravaged by injuries and would likely need to reach nine wins to have a shot at the sixth or seventh seed.

NFC Contenders: Packers, Saints, Seahawks

With a jam-packed top half of the NFC, no team is truly a lock just yet. All three of these teams lead their divisions by narrow margins. The Green Bay Packers look to have the easiest path to a division title, with their only competition coming in the form of the Bears and their struggling offense.

The Saints 38-3 beatdown against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their second of two matchups this season solidified their spot as the NFC South favorite. The remaining schedule for New Orleans is favorable, with a Week 15 date with the Chiefs standing out as the only major challenge.

Out west, the Seattle Seahawks looked to be cruising through the season, until three road losses against the Cardinals, Rams and Bills. Their defense is porous, but as long as Russell Wilson stays on the field, Seattle has a legitimate shot to win against any team. Facing three NFC East teams in the span of four weeks will give them a surefire way to clinch a playoff spot and potentially the NFC West title.

NFC Hopefuls: Buccaneers, Cardinals, Rams, Bears, 49ers

In this group of five playoff hopefuls, there is a good bit of separation. Tampa Bay and Arizona have proven they can hang with the NFC’s top teams. The Buccaneerswon against the Packers and the Cardinals bested division rival Seattle. Both teams have three losses, though, and cannot coast to the end of the season.

The Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers sit in arguably the NFL’s best division, the NFC West. It is probably out of reach for either team to focus on winning the division against the likes of Seattle and Arizona. However, the Rams currently hold the final wildcard, and the 49ers are only one and a half games back. San Francisco’s biggest issue will come in its health of cornerstone players Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle.

For the Chicago Bears, their outlook is considerably worse than the Buccaneers, Cardinals and Rams. Their 5-1 start was thwarted by four straight losses with only 63 combined points. The offense has been stagnant with both Nick Foles and Mitch Trubisky at quarterback. Two matchups against the Packers loom large, but Chicago’s stellar defense still gives them a realistic chance to sneak into the playoffs.

NFC Fringe: Vikings, Lions, Falcons, Panthers

Both the Vikings and Falcons started with a 1-5 record, while the Lions began the season at 1-3. All three teams have found their footing a bit through the middle of the season, but for any of the three to have a fighting shot at a wildcard, they will need to end the season on fire.

The Carolina Panthers were 3-2, before completely collapsing to 3-7. The loss of Christian McCaffrey and losses in close games have haunted head coach Matt Rhule’s first season with Carolina. Just like the aforementioned three, the Panthers will need to end the regular season with a bang if they want to notch a wildcard position.

NFC East: Eagles, Washington, Cowboys, Giants

The clear worst division in the league is deserving of its own category. None of the four teams have a positive point differential, and only the Philadelphia Eagles have shown any sort of promise outside of the division. While the Eagles are the odds-on-favorite to take the NFC East and the fourth seed, Washington, Dallas and New York are not out just yet.

Washington has had its struggles with a new coaching regime and quarterback changes, but their Week 1 victory should give them a semblance of hope. The Cowboys have had an abysmal defense, giving up the most points in the league. If Dak Prescott’s backup, Andy Dalton, continues to be sidelined, the hopes for a division title are slim to none, but still present. Third, the Giants sit right in front of Washington and the Cowboys in the standings. The loss of Saquon Barkley and an equally poor offense and defense has been their downfall. Their shot to win the division still remains, thanks to a Week 10 victory versus the Eagles.

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