Such is the state of the AFC wild-card race that the winless Cleveland Browns are still alive in the playoff hunt. There are exactly 46 things that need to happen for the Browns to make the postseason. This seems unlikely, but then again, everything that seems unlikely seems like it’s actually happening this season, so I guess we can pencil in the Browns for January.
Now, there are more realistic options than Cleveland, but those scenarios are just as confusing.
You know what there’s not a lot of chatter about anymore? Expanding the playoffs, as there was last year. That could be because there’s some football fatigue and more games are unnecessary. Or it could be because, well, the teams are bad. Remember the Nathan Peterman episode last week? It’s important to remember that involved the Bills, a team that started Sunday in a playoff position.
The current playoff wild-card placeholders are the Baltimore Ravens, who are about six weeks removed from their quarterback saying “I sucked” and a month from him not characterizing the offense as “completely broken”; the Titans, who’ve struggled mightily in patches this season; the Falcons, whose offense was described as “falling off a cliff” last month; and the Panthers, who are … well, the Panthers are good! But the point remains that very incomplete teams are staying in the hunt. That can be fun — bad football can be as fun as good football, but it’s also confusing.
On Thursday, we get to see a few wild-card contenders during the holiday: the Chargers, Cowboys, and Lions. The beauty of seasons when teams are bunched together is that you get a stretch from Thanksgiving until the end of the season when all hell breaks loose. The season may have been a slog up until now, but the final six weeks should descend into chaos. While the Panthers are in good shape, let’s take a look at where things stand for what I believe are the top contenders for those spots.
Atlanta Falcons (6–4)
This week: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Remaining strength of schedule (via Football Outsiders): First
Outlook: As far as how they are playing? Not bad. As far as their future schedule? Bad. However, this is a big deal:
5 NFC teams are either 6-4 or 5-5 this season.— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) November 21, 2017
The @AtlantaFalcons defeated all 4 of the others head-to-head this season
Another important fact: They’ve regained their offensive footing. They will not recover all of their 2016 production — that featured the best offense in the league and one of the most efficient units in NFL history. But for the period from Week 8 to now, Pro Football Focus rates Matt Ryan as the second-best passer in the NFL, behind Tom Brady. The Falcons aren’t going to be able to go four-wide and destroy teams’ souls like they did under Kyle Shanahan, but there should be at least a baseline of quality in that offense, and it looks like Matt Ryan to Julio Jones:
Will they do it? I think so!
Dallas Cowboys (5–5)
This week: Los Angeles Chargers
Remaining strength of schedule: 10th
Outlook: Ehhhhh. Tyron Smith has a good chance to play, thus ending a run of the Cowboys playing guys roughly equivalent to what I’ll call “the Nathan Peterman of tackles” in his place:
Dak Prescott— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) November 20, 2017
8 games with Tyron Smith: sacked 10 times
2 games without Tyron Smith: sacked 12 times
Or to put it more succinctly:
25.5% of Dak Prescott's career sacks (12) have come in the last two games w/o Tyron Smith.— Alex Gelhar (@AlexGelhar) November 21, 2017
His previous worst stretch was when he was sacked 13 times over SIX games in 2016. pic.twitter.com/QVsZDxgxWd
The Cowboys have a fairly soft stretch coming up — Chargers, Redskins, Giants, and Raiders — but Dak Prescott’s form in the last two weeks is concerning: He has not thrown for a touchdown or had over 200 yards passing during that stretch.
Will they do it? No.
Detroit Lions (6–4)
This week: Minnesota Vikings
Remaining strength of schedule: Fifth
Outlook: Eh. What do we make of this team, winners of three straight … against the Rodgers-less Packers, the talentless Browns, and a Bears team that barely seems to exist at this point? I have a few thoughts. First, I am sort of obsessed with the idea that it’s been more than 60 games since the Lions had a 100-yard rusher. The run game’s relevance has decreased in the modern NFL but it’s still an important part of a reliable offense. Even without that help, Matthew Stafford still does this:
The Lions haven’t had a 100 yard rusher in 63 games. Here’s Stafford’s stats in that time.— Mike Payton (@POD_Payton) November 20, 2017
63.5 comp %
91.4 passer rating
Lions are 34-29 in that time. 2 playoff berths.
That’s kind of incredible if you think about it.
Also, this is the funniest thing I saw this week:
Bae: Come over.— Jeremy Stevenson (@MyColtsAccount) November 20, 2017
Tahir Whitehead: Can’t, I’m in the middle of a play.
Bae: My parents are gone.
Will they do it? I like the Falcons more, but Detroit is my choice if Atlanta slips up.
Seattle Seahawks (6–4)
This week: at San Francisco 49ers
Remaining strength of schedule: Third
Outlook: Not bad. At 6–4, the Seahawks have the advantage of wins, but of these teams, they have the most upheaval to deal with: They are without Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, and half the team that is on the field looks banged up. If the Seahawks do win double-digit games, then Russell Wilson should be an MVP candidate. Facing the third-highest pressure rate in the league (40.7 percent), Wilson has the seventh-best accuracy on throws while under pressure. His touchdown percentage is up from last year, and his interception percentage is down. He is also the leading rusher on the Seahawks. Eventually, this will become unsustainable. Wilson, try as he might, cannot do everything for Seattle forever. But if he does, we need to change the way we think about the MVP race.
Will they do it? Probably not. But respect Russell Wilson.
Baltimore Ravens (5–5)
This week: Houston Texans
Remaining strength of schedule: 19th
Outlook: A few weeks ago, I wrote about the increase in parity and unpredictable games in the NFL. One of the theories I examined was that teams have built incomplete rosters due to the league’s salary structure. Essentially, a few players get the money, and the rest of the team is built in a slightly awkward fashion. That’s a good way to describe the Ravens, who pay the hapless Flacco the league’s highest cap hit ($24.5 million) and then are 28th in defensive spending. The result is that we never know what to expect from this team: They’ve allowed 44 points to the Jaguars and 27 to the Bears, but they’ve also shut out three teams. In many ways, they are the perfect representation of the unpredictability of the modern NFL.
Will they do it? Yes — because, uh, have you seen the other teams?
Buffalo Bills (5–5)
This week: at Kansas City Chiefs
Remaining strength of schedule: 27th
Outlook: Oh god.
Will they do it? Uh …
Crazy impact of DT Marcell Dareus ...— RJ Bell (@RJinVegas) November 21, 2017
Bills WITH ... Yield 2.5 Yards Per Rush
Bills WITHOUT ... Yield 4.7 YPR
Jags WITH (last 3 games) ... Yield 2.5 YPR
Jags WITHOUT ... Yield 5.2 YPR
Houston Texans (4–6)
This week: at Baltimore Ravens
Remaining strength of schedule: 25th
And Now The Texans Are Behind: The Tom Savage Story— Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano) November 12, 2017
Will they do it? See above.
Los Angeles Chargers (4–6)
This week: at Dallas Cowboys
Remaining strength of schedule: 26th
Outlook: The Chargers are fun. They have superstars like Philip Rivers and Joey Bosa, and they have the underdog story where they play every game on the road, especially when they are at home. If they had a better kicker they’d be leading the AFC West right now. And Keenan Allen is one of the NFL’s best receivers.
The Keenan Allen route chart from his Week 11 evisceration of the Bills defense is damn impressive: pic.twitter.com/I52Jufld9F— Alex Gelhar (@AlexGelhar) November 21, 2017
After the Cowboys this week, they play the Browns and the Redskins, meaning they could easily win two of three and then play the Chiefs on December 16 in a potential division-deciding game.
Predicting what the Chargers are going to do is nearly impossible — remember, this is a team that last year blew four games in a row in a manner so strange that they had a 0.0000034 percent of blowing all of them. And you know what? They aren’t any more predictable this year.
Will they do it? Probably not, but it will be entertaining.
Tennessee Titans (6–4)
This week: at Indianapolis Colts
Remaining strength of schedule: 17th
Outlook: Pretty good! They are, after all, currently in the top wild-card spot at 6–4. The Titans have a few things going for them that other teams do not: a talented (if inconsistent) quarterback and an inept division that features the Colts and Tom Savage — both of whom they face in the next two weeks. So why have they not run away with the division? A couple of reasons: The first is that they don’t do anything particularly well. There’s also the matter of some weird play-calling:
The Marcus Mariota problem is a perplexing one, too:
Marcus Mariota Red Zone TD% + rank— SportsInfo Solutions (@SportsInfo_SIS) November 21, 2017
2016: 32.2% (2nd)
2017: 9.4% (last)
His interception rate is up, and his touchdown rate is way down. His 8-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio is perplexing given that he’s been so careful with the ball in previous years; the total of 10 interceptions is tied for his career high. “It’s a little frustrating that we’re not putting up 35 points a game,” tight end Delanie Walker said this week, in one of the understatements of the year.
Will they do it? Yes, but only because there aren’t a lot of other options.