It’s about that time of year. Following Week 12 last season, I put together the Wild-Card Weekend Threat Index—a roundup of how formidable each potential no. 5 or 6 seed would be if they were to sneak into the playoffs. By this point in the schedule, most teams have crystallized into the squad they’ll be for the remainder of the season, which makes this a perfect time to take stock of who can actually make some noise in the postseason. Here are the tiers:
Tier 1: The Wild-Card Contender
When it comes to this season’s wild-card hopefuls, the Chargers belong in a category all their own. The only reason they’re even in the wild-card conversation is because they happen to be in the same division as the powerhouse Chiefs. After bludgeoning the Cardinals 45-10 on Sunday, L.A. is now 8-3, with a two-game lead over the Ravens and Colts for the AFC’s no. 5 seed, and pending an all-out collapse, that playoff spot will be theirs. Outside of last week’s 23-22 loss to Denver, Philip Rivers and Co. have come out each week and looked like one of the best teams in football. They entered Week 12 ranked fifth in DVOA, and they’re likely the lone wild-card team that has a chance to hang with the likes of the Chiefs, Rams, and Saints in the playoffs.
The Chargers also have the best quarterback of any of the potential wild-card teams. Rivers has been fantastic for much of the season, and he turned in a gem against Arizona on Sunday. He completed 28 of his 29 passes—including 25 consecutive completions to start the game, which tied Ryan Tannehill’s record—for 259 yards and three scores, proving that his rough outing against the Broncos was a blip in an otherwise excellent season. Plus, the defense got a boost last week when Joey Bosa returned after missing the first 10 weeks of the season with a bone bruise in his foot. Bosa made his presence felt against Arizona with two sacks. Running back Melvin Gordon did suffer an MCL sprain in Sunday’s win, and he’ll be out for a few weeks. That may hamper the Chargers running game in the short term, but he’s expected to be back before the end of the regular season.
If the Chargers don’t catch Kansas City in the division, they’ll likely have to win on the road three times in the postseason to get to the Super Bowl. But this team is built to make some noise against the AFC’s elite.
Tier 2: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Minnesota may not be the stacked juggernaut it looked like entering the season, but the Vikings roster is still filled with plenty of talent, and unfortunately for the rest of the NFC, Mike Zimmer’s defense is starting to figure it out. After a rough start to the season, the Vikings came into Week 12 ranked fifth in defensive DVOA, and that’s before they shut down Aaron Rodgers (who finished with just 198 passing yards) in a 24-17 win on Sunday. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes left the game late with a hamstring injury, but it doesn’t sound like it should affect him long-term. If Minnesota can keep its key components healthy, this defense could be a serious headache for opponents come playoff time.
The Vikings offense isn’t quite as imposing, mostly because the issues on the offensive line don’t seem to be resolveable this season. But when Kirk Cousins does get enough time to operate, Minnesota’s passing game can put together some impressive stretches. The 342-yard outing Cousins had against Green Bay on Sunday night is indicative of what this offense can do when everything is clicking. If Minnesota’s line can string together a few solid performances in the season’s last five weeks, the Vikings have the roster talent to give the NFC contenders a scare in the playoffs.
Tier 3: Teams on the Rise
Teams: Colts, Seahawks
Any team with a healthy Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson deserves plenty of respect, and right now, both the Colts and Seahawks are making strong pushes for the no. 6 seed in their respective conferences. Wilson turned in another monster performance in Seattle’s 30-27 win over the Panthers on Sunday, as he threw for 339 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The shocking improvement of Seattle’s offensive line, paired with a resurgent running game, has given Wilson the best infrastructure that he’s had in years. With that help in place, Wilson’s reminded the league just how dangerous he can be, and he’s made Seattle the favorite to land the NFC’s last wild-card spot.
Luck’s circumstances this year have also been vastly improved. In his first year under head coach Frank Reich, Luck has put together one of the best seasons of his career in an offense that thrives on short, quick passes that keep the quarterback out of harm’s way. With three more touchdown passes in the Colts’ 27-24 win over the Dolphins on Sunday, Luck now has at least three touchdowns in eight straight games, which seems like a typo. Indy still has plenty of holes on defense, and it’s likely going to be at least a year or two before the Colts return to real contender status in the AFC. But right now, a red-hot Andrew Luck should still be a frightening proposition for the rest of the conference.
Tier 4: The Mainstays
Teams: Ravens, Panthers
It’s been a rough month for these two postseason hopefuls. The Panthers fell to the Seahawks on Sunday, dropping their third straight game after starting the season 6-2. Carolina’s blowout win over the Buccaneers on November 4 had Ron Rivera’s team looking like a potential force in the NFC playoff picture. But the Panthers’ three-game skid—which included a 52-21 drubbing at the hands of the Steelers and an ugly loss to the Lions last week—has altered that perception. Carolina’s offense was a pleasant surprise early in the season, but the defense has struggled as of late. Injuries in the secondary forced both Captain Munnerlyn and Corn Elder into elevated roles, and the Seahawks took advantage of both players throughout the game. Cam Newton and the Panthers’ emerging corps of pass catchers can explode for a massive game at any time, but right now, Carolina looks like a very different than it did at the beginning of November.
After a strong start to the season, the Ravens have also had a bit of a drop-off. But having Lamar Jackson under center could be an interesting wrinkle for Baltimore down the stretch. Jackson had an up-and-down day as a passer in Sunday’s 34-17 win over the Raiders (14-for-25 for 178 yards, and two interceptions), but he did plenty of damage on the ground, including a 5-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. Baltimore may not have as high a ceiling as the best teams in the AFC, but Jackson’s skill set can throw a wrench into any potential postseason matchup. As the less talented team in any playoff scenario, the Ravens will likely have to lean on high-variance strategies that can give them a subtle edge, and that’s exactly what Jackson’s running ability provides.
Tier 5: A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing
In September, it would have been difficult to imagine the Eagles’ loaded roster struggling to pull away from a team like the Giants, but that’s exactly what happened on Sunday as the team barely eked out a 25-22 victory. There have been scattered moments this year when Philadelphia looked like the team that took the NFL by storm last season. Carson Wentz was sharp in Sunday’s second half and finished the win with 236 yards on just 28 attempts. Both Fletcher Cox and Michael Bennett provided consistent pressure throughout the game. But this late in the season, it just feels like the Eagles have too many holes to make a serious run at the playoffs. Philly’s secondary has been decimated by injuries, and the Giants were able to exploit backup cornerbacks Tre Sullivan and De’Vante Bausby for several chunk plays. If Eli Manning can pick apart this defense for big gains through the air, the Eagles don’t stand much of a chance at stopping the league’s best offenses.
Tier 6: Looking Feisty
Teams: Titans, Broncos
Tennessee has been the Jekyll-and-Hyde team of the 2018 NFL season. After decisive wins over the Cowboys in Week 9 and Patriots in Week 10, the Titans were blown out by the Colts last week. But for all its shortcomings, Tennessee’s front four is talented enough to make the team dangerous in any given game. The pass rush stifled the Patriots, and with the likes of Jurrell Casey, Harold Landry, and others getting after the quarterback, the Titans defense should be able to keep the team in any contest. The question for Tennessee is whether the offense can keep up. Marcus Mariota has had a roller-coaster season in his first year under offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, but against the Patriots, Mariota and wide receiver Corey Davis showed that a high-flying version of this offense can exist in the right circumstances.
The Broncos, meanwhile, have won two straight games against the Chargers and Steelers, which may be the most impressive back-to-back wins by any team this season. Von Miller was a terror against the Steelers on Sunday, and Chris Harris shut down Antonio Brown for most of the afternoon. Denver is far from a complete team, but over the past two weeks, its stars have proved that they can carry this team for stretches.
Tier 7: The Virtual Nonfactors
Teams: Dolphins, Bengals, Redskins
Earlier in the year, the Dolphins looked like the surprise team of the season, but they’ve dropped four of their past five games, with the team’s only win in that stretch coming against the lowly Jets. Miami’s chances are greatly improved with Ryan Tannehill back at quarterback, but the Dolphins defense still struggles to get stops when it matters.
Speaking of bad defense, my goodness have the Bengals fallen off a cliff. The only reason Cincinnati even warrants a mention here is because it’s still technically in the hunt, but Marvin Lewis’s team looks like an absolute mess. Baker Mayfield torched the Bengals for 258 yards and four scores in the Browns’ 35-20 win on Sunday, and it was the fourth time in Cincy’s past five games that the defense has given up at least 34 points. It looks like the Lewis era in Cincinnati is coming to a close, and the Bengals’ playoff hopes are following suit.
Washington’s defense has been solid for most of the season, but with Colt McCoy at quarterback, the Redskins offense just can’t score efficiently enough to factor in the NFC playoff hunt.