For the past two seasons, I’ve celebrated the time when the NFL entered its home stretch with the Wild-Card Weekend Threat Index, an examination of how scary each potential 5- or 6-seed might be if they were to squeak their way into the postseason. This year’s crop is a strange hodgepodge of Super Bowl contenders and teams that probably can’t believe they’re still alive. So with that in mind, let’s dig into the tiers.
Tier 1: The Wild Wild NFC West
Teams: Seahawks and 49ers
When I’ve done this exercise in previous years, I haven’t included teams that are in first place in their divisions. That’s where the Seahawks sit, but considering that San Francisco and Seattle have identical records and comparable odds to win the NFC West, it felt silly to include one and not the other.
The cases for either team as the most dangerous wild-card candidate are fairly straightforward. Both have a legitimate claim as the best team in the NFC. San Francisco lost an ugly game to a great Baltimore squad on Sunday, but Kyle Shanahan’s group still has all the makings of a contender. The Niners defense has been excellent on every level this season. At age 31 and two years removed from a torn Achilles, Richard Sherman looks like he did during his best years in Seattle. Safety Jimmie Ward is having a career year under first-year passing game coordinator Joe Woods. San Francisco’s defensive backfield is arguably the most improved position group in the NFL; there are no weak links, and that coverage ability only makes a terrifying front four—which is composed entirely of first-round picks—even more imposing. When Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner are on the field together, there is just no way for an opposing offensive line to account for them all. Coordinator Robert Saleh’s group is playing well enough to stifle any offense.
San Francisco’s offense hasn’t been quite as dominant this season, but when it is clicking, this team can turn into a buzz saw. Shanahan’s scheme—with its dizzying array of formations, play-action fakes, and misdirections—is a nightmare for defensive coordinators. Few play-callers are better at drawing up chunk plays, and the Niners have a deep bench of quality skill-position players to execute them. The trio of Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida (who should be back in the lineup soon after missing three games with an ankle injury) is the most explosive running back group in the NFL. And while the wide receiver corps lacks a traditional no. 1 option, tight end George Kittle is more than capable of filling that role. As the Niners showed in their 37-8 win over Green Bay in Week 12, this offense is a different beast with Kittle in the lineup. His talents as both a blocker and a pass catcher unlock the offense that Shanahan wants to run.
The Seahawks roster has more weaknesses than the Niners roster, but considering the advantage Seattle has at quarterback, that may not matter. Jimmy Garoppolo has played well, but his tendency to make the occasional head-scratching throw could be the Niners’ undoing come playoff time. The Seahawks have no such concerns.
For most of the season, Russell Wilson has played like he’s on fire in NBA Jam. Wilson entered 2019 as a top-five quarterback, but he’s been the best passer in football this fall. Seattle hasn’t been held back by Brian Schottenheimer’s maddening insistence on pounding the rock on early downs or Pete Carroll’s heinous fourth-down decision-making because Wilson and the passing game have just been that good. The Seahawks are no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ passing DVOA, and the difference between Wilson’s actual and expected completion percentage is the second largest in the NFL. He’s been a goddamn wizard. Somehow, the Wilson–Tyler Lockett connection has also maintained its absurd efficiency from 2018. Lockett has a 78.8 percent catch rate—the second-highest figure in the league—despite averaging 12.2 air yards per target. That’s four yards more on average than Michael Thomas, who leads all wide receivers in catch rate. With Lockett and DK Metcalf shredding defensive backs and Chris Carson hammering teams on the ground, this offense has been fantastic.
Seattle’s defense seemed like it might be a problem heading into the season, but general manager John Schneider has swung some big trades to eradicate those concerns. Quandre Diggs, who arrived in Seattle in October, has solidified the back end of the defense, and Jadeveon Clowney has wrecked teams all season. The Seahawks have also gotten the benefit of some great luck in close games, but their 10-2 record isn’t a mirage. Even if Seattle doesn’t win the NFC West, this group is more than capable of winning a Super Bowl.
Tier 2: The Confounding Contender
It’s tough to figure out Mike Zimmer’s team at the moment. Minnesota’s offense has been electric for much of the season, and Kirk Cousins is playing some of the best football of his career. In his first full season as offensive coordinator, Kevin Stefanski (with Gary Kubiak advising) has established an offensive identity unlike any the Vikings have had in years past. Dalvin Cook is thriving in Minnesota’s zone-running scheme and hammering defenses in the open field on screen passes. After a slow start, Stefon Diggs is lighting up opposing secondaries in Minnesota’s play-action scheme. Only Michael Thomas is averaging more yards per route run this season. If this group can keep Cook, Diggs, and Adam Thielen on the field together down the stretch, the Vikings offense should be a serious threat in the postseason.
The biggest question mark about this Minnesota team right now is its defense—which is a strange sentence to type. Zimmer’s unit has been one of the most consistent in football for the past several years, and while this group still has considerable talent, its weak links could doom Minnesota in the playoffs. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes’s decline over the past two seasons has been mystifying. When the Vikings gave Rhodes $32.8 million guaranteed in June 2017 as part of a six-year, $70 million extension, he seemed like one of the best young corners in the league. Now, Rhodes is the biggest liability on Minnesota’s defense. He’s gotten torched consistently this season, and there are no signs that things will get much better. As a group, the Vikings defense is also trending in the wrong direction. Minnesota ranks 11th in defensive DVOA but 16th in weighted DVOA—a sign that they’ve declined as the season has gone along. The Vikings remain a candidate for a deep playoff run thanks to their ceiling on offense, but for the first time during Zimmer’s tenure, the defense could hold this team back.
Tier 3: Looking Feisty
Teams: Titans, Bills, Steelers
Two months ago, it would have seemed impossible that the Titans would be in playoff contention in December, but here we are. Tennessee has looked like a different team since inserting Ryan Tannehill into the lineup in Week 7. Running back Derrick Henry remains the focal point of the offense, and coordinator Arthur Smith has also incorporated well-designed screens and play-action passes that complement Tennessee’s running game. Some of the throws that Tannehill has made in recent weeks have been downright jaw-dropping, and nothing has been cheap about his 72.7 percent completion rate. Tannehill is tied for sixth in average intended air yards (9.0), and he leads the league by far in the difference between his actual and expected completion rates (9.6 percentage points).
Tennessee’s offense could give teams like the Chiefs and Texans (whom they play twice over the final four weeks) problems in a wild-card game, but the defense may not be able to hold up against the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Coordinator Dean Pees has crafted some of the most creative third-down pressure packages in the NFL, but this is still a group that ranks 24th in pass-defense DVOA. Tennessee’s best chance would probably be in a shootout like the 35-32 game it won against the Chiefs last month in Nashville. Watson and Mahomes would be tough to contain, but the Texans and Chiefs have plenty of weaknesses on defense.
The Titans’ main competition for the AFC’s sixth and final playoff spot is Pittsburgh, which has made an improbable run of its own during the second half of the season. The Steelers offense is a major concern with third-string quarterback Duck Hodges running the show and both JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner sidelined with injuries. But Pittsburgh’s defense has played well enough to keep them in virtually every game. The Steelers have arguably the most imposing front four in the AFC, with T.J. Watt tearing off the edge and Cam Heyward collapsing the pocket. And Minkah Fitzpatrick has been a revelation since coming over from the Dolphins in a Week 3 trade. Pittsburgh may not have the firepower to stick with a team like Kansas City in Arrowhead Stadium, but this defense is talented enough to give the Steelers a shot against better competition.
As Tennessee and Pittsburgh battle it out for the no. 6 seed in the AFC, the Bills are cruising toward the no. 5 spot. At 9-3, Buffalo has a 95 percent chance to make the playoffs, despite December matchups looming against the Ravens and Patriots. Heading into Week 12, almost all of the Bills’ wins had come against the dregs of the NFL, but head coach Sean McDermott’s team went to Dallas and dismantled the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
This Bills defense is very much for real. Buffalo ranks fifth in pass-defense DVOA thanks to its loaded secondary, and that group should be able to hold up against just about any passing game (though the Bills’ matchup with Baltimore on Sunday will provide an interesting test). Buffalo’s playoff fate likely rests with its young quarterback and a vastly improved offense. Josh Allen has had some issues with deep throws in Year 2, but he’s also made some noticeable strides. His improved accuracy in the short and intermediate areas of the field have allowed the Bills to sustain offense in a way they couldn’t last season. He’s also cut down significantly on turnover-worthy throws, tossing just one interception since October 6. Buffalo’s franchise timeline likely tabbed 2020 as the year this team would be ready to compete, but McDermott’s defense and Allen’s development could give them a puncher’s chance this wild-card weekend.
Tier 4: How Much Is Left in the Tank?
At 7-5, the Rams are just a game back of the Vikings for the second wild-card spot in the NFC, but the gap between Sean McVay’s team and the rest of the NFC playoff hopefuls feels much wider than that. Jared Goff and the Rams offense are coming off a monster 34-7 win over Arizona in Week 13, but that’s not saying much. The Cardinals rank 29th in defensive DVOA, and the last time the Rams scored more than 12 points against at least an average pass defense was in a 30-27 loss to the Seahawks in Week 5. A combination of erratic play by Goff and issues along the offensive line have made this group hard to trust against teams that aren’t the Bengals, Falcons, and Cardinals. The Rams defense has played considerably better—and is coming off an impressive performance against Kyler Murray—but I’m not sure that unit would be enough to carry them against the best teams in the NFC. If the Rams do sneak into the postseason, they’d likely face the NFC North winner on the road in the wild-card round. L.A. could potentially knock off Green Bay if the Packers keep trending in the wrong direction, but right now, it’s hard to imagine this Rams team making much noise on the road in the playoffs.
Tier 5: Just Happy to Be There
Teams: Colts and Raiders
Both the Colts and Raiders have outperformed expectations this season, but neither feels like a real threat. Indy’s coaching staff has done an impressive job building a credible offense around Jacoby Brissett despite a deluge of injuries to its pass-catching group. But this team would have a hard time trading punches with a fully healthy Mahomes on the road. Oakland’s offense has looked great in stretches in its second season under Jon Gruden, but Derek Carr—who was averaging 8.26 adjusted yards per attempt over the Raiders’ first eight contests—has come crashing back to earth during the past two games. And the Raiders defense is in a state of disrepair. These franchises are both trending in the right direction, but they’ll have to wait until next year to make a real run in the postseason.