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Eight Questions That Could Decide the NFL Playoff Race

What is the Vikings’ ceiling? Can the Chargers get healthy? And is there a world in which four NFC East teams make the postseason?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Thanksgiving has come and gone. College football’s regular season is over. It’s getting dark before the late-afternoon games even kick off. And every NFL broadcast has started to break out the “In the Hunt” graphics. It’s finally that special time of the year when you have to bookmark the playoff machine and familiarize yourself with the NFL’s tiebreaking procedures: playoff-race season.

While it’s still too early to start mapping out possible seedings and matchups we could see in January—no team has been mathematically eliminated just yet—we can start to look ahead at the story lines that will decide the races for home-field advantage, the divisions, and the final wild-card spots. Here are eight pressing questions that will shape the NFL’s postseason field.

How good are the Bengals, really?

Pretty darn good, according to the numbers!

They rank fifth in offensive EPA per play, behind only the Chiefs, Bills, Dolphins, and Eagles, while checking in at 11th in defensive EPA. But the team’s performance has been a bit more uneven than the advanced metrics suggest. To put it simply, Cincinnati has looked really freaking good against bad teams—like recent lopsided contests against Atlanta and Carolina—and it’s looked aggressively average against better competition. Sunday’s 20-16 win over the Titans definitely belongs in the latter category.

Now, with Ja’Marr Chase out against a tough opponent on the road, this week wasn’t necessarily about scoring style points. Zac Taylor’s team had a job to do and it did it. And while we still haven’t seen this team hit its apex, that was true at this same point last year. Plus, this 2022 version doesn’t have the glaring holes that the AFC title-winning squad did. The run game now ranks 12th in EPA per play, thanks to some schematic tweaks by Taylor and Joe Burrow; the pass protection unit doesn’t have the quarterback on pace to break sack records; and with Lou Anarumo’s defense carrying over the momentum it had built up during the Super Bowl run in January, and showing an ability to adapt to any opponent in a given week, this Bengals squad feels even more prepared for the postseason this time around.

That doesn’t mean the results will be similar, though. Getting to back-to-back Super Bowls is tough as it is, and a rough schedule down the stretch—which includes next week’s game against Kansas City, trips to New England and Tampa Bay, and home games against Buffalo and Baltimore—will make it difficult for the Bengals to improve their seeding. (Cincinnati currently has the no. 6 seed, which would likely set up a postseason gauntlet that would include trips to Miami, Kansas City, and Buffalo or Baltimore in three consecutive weeks.)

Avoiding that would be ideal, and if Cincinnati can get hot and catch Baltimore in the division, the postseason outlook wouldn’t be nearly as daunting. To do that, Burrow and Co. will first have to pass a test against the Chiefs, a team they swept last season. So to answer the question posed at the top of this section: I don’t know how good this team can be, but check back in with me in a week and I’ll have a firm answer.

How bad are the Buccaneers, really?

Well, they couldn’t pass the Can you run on the Browns defense? test, which is decidedly not good. Cleveland came into Sunday with the league’s worst run defense (by both EPA and DVOA) and had essentially been a “get right” game for every struggling ground game it had gone up against this season. That was not the case for Tampa Bay. Outside of a reverse by Julio Jones that went for 15 yards and a patented sneak by Tom Brady, the Bucs run game lost 3.6 EPA on 18 plays with a success rate of 27.8 percent, according to TruMedia.

An inefficient run game is hardly a death sentence in today’s NFL, but the inability to run against even the worst defenses does feel like a direct indictment of the interior offensive line and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. And it appears that even Brady is unable to overcome those two weak links. Leftwich hasn’t successfully schemed around Tampa Bay’s offensive line issues, instead insisting on calling games as if there isn’t a problem. The Bucs’ system hasn’t changed much from the past two years, when the ground game would set up play-action throws aimed at the middle of the field. But this year, Tampa Bay is seeing a different front as a result of its punchless run game—and that’s making things harder on Brady. You can see the difference in his 2021 and 2022 completion maps through 12 weeks, via TruMedia:

There’s a lot more of that gray field visible on the 2022 map, and those highly efficient throws to the middle of the field have been replaced by harmless passes to the flat or highly difficult passes aimed outside the numbers. Even with the GOAT behind center, it’s difficult to craft a productive offense like this, and Sunday’s 23-17 loss to Cleveland suggests the Bucs aren’t close to stumbling upon any answers. Until that changes, you can basically ignore the NFC South race, because this division will be one-and-done in January if this team is the best it has to offer.

How far can Trevor Lawrence drag the Jaguars?

While it barely moved Jacksonville’s playoff odds—which now stand at 4 percent, per FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model—Sunday’s comeback win over the Ravens is a big deal for a team that hadn’t been able to close out games. And it was certainly a big deal for Trevor Lawrence, who is finally starting to resemble the generational prospect he was billed as coming out of Clemson.

In the fourth quarter alone, Lawrence completed 15 of 19 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns—including one on the game-winning drive. It was a machine-like effort for the second-year pro, who needed 2.4 seconds, on average, to get a throw off in that final frame while still averaging over 9.0 air yards per attempt. This wasn’t just a dazzling display of arm talent. The young signal-caller was processing his ass off against a good pass rush with its ears pinned back.

But the degree of difficulty that Lawrence had to overcome helps explain why a team with a top-10 quarterback (statistically, at least) is sitting at 4-7, three games behind the Titans in the AFC South. Outside of Lawrence’s dropbacks, the Jaguars don’t do anything well. The defense ranks 20th in EPA allowed, per, and just let Lamar Jackson dice up its secondary while throwing to Devin Duvernay and Demarcus Robinson. The run game, which ranks 23rd in efficiency, produced a positive EPA on just 16 percent of its attempts against Baltimore. Trevor was essentially perfect on Sunday, and Jacksonville still barely escaped with a home win.

The win did offer this team a glimmer of hope, though. With two matchups against the Titans left on the schedule, the Jags could make up ground in a hurry. Tennessee will travel to Philadelphia next week before the first game against Jacksonville the week after, which is followed by a road game against the 6-5 Chargers. If Lawrence can keep this up, and the Jags can get hot, the AFC South race could get interesting.

How healthy will the Chargers get?

As if life hadn’t been hard enough for Justin Herbert—who has played most of the past month without his top two options at wide receiver, tight end, and offensive tackle—center Corey Linsley also left Sunday’s must-win game against the Cardinals with a concussion. That didn’t stop the third-year pro from orchestrating a game-winning drive, which was capped off by a two-point conversion to put the Chargers ahead 25-24. The win kept L.A.’s playoff hopes alive, but it will only delay the inevitable if Herbert doesn’t get some help soon.

The good news is that reinforcements should be on the way. Linsley’s injury isn’t a season-ending one, so he’ll be back. Herbert’s WR1, Mike Williams, should return next week from an ankle injury that has kept him out for most of the past month. Star pass rusher Joey Bosa has been back in the building since Week 8, according to head coach Brandon Staley, and could get on the field at some point in December. And while there haven’t been any updates on the status of Rashawn Slater, who was first put on IR in September with a biceps injury, NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport suggested the Pro Bowl left tackle could return at some point this season.

Maybe this is all too little too late for a team that many ruled out after a home loss to Kansas City in Week 11, but the AFC playoff race is starting to thin. The Chargers are currently on the outside looking in, but if they can just take care of business against the Raiders, Rams, Broncos, and Colts—all games in which they should be favored—a playoff spot is almost guaranteed no matter what happens in matchups with Tennessee and Miami. The only real competition for that final playoff spot will come from the Jets (7-4), who are currently being quarterbacked by Mike White, and the Patriots (6-5), who still have to play Buffalo twice and also have Cincinnati and Miami left on the docket.

That road will be a lot easier to navigate if the Chargers can get healthier on offense. And if they can get Bosa back in time for the playoffs, this roster could once again look like the fearsome group we imagined in the preseason.

Will the NFC East cannibalize itself?

If the playoffs started right now, the NFC East would send all four of its teams. That has never happened since the NFL switched to its current eight-division format in 2002. But don’t get too excited about the prospect of watching Taylor Heinicke and Daniel Jones in the postseason. One of the biggest reasons the division is currently supporting four winning records is that these teams haven’t played each other much thus far; through 12 weeks, there have been just six intra–NFC East games. That will soon change. The Giants just kicked off a four-game stretch against divisional opponents, including back-to-back games against Washington, which will probably act as a “play-in” series for one of those teams. Dallas and Philadelphia will play a game that could decide the division, and the Commanders will get another crack at the Cowboys.

The Eagles and Cowboys look like locks to make the playoffs, but if either of Washington or New York is able to sweep the home-and-home over the next three weeks, that could open up the race for the third and final wild-card spot. That would present a lifeline for Detroit, Atlanta, and possibly Green Bay, assuming Aaron Rodgers can stay on the field. Even the Panthers and Saints would have some hope at that point. If you’re a fan of chaos, you should be rooting for the Giants or Commanders to win their next two.

How high is Miami’s ceiling?

The Dolphins essentially played a preseason game on Sunday. It was decided by halftime, and Miami was so confident in its ability to put the Texans away that coach Mike McDaniel pulled Tua Tagovailoa and Tyreek Hill (who had been suffering from cramps) in the third quarter of a three-possession game. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that happen at any level of football, but I also don’t think I’ve ever heard a player admit this either:

Maybe we shouldn’t put too much stock in Miami’s impressive performance on Sunday, but this was also the fourth consecutive game in which it scored at least 30 points. And over the past two weeks, since the trade for Bradley Chubb at the deadline, the Dolphins defense hasn’t allowed more than 20. There hasn’t been a more impressive team over the past month—even if it’s largely been going up against some unimpressive competition.

This hot streak coincides with Tagovailoa’s return from a concussion, and with the way the passing game is rolling with Tua playing the point guard role, it’s hard to envision it ending anytime soon. But the schedule makes it a bit easier to imagine. Miami gets the 49ers (fourth in defensive EPA allowed, per next week, the Bills (10th) in three weeks, and the Patriots (first) and Jets (sixth) to end the season. That’s four games against top-10 defenses that are known for their discipline in coverage. And given the nature of Miami’s passing game, which doesn’t hide where it wants to go with the football …

… you’d have to think that one of these fine defensive staffs will have a plan that forces McDaniel and Tua to adjust for really the first time all season. That’s when we’ll find out the true ceiling of this inexperienced team. After rolling through the Texans on Sunday, the Dolphins are just a game back of the Chiefs in the AFC standings. If they end up with home-field advantage, they will have earned their stripes.

Is Josh Allen’s elbow an issue?

It certainly seems like it! Buffalo’s Thanksgiving Day win in Detroit was yet another outing in which Allen had issues hitting short throws. That’s now four in a row after the QB suffered an apparent UCL injury in a loss to the Jets in Week 9. Since then, Allen’s off-target throw rate has more than doubled on throws up to 10 air yards, per TruMedia.

Josh Allen’s Short Accuracy Has Been Off Since Week 9

Weeks Attempts Off-Target Rate Completion Percentage Yards/Attempt
Weeks Attempts Off-Target Rate Completion Percentage Yards/Attempt
1 to 8 180 3.90% 72.20% 5.8
9 to 12 90 11.10% 68.90% 4.9

Meanwhile, Allen has actually been more accurate on throws aimed over 10 air yards since the injury. And his shoulder didn’t seem to give him any problems when he made this unreal throw to Stefon Diggs to help set up the game-winning field goal in Detroit.

So it appears, from the outside looking in, that Allen’s elbow is really only affecting his performance on those shorter passes. That’s not the best news for Buffalo, whose Super Bowl hopes are wholly contingent on its quarterback’s ability to throw a football, but it could be worse. There are other ways to replicate that underneath production. Involving the hulking quarterback more in what has been an inconsistent run game would be one way to do that, and the Bills could certainly utilize Allen’s mobility more down the stretch, like they did a season ago. In the fourth quarter against the Lions, offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey called Allen’s number three times in the run game, and the quarterback picked up at least 8 yards on each of those plays.

With Miami now atop the division and Buffalo taking on five teams with winning records over the next six games, the Bills can’t just play out the string with the goal of staying healthy for the playoffs. They need wins if they’re going to avoid trips to Kansas City and Miami in the playoffs, and they’ll need Allen’s arm and legs to be operating at a high level if they’re going to get them.

Can the Vikings beat up on bad teams?

We spent the first two months of the season wondering how the surprising Vikings would fare against good teams, and their recent stretch against the Bills, Cowboys, and Pats, which they finished with a 2-1 record, didn’t provide us a firm answer. They looked fine against the Bills, even if they were lucky to escape Buffalo with an overtime win. The Cowboys game was a disaster from start to finish, but every team has down weeks. And the win over New England was fairly impressive, though the Patriots are probably closer to average than good.

So, yeah, the ceiling on this Vikings team remains unknown. But we should be able to figure out its floor over the next six games. Only two of those games, against the Jets and Giants, will come against teams with winning records. If the Vikings are legit, they should be able to stack enough wins to challenge the Eagles for the top seed in the NFC while also padding their point differential (plus-5), which remains a sticking point for skeptics like me. The truth is, we don’t learn a whole lot about good teams in close games against other good teams, which are essentially coin flips. We learn more about them when they get a chance to beat up on lesser competition. The real contenders do it consistently; the fraudulent teams do not.

Minnesota has yet to win a game by more than eight points. If that’s still the case after this softer part of the schedule, it will be obvious which group this team belongs in.