Three weeks to go. In both conferences we have a number of teams who are already highly likely to progress, with a strong enough record to begin thinking of the playoffs. Therefore, for this week I’m going to concentrate on teams that are “on the bubble” in and around those last few precious playoff spots. The teams looking to sneak in, maybe by the skin of their teeth to potentially disrupt the more highly favoured teams when January rolls around.
In the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs (12-1) have clinched the division and we can reasonably expect on the strength of their records the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2), Buffalo Bills (10-3), Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts (both 9-4) to take the first four playoff seedings. Both the Colts and Titans have two very winnable games in their last three to tip them over the top. Realistically, the AFC probably only has its final two wildcard spots up for grabs.
Cleveland Browns (9-4) @ New York Giants (5-8)
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-12) @ Baltimore Ravens (8-5)
The Browns and the Ravens are coming off their week 14 showdown with Baltimore now only one game down on Cleveland. Both should be able to bank another win next Sunday to further cement their claim to the final two AFC playoff places.
The Giants were stung last week by the Cardinals and it was a performance that brought to the surface the issues around their lack of impact players on offense (and Daniel Jones was clearly not fit following his hamstring injury). The Browns should have more than enough to move past the Giants, and I doubt the Jaguars will give the Ravens too much to worry about. I believe the Ravens can win out to get to 11-5 and the Browns tour of New York (Giants then Jets) should also see them through to 11 wins and the playoffs.
New England Patriots (6-7) @ Miami Dolphins (8-5)
LA Chargers (4-9) @ Las Vegas Raiders (7-6)
Both the Dolphins and the Raiders need to do all they can to keep pace with the Ravens and Browns just in case either do slip up in week 15. The Dolphins have an intriguing matchup against a Patriots side who, for the first time since 2008, will not make it to the playoffs (I know they are not technically eliminated yet). Belichick versus Flores; two sides more reliant on special teams and defense. I think Miami will, just about, stay alive in the playoff race this week.
The Raiders are, in my opinion, now too far out after losing three of the last four games. Their problems on defense, apparent all season long, have now resulted in a change of defensive coordinator with Rod Marinelli taking over from Paul Guenther. Similar to Miami, I think Las Vegas can win this week but their inclusion in January will only result from a collapse by the other contenders. Ironically, week 16 sees the Dolphins meet the Raiders so one of these sides is banking one more loss before the final week, by which time I expect all three wildcard spots to be all sewn up.
In the NFC, in similar fashion to the AFC, expect to see the LA Rams and Seattle Seahawks (both 9-4), Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints (both 10-3) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) occupying five of the seven spots on offer. The Buccaneers might be the most at risk in terms of their record but they have games against the Falcons (twice) and the Lions so they could easily win out to 11-5. This leaves us with one division title (the NFC East) and one wildcard spot still to be decided.
Philadelphia Eagles (4-8-1) @ Arizona Cardinals (7-6)
The Cardinals had a very pleasant, almost leisurely, “get right” outing against a lack-lustre and mistake-riddled New York Giants side. The Cards offense still did not hit the heights of earlier in the season but both sides of the ball will have taken positives from the encounter. They hold their playoff fate in their own hands but need to beat the Eagles this week as they face two taxing divisional games versus the 49ers and the LA Rams. A defeat here could be very damaging.
They will not have things all their own way against Philadelphia, particularly now that Philly have renewed impetus with Jalen Hurts at QB. The prospect of Hurts versus Kyler Murray is also one to relish. The Eagles will no doubt look to run first, through Hurts and Miles Sanders (both with +100 yards versus Saints) and the Cardinals defense will need to find a way to stop the run and force Hurts to throw, and comparing the passing game is where I would give Murray and the Cardinals the edge.
Ultimately Arizona has more on offense and an improving defense; this will put another W in the bank before the difficult week 16 and 17 fixtures.
Chicago Bears (6-7) @ Minnesota Vikings (6-7)
Waiting for the Arizona Cardinals to slip up, these two NFC North divisional rivals face off in week 15. The Bears finally snapped their six game losing streak last week with a convincing 36-7 victory over the Houston Texans, whereas the Vikings dominated possession against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but were unable to turn it into points.
These teams are a mirror image in terms of their season. The Bears started 5-1 and the Vikings were the exact opposite at 1-5. The Bears have been mainly reliant on defense to gain an advantage, with the Vikings able to call on talented players at the offensive skills positions (Thielen, Jefferson and Cook) who can be marshalled efficiently by Kirk Cousins.
I take the Vikings in this one. I don’t think the Bears victory over the Texans can be taken as evidence of any late resurgence. The Vikings hold the edge on offense and I think they will win this by a touchdown. This will give them the opportunity to keep pace, and hopefully surpass the Cardinals, but this will require the Vikings to win at the Saints before closing out at the Lions. A tall order but not impossible.
The NFC East
Seattle Seahawks (9-4) @ Washington Football Team (6-7)
San Francisco 49ers (5-8) @ Dallas Cowboys (4-9)
The Washington Football Team are in the box seat heading into week 15 with a one-game lead over the New York Giants. Washington’s win over the 49ers was heavily dependent on their ever-improving defense with little to show on offense. They may find Seattle’s offense too much to handle if they cannot get to Russell Wilson before he offloads to DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. The Washington defense will make any game difficult right now but Seattle has too much for them this week.
The Dallas Cowboys resurfaced as not quite out of the NFC title race last week with a nice win against the Cincinnati Bengals. They did what they had to do against a poor Bengals side, who are now limping into the offseason. The 49ers are another side there for the taking this week. Injuries seem never ending for a San Francisco side unable to even play in their own home stadium. This is a great opportunity for the Cowboys before their divisional clashes in week 16 and 17 (Eagles then Giants). I think Dallas takes advantage of a good situation again this week to close in on their rivals.
Taking into account the earlier prediction of an Eagles loss to the Cardinals and a Giants loss to the Browns, that would leave the NFC East no clearer, but I expect Washington to remain in the box seat with a favorable week 16 clash against the Carolina Panthers before, finally, the Philadelphia Eagles.
Next week, with two weeks to go, I’ll focus on the seedings and how these could still be impacted by the week 16 games. With little or no home advantage this season, due to la general lack of fans in attendance, the playoffs may be far more about favorable match-ups than whether you can secure a home game. It will only be the #1 seed in each conference who will have a true advantage in being able to rest up. Will it remain the Chiefs and the Packers? More next week!