The season is winding down and playoff races are beginning to take shape. Who’s in, who’s out, and who’s on the bubble? The Panic Meter officially shifts into playoff mode this week.
New Orleans Saints: 8-1
The Saints sit alone atop their division (as well as the NFL) with an 8-1 record through week 10. Last week New Orleans put down Cincinnati, scoring 51 points in a blowout win. Teams fighting for division leads have proven to be no competition for Drew Brees and what the Saints have put together this season.
With Mark Ingram back, the Saints have the perfect quadruple threat on offense. Ingram is the ground and pound back, Alvin Kamara the scat back in the passing game, Michael Thomas the deep threat, and Drew Brees at the helm of it all.
New Orleans has already beaten others in the top five, and the rest of the schedule only sees facing them two teams with winning records. But the Carolina Panthers are only two games behind the Saints in the division, with two matchups still ahead in week 15 and 17.
L.A. Rams: 9-1
The Rams, currently at 9-1, only sit second on the top five, because the Saints took a victory over them in week nine. But the Rams are sitting pretty atop their division with the Seahawks trailing by five games.
For the Rams, the game plan has been to feed the ball to Todd Gurley. The back leads the league in rushing yards and is on pace to end the season with over 1,600 yards, which is incredible in today’s pass-first NFL. Gurley has also racked up 13 touchdowns so far this season.
Gurley’s success on the ground has allowed Jared Goff and the passing game for L.A. to play a nice compliment to the run. Goff has throw for over 300 yards in almost half of the Rams games this year.
The receiving core lacks a perennial threat from week to week, with Brandin Cooks playing averagely. But each player has found success behind an offense with great chemistry and even better scheming by the coaching staff.
It won’t take long for L.A. to clinch their division with the way their counterparts are playing, but the Rams are most looking forward to a potential NFC Championship rematch with New Orleans.
Kansas City Chiefs: 9-1
Patrick Mahomes has led the Chiefs with his impressive passing game, already throwing for over 3,100 yards this season and leading the league. After a hot start, expectations were that the Chiefs would fail to keep their momentum and sustain a winning season. But a 9-1 record would say otherwise.
The Chiefs only loss this season came to the Patriots in a shootout where Tyreek Hill nearly brought his team back with the long ball. Mahomes and Hill have been destructive when passing down field, helping Hill rise to fifth in the league in receiving with nine touchdowns this year.
The Chiefs have a similar offense gameplay as the Saints, without the second running back to take the pressure off Kareem Hunt. Hunt has been effective in the run game and the passing game while Hill has taken care of the deep ball. What we are all waiting to find out is if Mahomes can keep up a Drew Brees level of play into the postseason.
New England Patriots: 7-3
The Patriots have shown glimpses of the old “Patriot Way” of football, doing everything correctly controlling the AFC. But this season has had its fair share of unexplainable losses to teams they should have beat. Nonetheless New England still has Tom Brady, and the assumption that they will get back on track is always expected.
After stating the season 1-2, The Pats went on a six game winning streak that included wins over The Chiefs and the Bears. But injuries have plagued them last week in a loss to the Titans.
Rob Gronkowski has been sidelined for weeks with multiple injuries, Sony Michel has been timid since returning with a knee injury, and the offensive line has been a revolving door on each side.
But with New England retuning to a healthier lineup, head coach Bill Belichick and Brady are primed for a run during the most successful months for the pair in their history of playing together. Winter is coming, and the Patriots are ready for it.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 6-2-1
After spending most of the season on the wrong side of the Panic Meter, the Steelers have worked their way into a power position for the second half of the season.
The Drama with LeVeon Bell is over, he can no longer join the team, hold out on the team, and should no longer be in the news from this point on. Its time to focus on the players who are there, and that is how the Steelers jumped to first in their division.
James Connor has fit nicely into the role of lead back for Pittsburgh, he is currently third in the league in rushing yards and has found the end zone 10 times this season. The threat of Connor has allowed Ben Rothlisberger time to throw, and it shows with his five touchdown performance last week.
The Steelers have crawled to the top from the bottom of their division, but they could lose their lead just as quickly. The Bengals trail closely behind and the Ravens – behind a top ranked defense – aren’t out yet.
On The Bubble AFC
Last two in:
L.A. Chargers- The Chargers hold a firm grip on the 5th spot in the AFC playoff standings at 7-2. L.A. hasn’t played many teams that carry significant competition this season, with their only losses being against teams that do.The Chargers have earned a right to compete in the postseason so far, but fans shouldn’t have high expectations for success on the road in the playoffs.
Cincinnati Bengals- Cincinnati has fallen from their fast start, allowing the Steelers to move right over them for the division. Unfortunately for them, Tyler Boyds success has only slowed down the progress of A.J. Green so far this season. With two healthy backs for the first time this season, maybe the Bengals offense can carry them into a sixth seed playoff spot.
First Two Out:
Tennessee Titans– The Titans managed an impressive win over New England last week to keep them in the hunt for a playoff spot. A six seed for the Titans is well within reach, and their schedule for the rest of the season could work in their favor. But with only one game behind the Texans keeping them from a four seed, striving for divisional victories is the goal in Tennessee.
Miami Dolphins– The Dolphins followed a 3-0 start to their season by going 2-5 in their next seven games. Miami has been a mess on both sides of the ball this year. The fact that they are even in contention for a wildcard spot is due to the coaching of Adam Gase and the poor teams on the Miami schedule this year.
On The Bubble NFC
Last Two In:
Carolina Panthers– The Panthers are potentially the wildcard team who is most deserving of a higher seed, given their record surpasses two other division leaders in the NFC. The Panthers had trouble figuring out who they were early on, but have since clicked on all cylinders offensively. The only reason they don’t hold a three seed or higher is because New Orleans has laid claim to the NFC South division. Still, watch out for the Panthers.
Minnesota Vikings– The Vikings also had a tough beginning toothier season, with many counting them out after an embarrassing loss to the Buffalo Bills. But the defense has bowed their backs and quarterback Kirk Cousins has proven he can lead a team into postseason contention once again. But tough games lie ahead on an already difficult schedule for Minnesota.
First Two Out:
Green Bay Packers– Green Bay has been a middle of the pack team all season, and their 4-4-1 record shows it. Ever since Aaron Rodgers knee buckled in week one this team has been struggling to stay healthy. Green Bays best chance to make the postseason is to hang behind Chicago until they have the opportunity to turn divisional wins into playoff moves.
Dallas Cowboys– There are four teams tied for the eighth seed in the NFC playoff race, but the team with the best chance to make a playoff run would be the Dallas Cowboys. The strength of schedule for Dallas pits them against only one team (Saints) they simply won’t beat. Every other contest on the schedule gives Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper a chance to steal a win and sneak into the postseason.
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