It’s December, meaning the NFL Playoffs are approaching, so we should take a look at where all the teams stand. This year’s playoff race looks to be one of the most competitive in recent memory, seeing as there are currently more competitive teams than usual fighting for 12 playoff spots. Even most division battles look to be close, seeing as there is a tie for the division lead in the NFC South, with three other divisions that remain undecided in Week 16.
As of right now, the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, Minnesota Vikings, and Philadelphia Eagles (in spite of losing quarterback Carson Wentz to an ACL tear), have clinched their division titles and have already secured playoff berths. With the rest of the playoff contenders, it is a different story. Tight races, key divisional matchups, or unexpected injuries (prayers for Wentz, Ryan Shazier) can do much to alter these standings in the coming weeks.
In The AFC South, the Jacksonville Jaguars lead at 10-4 with the Tennessee Titans two games back of them. The Jaguars made a statement win against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 14 followed by a strong performance against the ailing Houston Texans, while the Titans lost to the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers in consecutive spoiler bouts. The two AFC contenders will end up facing each other for the last game of the season, but Jacksonville looks to hold on to the lead as Tennessee begins to falter.
The NFC West was a close race, but the gap between the contenders is beginning to widen. The Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks played each other on Dec. 17, which saw the Rams run the Seahawks off the field by a score of 42-7. The Seahawks had fared quite well for a stretch despite the absence of Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor from their esteemed secondary thanks to a MVP caliber campaign being put on by quarterback Russell Wilson. However, they have lost their last two games and are losing ground on Los Angeles for the division as well as leverage in the wild card race. The Rams now hold a two game lead in the division and are a win (or Seattle loss) away from clinching the title
In the AFC West, there are three teams in contention for the division crown, with the Kansas City Chiefs leading at 8-6, the Los Angeles Chargers one game back at 7-7, and Oakland Raiders at 6-8. The Chiefs were once the cream of the crop in the NFL this year and had a chokehold on their division, but their recent slide in which they dropped six of seven games allowed the Chargers and Raiders to sneak back into the picture. Kansas City was able to edge Oakland in their final matchup, leaving the Raiders treading water as their playoff hopes begin to fade. The Chiefs then played the Chargers last Saturday, Dec. 16 in which they regained control of 1st place in the West. Los Angeles stands a better chance at making the playoffs via division title rather than a Wild Card spot, and will be eliminated if the Kansas City wins again.
The NFC South is certainly among the closest races. Only one game separates the first place and third place teams, with the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers setting the pace at 10-4, with the Atlanta Falcons right behind at 9-5. The Saints hold the tiebreaker over the Panthers should they finish with the same record, as they won both of their regular season matchups. The Falcons were able to pull off the upset against New Orleans in Week 14, and will travel to face New Orleans on Week 17. Carolina was able to hold off the dangerous Vikings at the same time, and will rely on the Falcons to defeat the Saints to win the division crown if they win out. Atlanta is a longshot for the division title, but currently holds the 2nd wild card spot and cannot afford to lose ground in that race.
In the wild card arena, the Dallas Cowboys have struggled during running back Ezekiel Elliot’s suspension, but have won their last three games to bring their record to 8-6 . While they certainly aren’t frontrunners in the wild card race, they can return to the scene if Seattle, Carolina, or Atlanta begins to struggle and they themselves recover from Elliot’s absence. The Detroit Lions have quietly re-entered the Wild Card conversation at 8-6 after beginning the season in mediocrity. Like Dallas, they need many stars to align to pull off a playoff run, but are still in consideration for potential threats. With the Titans dropping their past two contests, the Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills have seen their playoff odds increasing in their favor, painting a closer picture for the AFC Wild Card spots.
It will be very intriguing to see how everything shakes out heading into the playoffs. These kinds of intense playoff races are good for the NFL, making the regular season all the more important to their viewers. Hopefully one day, Browns fans will know what it’s like to be involved in a playoff race.