We are at a point of the NFL season where the playoff picture is really starting to form. Nine of the twelve teams that are currently in line for a spot in the postseason have won seven or more games, with both Wildcard teams in the NFC sitting at eight wins already. In the AFC there are far less true contenders one through six it seems like, but there are two elite squads at the very top.
With only six weeks left in the regular season, I decided to take a look at every team’s schedule (well, outside of the Bengals, Redskins and Dolphins), and predicted their final records. According to that, I put together my top six seeds from each conference, to see where they will end up as we close the year. While most of the teams mentioned are already en route to making the playoffs, I have quite a bit changing about the seeding.
1. Baltimore Ravens (13-3)
At the very top I have the Ravens earning home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs thanks to their direct win over the Patriots. With MVP-frontrunner Lamar Jackson leading an offense that is blowing people off the ball in the run game and then having the most dynamic player in space possibly pulling the ball, to go with Lamar’s ability to throw from different arm angles or buy time for his guys to uncover, they are really tough to defend. However, defensively they are loaded with big people and have three legitimate cover-corners, who also have a knack for the ball. In terms of schemes and play-calling they are among the very best on either side of the ball and they have special players to go along with it. They will stumble along the way once with trips to Los Angeles, Buffalo and Cleveland, but they are on a roll right now and just edge out this number two team when it comes to the final order.
2. New England Patriots (13-3)
Right beside them with an equal record of 13-3 is New England. I could easily project them not losing another game and run away with the number one seed, but right now I just don’t see it. The defense is historically great. Outside of that loss in Baltimore, in which they didn’t seem to be able to handle what was thrown at them, they haven’t allowed more than 14 points once and they are giving up an average 8.9 points a game. They have the league’s premiere secondary and their linebackers will knock your head off. Offensively is where I don’t trust them. Brady has slowed down and Josh McDaniels knows that the O-line can’t protect either, so he is finding a million different ways to throw screen passes. They don’t have anybody on the perimeter that really scares you and it doesn’t look like Gronk is coming back. With their next three games being versus the Cowboys, at the Texans and at home versus the Chiefs, as well as hosting a Bills team that gave the offense, I don’t see the offense scoring enough points to win three of those four.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)
Speaking of putting up points, there still might be no offense more capable of lighting up the scoreboards than a fully healthy Chiefs team. Unfortunately we haven’t really seen them for much of the year. Tyreek Hill got banged up a few snaps into the season and left early on in the Monday Night game just now, the offensive line has been re-shuffling all year long and the reigning MVP missed a couple of weeks as well. They are loaded with playmakers, Mahomes can put it pretty much wherever he wants to on any field and they have one of the most creative offensive play-designers of all time. Defensively they have really struggled to stop the run, but I like the way Steve Spagnuolo has started to be more aggressive with his blitzes, trying to force the issue, to complement that quick-strike offense. That duo of Chris Jones and Frank Clark also gives them a real pass rush to put away games and the secondary is better than people give them credit for.
4. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
From a team that throws it all over the lot to a squad that ran for over 250 yards on 7.3 yards a carry against a division rival. When I did my less common top five lists a couple of weeks ago, I had the Colts just outside the top five in terms of rushing attacks because they had been disappointing against the Steelers and Dolphins, but from what I just saw, I might put up them right behind the Ravens and 49ers. Their O-line is what they can lean on as we move to December and Jacoby Brissett gives them enough of a sturdy, deceptively athletic passer to keep drives going. Defensively they have been a different group ever since reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard has come back. They have a deep defensive line and underrated cover-guys. They have already proven that their recipe works with wins at Arrowhead against a fully healthy Patrick Mahomes and a perfect 3-0 record inside the AFC South. With their Thursday Night game at Houston playing a huge role here, I have them as a favorite in all games outside their trip to New Orleans.
5. Buffalo Bills (10-6)
Unlike pretty much every analyst out there, I had the Bills actually making the playoffs. When I looked at their schedule before the season started, I saw them winning nine games and at 7-3 already, I think they will go .500 the rest of the way and finish with double-digits. Defensively, they are right behind the two elite groups in the Patriots and 49ers in my opinion. The stats perfectly align with that at this moment, since they are third in terms of yards and points allowed. I love their young linebacking duo and what Sean McDermott is doing with them on the back-end. What concerns me about them still is low reckless Josh Allen can get in some big moments, but they can run the ball pretty well, this offense overall seems to find its groove and Allen has actually been the best quarterback in the league when you look at passer rating in the fourth quarter. With tough trips to Dallas, Pittsburgh and New England as well as Baltimore coming to town, fans will question their ability to match up with good teams, but they should win at least one of those games.
6. Oakland Raiders (9-7)
The Raiders are the one team I feel like I really missed out on. Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock have put together a group of tough, hit-you-in-the-face type men. Offensively they are built around that big O-line, which probably has the best interior three in all of football. Behind that they have a dynamic rookie back in Josh Jacobs, who has that Alvin Kamara-type contact balance and ability to squeeze forward for a couple of extra yards consistently. Derek Carr is playing his best ball since breaking his leg three years ago and that receiving corp filled with unlikely playmakers has really emerged. Defensively, they might have lost their best rookie in safety Jonathan Abram, and they still have seen that young unit grow together. Last game alone they had rookies Maxx Crosby record four sacks and Trayvon Mullen come up with the game-sealing interception. I’m also really happy to see Karl Joseph rise from the dog-house to being an impact player for the Silver & Black.
Just missed out: Houston Texans (9-7), Cleveland Browns (8-8), Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8), Tennessee Titans (8-8)
1. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
I might have gotten a little cute when I predicted my playoff teams ahead of the season, as I had the Saints going 9-7, but predicting every single game that’s just the record I came out with and it had them outside the top six. With the two other current postseason teams they still face – San Francisco and Indianapolis – coming to their place, I think they will only lose one more game. That’s assuming they’ll be ready for the Falcons on Thanksgiving and don’t take a trip to Nashville too lightly. Since I have the Saints winning that direct matchup against the 49ers, they earn homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Guard Andrus Peat is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season, but when he returns, New Orleans has the best combination of offensive and defensive line out there, which is huge come January. While I thought the Saints would take a step back, if they are mostly healthy and actually have the entire NFC come through their house, they have a good shot of finally making it to the big game again.
2. San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
After being down 16-0 against the Cardinals early on, the 49ers found a way to stay on top of the conference with a 9-1 record – for now. Unfortunately, they probably have the toughest schedule of all NFC contenders from now on. This Sunday Night they host the Packers, followed up by trips to Baltimore and New Orleans, which could possibly triple their current loss total. They also end the regular season with the one team that has beaten them so far in the Seahawks – this time up at the Link. I have the Niners winning that matchup to determine the NFC West winner and number two seed, but we will get to know what these guys are really made of over the coming weeks. Jimmy G still scares me with some of the bad decisions and risky throws into traffic, but when they get George Kittle back, it will boost their run game and make them that much more dangerous with him coming across the formation off bootlegs. Combine that with the deepest and most talented D-line in the sport and you have a first-round bye team.
3. Green Bay Packers (12-4)
Just like I predicted, the Packers look like the favorite to win the North and secure that number three seed. Offensively they have taken pressure off Aaron Rodgers by making the other Aaron (Jones) more of a focal point of the offense, and creating big-play opportunities off play-action. The defense might still have question marks when you look at an interior line that has problems keeping bodies occupied against the run, but they have a well-rounded secondary and creative schemes. To me they are the most complete team since a couple of years after their lone Super Bowl with Rodgers at the helm. Four of Green Bay’s final six games are on the road, but fortunately after a matchup with the conference-leading 49ers, their only really tough test is in Minnesota, where they have broken some hearts of Vikings fans before. Since I can’t see them winning at Seattle after their bye, the Vikings will have to settle for a Wildcard spot.
4. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
I know everybody is down on the Eagles right now and with the Cowboys being a game ahead, as well as already having won the first meeting between the two rivals, they certainly have a tough climb ahead, but I still have belief in this group. A little less than a month ago I had Philly as a team that could turn their season around after a slow start and they haven’t really done anything to make me think otherwise. They ran all over Buffalo, jumped out early against Chicago and just came a tough Nelson Agholor catch short of going to overtime against the AFC’s top-seeded Patriots. While I don’t really trust any of their receivers, if they get back to pounding the rock and Carson Wentz making some special plays on third down, to go with a defense that features a ferocious front-four and a secondary that is finally starting to get healthy, I think they can win five of their last six games. Just look at their schedule – obviously hosting Seattle will be a challenge, but then it’s a trip to Miami, two games against the Giants, the Redskins and the rematch with the Cowboys, who face a much tougher schedule. Oh, and this time they play in Philly.
5. Seattle Seahawks (11-5)
I think I’m done with underestimating the Seahawks. I can always find ways to poke holes in their roster and their philosophies, but in the end they always seem to be there in January. Russell Wilson is right behind Mahomes when it comes to the best quarterbacks in football and they are still top five in percentage of run plays, despite playing from behind in a few games recently. Jadeveon Clowney has been a monster for them and his performance against the 49ers might have been the very best of any defensive player all year long. However, their coverage is shaky at best and that’s what keeps opponents in games against them. Seattle’s next three opponents will be tough when you look at the Eagles, Vikings and Rams, but they already have eight wins in the bag and host those Niners with the support of the 12th man in the season finale They could still absolutely win the West, but I definitely don’t see a way for them to slip out of the playoffs at this point.
6. Minnesota Vikings (11-5)
What a gutsy comeback win over the Broncos. After being down 20-0 at halftime and showing no signs of any offense, Kirk Cousins led them to 27 points in the second half to secure Minnesota’s eight victory. Cousins has played as well as he has ever done in his career since kind of being called out by his own receivers and Dalvin Cook is one of the biggest weapons in all of football. While the lack of versatility and depth on defense has been a problem against the elite offensive play-callers through the years, the Vikes are always exceptionally coached and have bodies at every level. They have stopped some of the league’s most potent rushing attacks and are top five in average soring margin. The one guy I want to point out here is Eric Kendricks, who has been playing like one of the premiere linebackers in the league. While their QB is trying to get rid of that stigma, the Vikings do have three primetime games – at the Vikings, at the Chargers and versus the Packers – to go with home matchups against their other two division rivals with a day less rest each. So having them win three of their last five might actually be a little generous.
Just missed out: Dallas Cowboys (9-7) and Los Angeles Rams (9-7)
Texans and Cowboys falling out of the playoff picture:
This is not an overreaction to what we saw from the Texans on Sunday in a 41-7 beatdown by the Ravens or the Cowboys struggling with the Jeff Driskel-led Lions for most of their game. You can go back to my preseason predictions and see that I had both these squads missing the postseason. I also projected the Rams to have what people like to call a “Super Bowl hangover”, because of the losses in free agency, on their coaching staff and the way they allocated financial resources. To me those two Texas teams simply have too tough a schedule ahead for me to have them winning their respective divisions, while the Raiders have a very favorable road ahead in the AFC and the NFC has two eight-win Wildcard teams at the moment. So obviously all three of these clubs could still find themselves playing at the start of the new year, but that’s how I have things shaking out.