With only four four weeks left in the regular season and the playoff picture taking shape, it’s a good time to take stock of the likeliest contenders and the threats to end their season. This is different than every team’s weaknesses, which we’ve examined, instead focusing on possible matchups, intangibles and other factors. Giddyup, playoffs football is almost here. (Note: Teams -- AFC, then NFC -- are organized by current standings.)
Oakland Raiders (10-2): Death by the long ball
Derek Carr can sling it with anyone in the league, but the defense is allowing too many opponents to keep pace with him. The Raiders have allowed a league-worst 13 passing plays of 40-plus yards, including two in their Week 2 loss to the Falcons with plays of 48 yards and 44 yards to Julio Jones and Austin Hooper.
In their opener, they surrendered a 98-yard touchdown pass to the Saints, and in Week 12 an 88-yard bomb from Cam Newton to Ted Ginn. The Raiders have also allowed 45 plays of 20-plus passing yards, tied for 30th in the league. Track meets certainly make for fun games to watch, but the Raiders have got to curb these big plays.
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New England Patriots (10-2): Getting into a shootout with the Steelers or Raiders
The Patriots are still favorites to win the AFC without Gronk --- but especially without Gronkowski, they’re going to be playing more ball-control-style offense with LeGarrette Blount as a battering ram and quick passes to Julian Edelman and newfound possession receiver Malcolm Mitchell. Since Tom Brady’s return, the Patriots have excelled at controlling the football and sustaining drives, which they’ll need to continue to mask as vulnerable defense. A shootout against a high-powered passing team will force them to compromise their current DNA and could spell disaster.
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Baltimore Ravens (7-5): A slew of penalties
The Ravens are the third-most penalized team in the league (99 accepted, 8.25 per game) and they have come in all forms, but offensive holding has been a particular problem with 27 so far -- 10 more than league average. Rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Jeremy Zuttah are responsible for four apiece.
This is a battle-tested, veteran, well-coached team and Joe Flacco is coming off his best game yet, but they’ve got to clean things up because against a playoffs opponent, they won’t be able to afford a drive-killing holding flag or a 33-yard defensive pass interference like the one that led to Dallas’ go-ahead score in Week 11.
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Houston Texans (6-6): Being in the playoffs
The Brock Osweiler $72 million dollar experiment has been a monumental disaster. If the Texans manage to become the 8-8 AFC South playoffs representative, here’s an early congratulations to their wild-card round opponent (perhaps the Steelers or Ravens), who will probably be a road favorite.
Kansas City Chiefs (9-3): A late-game Andy Reid clock management blunder
Reid is an excellent football coach. Let’s start there. But his clock management errors are well-documented and most recently caused a mind-numbing lack of urgency and drainage of precious time in the AFC Divisional Round game in New England in January.
Down 28-14 at the with just over 2:33 remaining in the game, after getting stuffed at the Patriots’ 1-yard line with all three timeouts in pocket, the Chiefs allowed 30 seconds to tick away until the 2-minute warning, then made the same error on the next play. “We wanted to maintain our timeouts the best we could, we didn't want to give the ball back to -- at any point -- back to New England after we go ahead and score that next touchdown” Reid explained after the game. The Chiefs scored with 1:18 remaining and never got the ball back. Time, precious time.
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Denver Broncos (8-4): Falling behind early in a game
Just like last season, this team has an excellent (but less awesome than last year) defense and shaky quarterback play. Denver will be better off with Trevor Siemian (foot) under center than rookie Paxton Lynch, but in either case, it'll be much more likely to prevail in a defensive battle than in a game in which it needs to play catch-up. That’s partly due to deficiencies on the offensive line, particularly at right tackle -- as evidenced in Week 12, when the Chiefs’ Justin Houston brutalized both Ty Sambrailo and his replacement Donald Stephenson.
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Miami Dolphins (7-5): An incomplete offensive line
When the Dolphins have their LT-LG-C combo of Branden Albert, Laremy Tunsil and Mike Pouncey on the field together, they’re dominant and can pound the ball against any opponent. When that trio was intact in Weeks 6, 7 and 9, Jay Ajayi rushed for 529 yards combined against some solid run defenses (Pittsburgh, Buffalo, New York Jets). They’re a different, lesser team without that trio, each of whom has battled injuries and missed some time this year.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5): Another two-point conversion debacle
The Steelers have not gone all-in on 2-point conversions as Ben Roethlisberger wished for during the preseason -- except in Week 10 against Dallas, when they went for two after all four touchdowns, failed each time in a 35-30 loss. Situationally, the final two tries made sense (up 1 each time) but that was a by-product of the initial two failed attempts that caused the point chasing all game. If you choose to live or die by the two-pointer from the game’s outset, sometimes you die, and that's even more dangerous come playoff time.
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Indianapolis Colts (6-6): Anything less than a perfect game from Andrew Luck
If the Colts emerge from the AFC South, the fireworks they displayed against a lifeless Jets team on Monday night will not come so easily in January. The Colts have a vulnerable defense (that just loss leading tackler D’Qwell Jackson for four games due to a PED violation) and a shaky offensive line and have little margin for error. Perhaps to an even greater extent than Packers, the Colts need their QB to be perfect to make it to -- much less advance in -- the playoffs.
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Tennessee Titans (6-6): Matching up against a passing team
Cornerback and frequent victim Perrish Cox was sacrificed to the waiver wire in late November after allowing another touchdown, but the Titans’ Achilles heel remains their pass defense. They’re much better in run defense and thus better suited to battle the Chiefs or Broncos come January rather than the Steelers or Raiders, who could pick them apart in the back end or in the flats with Le’Veon Bell, for example.
Dallas Cowboys (11-1): Hosting the Giants in the divisional round
For all the Giants’ problems, they’re still the only team to beat Dallas this season. Of course, that was in Week 1 -- before Dak Prescott established himself as the permanent starter and Ezekiel Elliott and the offense became a juggernaut -- but Minnesota showed that Dallas is not infallible.
With a wild-card round victory, the Giants could win a trip to Jerry World as they did during the 2007 playoffs, when the top-seeded Cowboys had a 13-3 season. The Giants lost to the Cowboys twice in that regular season but solved them in the playoffs en route to a Super Bowl title. Dallas would be best off avoiding a division foe that it has played twice already. Beating the same team three times is difficult.
Seattle Seahawks (8-3-1): A mental lapse
This team just needs to stay focused in the face of adversity after losing Pro Bowl safety and the glue of the defense, Earl Thomas, who openly pondered retirement after suffering a season-ending broken leg in Week 13. “You have to remember my team is still fighting. I don’t want to become a distraction,” Thomas said.
It’s a veteran bunch but still suffered a lapse at Tampa Bay in Week 12 when it came out flat. “I thought I didn’t do a good job in this game getting our guys right for it,” head coach Pete Carroll said after that game. If they keep their eyes on the prize, there’s no tougher out in the NFC than the Seahawks.
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Detroit Lions (8-4): A turnover-riddled game from Matthew Stafford
Last week we might have suggested that having a lead in the fourth quarter could be unfamiliar and problematic (they trailed in every single fourth quarter in Weeks 1-11), but then they went out and throttled the Saints in New Orleans and showed they can win from ahead. The Lions have defied logic and expectations all season thanks to an efficient offense that hasn’t beaten itself.
So far Stafford has posted an excellent 21:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, in part because the retirement of Calvin Johnson has forced him to become more disciplined, go through his progressions and refrain from forcing it into coverage. This is a ball-control offense disguising a weak defense. Per Football Outsiders’ figures, the Lions are second in the league in plays per drive (6.67) and time of possession per drive (3:13), and it’s a tightrope walk given the team’s other shortcomings.
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Atlanta Falcons (7-5): Getting in their own heads
Matt Ryan and the Falcons repeatedly faltered in the playoffs before finally getting off the schneid in 2012. In four appearances they won one game but then blew a 24-14 halftime lead over the 49ers in the 2012 NFC Championship. Of course those teams were coached by the Mike Smith, and this year’s team has the more creative and less conservative Kyle Shanahan leading the offense. In the immediate, the Falcons need to mentally recover from a jarring loss to the Chiefs in which Kansas City scored the winning points on an interception return (for two) on the Falcons’ two-point conversion attempt.
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New York Giants (8-4): A 'Bad Eli' game
Eli Manning has thrived in the playoffs throughout his career -- most notably in 2008 and 2012, when the Giants went Full Road Warrior and Eli won the Super Bowl MVP Award each time. But the Giants’ offensive lines were much better in those seasons and Eli wasn’t sailing errant passes as frequently as he does now.
He maneuvers the pocket well but doesn’t have the scrambling or improvisation ability of Aaron Rodgers, and the three-time NFL interception leader (2007, 2010, 2013) is prone to major regular-season clunkers: “Bad Eli.” The Giants’ running game has been brutal this season, and the defense can only do so much, so it’s going to be on Eli to be the best version of himself under the circumstances.
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A high-pressure field-goal situation
Or any field-goal attempt for that matter. Fortunately the Buccaneers have managed to overcome the shortcomings of their second-round investment, Roberto Aguayo, a fantastic collegiate kicker who has battled the yips in his rookie season and repeatedly lost. Aguayo has converted on a league-worst (by far) 68.2 percent of field-goal attempts (15 of 22) and missed a pair of extra points. If Tampa Bay reaches the playoffs, Pepto Bismol ought to sponsor any second-half field-goal tries.
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Washington Redskins (6-5-1): Stalling in the red zone
It’s been a major problem all season and reared its head in the Thanksgiving shootout at Dallas, when Washington drove deep into Cowboys territory four times in the first half and came away with only two field goals. On the season, only the Jets (40.5 percent) have converted red zone trips into touchdowns at a lower rate than the Redskins (43.75 percent). Getting back Jordan Reed (shoulder), who has missed three games this season, will certainly help.
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Minnesota Vikings (6-6): Having to play road game
Of course, that would be an inevitability for the Vikings if they reach the playoffs (and win in the wild-card round) because the Cowboys and Seahawks are close to locking up the top seeds and home-field advantage. This Vikings have been a different and much better version of themselves at their new home in the noisy U.S. Bank Stadium this season and need every advantage they can get given the injuries and deficiencies on offense.
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Green Bay Packers (6-6): A less-than-fully-healthy Aaron Rodgers
During the playoffs two years ago, Rodgers fought through a calf tear and had the Packers on the doorstep of Super Bowl XLVIII when Seattle came roaring back in the NFC title game. If this Green Bay team manages to reach the playoffs, it can’t afford to have Rodgers, now slightly hampered by a hamstring injury, at much less than 100 percent and capable of scrambling around to buy his receivers time to get open. This version of the Packers has a non-existent running game and out of desperation scooped up Seahawks castoff Christine Michael to try to address that problem.