At this point of the season, there’s a clear-cut group of teams engaged in an unceremonious battle to secure a top-five selection in the 2016 NFL Draft order.
There are 10 franchises with four wins or fewer, and remaining schedules set up a handful of them for failure. The race for the No. 1 pick is on — even though each team will desperately try to avoid winning the chase.
Note: Team records below are PROJECTED final regular-season marks.
The 2015 season hasn’t been kind to the Cowboys. A pair of collarbone injuries have sent quarterback Tony Romo to the sideline. Dallas is 1-7 without Romo under center and 4-8 overall.
Should the Matt Cassel-led Cowboys not beat the Washington football team a second time in Week 17, they’ll need a tough victory over any of the Green Bay Packers, New York Jets or Buffalo Bills to reach five wins.
If Dallas, the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens each finish with four wins, NFL rules stipulate strength of schedule is the tiebreaker. Losses to the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers would help put the Cowboys farther back in the pecking order.
4. Baltimore Ravens (4-12)
Matt Schaub is a pick-six machine, and the Baltimore offense has regularly fallen short during the fourth quarter no matter who is under center. That’s not a winning formula against top competition.
The Ravens unquestionably have the toughest slate to close the season. They host the 7-5 Seattle Seahawks, 7-5 Kansas City Chiefs and 7-5 Pittsburgh Steelers, ending the year on the road against the 10-2 Cincinnati Bengals.
Baltimore appears destined for 4-12, but three AFC victories and a higher expected strength of schedule keeps the Ravens above the Tennessee Titans.
3. Tennessee Titans (4-12)
Tennessee enters the final quarter of the season with a 3-9 record and matchups left with the Jets, New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts. The Titans should steal one victory, but predicting two is a stretch.
However, by no means would a four-win season constitute a failure for the Titans. Rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota has backed up the hype; he simply doesn’t have many offensive weapons to use.
Although the lack of team success may cost head coach Ken Whisenhunt his job and Tennessee should finish near the bottom of the AFC, a high draft pick will benefit the roster.
Now, the Titans need to select a couple offensive players during the early rounds, but they can afford to pick the best player available right away. Surround Mariota with talent on both sides of the football, and wins will follow.
San Diego is merely looking to avoid ending the season on a five-game losing streak. Unfortunately for the Chargers, they’re set to meet the Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos.
Kansas City and Oakland have already knocked off Philip Rivers and Co. 33-3 in San Diego. Miami is a frustrating team but talented enough to upend the Chargers, and don’t waste energy wondering if San Diego will shock Denver.
Even if the Chargers win once, though, their strength of schedule — or lack thereof — should keep them at the worst spot of four-win teams.
Hopefully San Diego will tab an offensive lineman to protect Rivers, but the Chargers certainly have problems all over the roster. They can chalk up 2015 as a bad, injury-riddled year and move forward with an early 2016 pick.
Even if Johnny Manziel finishes the campaign under center, Cleveland is stuck in an awful position.
The Browns are at 2-10 and needs at least two victories to avoid the No. 1 selection. Perhaps they topple the San Francisco 49ers. But Cleveland has practically zero chance to win after that.
Following the Niners, the Browns take on the streaking Seahawks, resurgent Chiefs and high-powered Steelers in Weeks 15-17. Miracles can happen, but let’s not be unrealistic. Those are losses waiting to happen.
Cleveland has a variety of problems, and the first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft wouldn’t exactly be an awful thing for a Browns fan base begging for a promising player on the roster.