Well, NFL fans, we made it! Thanksgiving has come and gone, and now we have reached the final one-third of the season, which takes the season into the pivotal month of December. This is the third year of the 18-week format, and it's the fourth year of the current playoff format that sends seven teams per conference into the postseason--four division winners (East, North, South, West) and three Wild Cards. As a result of this format, only the top seed will receive the conference's first-round bye.
In only two years, I've learned quite a bit from this format. For one, obviously, it makes the top seed important. Secondly, it does make the Wild Card races very intriguing. An extra spot makes the playoff races more competitive and gives more teams hope for a really successful season. Plus, you have those teams who no one expected to get this close suddenly having a legit shot at something. This year is definitely no exception, and here's how things stand entering the final six weeks of the season.
Unsurprisingly, the American Football Conference has some interesting storylines. It's a tight race between the conference's division leaders, and leading that group is none other than Baltimore, as the Ravens stand at 9-3 heading into their bye this week. All the while, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Miami Dolphins are all 8-3. The #2 spot belongs to the defending champs due to head-to-head (the #1 tiebreaker), as they have defeated both Jacksonville and Miami this year. As for the Florida franchises, the Jaguars have the strength of victory edge over the Dolphins, putting the Jags at #3 (while proving that last year wasn't a fluke), while the Dolphins sit at #4.
As for the Wild Card race, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns are both 7-4, with Pittsburgh's division record putting them ahead of the Browns. We also have a very interesting three way tie at 6-5 between the Indianapolis Colts, the Houston Texans, and the Denver Broncos--none of whom were even close to the playoff race last year. So who holds the pivotal #7 spot out of the three teams? None other than the Colts. They have the best conference record, and they have head-to-head over Houston, so yes, the Colts are actually above the playoff line. Houston and Denver are #8 and #9, respectively, and they face each other this week. The struggling Buffalo Bills are close behind at 6-6, the Cincinnati Bengals are 5-6, but with Joe Burrow out for the season, they're pretty much done, and Las Vegas Raiders have an outside shot at 5-7. Basically, everyone in the AFC has a shot except for the New England Patriots.
In the National Football Conference, the Philadelphia Eagles are, again, leading the whole thing at 10-1, showing that they are still strong after losing the Super Bowl. After that, it's the San Francisco 49ers and the Detroit Lions tied at 8-3, with the Niners' 6-1 conference record putting them ahead of the Lions. Sitting at the #4 position: the Atlanta Falcons, who are leading the NFC South at 5-6. So yeah, the NFC South winner will occupy the #4 spot for the second straight year, from the looks of it.
As for the Wild Card races, the Dallas Cowboys are 8-3, but the interesting part comes below Dallas in the standings. The Seattle Seahawks hold the #6 spot at 6-5, the Minnesota Vikings are below them in the #7 spot at 6-6, and below the playoff line are three teams at 5-6: the Los Angeles Rams, the New Orleans Saints, and the Green Bay Packers. Even better, the Packers are leading the 5-6 teams due to having defeated the Rams and Saints this season. LA's 4-4 conference record puts them over New Orleans, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are close behind in the Wild Card race at 4-7, and even closer in the NFC South. As of now, it's only the Arizona Cardinals and the Carolina Panthers who are pretty much done.
So that's the playoff picture, and already, there's one team who can lock up a playoff spot on the first Sunday in December:
I kinda figured this would be the case for the Eagles. They're 10-1 in a conference full of teams with at least five losses. Something told me when they won their OT game, they could lock in a spot on the following week. The Eagles can do just that this week. A win and either a Rams loss/tie or a Packers loss/tie combined with a Lions loss will do it. If the Eagles tie, a Packers loss/tie, a Rams loss, and a loss or tie from either the Saints or Falcons will get it done. Now, the Eagles do not have an easy opponent this week, as they will host the San Francisco 49ers in a rematch of last year's NFC Championship. As for the teams connected to the Eagles' scenario, the Lions will be in New Orleans, the Falcons head to MetLife to face the Jets, the Rams will host the Browns, and the Packers will host the Chiefs.
We have arrived at the home stretch of the NFL season, and I have a pretty good feeling that the final six weeks will be absolutely exciting! Only one clinching scenario this week, but of course, they'll increase and increase until the playoff picture is filled. Of course, as a Packers fan, I can't but be elated over that fact that the team is in a better position this year than we were last year, so this increases my excitement. In any event, this will be quite the home stretch this season, and I'm here for all of it!