If the NFL season ended today, well … let’s just say it would have been an awfully short and unfulfilling year.
Not a single team has clinched a 2019 playoff spot, and not one has been eliminated. The postseason is so far away that the Miami Dolphins (0-6) could still theoretically overtake the New England Patriots (8-0) and win the AFC East. At the rough midpoint of the regular season, however, we can see the playoff race beginning to form.
Turn away if you wish, but the rest of us can feel the gravity. With one game left in Week 8, let’s take our first look at the NFL’s playoff standings and how it is shaping up.
After winning their first eight games by a combined differential of 189 points — the most in the NFL — the Patriots are the heavy favorites to win the AFC East and obviously have the best chance at securing home-field advantage for the playoffs. They can thank in part the NFL’s easiest first-half schedule; their opponents have an NFL-low .250 winning percentage. But it’s worth noting that their schedule is about to get more difficult. Three of their next five games are away from Gillette Stadium, and all five opponents currently have records of .500 or better. There is no reason to think the Patriots are on the brink of collapse, but their own urgency in upgrading personnel — most recently by acquiring receiver Mohamed Sanu — serves as a reminder that nothing is guaranteed.
Kudos to the Colts for surging into this position despite the surprise retirement of quarterback Andrew Luck this summer. Not only are they in the playoff mix, but they’ve given themselves a leg up in the AFC South — with victories over the Texans and Titans — and also in a conference tiebreaker after beating the Chiefs earlier this month. Their upcoming schedule sets up well, with games against the Steelers (2-4) and Dolphins (0-8), followed by three consecutive division games. If they stay hot, the Colts could lock up the AFC South by the beginning of December.
The Ravens’ strong start has been augmented by playing in arguably the worst division in football. The rest of the AFC North is a combined 4-17, and every team is at least two games under .500. At this rate, the Ravens could probably finish the season 4-5 and still reach the playoffs via the division title. They don’t want it to come to that, of course, and their Week 7 performance in Seattle suggests they’ll be a major player in the AFC during the second half of the season. But they have almost as much cushion as the Patriots entering November.
The Chiefs have been surprisingly competitive since Patrick Mahomes‘ knee injury. Backup Matt Moore finished off a victory over the Broncos and kept the Chiefs competitive in a Week 8 loss to the Packers. Mahomes could return as early as Week 9, and fortunately for the Chiefs, there really hasn’t been another AFC West team showing signs of competing for a playoff spot. The closest might be the 3-4 Raiders, whom the Chiefs defeated in Week 2.
The Bills have played the way many thought they would this season, powered by a strong defense. They have mostly survived with a below-average offense, though. So when their defense encountered a bad matchup, as it did Sunday in a 31-13 loss to the Eagles, they couldn’t count on their offense to make up the difference. The Bills are averaging 18.1 offensive points per game, No. 24 in the NFL. Tellingly, they’re the only team with a winning record ranked in the bottom half of offensive scoring. Can that formula hold up in a wild-card race?
As long as quarterback Deshaun Watson remains on the field, the Texans always will have a chance. He is one of a handful of NFL players who can genuinely carry a team to victory, as he did Sunday with a seemingly impossible escape from the Raiders’ pass rush on the Texans’ winning touchdown. Houston is a playoff team as long as Watson is healthy. But the Texans are in for an unexpected fight with the Colts for the division title, and they have once again lost defensive lineman J.J. Watt to a season-ending injury.
Texans coach Bill O’Brien says the team will certainly miss having J.J. Watt on the field, adding that it’ll be more than just one player to replace him.
When the season began, ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) projected the 49ers to win 8.9 games — for the entire season. They are already 78% of the way there through eight weeks. And they’ve taken some steps toward showing that they are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. In their past three games, the 49ers have defeated the Rams, Redskins and Panthers by a combined score of 80-20. But the big remaining question is how they’ll fare against the Seahawks, whom they face in Weeks 10 and 17. Those two games could decide the NFC West title.
The Saints are again in the race for home-field advantage in the playoffs even though backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has started more games (five) than starter Drew Brees (three). But with Brees back in the lineup, and tailback Alvin Kamara expected to return after the upcoming bye, the Saints appear primed for another deep run into the playoffs. Their first eight games have comprised the second-most difficult schedule in the NFL, according to FPI, but their remaining schedule ranks No. 16.
The Packers have hit their stride with a midseason run through the AFC West. They crushed the Raiders in Week 7, outlasted the Chiefs in Week 8 and will play at the Chargers in Week 9. They have a two-game division lead over the Vikings (6-2), courtesy a Week 2 victory at Lambeau Field, but a Week 16 date at U.S. Bank Stadium stands as the game that possibly decides the NFC North championship.
The NFC East race has quickly become a two-way battle between the Cowboys and Eagles, and the Cowboys gained an early leg up with a Week 7 victory over the Eagles. The Cowboys also have an early advantage in the division record tiebreaker with a 3-0 record; the Eagles are 1-1. If we’re lucky, the teams will play a de facto NFC East championship game in Week 16 at the Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field. But the Cowboys have a more difficult remaining schedule, according to FPI. The strength of their upcoming opponents ranks No. 13 in the NFL, and the Eagles’ remaining slate ranks No. 30.
Russell Wilson finds DK Meltcalf in the end zone on a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter.
The Seahawks are holding their own in a division that includes the undefeated 49ers and the defending NFC champion Rams. We’ll find out just how good they are starting in Week 10, when they begin a run that includes the 49ers, Eagles, Vikings, Rams and Panthers in succession. If they make it through that stretch in good shape, a Week 17 game against the 49ers at CenturyLink Field looms large.
The Vikings put themselves in an early NFC North hole by losing in Green Bay and Chicago in the first four weeks of the season. But after that point, quarterback Kirk Cousins has led the NFL with a 137.1 passer rating. The good news for the Vikings is that all three of their remaining divisional games are at home. The bad news: They have trips to Kansas City, Dallas and Seattle for three of their next four games.
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