Scramble for a postseason spot in the NFL comes down to the wire

Sometimes, the final week of the NFL season is a formality, a time for playoff-bound teams to rest their starters and gear up for a big postseason run.

This isn’t one of those weeks.

With so much uncertainty, particularly in the AFC, the postseason picture is still coming into focus.

What follows is a look at that playoff landscape, with teams listed in projected order of seeding, along with an assessment of whether those teams are trending up or down at the moment:

NFC

New Orleans — The Saints are the only team to have clinched a first-round bye through the first 15 games, doing so with a victory over Pittsburgh last week that locked up the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

Home-field advantage is huge for this franchise, in particular. The Saints are 5-0 in playoff games in the Superdome during the era of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, and 1-5 in the playoffs on the road during that span.

But even with the advantage of staying at home, the Saints aren’t invincible. Their defense is vulnerable, particularly at the corners. After falling behind by 18 points at the Superdome, the Rams came back to tie the score 35-35 before a Chernobyl-like defensive meltdown on a long touchdown by Michael Thomas.

The Rams, for one, aren’t intimidated about playing in that venue.

Arrow pointing: Slightly up.

Rams — Blistering hot before their bye, the Rams were stone cold after it, limping through a victory at Detroit, followed by losses at Chicago and at home against Philadelphia. They seemed to get back on track at Arizona last week with a phenomenal running performance by fill-in C.J. Anderson, and a smothering day by the defense.

Then again, that came against Arizona. The Rams will get more of a test Sunday from San Francisco, which has shown surprising life of late. The incentive is there: The Rams are playing for a first-round bye. They’ll be playing again without Todd Gurley, who’s resting his ailing knee.

The Rams unquestionably are a good team, but did they peak too early? We will know soon enough.

Arrow pointing: Slightly down.

Chicago — First, the Bears are remarkably healthy. That’s rare this time of year, and so vital. The only starter on injured reserve is slot cornerback Bryce Callahan.

Not surprisingly, the foundation of this team is its defense. The Bears lead the NFL in takeaways and have an interception in every game but one. It’s that defensive consistency that carries the franchise, especially with an up-and-down young quarterback in Mitch Trubisky.

Offensively, Chicago has gotten into a groove during the last month with run-pass option plays, and if Trubisky protects the football, the Bears can give anyone fits.

The most likely postseason scenario would have the Bears playing host to Minnesota in the opening round. That would be a showdown between two impressive defenses.

Arrow pointing: Up.

Dallas – The Cowboys were on a serious upward trend after putting the clamps on New Orleans at the end of November, then beating the Eagles in overtime. But the offense has really sputtered the past two games, with Dallas on the wrong end of a 23-0 shutout against Indianapolis, and struggling to move the ball last week against Tampa Bay. The Dallas offense has accounted for 20 points in the past two games combined — the defense scored on a fumble return against the Buccaneers — and two of those touchdown drives against Tampa Bay covered lengths of four and five yards. Amari Cooper, who had been scorching, had a combined 36 yards in receptions the past two weeks. That said, the Dallas defense is solid, and the Cowboys will get a home playoff game as NFC East champions.

Arrow pointing: Slightly down.

Seattle — The Seahawks have found their groove, averaging 30.4 points over the last seven games, second only to Kansas City. Since dropping to 4-5 with losses to the two Los Angeles teams, Seattle has won five of six games. Pete Carroll has to be happy with the league-leading ground game, efficient quarterback play by Russell Wilson, and only 10 turnovers. If the Seahawks were to play turnover-free football against Arizona on Sunday, they would tie the league record for fewest in a season.

There’s a bit of trouble in paradise. The Seahawks have given up too many explosive plays, although they do tend to play better in pressure situations.

It’s likely that Seattle will wind up in Dallas for a first-round game, and the defense will be tested by the Ezekiel Elliott-led ground attack.

Arrow pointing: Up.

Minnesota — The Vikings have been on an upward trend since the mid-December firing of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. They are running more and tapping into Dalvin Cook’s talents, which takes the heat off Kirk Cousins and makes the play-action game more effective. That also has emboldened an offensive line that has struggled for much of the season.

On defense, linebacker Anthony Barr is having his best season since 2015, and the unit as a whole has been sharper since the loss to the Rams in Week 4.

The Vikings don’t have that same magical feel they did last season, but they’re more seasoned by that postseason experience and could get traction in the playoffs again if they were to beat Chicago on Sunday.

Arrow pointing: Up.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN …

Philadelphia — Nick Foles is no fluke. There’s something special about him, and we’re seeing some of what we saw during last season’s spectacular Super Bowl run.

The Eagles have won four of their last five games, with the only loss coming to Dallas in overtime. They are coming off victories against the Rams and the Houston Texans, an impressive twosome, and this five-game stretch has featured four of Philadelphia’s top scoring performances this season.

Getting into the playoffs is the primary issue at the moment, and that’s far from assured. There’s also a concern about Philadelphia’s defense, which tends to wear down late in games as the pass rush fades. The Eagles surrendered big leads against the Rams and Texans and nearly lost both games.

Arrow pointing: Slightly up.

AFC

Kansas City — Nothing is going well defensively for the Chiefs, other than the fact they can rush the passer. That’s not carrying the day, though, especially with the breakdowns in run defense.

There’s no doubt the team misses running back Kareem Hunt, last season’s rushing champion who was abruptly released this fall because of his off-the-field troubles. He wasn’t a burner, but the Chiefs could line him up all over and he made big plays. The Chiefs still have Tyreek Hill, maybe the most dangerous playmaker in football, and are hoping to get receiver Sammy Watkins back for the playoffs.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been incredible, and has been the league’s leading candidate for most valuable player for most of the season. He’s the centerpiece of that high-scoring offense and consistently presents big problems for opposing defenses. But will that be enough?

Arrow pointing: Down.

New England — Everyone is accustomed to seeing the Patriots hit their stride in December, but this is looking like a different team. The offense is a major question mark at the moment. It wasn’t clicking particularly well for a while, and that was before losing receiver Josh Gordon.

The Patriots ran the ball for a staggering 273 yards in a victory over Buffalo last week, but they couldn’t seem to throw it. Tom Brady looks as if he’s playing through an injury, and Rob Gronkowski looks like a shell of himself.

The defense is fine, but not dominant. It looks like the kind of unit that will keep you in games, but not win them for you.

New England could use a strong performance against the New York Jets, and a bye to get healthy and back on track.

Arrow pointing: Down.

Houston — What happened to the Texans’ running game, the one ranked third 12 games into the season? It has fallen on hard times lately, churning out an average of 66 yards in the last three games. The Houston secondary has been awful during that stretch, too.

It’s not as if Houston is getting blown out. The Texans are 1-2 in the last three games, but those losses were by three points to Indianapolis and by two to Philadelphia.

Quarterback Deshaun Watson has played really well, as has the run defense. Houston should beat Jacksonville on Sunday, and play host to Indianapolis in the first round.

If that were the case, Indianapolis would be quite comfortable with that arrangement. The Colts won at Houston three weeks ago.

Arrow pointing: Down.

Baltimore — Since Lamar Jackson became the starter six games ago, the Ravens have been dominating the time of possession. Part of that is playing keep-away with a running game that devours the clock, and part of it is a smothering defense, which has given up the fewest fourth-quarter points of any in the league.

The Saturday night performance against the Chargers was especially impressive, because it came on a short week after a coast-to-coast trip. Chances are they will see the Chargers again in the first-round of the playoffs … and in the comfortable confines of Baltimore.

The downside? Jackson is having a hard time hanging onto the football, and the Ravens tend to stall in the red zone. Also, beating Cleveland in the finale won’t be a breeze.

Arrow pointing: Up.

Chargers — Coming into their Week 16 game against Baltimore, the Chargers were riding high and could make a case for being the AFC’s best team. They had cobbled together comeback victories at Pittsburgh and Kansas City, after all, two of the tougher places for visitors to play.

But the Chargers laid an egg at home against Baltimore, and Philip Rivers was swallowed by undertow of the Ravens pass rush more than once.

There’s a good chance the Chargers will face the Ravens in the opening round, this time in Baltimore. It’s difficult to beat the same team twice in three weeks, but the Ravens were so dominant the first time, this could be an encore.

Arrow pointing: Slightly down.

Indianapolis — The Colts have won eight of nine games down the stretch, although they didn’t play that well last week in their 28-27 victory over the New York Giants. Indianapolis mustered only 49 yards rushing in that game, although they had to throw a lot because they were in a deep hole early.

Offensively, the Colts have been on a tear. They have protected quarterback Andrew Luck, and receiver T.Y. Hilton has been close to unstoppable in his last seven games. The only offensive stinker was a 6-0 loss at Jacksonville, which looks increasingly like an anomaly.

This could be the first season since 2007 that the Colts have finished with a top-10 defense.

Luck has never lost to Tennessee, and the Colts beat the Titans 38-10 in November.

Arrow pointing: Up.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN …

Tennessee — The Titans play host to the only win-and-you’re-in game of Week 17, Sunday night against Indianapolis.

The good news for Tennessee is it has won four games in a row to claw its way into contention. The bad news? The Titans are 0-10 against Luck.

Defensively, the Titans are limping into this one, having lost starters Jurrell Casey, Brian Orakpo, and Logan Ryan in the last month. On offense, it’s all systems go. Derrick Henry has run for more than 500 yards in December, the time of year when a solid ground attack is so vital.

Arrow pointing: Slightly up.

Pittsburgh — The Steelers were 7-2-1 and looked to be in position for the top seed in the AFC … before their season came crashing down with four losses in five games. Now, their best chance to get into the playoffs is to win Sunday against Cincinnati, of course, and hope that Cleveland can upset Baltimore.

Losing the turnover battle has been big in recent weeks for the Steelers, who are minus-10 in turnover differential. Pittsburgh has 10 turnovers in the last five games and caused only three on defense.

This Steelers team has lacked killer instinct down the stretch in games this season. Historically, that hasn’t been a problem against the Bengals, however. In the last four meetings with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh has outscored the Bengals in the second half 58-10.

Arrow pointing: Down.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
81°