How quickly things can change – it’s true in life, and it’s especially true of the ever-shifting NFL playoff picture.
Just last week, we explored teams on the postseason’s fringes – declaring Jake Browning’s Cincinnati Bengals dead in the water while touting the New Orleans Saints’ viability as either a wild card or NFC South champions (both paths, ahem, still – sort of – intact by the way).
Let’s flip that and now inspect the clubs that are just hanging on – those in wild-card positions and the South division leaders in each conference – and assess how much staying power they seem to have with five weeks to go in the regular season.
One of them, the Pittsburgh Steelers, play Thursday – four days after (temporarily) losing their starting quarterback in a weather-interrupted upset loss to the last-place Arizona Cardinals. Head coach Mike Tomlin deemed the performance "subpar," a "horrible day at the office" and "JV football."
Now his team must get past the lowly New England Patriots to maintain course ahead of far more challenging matchups.
"Good ballclubs, you don’t lose two in a row. And we damn sure can’t lose to two two-win teams," veteran Steelers cornerback Patrick Peterson said during his "All Things Covered" podcast.
"The margin of error is very small."
A sentiment that applies to most of these Super Bowl hopefuls, several in immediate danger of morphing from possible contenders to definite pretenders.
So who’s a lock to play into mid-January? Who’s going to drop like a rock? Let's rank these eight squads from safest to sketchiest:
They're currently parked as the No. 1 wild card in the NFC. But let’s not linger too long on a crew that could be atop the NFC East – and might have even clinched a playoff berth – by this time next week. No club is scoring at a more prolific rate (32.3 points per game), thanks in large part to MVP-caliber QB Dak Prescott but also a defense that contributes touchdowns of its own. But we’re going to acknowledge the haters, too, and they’ll correctly point out that “America’s Team” doesn’t currently own a victory against a team with a winning record and faces the toughest remaining schedule (based on opponents’ winning percentages) of anyone in the NFC, starting with Sunday night’s visit from the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles.
Perhaps a bit questionable to include the AFC South leaders here, especially considering a win in overtime on Monday night would have propelled them atop the conference standings? Maybe. But QB Trevor Lawrence’s high ankle sprain is an obvious concern, even if he manages to play in Week 14. Yet it's also overshadowing the loss of WR Christian Kirk (core muscle injury) while masking how poorly Jacksonville’s defense played against the Browning-led Bengals, surrendering 34 points and a season-high 491 yards. The schedule on the way out is manageable, but the Jags better avoid any banana peels with the Houston Texans and Indianapolis both just one game back – though having a season sweep of the Colts in hand certainly helps.
A touch overconfident in a team that just moved into the NFC’s seventh seed? Perhaps. But plenty to consider here. HC Matt LaFleur is the best December coach in NFL history (16-0 record). After upsetting the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night, the Pack now proceed with the league’s easiest remaining schedule, a docket that includes the Carolina Panthers, New York Giants and Chicago Bears. But little should spark more confidence in the Lambeau faithful than the club’s recent play – including a three-game winning streak over the Los Angeles Chargers, NFC North-leading Detroit Lions and, then, the reigning Super Bowl champions. And nothing has been more encouraging than the play of first-year QB1 Jordan Love, who suddenly seems to be settling nicely into the Green Bay quarterbacking lineage, completing 69% of his passes for 857 yards and eight TDs (116.9 passer rating) during the current heater. And if injured CB Jaire Alexander and RB Aaron Jones get back into the lineup? Gravy. It sure appears the Packers will remain hot – and will have to in light of their precarious position.
The NFC South front-runners are perched at .500, one game ahead of the Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, though a 3-0 divisional record makes Atlanta a bit more secure at the moment. And only the Packers have an easier slate of games to play than the Falcons – Indianapolis the lone opponent they’re scheduled to face that doesn’t have a losing record. Beat the Bucs and Panthers the next two weeks, and Atlanta will be awfully close to locking up the fourth seed. Yet it’s unwise to elevate expectations for this club – or anyone in the division – too much, even though all but Carolina are also viable as wild cards.
Like the Pack, they’re also presently at the bottom of their conference’s postseason ladder. And Indy is trying to advance on the arm of fill-in QB Gardner Minshew II and RB2 Zack Moss – though All-Pro Jonathan Taylor could return soon-ish from thumb surgery. But opportunism and efficiency could be what gets the Colts through. They’ve forced nine turnovers during their AFC-best four-game winning streak. And despite the personnel issues on offense, rookie HC Shane Steichen has this team ranked eighth in the league in scoring (25 ppg) – Indy failing to post at least 20 points just once this season. With the Steelers and Texans among teams they have yet to face, the Colts do have a prime chance to write their own ticket.
A Week 7 win at Indianapolis has them one rung above the Colts in the AFC standings, and a top-ranked defense will continue to make Cleveland formidable even amid its ongoing quarterback carousel. But the Browns are 1-2 since Deshaun Watson was officially lost for the remainder of the year following shoulder surgery, a factor likely to continue limiting the team’s ceiling.
A two-game losing streak has jeopardized their outlook, the Vikes now in a wild-card scrap with Green Bay, the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks – all of those clubs also hovering at 6-6. Among teams currently projected to make the playoffs, only the Baltimore Ravens and Cowboys have a tougher schedule than Minnesota, which draws Detroit twice and the surging Packers once. But it certainly shouldn’t hurt to get All-Pro WR Justin Jefferson back from the hamstring injury that’s kept him out since he was hurt in Week 5 – though it remains to be seen how quickly he can establish chemistry with new QB Joshua Dobbs.
They've walked a tightrope all season – and that was before QB Kenny Pickett’s ankle surgery. And it’s not as if the second-year passer had been setting the league on fire – far from it – though early returns following the dismissal of OC Matt Canada had been positive, something you can’t say about QB2 Mitchell Trubisky’s relief appearances. S Minkah Fitzpatrick returned from a hamstring injury Sunday only to break his hand – something he plans to play through but a setback likely to limit his impact as a playmaker. The Steelers are currently the AFC’s fifth seed, but the tiebreaker formula is what keeps them ahead of Cleveland, Indianapolis and Houston, those teams all 7-5, too. Pittsburgh has still scored the fifth-fewest points in the league and, star-laden as the defense is, it's giving up a lot of yards. Never wise to assume anything in the NFL. But even if you grant the Steelers a win Thursday over New England, Pittsburgh must finish with three of four on the road with trips to Indy, Seattle and Baltimore – venues where more “JV football” simply ain’t gonna meet Tomlin's standard.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL playoff teams in jeopardy: Steelers, Browns have shaky standings