This has been a topsy-turvy NFL marketing campaign, however with a stable half-season of motion within the books, we now have a clearer concept of the playoff image taking form. Some divisional races seem to have crystallized to the purpose that we are able to roughly name them now, whereas others stay decidedly in flux.
Below, I’ve ranked all eight division leaders (per NFL.com’s standings) in response to the probability that they are going to nonetheless be in first place when the 2017 common season involves an finish, naming the highest challengers to essentially the most susceptible front-runners:
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1) Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2 within the AFC North)
There shouldn’t be a bona fide challenger to the Steelers’ supremacy on this division, with the Ravens (Four-5), Bengals (Three-5) and Browns (Zero-Eight) all floundering. Pittsburgh, in the meantime, is one in all simply two groups to rank within the high 10 in each offense (No. 10) and protection (No. 5), becoming a member of the Jaguars (who rank ninth in offense and third in protection). The Steelers’ schedule additionally traces up very a lot of their favor, with all their remaining highway video games (at Colts, at Bengals, at Texans) coming in opposition to groups with shedding information, whereas they need to be the favorites in all 5 of their remaining residence video games (vs. Titans, vs. Packers, vs. Ravens, vs. Patriots, vs. Browns). Yes, I like Pittsburgh to win its pivotal Week 15 matchup with New England, which I additionally count on to determine home-field benefit within the AFC playoffs.
2) Philadelphia Eagles (Eight-1 within the NFC East)
Since the 12-team playoff format was first carried out in 1990, 100 % (35 of 35) of the groups to begin Eight-1 have reached the postseason. The Eagles are within the high 11 in each offense (No. 5) and protection (No. 11), they usually’ve outscored their opponents by 104 factors to this point this season, the second-highest mark within the NFL. Carson Wentz is having an MVP-caliber marketing campaign, with 23 touchdowns, a 104.1 pbader ranking and a formidable yards-per-attempt mark of seven.Eight. General supervisor Howie Roseman has performed an incredible job including expertise, similar to receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, rookie kicker Jake Elliott and up to date commerce acquisition Jay Ajayi. Some difficult highway matchups loom, together with video games on the Seahawks, Rams and Cowboys. And there’s the query of how a lot shedding sort out Jason Peters to ACL and MCL tears will damage the offense. But the Eagles have a 2.5-game lead over the second-place Cowboys and have already crushed Washington twice and will a minimum of cut up their two video games with Dallas, the NFC East is theirs for the taking.
Three) New England Patriots (6-2 within the AFC East)
The Patriots have received the AFC East in 14 of the previous 16 seasons. With Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on the helm, they appear to be as computerized a lock as you’ll find. So why are they third? Looking at this season solely, the Patriots do face obstacles that may very well be barely harder to beat than these in entrance of the Steelers and Eagles. Yes, it might be a shock if anybody else received the division, however the Bills (5-Three) and Jets (Four-5) are higher than anticipated. New England has the unenviable job of taking part in three highway video games in a row (at Bills in Week 13, at Dolphins on “Monday Night Football” in Week 14 and at Steelers in Week 15, with the latter recreation coming after a brief week). And then there’s the upcoming two-game stretch of video games in Denver and Mexico City (in opposition to the Raiders), though that doesn’t look as powerful because it as soon as did. Finally, the second-place Bills get two extra photographs in opposition to them, though Brady is 26-Three in opposition to Buffalo in his profession. Those elements make New England barely extra prone to end out of first place than Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, if solely by a hair.
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Four) Minnesota Vikings (6-2 within the NFC North)
The Vikings have a two-game lead over Detroit and mainly face solely the up-and-down Lions as a risk, because the Packers look misplaced with out quarterback Aaron Rodgers (damaged collarbone) and the Bears are missing on offense. Minnesota’s fourth-ranked protection is very good, giving up simply 16.9 factors per recreation. The offense has been OK regardless of the absences of operating again Dalvin Cook and quarterback Sam Bradford, with Case Keenum taking part in properly in Bradford’s place, finishing 63.9 % of his pbades and notching seven scoring tosses (I do not see Teddy Bridgewater being greater than a backup this season). The upcoming schedule features a probably problematic five-game stretch (at Redskins, vs. Rams, at Lions, at Falcons, at Panthers). But if the Vikings win a minimum of two of these, they need to be in fine condition, provided that they end with video games in opposition to the Packers and Bears. Minnesota is essentially the most constant crew within the division, and that might be rewarded with a title.
5) Kansas City Chiefs (6-Three within the AFC West)
Back when the Chiefs have been 5-Zero, it appeared like they’d roll to home-field benefit within the playoffs. But they’ve misplaced three of their final 4 and look susceptible, with the disappointing performances of the Raiders and Broncos (and the early-season struggles of the Three-5 Chargers) preserving Kansas City on this tier. Veteran QB Alex Smith remains to be taking part in very regular ball, however operating again Kareem Hunt has slowed down — the dynamic rookie has averaged simply 48 speeding yards per recreation over his final 4 video games after placing up 122 yards per contest within the first 5 video games. The Chiefs’ 29th-ranked protection can also be giving up a lot of yards — I believe they actually miss security Eric Berry (ruptured Achilles). The roster is powerful, however the crew shouldn’t be taking part in properly proper now, which is why Kansas City is a notch under Minnesota.
6) New Orleans Saints (6-2 within the NFC South)
After beginning Zero-2, the Saints received six straight and are actually 6-2. Only two different groups have performed that earlier than within the Super Bowl period: the 1993 Dallas Cowboys and the 2007 New York Giants. Both went on to win the Super Bowl. New Orleans’ protection has improved dramatically, rating 15th general and ninth in factors allowed after ending 27th and 31st in these clbades final season. Two rookies are beginning at defensive again — Marcus Williams and Marshon Lattimore — and each are taking part in properly. The operating recreation, in the meantime, has been significantly better; the Saints averaged 94 speeding yards of their first 4 video games and 151.5 of their final 4.
WATCH OUT FOR: the Carolina Panthers. Carolina, which already misplaced to the Saints at residence, would wish to win in New Orleans in Week 13 and get some badist from Atlanta, which has two video games in opposition to the Saints left. But the Panthers do have the No. 1 ranked protection, and that provides them a reputable shot on this race.
7) Los Angeles Rams (6-2 within the NFC West)
The Rams are averaging 32.9 factors per recreation this season, a rise of 18.9 over 2016’s common — that is the most important improve from one 12 months to the subsequent by any NFL crew since 1960. Interestingly, the next-biggest improve since 1960 was logged by the 1999 Rams, who made a bounce of 15.1 factors from 1998 — and went on to win the Super Bowl. Jared Goff and Todd Gurley are hovering, with veteran left sort out Andrew Whitworth — who’s 4 years older than head coach Sean McVay, for no matter that is value — proving to be a vital addition. That mentioned, how this crew will carry out down the stretch, with a troublesome remaining schedule that features video games in opposition to New Orleans and Philadelphia and highway contests in opposition to Minnesota and Seattle, stays one thing of an unknown.
WATCH OUT FOR: the Seattle Seahawks. The Rams are presently forward of Seattle by one recreation, however statistically, there may be little or no hole between the groups, as Los Angeles ranks third on offense and 16th on protection and the Seahawks rank fourth on offense and 13th on protection. Where I might give an edge to the Seahawks is in expertise; this Seattle crew has a confirmed report of succeeding late within the 12 months, with a 34-10 regular-season report in November, December and January since Russell Wilson turned the beginning QB in 2012. Los Angeles, in the meantime, is new to the scene of NFL contenders. Plus, Seattle has already crushed the Rams in Los Angeles. The Seahawks have a brutal schedule forward of them, with only one sub-.500 opponent on the docket (San Francisco in Week 12), however the Rams have simply two (Houston in Week 10 and San Francisco in Week 17). Of course, Seattle should deal with enterprise in each remaining video games in opposition to the Cardinals, starting with this week’s “Thursday Night Football” matchup in Arizona.
Eight) Tennessee Titans (5-Three within the AFC South)
The Titans are in first place by advantage of their Week 2 win over the Jaguars — who’re additionally 5-Three — in Jacksonville. But they give the impression of being extraordinarily susceptible, with a 17th-ranked protection, 20th-ranked offense, a degree differential of minus-12 and a pedestrian takeaway differential of plus-1. Tennessee additionally has video games in opposition to Pittsburgh and the Rams on its schedule.
WATCH OUT FOR: the Jacksonville Jaguars. In distinction to the Titans, the Jaguars rank within the high 10 on each offense and protection, whereas quarterback Blake Bortles has been taking part in properly. The Jags even have the simplest remaining power of schedule within the league, with their opponents posting a mixed successful proportion of .348. It may come right down to the regular-season finale, however even when it would not occur till the 2 groups’ Week 17 showdown, I believe Jacksonville will knock the Titans out of first place within the division. I do nonetheless see Tennessee as a wild-card crew, nonetheless.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.