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Who’s In, Who’s Out And Who Has Us Worried As We Barrel Toward The NFL Playoffs

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It’s so strange that 17 weeks of play are in the books and we’re not yet done with the regular season, but the NFL clearly has a lot more to give us this year. 

Week 17 saw entertaining playoff runs for Miami and Atlanta come to an end, Ben Roethlisberger play what was probably his last game at Heinz Field, and Antonio Brown quit his team in a way no player has ever quit a team before. So let’s get into it!

We’re down to just three unclinched playoff spots, with seven teams fighting for them. Two of those berths are in the AFC, so we’ll start there. Five teams are still alive: the Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. The Colts could have taken care of business Sunday by beating the Raiders, but Vegas faded elimination with a field goal as time expired. Indy still has an 89 percent chance to make it, according to the FiveThirtyEight model, but should fans be worried after that game?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Indy has been getting by on good fortune for a lot of the season, but it looks like they are good enough to beat Jacksonville next week to me! I don’t think there’s much here to worry about in terms of making the tournament.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): But it does feel weird that the Colts, a team we were talking about as maybe the AFC’s best team (granted, a low bar) as recently as several weeks ago, might not even make the playoffs.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I can’t see how Indy could possibly lose to the Jaguars. But if they do, the late game between the Raiders and Chargers could be both teams taking knees since both would be in with a tie. That would be awesome.

sara.ziegler: We clearly need that to happen.

neil: Perhaps the NFL should have considered that before flexing that game late … 😬

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Raiders’ game-winning field goal was one of the 32 walk-offs this season, an NFL record. 

sara.ziegler: It is sort of perfect that an ending like that kept things chaotic for one more week.

neil: It’s also perfect that it was the Raiders, a team that has been outscored by 4.3 points per game this season yet also has a 9-7 record, that did it!

Pretty indicative of a season that had the sixth-lowest correlation between winning percentage and point-per-game differential of any year since the 1970 merger.

sara.ziegler: Wow. That’s a stat I feel in my bones this year.

neil: And between the Titans, Chiefs (who just lost their fifth game) and maybe the Bengals or Patriots, we’ll see the first team with that many losses to be the AFC’s top seed since the 2002 Raiders

Salfino: The Packers have been the epitome of that stat, though the blowout win against Sean Mannion helped them in point differential.

sara.ziegler: The less said about that sad Sunday night game, the better.

But this week’s Sunday night game should be interesting, as long as the Colts beat the Jags: Chargers-Raiders for all the marbles (or, least, the No. 7 seed in the AFC). Who do we like in that one?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think with Darren Waller coming back, I kind of like the Raiders. It’s close though. 

neil: The Chargers are plainly the better team, but it’s in Vegas. And you know that what happens there, stays there.

sara.ziegler: Neil.

neil: LOL

Salfino: I think we need to root for the Chargers for football reasons — they would be a better playoff team. Justin Herbert theoretically could beat anyone. I do give the Raiders a lot of credit for hanging in during what’s been a very difficult season.

neil: I agree, Mike. Herbert and the Chargers would also be a lot more fun in the playoffs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Raiders have faced the second-toughest QB schedule in the league this season, according to Total Quarterback Rating. I have to pull for them for staying relevant against a brutal lineup of teams. The Chargers are very close behind in third place, though. 

sara.ziegler: Seems like the No. 2 team in the AFC doesn’t really want to face either of these teams.

Salfino: In fairness, the Chargers are underachievers who likely won’t rise to the occasion against the No. 2 seed anyway.

neil: The Chiefs would probably LOVE to face the Raiders! They beat them by a combined score of 89-23 this year.

sara.ziegler: You know what they say about beating a team three times

Salfino: If I’m K.C., I’d much rather play the Raiders because they just can’t conceptually defend the Chiefs. Plus the Raiders have no explosiveness, though Zay Jones looks like a real player to me.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Jones is a player I root for — he’s overcome a lot to stay in the league — so I would be happy to see them win with him.

neil: Hunter Renfrow is also a fun player to watch. Amazing how he plays in the NFL while also playing baseball! 

(Yes, I know they are not the same guy, LMAO.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: And doing my taxes!

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Over in the NFC, we’ve got just two teams vying for one spot: the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints. The Niners are in the driver’s seat and will be in if they beat the Los Angeles Rams, but a Saints loss to the Falcons would work, too. New Orleans needs to win its game against Atlanta and get a loss from San Fran. How are we seeing this play out?

Salfino: L.A. wants this game, too, and it’s hard to see Trey Lance beating the Rams. He was good in the second half against the Houston Texans … but it was the Texans. This is totally different. The Niners have had the Rams’ number, though. 

neil: Yeah, this is another case where I think one team (San Francisco) is clearly better in a vacuum than the other team vying for the spot (New Orleans), but I don’t like the fact that L.A. is standing in the Niners’ way.

joshua.hermsmeyer: We give the 49ers a 62 percent shot to make the playoffs and the Saints a 38 percent chance — but it feels closer to a coin flip to me. The betting markets have L.A. as clearly superior to the Niners, FWIW.

Salfino: And the Falcons are terrible — one of Neil’s awful point-differential teams with a record that’s much better than it has any right to be.

sara.ziegler: It would be very Falcons-esque to beat the Saints and screw up their postseason chances.

Not good enough to make the playoffs, but just good enough to make a mess of things.

neil: There have been a few teams like that this year. Miami’s win streak — which ended up being deeply pointless — may end up helping thwart the playoff chances of the Ravens and Saints.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL, it really was deeply pointless. That was a terrible showing by Tua Tagovailoa when they needed him most.       

Salfino: Tua is back on the chopping block.

sara.ziegler: If Tua’s only purpose this year was to stop an infuriating Deshaun Watson trade, then he did his part, and I salute him.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Amen.

sara.ziegler: The teams that have already clinched their playoff spots gave us plenty to talk about this weekend as well. Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals looked very strong in their comeback win over Kansas City, and they wrapped up the AFC North as a result. How much of a postseason threat is Cincy?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The betting markets have them as the 13th strongest team, and that seems about right. They faced the fifth-easiest QB schedule by QBR, and they just don’t seem too scary to me.

Salfino: I did not understand the line on that game at all. How were the Chiefs the favorite in Cincy? To me, these teams are dead even. And are any of us surprised that the Chiefs defense spit the bit when they tried their one-note blitz defense against a top QB and those WRs? The Chiefs defense is still who they were in the beginning of the year, clearly. They just need the right opponent to draw that terrible defense out — and the Bengals are that team.

Also, if Ja’Marr Chase isn’t Offensive Rookie of the Year, we riot.

sara.ziegler: Mike, we got many angry responses to your Chiefs takedown last week.

Salfino: Well, I was worried in the first half, Sara. But they just could not stop that passing game, as I expected. Their whole defense is, “Make a big play.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Chiefs are significantly better than the Bengals.

Salfino: Why, Josh?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, between the various team strength ratings systems and the betting markets, there are no rankings that I can find that put the Chiefs and Bengals at parity. The Bengals won, and good for cigar-smoking Joe, but c’mon now.

neil: While I don’t think Cincy is as good as K.C., their passing offense is about as elite as you’d expect from watching the highlights of Burrow to Chase (and don’t sleep on Tee Higgins, either — he also broke 1,000 yards receiving this season). As we’ve said very often, any team that can pass well is automatically a threat in today’s NFL, no matter their other flaws. 

Salfino: Their offense is as good. They have weaponry that matches the Chiefs, and Burrow is having an historic season by yards per attempt. Are we saying the Chiefs are better because of their defense? Come on.

Patrick Mahomes is better than Burrow, but not that much better.

joshua.hermsmeyer: As I mentioned above, the Bengals have been very fortunate with their QB schedule. They also caught some teams at the right time on their way to that terrific yards per attempt. So I’m not gonna say they’re frauds, but they smell of cheap cologne.

Salfino: OK, but the Chiefs aren’t exactly playing a series of top QBs either. 

And also, that’s defense. I don’t care about defense.

neil: I’m also always skeptical of teams that make huge season-over-season leaps, which Cincy definitely has. (They went from -7.1 points-per-game differential to +5.6 this year with Burrow improving, but only by 5.6 points of Total QBR. Granted, they also started Brandon Allen a handful of games last year, but still.)

sara.ziegler: The K.C. offense is still also better than Cincy’s. 

Salfino: Is it? The Bengals just put four bills on that pass defense. The Bengals farted around in midseason trying to be a running team to protect Burrow with a subpar offensive line. That’s not the team they are now or will be in the postseason, I don’t believe. Burrow has been sacked more than any other quarterback in the league — that’s a legit worry. But they are letting it rip now.

sara.ziegler: The Chiefs have substantially more expected points added.

I like Cincinnati! But I think you’re blinded by your skepticism of the Chiefs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mahomes had the first slump of his career, and Mike hit the ejector seat!

neil: It was admittedly disappointing that the Chiefs, with a great chance at the No. 1 seed, scored just 3 points in the second half of that game.

Salfino: They have legit lost five games and beat Jordan Love for one win. I stipulate they could win the Super Bowl but they could lose to the Colts, for example.

sara.ziegler: All right, let’s move on to another interesting team that clinched this week: Philadelphia! After their Week 12 loss to the bad New York Giants, the Eagles had just a 26 percent chance to make the playoffs. But they won four in a row, and here they are.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Eagles are the worst team in the tournament, and I’m not sure it’s very close. I think the Saints — if they make it — are better coached and could make more noise.

Still, maybe there’s something to be said for <gulp> momentum.

sara.ziegler: Ooooooooh

Momentum

Salfino: I think the Eagles are like the Ravens in the past where they’re a real knuckleball team. I would not want to play the Eagles and that run offense. They have two Hall of Fame offensive linemen.

Getting Lane Johnson back was huge.

neil: For what it’s worth, the Eagles’ point differential of +84 is 22 points better than that of Tennessee, which is favored to be the AFC’s No. 1 seed. It’s roughly the same as that of the Bengals, Packers, Rams and Cardinals.

Now, Philly has played a trash schedule, for sure. But they are not a terrible team.

Salfino: I agree, Neil. And Philly knows what it is, which sounds trite but it’s not. They have an identity.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed, Neil, not trash by any stretch. But I put a lot of truck into the markets, and they are not impressed, ranking them 16th.

sara.ziegler: The other NFC playoff teams had, let’s say, interesting weekends. After losing three in a row and being left for dead by someone in this chat, the Arizona Cardinals fought back Sunday and beat a fellow playoff team, the Dallas Cowboys. Did that performance renew some enthusiasm any of you may have had for the Cards?

neil: I’m not sure. I think it maybe just dampened my enthusiasm for the Cowboys.

sara.ziegler: LOL, fair.

neil: I’m extremely sensitive to all signs the Cowboys might flame out early in the playoffs again (i.e., as always).

joshua.hermsmeyer: In the betting markets, the Cowboys are ranked second and the Packers 10th. I might switch those two.

After that loss to Arizona, I’m with Neil — Dallas is very worrying.

Salfino: This is why the Cowboys have not been to a championship game since the 1995 season. They are super underachievers. They have blue chip defenders, but is the defense good? No. They have a good offense on paper, but Dak Prescott is just average. Who has he ever made better? He’s only as good as the players around him. And Sunday, their supposedly great offensive coordinator (Kellen Moore) kept playing CeeDee Lamb in the slot, where he had to deal with starting-caliber players, instead of moving him outside against corners who had no business being on the field.

sara.ziegler: Am I the only one with renewed enthusiasm toward Arizona??? I guess so. 😞

Salfino: That fact that I still don’t believe in Arizona is a searing indictment of the Cowboys.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I just don’t know what to make of that team, Sara. I’m not very bullish on the coaching, and while Kyler Murray is electric, he’s still unproven in the playoffs.

Salfino: The Cardinals offense is still too much “Kyler, run around and make a play.”

neil: The Cards are one of about a dozen teams this year where, if they won the Super Bowl or lost in their first playoff game, I’d shrug and be like “makes sense.” That’s where we (and they) are at this season.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Fair, Neil. 

sara.ziegler: Maybe I’m blinded by my love of Kyler.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I love Kyler, and so did my QB draft model, so maybe I’m fighting too hard against my bias toward him being successful. Or maybe I just hate Kliff Kingsbury, LOL. 

sara.ziegler: Haha

Finally, we need to talk about Tampa Bay. To come that close to losing to the New York Jets can’t be a good sign, right? And now without Brown, do they have the weapons to make it back to the Super Bowl?

Salfino: The Jets played a very solid game, and the Bucs still got the win. That’s important! I mean, the Cardinals just got their doors blown off by the Lions.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Tampa had all the injury and diva luck last year, and reversion to the mean seems to have hit at the worst possible time for them.

neil: I don’t feel incredibly great about them, but then I look up and that was their sixth win in the past seven games. So they are, by the most basic of measures, finishing strong yet again

And yeah, Mike, maybe the sign of a true contender this year is to actually eke out the W in your dud game against a heavy underdog, rather than losing it.

Salfino: The Bucs were very, very lucky to win, don’t get me wrong. 

neil: I like the idea of “diva luck,” Josh.

It’s very true that, after winning the Super Bowl (with him scoring a TD in the game, no less), anything extra you got out of Brown was gravy.

sara.ziegler: That’s a great point.

Salfino: Tom Brady still has enough weapons. They can play three tight ends and Mike Evans. Rob Gronkowski is still very good.

sara.ziegler: Gronk had 115 yards on seven receptions Sunday. He seems good, yes.

neil: Brady is just weapons-greedy. He wants all of them. I guess at age 44, you have to be.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If Brady can’t keep that team together, I think it spells doom for them, and AB trotting off the field half-naked is a prime candidate for the “moment we knew it wasn’t gonna happen this year” retrospectives.

Salfino: How is anything Brown does surprising?

sara.ziegler: Can’t wait for that to take up prominent space in our end-of-year lookbacks.

neil: Or if the Bucs end up winning again, it will be the moment they rallied as a team without the clubhouse cancer messing up chemistry anymore.

We can write whatever narrative we want after the fact!

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL, yes.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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