It certainly has been a season of surprises for the National Football League, as many teams we expected to succeed have performed poorly, and teams expected to struggle have exceeded expectations.
Here are some of the bold playoff predictions to look out for in the final five weeks of the season.
Locks to Win Division
NFC South Winner: New Orleans Saints
NFC West Winner: Los Angeles Rams
AFC East Winner: New England Patriots
AFC North Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
With massive leads in their respective divisions, the Rams and Saints are locks to not only win their division, but also secure a coveted first round bye in the NFC. They have been pushing aside the competition and seem destined to meet in the NFC Championship Game. The only question raised is where the game will be played.
Tom Brady and the Patriots are once again running away with the AFC East, and at the moment, hold a bye into the Divisional Round. They have struggled away from Gillette Stadium, which is quite uncanny for Brady and Bill Belichick. As long as they can do enough to avoid Wild Card Weekend, they should be fine.
The Steelers were on a roll, but hit a roadblock with a stunning Week 12 loss to the Denver Broncos. Once destined to earn a first round bye, they now are slotted at the fourth seed. Seeing as how every other team in the AFC North is crumbling, the Steelers should win their division.
Predictions: Saints will earn NFC top seed, Patriots will NOT earn first round bye, Steelers will recover to earn a bye.
Locks to Clinch a Playoff Spot
Kansas City Chiefs: Lead AFC West
Los Angeles Chargers: One game back of Kansas City, hold top wild card
Houston Texans: Lead AFC South
Chicago Bears: Lead NFC North
The Chiefs and Chargers are locks to clinch a playoff berth. However, after the bombshell news that Kareem Hunt lied to team officials about the details from his domestic violence incident over the offseason, Kansas City released their star running back, crippling a key piece in their offensive attack. Even so, the Chiefs should still have enough to weather the storm and keep moving toward a top seed in the playoffs. The other question remains as to who will be the team playing at home. Kansas City’s explosive offense is good enough to cover defensive flaws, however, LA is a bit more balanced overall on both sides of the ball. The Chiefs will barely win the division, but should these teams meet in a playoff game, the Chargers will take over.
The Bears have been a nice surprise, as their elite defense has taken them to new heights, as well as a breakout year for Mitchell Trubisky. Defense wins championships, and in a new era where offensive explosions have become the new norm, the Bears should be well equipped to make a defensive stop when it matters most. Also, with a relatively easier schedule than the Vikings they should have enough to win their division.
The Houston Texans’ (0-3) start was not enough to deter their morale. With the Jaguars falling apart and the Colts and Texans far behind, it would be disappointing if they did not win their division.
Predictions: Texans win AFC South, Bears win NFC North, Chiefs win AFC West, Chargers settle for Wild Card.
NFC Teams On the Bubble
Dallas Cowboys: Lead NFC East via tiebreaker
Washington Redskins: Hold second wild card spot via tiebreakers
Seattle Seahawks: Currently out of playoffs via tiebreaker, tied for second NFC wild card spot
Carolina Panthers: Currently out of playoffs via tiebreaker, tied for second NFC wild card spot
Minnesota Vikings: Hold first wild card
Philadelphia Eagles: One game back of second wild card, two games back of Dallas in NFC East
This is where things get very messy.
On first glance, I would say the Redskins miss out because of Alex Smith’s injury, defaulting the NFC East into a race between the Cowboys and Eagles. The Cowboys upset the Saints in week 13, greatly improving their odds of winning their division.
The Seahawks are riding high after recovering from a slow start, and after beating the Panthers, they may be riding their newfound momentum into a wild card spot. The Panthers haven’t recovered since their blowout loss to the Steelers, and their current losing streak may take them out of the playoffs altogether.
The Vikings are a difficult team to project. They do not have a favorable schedule, with games against the Patriots, Seahawks, Steelers, and Bears mixed in around matchups against the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions. Any bad stretch here would cost them any shot to return to the postseason.
The Eagles’ Super Bowl hangover may be too much to overcome. Their inconsistency cost them winnable games. To potentially clinch a playoff spot, they will need to run the table. They have games against the Cowboys, Texans, Rams and two games against the Redskins, games that they would have been heavy favorites to win last year, but leave them as underdogs this year.
Predictions: Cowboys win NFC East, Seahawks and Vikings earn wild card spots.
AFC Teams on the Bubble
Baltimore Ravens: Hold second AFC wild card on tiebreaker
Indianapolis Colts: Currently out of playoffs via tiebreaker, Tied for second AFC wild card
Miami Dolphins: Two games back of second AFC wild card
Cincinnati Bengals: Two games back of second AFC wild card
Denver Broncos; Two games back of second AFC wild card
The AFC bubble teams are a little bit easier to project. The Broncos, Bengals and Dolphins all disappointed following good starts, and the Colts are back in the race after a slow start.
Cincinnati’s season is all but over after losing Andy Dalton for the season due to injury, and Miami has New England and Minnesota remaining on the schedule. These factors may result in another postseason at home for these teams.
The Broncos have a fairly easy schedule, and face only one team holding a playoff spot the rest of the way. However, they have beaten the Chargers already, so running the table isn’t a distant possibility.
The Ravens playoff hopes all hinge on their quarterback situation. Lamar Jackson had two easy wins over bad teams, and with Joe Flacco’s status in doubt, along with games against the Chargers and Chiefs remaining, the road to the postseason seems murky for Baltimore.
The Colts main concern is how they will fare in the coming weeks. Although Andrew Luck is on a hot streak, they still have big games against Houston and Dallas looming.
Predictions: Broncos claim final AFC Wild Card on Week 17, and Ravens fire John Harbaugh after losing grip on final playoff spot.
How It All Plays Out: Saints beat Steelers in Super Bowl