For as many twists and turns as the 2020 NFL season has had, and unless more twists in the tale are yet to come in in the regular season’s final fortnight, only jockeying for position remains.
The top seven teams in each conference will likely remain to fight for spots for Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, on February 8 (Australian time).
Which means, barring the unexpected and a host of heroic and villainous events, no teams from outside the top seven in the AFC and NFC will unseat those who are already there.
In most seasons, analysts would prognosticate every conceivable permutation that playoff-contending teams would need to get into the NFL’s postseason.
But something is missing this year.
Is it due to the first-round playoff byes, seeing that since the NFL decided at the start of the season to expand the playoffs from 12 teams in total to 14, fewer of these exist?
Surely that wasn’t the intention of the NFL’s competition committee.
By this stage of the season, and with so many good teams bound to playing so well to get into playoff form, this was meant to create a sense of excitement.
Instead, it’s an anticlimax, with the Green Bay Packers at an 11-3 record with a one-game lead in the NFC over both the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks, and the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) boasting a two-game advantage over both the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers.
No explanations presumably exist that won’t have the Packers and Chiefs resting in the NFL’s first week of the playoffs.
For coach Matt LaFleur’s Packers, winners of their last four games, despite an intra-conference this coming weekend from Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans, Aaron Rodgers will likely see that winning streak extend to six with a win over the Chicago Bears to close the regular season.
Meanwhile, for coach Andy Reid’s Chiefs, only home games against the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Chargers stand in the way of a 15-1 regular season – and for a team that hasn’t lost since Week 5 at home to the Las Vegas Raiders, those wins may occur in a more workman-like fashion than the spectacular fans are more accustomed to with league MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes at the helm.
As for the chasing packs in each conference, that’s where the real races exist – with some division races up for grabs, with the reward for winning one’s division being the right to host at least one playoff game.
For second position in the NFC, the Saints (10-4) arguably face an easier pathway with games at home against the Minnesota Vikings and on the road against the Carolina Panthers yet to come, while the Seahawks (10-4) must face the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers in two rough-and-tumble NFC West affairs.
In fact, the Seahawks may not even win that division, if a slip-up against the Rams occurs.
As for Sean McVay’s Rams (9-5), an unlikely 23-20 loss against the previously-winless New York Jets last week has scuppered what previously was their advantage atop the NFC West. McVay said after that loss that his team was probably too guilty of looking ahead to key season-ending divisional games against the Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals – and Kyler Murray’s Cardinals (8-6) may need to win that final game themselves if they are to sew up that seventh spot.
In the race for the sixth spot, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) of coach Bruce Arians, quarterback Tom Brady and all of Brady’s talented receiving corps have arguably the easiest path left of all playoff-bound teams, with a trip to Detroit to face the Lions followed by playing the Falcons at home.
The Buccaneers will make the playoffs, but question is where – the only playoff game they could possibly play in front of a home crowd may arguably be the Super Bowl, but their seeding could range anywhere from fifth to seventh.
For the Chicago Bears (7-7) to supplant the Cardinals for the seventh spot, they would have to ride quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s revival to wins over the Jacksonville Jaguars (quite certain) and the Packers (highly unlikely).
The Bears – to open a can of worms – would have been a more deserving playoff team than the eventual winner of the NFC East. The Washington Football Team (6-8), Ron Rivera’s superior coaching nous and quarterback Alex Smith’s heart-warming comeback season notwithstanding, currently stand as the favourites… even if they finish the regular season with a losing record.
In the AFC, the AFC East champion Bills (11-3) have an inside path on second place – imagine a Super Bowl road going partially through upstate New York in January – whereas the Steelers aren’t guaranteed to win their division.
Despite starting at 11-0, coach Mike Tomlin’s Steelers are reeling with a current three-game losing streak, with the Cleveland Browns nipping at their heels at 10-4. Pittsburgh has a home game against the Indianapolis Colts this weekend while Cleveland and Baker Mayfield travel to the New Jersey Meadowlands to face the New York Jets. After that, a season-ending Steelers at Browns matchup looks very mouth-watering.
While the AFC North Division winner is likely to occupy the third seed, the Titans (10-4) and Colts (10-4) remain deadlocked atop the AFC South, and with it the likely fourth seed. The Colts – given the Titans’ clash against the Packers – possess an easier run home, but it may come down to whichever marquee player shows greater dominance… can Henry produce more big games on the ground for the Titans, or can ageless quarterback Phillip Rivers roll back the clock to provide heroics for the Colts?
As those falling short in division races among the Steelers, Browns, Colts and Titans will assume consolations of the fifth and sixth seeds, the Baltimore Ravens (9-5) and Lamar Jackson face an easier run home against the New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals, while the Miami Dolphins (9-5) have a trip to Sin City against the Raiders this weekend followed by a trip to Buffalo to close the season.
Speaking of the Raiders (7-7), they are on the ropes and Jon Gruden’s charges must get a win over Miami, then beat the Broncos in Denver, and hope for a lot of help to qualify. But a 1-4 run in the last five weeks had probably already sealed their fate.
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