With just about a quarter of the NFL season left, the playoff picture grows clearer and clearer each passing week. Some teams — not mathematically quite yet — have all but sewn up postseason berths, like the Patriots, Cowboys, Raiders, and Seahawks; but many, have not. I counted eight teams who are in the borderline category in the NFC, meaning the playoffs are a possibility, but are by no means a sure thing.
Let’s examine one reason each of the 8 will get in the playoffs and also look at one reason each will be left out when the postseason begins.
New York Giants, 8-3
In: You might be hard-pressed to find a less impressive 8-3 team in NFL history. The Giants win games by the skin of their teeth — they have only one victory by more than a touchdown (and that was against the lowly, winless Browns). They’re finding ways to win games and when you have weapons for Eli Manning, it makes it easier. The biggest weapon is still OBJ — even with all his antics.
Out: I’m probably going to utter this phrase a few more times (like when discussing the Lions and the Bucs), but you can’t keep flying this close to the sun and expect to not get burned. The Giants aren’t good enough to keep winning close games. At some point, it catches up with you.
Atlanta Falcons, 7-4
In: You have MVP candidate Matt Ryan at the helm. And you have Julio Jones going up getting balls. Enough said.
Out: The defense still has a way to go — ranked 27th in yards given up per game and 29th in points per game. Atlanta needs to prove it can win in December — usually that means with a run game and a defense.
Detroit Lions, 7-4
In: Matthew Stafford has quieted nearly all his critics and has positioned himself for record-breaking payday. His stats place him right around the top-10 in most offensive categories. The most important stat — 4th quarter comeback wins. The Lions are the only team, aside from the Browns, to trail in every one of their games so far. The good news for Lions fans — Stafford’s engineered game-winning drives in 7 of those 11 games.
Out: It’s too easy to use the “flying-too-close-to-the-sun” analogy again. But Detroit’s offense is 26th in the league in yards per game and defense is middle of pack — 15th in yards surrendered. Games against the Saints, Giants, Cowboys, and Packers are going to test Detroit on both sides of the ball.
Washington Redskins, 6-4-1
In: The Washington offense can play with anyone, ranked second in the NFL. Kirk Cousins is, again, proving he’s a legit NFL quarterback — in fact can we just stop questioning his ability, altogether? He is THE reason Washington is in position to go back to the playoffs for a second straight year.
Out: The defense that was supposed to be so much improved has disappointed. The big free agent signing of CB Josh Norman has not yielded the outstanding results that the Redskins had hoped it would. Washington is ranked 25th in yards given up and 18th in points (24 per game).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 6-5
In: The return of Charles Sims in the Tampa backfield might be just the boost the Bucs need to make a serious run at the playoffs and, possibly, the division. Tampa Bay’s been operating with a slew of unknowns at the running back position for most of the season due to injuries to Sims and Doug Martin. Sims could be back for week 14, which could open up some things for James Winston and the offense.
Out: The team has a middle of the road offense and a bottom quarter defense. That’s not a good combo when you are 6-5 and need a little help getting into the playoffs.
Minnesota Vikings, 6-6
In: The Vikings still have a vaunted defense — number 2 in points and 3 in yards, despite all their struggles on offense. And the fact that they play in the NFC North really benefits Minnesota — no team is running away with the division.
Out: At some point, the offense is going to have to win a game — or two or three. The loss on TNF doesn’t completely kill Minnesota’s postseason dreams, but it means the Vikes will in all reality have to finish the season 3-1 at worst. Their 2 losses to Detroit gives the Lions the tiebreaker. So 9 wins might not be enough for Minnesota.
Green Bay Packers, 5-6
In: There’s a belief (perhaps a fading belief) that Aaron Rodgers can will a team to win. He’s a Super Bowl winning QB with an MVP trophy at home so there’s got to be something to that. The offense is knocking on the door of the top-10. The win over Philly last Monday could set the Pack up for a stretch run — they’ll likely need to go 4-1 in their final five contests to catch Detroit.
Out: The Packers, flat, do not run the football — 22nd in the NFL. It might be what, ultimately, ends head coach Mike McCarthy’s tenure in Green Bay. They never have been great or fully committed to the ground game, but this year is killing them because the defense isn’t as good as it’s been in the past.
New Orleans Saints, 5-6
In: With the number 1 ranked offense in football and the great Drew Brees under center, you should never totally count out the Saints. The defense, granted, is terrible — but the offense more than makes up for it. And Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower have provided a running game that not many saw coming at the start of the year.
Out: The defense will need to stop a couple teams down the stretch. The beauty of the Saints is that they score so quickly. It also might be their undoing in 2016. You’ve got to give your defense a breather every now and again — and New Orleans does not do that.