The NFL playoff race has officially begun and there are a number of surprising teams that that are still scratching and clawing for a wild-card berth or more.
It's been a strange season in the NFL. The AFC is a close race, with shocking teams like the Indianapolis Colts having a firm grip on a wild-card slot. The NFC has a plethora of quality teams with similar records, and could ultimately be decided by tiebreakers.
Both conferences have a multitude of teams battling for wild-card spots, which shouldn't surprise considering the parity that continues to exist in today's NFL.
There are some teams that simply don't shock us as playoff contenders, but there are a few currently on the outside looking in that still have a shot to make the postseason. Let's examine these surprising franchises.
The San Diego Chargers are one of the more disappointing teams in the NFL this year, but all hope is not yet lost for a playoff berth.
A lot of things have to happen at once, but the Chargers are currently 4-5 and second to only the Denver Broncos in the AFC West. Denver is 6-3, but if things fall correctly for the Chargers, catching a wild-card team isn't out of the question.
It's a tough task for the Philip Rivers-led Chargers, who have been mediocre in every offensive statistical category imaginable. Things have been solid on the defensive side, but the loss of receiver Vincent Jackson has crippled the San Diego attack.
The Chargers are a long shot, but considering how things have gone to this point, it's shocking they still have an outside chance at the playoffs.
While it doesn't sound good for the Cincinnati Bengals that they sit in third place in the AFC North, things really aren't so bad.
The Bengals were a hot pick as a surprise team this season, but have played down to mediocre competition.
That changed last week as Andy Dalton and the Bengals walloped the New York Giants to bring their record to 4-5. Cincinnati sits behind the Baltimore Ravens (7-2) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3) in the division.
All is not lost for Cincinnati. It has one matchup remaining with the teams in front of them in the AFC North and a stretch against weak opposition. The Bengals are two games back in the wild-card race, but if Cincinnati can play the way it did against New York, Dalton and Co. could sneak in once again.
The Minnesota Vikings got off to a great start early in the season, but have recently cooled off and stand at a 6-4 record.
While that doesn't sound horrible, the Vikings are in third place in the NFC North behind the Chicago Bears (7-2) and the Green Bay Packers (6-3).
To make matters worse, the Vikings do not hold a wild-card spot as of now thanks to tiebreakers.
Minnesota is going to need second-year quarterback Christian Ponder to play better for the team to make a postseason push. Adrian Peterson is once again the best running back in the league, but the offense has struggled at times to put up points.
The Vikings have a good record all things considered, but so far have nothing to show for it.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a ridiculously explosive offense behind quarterback Josh Freeman and rookie running back Doug Martin.
Tampa Bay averages 29 points a game, good for the No. 3 ranking in the league. That explosiveness has led the Buccaneers to a 5-4 record and a second-place spot in the competitive NFC South, behind only the 8-1 Atlanta Falcons.
As of now the Buccaneers don't have a wild-card spot thanks to the outstanding NFC North, but are far from out of contention.
Tampa Bay is going to need to be better defensively to sneak into the postseason. With four games left to play in the NFC South, Tampa Bay could make some serious noise on the way to a wild-card position.
Continuing our NFC South tour, the New Orleans Saints are another team not quite out of the postseason talk just yet.
Considering all the Saints have been through leading up to and during this tumultuous season, it's a miracle the team has been able to pull it together for a 4-5 record.
New Orleans is behind the aforementioned Atlanta Falcons (8-1) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-4) in the NFC South, but the Saints have begun to heat up.
Offensively the Saints are once again elite behind the arm of quarterback Drew Brees. The Saints rank ridiculously high in most offensive categories, averaging 28 points per game (No. 6), 304 passing yards per game (No. 2) and 392 total yards per game (No. 4).
The Saints have three division games remaining and have already won two in the NFC South. Behind an elite offense with Brees, anything is possible the rest of the way for the Saints.