With just a few weeks remaining, the NFL playoff picture is starting to take shape, but there are a couple of teams that are trying to come up with late-season surges in order to find their way into the postseason.
As of now, only one team has clinched a playoff spot, and that's the Seattle Seahawks, who are already 11-1 this season. Teams like the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts are in good shape as well, as it isn't likely that they will collapse and not make the playoffs.
However, other teams that are currently not at the top of their respective divisions or are currently struggling have the opportunity to make a late run, so let's take a look at a few of them.
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7)
Remember when the Pittsburgh Steelers started the season with four straight losses? This team has now turned things around, going 3-1 over its last four games, and it's just a game back from the Baltimore Ravens for that last playoff spot in the AFC.
Ben Roethlisberger has been carrying this team recently. Over the last four games, he's thrown nine touchdowns and just one interception, completing well over 60 percent of his passes. Antonio Brown has been his go-to target this season, connecting 85 times for 1,103 yards and six scores.
Looking at the remaining schedule, the Steelers have a real shot to finish strong, with remaining games against the Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns. If Aaron Rodgers still isn't ready to play for Green Bay's game against the Steelers, that would mean Pittsburgh would be a big favorite in at least two of its games, with the other two being winnable as well.
Still, that game against the Bengals could be really important, especially if the Steelers could win the other three. A 9-7 record will likely get them in the playoffs, but an 8-8 record would be much less likely.
Arizona Cardinals (7-5)
The NFC West has gone from the laughing stock of the NFL to the toughest division in the league, and the Arizona Cardinals are looking to grab a wild-card spot along with the San Francisco 49ers.
Defense has been the big reason for this team's success. The Cardinals have held opponents to 316.3 yards and 20.6 points per game, putting them in the top 10 of both categories. Football Outsiders has the Cardinals as the second-best defense in terms of defense-adjusted value over average, or DVOA.
A 7-5 record would have the Cardinals in the driver's seat for a wild-card spot in the AFC, but in the NFC, it's a different story. The Carolina Panthers and 49ers hold the two wild-card spots at 9-3 and 8-4, respectively. With two NFC South teams likely heading to the playoffs, that leaves one more spot, which will probably go to either the Cardinals or 49ers.
The Cardinals could gain some ground over the next two weeks with games against the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans, but things will get much harder at the end of the season, with games against the Seahawks and 49ers to end the year. If they can win that crucial game over the 49ers, there's a chance that they could live with one more loss for the rest of the season, but that's all the help they'll get.
Chicago Bears (6-6)
The Detroit Lions currently hold the top spot in the NFC North, but the Chicago Bears are just one game behind and looking to take back the division over the next four weeks.
Even without Jay Cutler, this offense has still been in pretty good shape. Josh McCown has been a reliable replacement, completing 65.2 percent of his passes for 1,461 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception. Meanwhile, Matt Forte has run for 971 yards and seven touchdowns out of the backfield while Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall have continued to make big plays in the passing game.
Defense has been a completely different story. The Bears rank last in rushing defense, giving up 153.6 yards per game on the ground, while also allowing 27.7 points per contest. Without Henry Melton and Lance Briggs, this defense has started to fall apart, and that needs to change quickly.
Fortunately, the Bears have four winnable games left on their schedule, starting this Monday against the Dallas Cowboys. The Lions will be playing some tougher remaining games over the next few weeks, but at the same time, they'd have the tiebreaker if the two teams finish with the same record.
The Bears will likely need to win out and hope for the Lions to stumble, but they still have a shot. This team will be getting players like Briggs and Cutler back likely before the end of the season, and that could help it make a big run after losing its last two games.
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