Fear Factor: Ranking Wild-Card Contenders Top Seeds Don't Want to Face
With just three weeks remaining in the NFL's regular season, there are 10 teams vying for the four wild-card spots in the postseason tournament—more, if you're willing to stretch credulity to include the teams just under .500 that would need a Christmas miracle to move far enough up the ladder to make it in.
We aren't. Those teams get coal in their stockings this year. Too many clubs are ahead of them, and at 6-7, their problems are just too much to overcome.
Those 10 teams sitting at 7-6 or better aren't created equal, either. Some are flawed squads with weaknesses that can be exploited. Others, however, are just the sort of teams that keep the top seeds up at night.
Maybe those teams have a superstar quarterback. Or a punishing defense. Or in at least one case, both.
Whatever the reason, the top seeds in the AFC and/or NFC want no part of these teams early in the playoffs.
10. Buffalo Bills
Current Standing: Sixth in AFC
If the 2017 season ended today, the Buffalo Bills would end the NFL's longest playoff drought.
By virtue of Buffalo's win in the snow Sunday and Baltimore's loss that night, the Bills are currently the No. 6 seed in the AFC. But with three games left against AFC East foes (including a trip to Gillette Stadium to face the Patriots), it's going to be hard for Buffalo to stay there.
And even if the Bills somehow do, the Pats and Pittsburgh Steelers aren't losing sleep about the prospect of hosting this team early in the playoffs.
The Bills aren't especially good at, well, anything. They rank outside the top 20 in both total offense (26th at 298.2 yards per game) and total defense (23rd at 351.2 yards per game). Buffalo is 23rd in the NFL in scoring (18.5 points per game) and has allowed 50 more points than it has scored.
The offense is also dangerously one-dimensional. Tailback LeSean McCoy keys the NFL's sixth-ranked ground game, but only the Chicago Bears have had less success throwing the ball than the Bills in 2017.
The Bills were already having plenty of problems moving the ball before injuries devastated them at quarterback. With Tyrod Taylor currently nursing a knee injury and rookie Nathan Peterman in the NFL's concussion protocol, the Bills head into a must-win part of the schedule facing the real possibility that Joe Webb could wind up starting under center.
From a sentimental standpoint, it would be nice to see the Bills make the postseason for the first time since 1999. But as things stand right now, the Bills would travel to Jacksonville in Round 1 of the playoffs.
They would promptly get shelled, perhaps even shut out.
9. Detroit Lions
Current Standing: Eighth in NFC
No matter what happens with the Detroit Lions over the next three weeks, the team's fans will recognize it quickly.
In half of the last six seasons, the Lions finished under .500 and missed the playoffs. In the other half, the Lions made the postseason as a wild card, hit the road for the first round and promptly got bounced.
The Lions are a one-trick pony. They possess a top-five passing attack led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receivers Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, but to say they have struggled to run the ball this season is an understatement.
Detroit is dead last in the NFL on the ground, averaging a paltry 76.3 yards per game.
The Lions haven't had much more success stopping opponents than they have grinding out yardage on the ground. They're 27th in the NFL in both total defense and pass defense.
With winnable games against the Bears and Bengals over the next two weeks, Detroit could head into a Week 17 matchup with the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field at 9-6. If that comes to fruition, the playoffs would effectively start a week early in Motown.
But if the Lions repeat a pattern that's been far too common this year—digging an early hole and then attempting a furious comeback—they aren't going to be in contention by then.
Even if they do, it's hard to imagine a Lions team that can't control the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball posing much of a challenge for the Los Angeles Rams or New Orleans Saints.
Especially since they faced the Saints in Week 6 and allowed 52 points.
8. Tennesee Titans
Current Standing: Fifth in AFC
This ranking won't please fans of the Tennessee Titans. But rather than directing their fury at this scribe, they'd be better served saving it for those who deserve it.
Like, say, a football team that's skirting the edge of squandering a promising season.
Tennessee's offensive struggles came to a head in Sunday's listless loss to the Arizona Cardinals—a game where the Titans barely eclipsed 200 total yards for the game.
The root of those offensive struggles is easy to pinpoint. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota has significantly regressed in his third NFL season. He now has four more interceptions than touchdowns after tossing two more picks against the Redbirds, and he hasn't thrown for even 200 yards in a game since Week 11.
Yes, the Titans have a talented pair of running backs in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry to go with a top-10 defense in terms of yards allowed.
But the ground game has slipped outside of the top 10 in rushing yards because opponents are loading up the box. Teams are daring Mariota to beat them through the air, and he hasn't been able to do it.
That's putting undue pressure on a defense that held the Cardinals out of the end zone and surrendered just 261 total yards in a game the Titans still lost because of their offensive woes.
I spent much of the summer beating the drum for the Titans as a team that would win both the AFC South and a playoff game in 2017. But at a time when true contenders are tightening up the ship, the Titans are springing new leaks—including a knee injury for their struggling signal-caller, per ESPN.com's Cameron Wolfe.
7. Dallas Cowboys
Current Standing: 10th in NFC
The three teams listed so far aren't scaring anyone. Each has a flaw so glaring that it would be a substantial upset were they to get out of Wild Card Weekend. But from here out, seeing these teams listed as a first- or second-round opponent is more likely to elicit a wince than a smile.
That includes the Dallas Cowboys.
Yes, the Cowboys are presently the 10th seed in the NFC. Dallas could win its last three games and still wind up on the outside looking in.
But if they do crash the postseason party, the Cowboys could be trouble.
Their three consecutive losses in recent weeks came without the services of tailback Ezekiel Elliott. And linebacker Sean Lee. And at least partly without star left tackle Tyron Smith.
But if the Cowboys can beat an erratic Oakland Raiders team Sunday night, they'll rise to 8-6 and get Elliott back from suspension just in time for a late push—the same Elliott who led the NFL in rushing last year and was averaging almost 98 yards a game on the ground in 2017.
Lee re-joined the team in Sunday's blowout win over the New York Giants, and as has been the case over the past few seasons, the Cowboys defense was far more dominant with him on the field.
Smith is already back, and the Dallas offensive line again looks like the best front five in football.
With all of their weapons back on both sides of the ball and quarterback Dak Prescott playing well, the Cowboys look a lot more like last year's record of 13-3 than this season's 7-6 mark.
That's more than a little frightening.
6. Baltimore Ravens
Current Standing: Seventh in NFC
The Baltimore Ravens lost in wild fashion to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, falling out of the top six in the AFC in the process.
Yet even in defeat, it feels like the Ravens are figuring it out.
For the second straight game, a Ravens team that had been scuffling offensively for most of the season topped 35 points, this time against a Steelers defense that's among the NFL's best. Over his last two games, quarterback Joe Flacco has averaged 269 passing yards, thrown four touchdown passes against just a single interception and posted a passer rating almost 20 points higher than his season average.
Sunday's collapse aside, defense was never the problem for this year's iteration of the Ravens. The lack of scoring was.
If Baltimore has figured that out, contenders beware.
The Ravens close the season with three winnable games against Cleveland, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Win out, and they'll make the playoffs. If they get in, they won't be a team contenders will want to face early.
Flacco has won 10 of his 15 playoff starts, over which he's thrown 25 touchdown passes against just 10 interceptions. He peeled off arguably the greatest playoff run by a quarterback in NFL history back in 2012, a run that landed him those fat paychecks he cashes every week.
The Ravens rank 10th in the NFL at 118.3 rushing yards per game, and they're in the top half of the league defensively. And in Flacco, the Ravens have a quarterback who has been there and done that in the playoffs.
Add it all together, and you have a team with substantial spoiler potential.
5. Los Angeles Chargers
Current Standing: Eighth in AFC
This ranking may be low. There's also a good chance that a week from now, the Chargers will be off this list entirely, as a win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday would vault the Bolts into first place in the AFC Worst.
Sorry, West. Meant to say West. Really.
Not bad for a team that lost its first four games.
The Chargers are the hottest team in the AFC, winners of four straight games—including three via blowouts and two over teams listed in this piece. The Chargers have lost just two of their last nine games.
Los Angeles is also built to make high playoff seeds miserable in the postseason.
Defensively, the Chargers have climbed to 10th in the NFL. They have struggled stopping the run (only two teams have been worse), but the Bolts are third in the NFL against the pass and possess arguably the best pair of edge-rushers in the league in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
Offensively, L.A. has all the weapons a team could ask for. A proven veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers. A loaded pass-catching corps headlined by wide receiver Keenan Allen. A top-10 tailback in Melvin Gordon. And an offensive line that Football Outsiders ranks third in the league in pass protection.
Saturday's trip to Kansas City is the Chargers' last game this season against a team currently above .500. It's not at all hard to imagine Los Angeles hitting the playoffs winners of seven straight.
If that winds up being the case, the Chargers will be the AFC West champions. But the title next to their name in the bracket isn't as important as the head of steam the team has built up.
Because football is a game of momentum—and right now the Chargers have a ton of it.
4. Green Bay Packers
Current Standing: Ninth in NFC
As things stand, the Green Bay Packers are barely clinging to postseason hopes. Much like the Dallas Cowboys, it's conceivable that the Packers could win out, go 10-6 and still be out of luck.
That's just how the NFC's big dogs want it. The Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints want no part of facing the Packers early in the postseason.
The reason for that trepidation is simple. It can be summed up in three short words.
Per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky, Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy wasn't in the mood to answer questions about Green Bay's MVP quarterback after Sunday's overtime win in Cleveland.
"We love Aaron Rodgers, but I will not answer any questions about him today," McCarthy said. "This is about winning the game, and he’s still in the medical situation, and as soon as we have the information we’ll try to get it to you."
But the belief/hope has long been that Rodgers was targeting Week 15 to return from his broken collarbone—assuming that Green Bay had something to play for at that point.
The Packers do.
It's deja vu all over again. Last year, the Packers were 4-6 after 10 games before peeling off six wins in a row and making the postseason.
Granted, that was with Rodgers. But here we are again with a Green Bay team that sits at 7-6 though 13 games. A Green Bay team about to get back one of the league's best players at its most important position.
A Green Bay team that's been on the giant-killing route before. Last year, after downing the Giants at home in the Wild Card Round, the Pack traveled to Dallas and sent the NFC's No. 1 seed packing with a 34-31 win over the Cowboys.
3. Seattle Seahawks
Current Standing: Seventh in NFC
The Seattle Seahawks are a flawed football team.
Seattle can't run the ball with any kind of consistency—it ranks 18th in the NFL in that regard at 105.7 yards per game, and a large portion of that has come via the legs of quarterback Russell Wilson.
The Seahawks vaunted "Legion of Boom" defense is all kinds of banged up. Cornerback Richard Sherman is out for the season with a torn Achilles. Strong safety Kam Chancellor is also done with a neck injury—the reason he's not on injured reserve is more financial than medical.
And Seattle's offensive line, while improved of late, still isn't especially good—it ranks in the bottom half of the league both in run blocking and pass protection, per Football Outsiders.
And yet, the notion of playing the Seahawks surely makes NFC contenders a lot more nauseous than happy.
Because they are the Seattle Seahawks.
This is easily the most battle-tested team in the NFC. In six of the last seven seasons, the Seahawks not only made the playoffs, but also won a playoff game. Two of those years ended in Super Bowl trips. One ended with a championship.
Wilson has never played a season that didn't include at least one victory in the second season. He's at his best when the stakes are the highest. And a compelling argument can be made (fairly easily) that Wilson is playing the best football of his career in 2017.
Wilson is standing on his head this season.
With the Rams next up on the schedule, Seattle could easily be in first place at this point next week. The Seahawks already have a head-to-head win over L.A. back in Week 5.
This isn't the best Seattle team of the Pete Carroll era. And the Seahawks are a much different animal away from home.
But they can beat anyone—a walking, talking example of the "Any given Sunday" cliche.
2. Atlanta Falcons
Current Standing: Sixth in NFC
This is the part of the program where an NFC division-leading team would look at the potential playoff schedule and then mutter some words I can't print here.
For starters, the Atlanta Falcons are both the defending conference champions and one of the hotter teams in the conference. Not only are the Falcons 4-1 over their last five games, but that stretch also includes wins over the Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints.
After a Week 9 loss to the Carolina Panthers dropped the Falcons to 4-4, they were essentially forced into a playoff-type mindset to stay in the postseason race.
The Falcons have thrived in it.
Remember, while this year's Falcons don't have the record of last year's Super Bowl team, they are nearly identical personnel-wise. Player losses aren't why the offense has struggled relative to last year. Injuries aren't why edge-rusher Vic Beasley hasn't had the success he did in 2016.
Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and that offense have been inconsistent most of the season. But it remains quite capable of exploding, as it showed when it accounted for 27 of the team's 34 points on the Seahawks just a few weeks ago—in Seattle, no less.
Similarly, Beasley, Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, Desmond Trufant and the defense have had their ups and downs. But the Falcons defense just did an excellent job of slowing down Drew Brees and the Saints.
There's much to be decided in the NFC South. If the Falcons win out, the division will be theirs, as the last three weeks are filled with divisional games.
But no matter who wins the division and who winds up the wild-card berths, the following sentence holds true.
No one wants to draw the runner(s)-up in the NFC South early in the postseason.
1. Carolina Panthers
Current Standing: Fifth in NFC
It was a struggle to decide between the Falcons and Carolina Panthers for the wild-card contender most likely to make the league's top teams queasy.
The Carolina Panthers got the nod for a few reasons.
First, the Panthers have been successful against high-end competition. Eight of Carolina's 13 games have come against teams with winning records through 14 weeks. The Panthers are 5-3 in those games.
Subtract a season sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Saints and that number becomes 5-1—including victories over the Minnesota Vikings at home and New England Patriots on the road.
If you can win at Gillette Stadium, you can win anywhere.
Also, the Panthers are winning with a formula that's eerily reminiscent of the team's march to the Super Bowl two years ago—power on both sides of the football.
On offense, the Panthers rank fifth in the NFL in rushing with 134.5 yards per game. Rookie tailback Christian McCaffrey has shown to be as advertised as a receiver, leading the NFC in receptions from the position.
On defense, the Panthers are the real deal, ranking at or near the top of the league in a number of categories. Fifth in total defense. Seventh in pass defense. Tied for third in run defense. Tied for third in sacks. And 10th in scoring.
The Panthers have a realistic chance at winning the NFC South, and they have an opportunity—should they get hot and catch a break or two—to earn one of the conference's top two seeds and secure a first-round bye.
But should they end up with a wild-card berth, the Panthers represent something of a nightmare scenario for higher seeds.
They are capable of imposing their will, of setting the tempo and style of play in a postseason contest.
Of making you play their game—and beating you at it.