Breaking Down Unlikeliest Potential 2022 NFL Playoff Qualifiers

Alex KayContributor IDecember 6, 2022

Breaking Down Unlikeliest Potential 2022 NFL Playoff Qualifiers

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    DENVER, COLORADO - NOVEMBER 20: Davante Adams #17 of the Las Vegas Raiders celebrates with Derek Carr #4 of the Las Vegas Raiders after completing a pass for a touchdown during an NFL game between the Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos at Empower Field At Mile High on November 20, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. The Las Vegas Raiders won in overtime (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
    Michael Owens/Getty Images

    The 2022 NFL playoff picture is beginning to take shape, but surprisingly only two teams—the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans—have been officially eliminated with just five weeks of the regular season remaining.

    Perhaps even more shockingly, all 14 postseason spots remain up for grabs entering Week 14.

    While some squads like the Denver Broncos and defending champion Los Angeles Rams are almost certain to miss the playoffs, there are a handful of clubs on the fence that could realistically defy the odds and slip into the field.

    With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the most unlikely playoff teams—those that have between a 6 and 16 percent chance of making it in based on FiveThirtyEight's quarterback-adjusted Elo forecast—and how they could get in.

Cleveland Browns (5-7)

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    HOUSTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 04: Deshaun Watson #4 of the Cleveland Browns attempts a pass during the third quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on December 04, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
    Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

    The Cleveland Browns have stayed afloat even as they were forced to turn to veteran journeyman Jacoby Brissett—who initially slotted in as a third-stringer behind both Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield when he signed in March—to start at quarterback for the first 11 games.

    While Brissett shepherded the offense well for much of his QB1 tenure—leading a unit that ranks in the top-10 for both yardage and scoring—Cleveland only managed one win in seven tries between Weeks 4 and 11.

    The Browns began turning a corner in Week 12, mounting a furious comeback to topple the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in overtime. That win, coupled with a blowout 27-14 victory over the Houston Texans this past weekend, has Cleveland improbably positioned to reach the playoffs if it can cobble together a strong finish.

    It helps that the organization had reinforcements arriving at an opportunistic time. The most notable being Watson, who finished serving an 11-game suspension last week and assumed the starting QB role in Week 13.

    Although Watson didn’t look great in his debut against his former team, the Texans—completing a pedestrian 12 of 22 passing attempts for 131 yards and an interception—the three-time Pro Bowler should lift this offense to new heights once he finishes knocking the rust off.

    Greg Newsome II, the team’s first-round pick last year and a starting cornerback, also returned from a two-game absence (hamstring) to help shut down Houston’s offense. Unfortunately the Browns did lose linebacker Sione Takitaki for the year to a torn ACL in the same game, hindering an already suspect defensive unit.

    Cleveland will need its healthy defenders to come through plus get the Pro Bowl version of Watson if it wishes to navigate a rather difficult upcoming stretch—rated the 12th-toughest in the league—that starts with an away game against the surging Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

    While they only have an estimated 9 percent chance of becoming one of the AFC’s seven playoff teams, the Browns do have the talent—especially on offense—to beat the odds.

Detroit Lions (5-7)

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    DETROIT, MICHIGAN - DECEMBER 04: Jared Goff #16 of the Detroit Lions throws the ball during the first quarter of the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Ford Field on December 04, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The Detroit Lions have been one of the more surprising teams of the season. Expected to slog through another year of rebuilding after failing to find a franchise quarterback who could lift this offense, the Lions have defied expectations to become a force on that side of the ball.

    While Detroit’s offense has cooled a bit after scoring 35 or more points in three of the first four games, it is still averaging a fantastic 26.3 points per game—the sixth-most in the league.

    The Lions are putting up plenty of yardage—their 369.1 per-game average ranks No. 7—and scores behind a resurgent season from starting signal-caller Jared Goff.

    The No. 1 overall pick in 2016 has already matched his touchdown pass total (19) from last year—his first with the club after coming over as part of the trade that sent Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams—and is on pace for nearly 4,300 passing yards (he had only 3,245 last year) with five games to go.

    With Amon-Ra St. Brown emerging as one of the league’s top wideouts and effective ground game led by the tandem of Jamaal Williams (who leads the league with 14 touchdown runs) and D’Andre Swift, Detroit’s offense has the talent to hang with almost anyone.

    Although the defense hasn’t performed at anywhere near the same level—it’s giving up a league-worst 402.2 yards and 27.0 points per game—this unit is doing enough in recent weeks to make Detroit a contender.

    The Lions have an estimated 8 percent chance of making the playoffs, but they could see that figure skyrocket if they continue on their current trajectory.

    Detroit has picked up wins in four of the last five games and hung tough with the elite Buffalo Bills in its lone loss during that span. The club smashed the Jacksonville Jaguars 40-14 in Week 13 and has a relatively easy five-game stretch coming up to close out the year.

    If the Lions can upset the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, they’ll set themselves up nicely to make the playoffs with the New York Jets, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers serving as their only remaining foes.

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7)

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    ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 04: Kenny Pickett #8 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on at the line of scrimmage against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 04, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
    Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

    The Pittsburgh Steelers were facing an uphill battle going into 2022. After the retirement of longtime quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the odds of the organization getting back into the playoffs for the third consecutive year were low.

    While those odds remain low—they have a 6 percent chance of making the field—it’s rather impressive the team is still alive at this juncture.

    The Steelers started the campaign with free-agent pickup Mitch Trubisky as their starting quarterback, but it didn’t take long for the slumping offense to make a change to rookie first-round pick Kenny Pickett.

    While Pickett has had his struggles—he’s thrown only four touchdowns against eight interceptions—he’s managed to guide Pittsburgh to a 4-4 record in his eight starts. He’s accomplished this despite Najee Harris averaging only 3.8 yards per carry and Chase Claypool getting traded at the beginning of November.

    Pittsburgh’s defense has helped despite allowing the ninth-most yardage in the league and giving up 23.1 points per game. It has played the run well—allowing only 107.5 yards per game on the ground—and is opportunistic, recording the second-most interceptions in the NFL (14) despite a rash of injuries in the secondary.

    With three wins in the last four games, the Steelers could make a late surge into the playoffs with a strong finish. They have a matchup with the rival Baltimore Ravens on tap in Week 14, a foe that will likely be without starting signal-caller Lamar Jackson due to a knee injury.

    Pittsburgh also faces the Ravens again in Week 17, with a pair of clashes against playoff hopefuls in the Carolina Panthers and Las Vegas Raiders sandwiched between. A season-ending showdown with the Cleveland Browns, another AFC North team hoping for a late surge, could ultimately determine the Steelers’ fate.

Las Vegas Raiders (5-7)

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    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 04: Derek Carr #4 of the Las Vegas Raiders warms up prior to a game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Allegiant Stadium on December 04, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)
    Chris Unger/Getty Images

    After one of the most disappointing starts to the 2022 season of any team, the Las Vegas Raiders are back in the playoff hunt.

    The Raiders have ripped off three consecutive wins and have a 95 percent chance of making the postseason if they can keep their streak alive over their final five games. It's never easy to win eight straight games—and losing even one would drop the team's estimated postseason chances below 50 percent—but Vegas could run the table if it continues this incredible resurgence.

    Extraordinary play by superstar wideout Davante Adams has sparked Vegas’ resurgence. After coming over in a trade in the offseason, Adams struggled with consistency in Las Vegas' first nine games (2-7 record).

    He’s since re-established immense chemistry with his college quarterback Derek Carr, linking up with the signal-caller for 22 receptions on 36 targets over the last three weeks, gaining 392 yards and scoring four touchdowns.

    The Raiders offense has rallied to average nearly 30 points during this three-game winning streak, a huge improvement over the 13.3 points this unit put up during the three straight losses suffered between Weeks 8 and 10.

    It certainly isn't hurting that running back Josh Jacobs has developed into a force this year, The 24-year-old is leading the league with 1,303 rushing yards and is one of just four backs to score at least 10 touchdowns on the ground.

    Following a much-needed victory over the rival Los Angeles Chargers this weekend, Vegas’ playoff chances increased to 16 percent.

    With a rather easy schedule upcoming that includes a prime-time Thursday Night Football battle with the downtrodden Los Angeles Rams this week, the path to capping off one of the more unexpected midseason turnarounds with a postseason berth could become even more clear.

Carolina Panthers (4-8)

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    CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - NOVEMBER 27: Sam Darnold #14 of the Carolina Panthers hands the ball to D'Onta Foreman #33 during the second half against the Denver Broncos at Bank of America Stadium on November 27, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    It’s hard to imagine that a team that has cycled between three different starting quarterbacks, is on its second head coach of the campaign and traded its best offensive talent could even have a chance at making the playoffs, let alone realistically get into the field.

    That could be the case, however, if the Carolina Panthers continue winning over these next five weeks. If the club wins out, it will have a 95 percent chance of making the playoffs, while one loss in that span would still give the Panthers a realistic shot (an estimated 65 percent) at getting in.

    After canning head coach Matt Rhule in early October following an abysmal 1-4 start—finishing his three-year tenure with a 11-27 record and zero playoff berths—the Panthers have looked much more respectable under interim head coach Steve Wilks.

    Wilks has brought some measure of stability to an organization that seemed to have no real path to success.

    While the quarterback position has been in flux in Wilks' time as HC—Sam Darnold's Week 12 return (and win) might have been a reason the team waived quarterback Baker Mayfield on Monday—there have been some promising developments in recent weeks.

    Even after dealing away Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers at the trade deadline, the Panthers have run the ball incredibly well. They amassed 185 yards and a touchdown on 46 carries in a win over the Denver Broncos in Week 12 and tallied an eye-popping 232 rushing yards and two scores on 47 totes to beat the Atlanta Falcons in Week 10.

    Carolina’s defense has been stingy as well, holding its last three opponents to an average of less than 13 points.

    With a much-needed Week 13 bye to get healthy and one of the easiest remaining schedules of any team, the Panthers have a realistic chance—estimated to be 8 percent right now—of earning arguably the most improbable playoff berth of any team this year.