Holiday Guide to Hapless Playoff Hopefuls, From Ravens to...Raiders?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 21, 2017

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) in the huddle during an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The holidays belong to the NFL's hapless hopefuls. The long shots and wannabes. The flawed-but-pesky wild-card lingerers whose playoff hopes now dangle like a strand of tinsel.

Forget the Patriots and Eagles, with their first-round byes and looming rest-the-starters controversies. Christmas is for teams like the Lions and Titans.

This rundown of the last-gasp playoff hangers-on will get you reacquainted with the teams taking center stage over the next two weeks, some of which are rarely watched or written about (see: Lions, Titans). It covers every team with eight or fewer wins that has not been mathematically eliminated. Teams are listed in order of their chance of reaching the playoffs, according to the Football Outsiders Playoff Odds report.

Some of these teams could go on a run. Many are shockingly bad. But they all still have hope. And that's what Christmas and New Year's are all about.

   

Kansas City Chiefs (Playoff Chance: 95.1 percent)

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 19:  Head coach Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs reacts to a play against the Oakland Raiders during their NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on October 19, 2017 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In the playoff race thanks to: Playing like the Lombardi Packers in September. Taking drastic steps to right the ship in December.

What they are good at: The Chiefs' unpredictable, NCAA-flavored offense made Alex Smith look like an MVP candidate for six weeks, but 95 percent of insiders still swear such tactics don't work in the NFL because #ConventionalWisdom.

What they are bad at: Stopping the run. Stopping the pass. Stopping anything.

Team MVP: Travis Kelce, combination blocking tight end and go-to possession receiver.

Unanswered question: If Andy Reid gave up play-calling duties and sent Marcus Peters a wake-up call a few weeks earlier, would the Chiefs be vying for a first-round bye? Their Giants, Bills and Jets losses might all be wins if Reid were more proactive.

The last word: The Chiefs have all of the tiebreakers they need to win a bad division and a pair of manageable games (the Dolphins at Arrowhead, what's left of the Broncos) remaining. They're always feisty playoff fodder, but never anything more. Patrick Mahomes may change that next year, but you have to be a dedicated Smith basher to think he would have changed it this year.

   

Baltimore Ravens (Playoff Chance: 93.6 percent)

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 27: Quarterback Tom Savage #3 of the Houston Texans is sacked by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs #55 of the Baltimore Ravens in the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on November 27, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Scott T
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

In the playoff race thanks to: Self-knowledge. Unlike teams like the Raiders, the Ravens never fooled themselves into thinking they were high-octane challengers for the Steelers and Patriots. Their ugly, no-frills system is designed to clobber bad opponents and backup quarterbacks, and the Ravens faced plenty of both this year.

What they are good at: Beating up on Brett Hundley, EJ Manuel, Tom Savage, Matt Moore, etc. Dominating the takeaway differential (a league-high plus-17). Keeping Justin Tucker on their good side.

What they are bad at: Per tradition, the two most effective plays in the Ravens passing game are roughing the passer and pass interference penalties.

Team MVP: Ageless Terrell Suggs remains a devastating pass-rusher and disruptive run-stopper.

Unanswered question: If the Ravens make the playoffs, beat the Chiefs on the road and throw a scare into the Patriots or Steelers—all of which is possibledoes that trigger a Groundhog Day scenario where we get three more years of Joe Flacco?

The last word: The Ravens are the pig your grandpa warned you about wrestling with: You both get filthy, but the pig loves it. Finishing the season with games against the Colts and Bengals is like wild-card EZ Pass, and first-round hosts must be wary of getting lulled into a sack-and-field-goal fest with the masters of messy football.

No one is looking forward to playing or watching the Ravens outside of the I-695 Beltway. But the other AFC also-rans need to get better to make the them go away, because the Ravens never get worse...they just get more Ravens.

   

Tennessee Titans (Playoff Chance: 48.8 percent)

Wade Payne/Associated Press

In the playoff race thanks to: Surprising early wins against the Jaguars and Seahawks, followed by months of victories over the Colts and Browns and losses to any team with a pulse.

What they are good at: Talking about how committed they are to running the ball and rushing the passer.

What they are bad at: Running the ball and rushing the passer.

Kidding! They are OK at both, but their philosophy requires them to be great at each.

Team MVP: Safety Kevin Byard is a monster against bad offenses (six interceptions against the Browns, Ravens and Texans), but he's more-good-than-great against quality opponents. That makes him the ultimate Tennessee Titan.

Unanswered question: If Superman showed up at team headquarters and said, "Hi! I am Kal-El of Krypton, and I am eager to play running back for the Tennessee Titans," would head coach Mike Mularkey still give DeMarco Murray the majority of backfield touches?

The last word: "Exotic smashmouth" has given way to a pedestrian offense in which the second-best running back trudges between the tackles and Marcus Mariota throws softballs to receivers who never stretch the field. The Titans excel at feasting on cupcakes but are hapless on the road (3-5) and in games that matter. If their Week 17 matchup with the Jaguars is flexed to Sunday Night Football, it could spell trouble for this team's stage fright.

   

Buffalo Bills (Playoff Chance: 35.3 percent)

Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

In the playoff race thanks to: One of the easiest schedules this side of Tennessee, plus narrow wins over the two playoff teams most likely to slip and fall climbing out of their own bathtubs (the Falcons and Chiefs).

What they are good at: Creating turnovers on defense. Exploiting Tyrod Taylor's mobility and creativity on offense.

What they are bad at: Accepting that they are better off exploiting Taylor's mobility and creativity than trying to recreate the magic of Matt Schaub and the 2012 Texans.

Team MVP: LeSean McCoy leads the Bills in rushing and receiving yards. He just crossed the 10,000-rushing-yard plateau for his career. McCoy would be a surefire Hall of Famer if he didn't spend his career bouncing from Chip Kelly to Rex Ryan to the guys who tried to make Nathan Peterman a thing.

Unanswered question (non-Peterman edition): Would the Bills like a Marcell Dareus trade do-over? Dareus' replacements have been bad, and Buffalo's run defense has deteriorated in his absence. Head coach Sean McDermott and company must learn that "changing the team culture" cannot automatically mean "getting rid of the talented guys."

The last word: The Bills are better than the Titans or Ravens, but they maneuvered themselves behind the tiebreaker eight ball by losing winnable games (Bengals, Jets and yes, the Chargers). Any set of playoff scenarios that starts with "win in Foxborough when home-field advantage is on the line for the Patriots" is not an encouraging set of playoff scenarios.

Bringing the Bills to the postseason for the first time in 17 years would be an impressive accomplishment in McDermott's debut season. He just should not have made things so hard on himself.

   

Detroit Lions (Playoff Chance: 16.2 percent)

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

In the playoff race thanks to: Winning the games they were expected to win and losing the games they were expected to lose.

What they are good at: Nailing down close games in the fourth quarter.

What they are bad at: The Lions average just 3.4 yards per rush and have recorded just 28 sacks.

Team MVP: Matthew Stafford. If you watch him, you will learn to appreciate him.

Unanswered question: Are the Lions trying to hover around .500 every year?

The last word: The NFL's most contentedly ordinary team may lack identity or a direction, but it gets to face the Bengals while the Cowboys and Seahawks clobber each other and the NFC South hosts a battle royale on Christmas Eve. Skittering into the playoffs by kicking a late field goal against a bad team and then beating the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers while all of the other contenders crash into a heap would be the ultimate Lions achievement.

   

Los Angeles Chargers (Playoff Chance: 22.2 percent)

Roger Steinman/Associated Press

In the playoff race thanks to: A midseason hot streak against injured, disorganized and/or demoralized opponents.

What they are good at: Sacking quarterbacks. Solidifying Keenan Allen's Comeback Player of the Year status.

What they are bad at: Selling tickets. Finding kickers. Stopping runs between the tackles.

Team MVP: Allen, Philip Rivers, Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Casey Heyward and Melvin Gordon all deserve team-MVP consideration. It's the bottom of the Chargers roster you have to worry about.

Unanswered question: How much difference would a real home-field advantage and quality kicking have made this season? The Chargers almost certainly would have beaten the Dolphins in Week 2 if they made one of the two field goals they missed and gotten a smidgen of crowd support. The rest is mere speculation. But that win would have major wild-card ramifications now.

The last word: A sweep at the hands of the Chiefs and other bad conference losses pushed the Chargers to the back of a weak playoff chase, and even their "easy" games aren't that easy (like Sunday's East Coast early game against the Jets). They have the front-line talent to cause trouble in the postseason, but they didn't do enough in their relocation season to support that front-line talent.

   

Dallas Cowboys (Playoff Chance: 10.9 percent)

Roger Steinman/Associated Press

In the playoff race thanks to: A three-game winning streak against a team with no healthy players (Washington), a team with no coach or general manager (Giants) and a team using the old Super Tecmo Bowl playbook, minus Bo Jackson (the Raiders).

What they are good at: Running the football straight down your windpipe when everyone is healthy and available.

What they are bad at: Overcoming the least bit of adversity.

Team MVP: Tyron Smith. He was injured for two games and returned for a third game after a short week. The Cowboys lost by a combined 92-22 score and surrendered 14 sacks in those three games. They gave up just 13 sacks in the 11 games Smith entered at full strength.

Unanswered question: Will Dak Prescott's up-and-down early career finally convince fans and pundits that quarterback perceptions are largely a product of circumstances like protection, support and game situation, freeing us from the bipolar elite-or-garbage roller coaster of hot-take analysis...wait, hold on, let me finish my column on Why Blake Bortles Now Deserves Andrew Luck Money. Where were we?

The last word: Ezekiel Elliott's return gives the Cowboys a chance to win out, especially against a Seahawks defense which suddenly cannot stop the run. But the Cowboys were losing big games this season long before Elliott and Smith went missing (see Rams, Packers).

The Cowboys must find a way to win when they aren't running for eight yards on every first down to become the contenders they thought they were entering the season.

   

Seattle Seahawks (Playoff Chance: 10.0 percent)

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 17:  Quarterback Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks rushes against linebacker Connor Barwin #98 of the Los Angeles Rams at CenturyLink Field on December 17, 2017 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

In the playoff race thanks to: Russell Wilson, early-season wins before the Legion of Boom became an Earl Thomas one-man show, 12th-man mojo.

What they are good at: Anything that looks like it took place in a three-on-three pickup game in the stadium parking lot after Jello shots.

What they are bad at: Anything that looks like conventional football.

Team MVP: Russell Wilson. The Seahawks would be 4-10 right now with any other quarterback. That includes Tom Brady, who would have gotten hurt behind Seattle's offensive line by Week 5.

Unanswered question: Have the Seahawks figured out they have a problem yet? There's a danger that they will crawl back into the playoffs with Wilson as their only rushing threat, an offensive line full of traffic cones and a defense that turns into kids movie bullies when things don't go their way and think, "Let's repeat this successful formula next year!"

The last word: The Seahawks are the NFL's caged, cornered animal, and no one wants to get mauled by them in the playoffs. But two Seahawks wins (Cowboys in Seattle and Cardinals) and a just-right combination of NFC South round-robin results are each possible, so brace yourself for mayhem.

And while the NFC contenders forced to face them may disagree, the Seahawks make the postseason far more interesting than the forgettable Falcons or Lions ever could.

   

Miami Dolphins: (Playoff Chance: 4.4 percent)

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

In the playoff race thanks to: The AFC, which stinks this year.

What they are good at: Building around Ndamukong Suh and Jay Cutler, then trading Jay Ajayi because the team mysteriously developed a hot-and-cold commitment to winning.

What they are bad at: Showing up most weeks. The Dolphins have been outscored 61-38 in first quarters and 189-95 in first halves, according to the NFL's Game Statistics and Information System.

Team MVP: Cornerback Xavien Howard has had an All-Pro season, and his superstar performance against the Patriots is the reason we are still writing about the Dolphins. So blame him.

Unanswered questions: Would Ryan Tannehill have made a difference? Comb the Dolphins schedule and you may find a game or two Tannehill would have won that Cutler or Matt Moore lost. But it's a stretch to push the Dolphins much past 7-7 even if everything went according to plan this season. That's a problem, because based on pure talent, they should have blown the AFC also-rans away instead of positioning themselves at the back of the field.

The last word: The Dolphins' playoff hopes rest on winning out against still-hungry Chiefs and Bills teams, plus an unlikely combination of Browns, Colts and Jets victories elsewhere. Let's move on to something even less likely.

   

Oakland Raiders (Playoff Chance: 0.7 percent)

Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

Still in the playoff race thanks to: Eye-spinning tiebreaker trigonometry.

What they are good at: Ummm…

What they are bad at: Stopping runs up the middle, short passes or deep passes. Using their offensive resources properly. Fooling anyone.

Team MVP: Khalil Mack has 10.5 of the team's 28 sacks.

Unanswered questions: Can you list all of the Raiders offensive plays? There's the empty-backfield, everyone-runs-hitch-routes play, the inside handoff from the bunch formation, the slow-developing shallow crosses over the middle from shotgun, the random deep shot to Michael Crabtree, the end-around that can be spotted from space (uh-oh, Cordarelle Patterson's in motion, what could that mean?) and maybe five others. And folks wonder why Derek Carr has regressed.

The last word: The Raiders make the playoffs in the event of a shame-ridden four- to five-team 8-8 pileup involving the Bills, Titans, Dolphins and possibly the Chargers. If that happens, the AFC should be punished by transferring the Seahawks over as their sixth seed. 

     

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier

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