In or Out? Predicting Where Every Fringe 2020 NFL Playoff Team Will Land

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistNovember 26, 2020

In or Out? Predicting Where Every Fringe 2020 NFL Playoff Team Will Land

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    The NFL playoff picture is a constantly shifting landscape, and it's been particularly difficult to separate the contenders from the pretenders in 2020.

    Aside from perhaps the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints—the only three teams with a record better than 7-3—most squads have had both remarkable and dreadful performances.

    Of course, it's not how a team gets to the playoffs; it's whether it gets there. Even an average team with a winning record and/or a division title can do damage in the postseason. Let's not forget about the time the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks hosted an 11-win Saints team and won a Wild Card Game in the 2010 postseason.

    With an expanded 14-team playoff format (up from 12), even more squads will have the opportunity to provide upsets. 

    Here we'll take a closer look at 12 squads on the bubble, including the teams that occupy the last two seeds in each conference and the top four teams in each conference vying for those positions. We'll also dig into the NFC East race, which will almost assuredly feature a non-winning team as its champion.    

    Which squads will get in? We'll make the call based on factors like past performance, team health and the remaining schedules. First, though, let's take a look at the playoff picture.

Playoff Picture

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    Matt Stamey/Associated Press

    AFC

    1. Pittsburgh Steelers 10-0

    2. Kansas City Chiefs 9-1

    3. Buffalo Bills 7-3

    4. Indianapolis Colts 7-3

    5. Tennessee Titans 7-3

    6. Cleveland Browns 7-3

    7. Las Vegas Raiders 6-4

    8. Baltimore Ravens 6-4

    9. Miami Dolphins 6-4

    10. Denver Broncos 4-6

    11. New England Patriots 4-6

                             

    NFC

    1. New Orleans Saints 8-2

    2. Los Angeles Rams 7-3

    3. Green Bay Packers 7-3

    4. Philadelphia Eagles 3-6-1

    5. Seattle Seahawks 7-3

    6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7-4

    7. Arizona Cardinals 6-4

    8. Chicago Bears 5-5

    9. Minnesota Vikings 4-6

    10. Detroit Lions 4-6

    11. San Francisco 49ers 4-6

NFC East

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    It makes sense to tackle the NFC East separately, as it is its own race in 2020. The Philadelphia Eagles lead the division at 3-6-1, while the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Football Team are all 3-7.

    It may sound cliche, but it is anyone's division at this point.

    Quarterback play could be the deciding factor. The Cowboys are without starter Dak Prescott, which could make it difficult to overcome their 32nd-ranked scoring defense. Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, meanwhile, has been playing a benchworthy brand of football.

    Wentz threw another two interceptions and took a safety in the Week 11 loss to the Cleveland Browns. He has thrown a league-high 14 interceptions and has fumbled the ball 10 times (four lost).

    The Giants at least have a steady presence under center in Daniel Jones and a team that plays more competitively than its talent level might suggest. Washington has a seasoned veteran in Alex Smith to go with a ferocious defensive front and the league's No. 1 pass defense (195.4 yards allowed per game).

    When it comes to scheduling, though, the Cowboys have the easiest path to the postseason. The Baltimore Ravens are the only team left on their schedule with a winning record, and they're in the middle of a slide, having lost three of their last four.

    If quarterback Andy Dalton can remain healthy, he has the weapons at his disposal to make Dallas formidable offensively. That could be enough to get past Washington on Thanksgiving in a game that will determine first place in the division. If the Cowboys can do that, they may not relinquish the lead the rest of the way.

    Verdict: Dallas wins the NFC East at 7-9

New England Patriots (4-6)

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    Matt Patterson/Associated Press

    Remaining Schedule: ARI, at LAC, at LAR, at MIA, BUF, NYJ

    11th in AFC

    The New England Patriots are in real danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. While it's easy to blame the departure of Tom Brady, quarterback play hasn't been the team's biggest issue.

    Cam Newton has performed fairly well considering how much injuries limited him over the past couple of seasons. He's only thrown four touchdowns, but he has recorded 1,900 yards through the air, rushed for 341 yards and ran for nine scores.

    The biggest issue is New England's defense. The Patriots rank 21st against the run, 15th against the pass and dead last in passing yards per attempt allowed. The decision of players like Patrick Chung and Dont'a Hightower to opt out of the season has played a factor, but the players on the roster haven't forged anything close to a shutdown unit.

    The defensive issues are exacerbated by the fact that Newton lacks reliable weapons in the passing game. Guys like Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd have been serviceable, but New England is not built to win shootouts. With teams like the Rams, Bills and Cardinals remaining on the schedule, it's hard to see New England even finishing at .500.

    Verdict: Out    

San Francisco 49ers (4-6)

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Remaining Schedule: at LAR, BUF, WAS, at DAL, at ARI, SEA

    11th in NFC

    A playoff berth appears to be unlikely for the San Francisco 49ers.

    The NFC's representative in Super Bowl LIV, the Niners have been felled by the injury bug this season. While getting back to the playoffs after a championship loss is always a daunting challenge, San Francisco's journey has been made harder by the loss of key players like defensive linemen Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas, tight end George Kittle and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

    San Francisco can still be dangerous, of course. Standout running back Raheem Mostert is cleared for return from a high ankle sprain, which could help the 49ers generate enough punch in the ground game to pull off upsets down the stretch.

    However, they are in a hole at 4-6 and will face four winning teams in their final six games. Even if they split those four contests and beat Washington and Dallas, they would be looking at an 8-8 record.

    Unless you're in the NFC East, 8-8 isn't going to make the playoffs this season.

    Verdict: Out

Denver Broncos (4-6)

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Remaining Schedule: NO, at KC, at CAR, BUF, at LAC, LV

    10th in AFC

    After starting 0-3, the Denver Broncos have won four of their last seven. They now have a healthy Drew Lock under center, a healthy backfield duo of Melvin Gordon III and Phillip Lindsay and the league's ninth-ranked pass defense.

    As the Broncos showed against the Miami Dolphins in Week 11, they have the tools to beat quality opponents down the stretch.

    Here's the problem, though. They will face several playoff-caliber teams in the final six weeks: the Saints, Chiefs, Bills and Raiders. Three of those four games are at home, but it's hard to see Denver pulling off more than two upsets out of the bunch.

    This means that the 4-6 hole the Broncos have put themselves in will likely keep them out of the playoffs. The AFC playoff race is littered with superior records—nine teams possess six or more wins—and Denver does not control its own destiny.

    Even if the Broncos win out, they'll be 10-6, and there's a real chance that a 10-win AFC team will get left out of the postseason in 2020.

    Verdict: Out

Detroit Lions (4-6)

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Remaining Schedule: HOU, at CHI, GB, at TEN, TB, MIN

    10th in the NFC

    If the Detroit Lions play the uninspired brand of football they did in Week 11, they may not win another game this season. They got blown out by the Carolina Panthers 20-0 on Sunday while looking listless on both sides of the ball. Panthers quarterback P.J. Walker—making his first NFL start—looked like he was back carving up XFL defenses.

    One of the biggest issues for Detroit is that it has a defensive-minded head coach in Matt Patricia, and the defense stinks.

    The Lions rank 30th against the run, 25th against the pass and 28th in points allowed per game. Even if they get an offensive boost whenever star wideout Kenny Golladay returns from his hip injury, the Lions aren't equipped to contain quality offenses.

    Detroit will face a brutal three-game stretch from Weeks 14 to 16. While the team may pull out a few wins down the stretch, it is probably not going to beat the Packers, Titans or Buccaneers.

    With just four games in the win column, Detroit should consider itself lucky to get to .500 by season's end. 

    Verdict: Out

Miami Dolphins (6-4)

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Remaining Schedule: at NYJ, CIN, KC, NE, at LV, at BUF

    9th in AFC

    The Miami Dolphins benched quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in Week 11, but that may have been a move to protect the team's future after the rookie was sacked six times by the Broncos. Presumably, the former Alabama star will be back under center the rest of the way.

    "There's no controversy. This is Tua's team," quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said, per ESPN's Cameron Wolfe. "He's going to lead this team."

    And this team is dangerous. Led by the league's fourth-ranked scoring defense, Miami came into Week 11 on a five-game winning streak and has beaten playoff-caliber teams like the Cardinals and Rams.

    With two very winnable games on the immediate horizon—against the 0-10 New York Jets and the Joe Burrow-less Cincinnati Bengals—the Dolphins should be sitting at 8-4 heading into the final month. If they can steal a game from the Chiefs, Bills or Raiders and beat New England, they can hit the 10-win mark only a year after being considered one of the NFL's worst squads.

    Will 10 wins be enough to make the postseason in the AFC? That'll depend on how other teams in the conference fare. Right now, that's a risky proposition.

    Verdict: Out

Minnesota Vikings (4-6)

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Remaining Schedule: CAR, JAX, at TB, CHI, at NO, at DET

    9th in NFC

    As previously stated, 8-8 isn't likely to be enough to make the postseason this year, and that may be the best the Minnesota Vikings can hope for. After losing to the Cowboys in Week 11, Minnesota sits at 4-6 and may have to win out to make the playoffs.

    Unless running back Dalvin Cook can put the team on his back and be a one-man upset machine, that isn't going to happen.

    In reality, the Vikings are too flawed at quarterback and on defense to win every game left on the slate. Kirk Cousins has been decent but inconsistent. He's had three multi-interception games. And the defense is just plain bad.

    Minnesota ranks 22nd against the run, 26th against the pass and 27th in points allowed.

    While the Vikings have enough talent to play spoiler—they beat the Packers in Week 8—they're going to have trouble against the Buccaneers and Saints on the road. Four or five more wins is possible, but at 4-6, even five wins for Minnesota may not be enough.    

    Verdict: Out

Baltimore Ravens (6-4)

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Remaining Schedule: at PIT, DAL, at CLE, JAX, NYG, at CIN

    8th in AFC

    The Baltimore Ravens aren't in a tailspin, but they've hit the slide zone in recent weeks. They have lost three of their last four games and could be headed to a third straight defeat against the undefeated Steelers on Sunday.

    Pittsburgh is always a tough challenge for Baltimore, but the matchup will be made harder by the absences of running backs Mark Ingram II and J.K. Dobbins, who are on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Even if the Ravens fall to 6-5, though, they could finish with 11 wins.

    After Pittsburgh, they will only face one team with a winning record: the Cleveland Browns. The last time these two teams met, Baltimore shellacked its AFC North rival to the tune of 38-6.

    The Ravens also rank first in rushing offense, 12th in scoring and third in points allowed per game. They should at least be favored in each of their final five contests, and if they can avoid late-season upsets, they will make the postseason.

    A bigger unknown might be whether Lamar Jackson and the Ravens can finally win a playoff game.

    Verdict: In

Chicago Bears (5-5)

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Remaining Schedule: at GB, DET, HOU, at MIN, at JAX, GB

    8th in NFC

    At one point this season, the Chicago Bears were 5-1 and playing like a postseason contender. However, they have lost four straight, have dealt with subpar quarterback play from Nick Foles and arguably even worse offensive play-calling.

    Head coach Matt Nagy handed play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor ahead of the Week 10 matchup with Minnesota. The result was six offensive points and another loss.

    "Obviously, we struggled mightily on offense," Nagy told reporters after the game.

    Chicago has a playoff-caliber defense—ranked ninth overall and sixth in points allowed—but its offensive woes may be too much to overcome. The Bears may move back to Mitchell Trubisky, but unless the fourth-year quarterback has grown tremendously since being benched earlier in the season, that isn't likely to have a dramatic impact.

    To get to 10 wins, the Bears will have to win five of their final six games, and that is going to be difficult with the Packers on the schedule twice. Their best chance of taking one of the two Green Bay matchups may be in the finale if the Packers rest starters in preparation for the postseason. With Green Bay still in contention for the NFC's top seed, that's not something the Bears can anticipate.

    Verdict: Out

Las Vegas Raiders (6-4)

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Remaining Schedule: at ATL, at NYJ, IND, LAC, MIA, at DEN

    7th in AFC

    The Raiders may have fallen to the Chiefs in Week 11, but they took them to the wire. In fact, the Raiders have already proved they can beat elite teams like Kansas City, which they did back in Week 5.

    Las Vegas is poised to make the postseason. It has a strong running game focused around Josh Jacobs and Devontae Booker. It has receiving weapons like Nelson Agholor, Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow, while Derek Carr might be the most underrated quarterback of 2020.

    Carr has thrown for 2,431 yards with 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions through 10 games and has a passer rating of 108.7.

    The biggest issue for Las Vegas has been a defense ranked 28th against the pass and 26th in points allowed. It has been a liability against teams like the Buccaneers and Chiefs, but it could be masked by a relatively easy remaining schedule.

    The Raiders have tough games against the Indianapolis Colts and the Dolphins, but the Atlanta Falcons, Jets, Chargers and Broncos represent very winnable games. If Las Vegas can get a victory against either Indianapolis or Miami, it has a shot at finishing 11-5.

    The Raiders will also benefit from owning the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Browns, increasing their odds of getting in with a 10-win record.

    Verdict: In

Arizona Cardinals (6-4)

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Remaining Schedule: at NE, LAR, at NYG, PHI, SF, at LAR

    7th in NFC

    The Cardinals have lost two of their last three games and are in danger of fading in the NFC playoff race. However, they can get back on track against the Patriots in Week 12, and they have a relatively forgiving remaining schedule.

    They have two tough matchups with the Rams, but L.A. is the only team looming with a winning record. If Arizona can claim one of those games, it can finish with 11 wins.

    There's plenty of reason to believe that the Cardinals can win at least four of their final six games. Kyler Murray is dangerous as both a runner and a passer, and he has arguably the best receiver in the game, DeAndre Hopkins, on his team. Arizona also has an underrated defense that ranks 13th in points allowed.

    The challenge will be avoiding letdowns against squads like New England, San Francisco and Philadelphia. That can't be guaranteed, as Arizona has already fallen to teams like Detroit and Miami this season.

    Still, the Cardinals are the seventh seed in the NFC, and if they beat the teams they should, they'll hold on to that spot.

    Verdict: In

Cleveland Browns (7-3)

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Remaining Schedule: at JAX, at TEN, BAL, at NYG, at NYJ, PIT

    6th in AFC

    At 7-3, the Browns are off to their best start since 1994. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean they will make the playoffs as they did that season.

    Here's the problem. Cleveland has largely beaten up on inferior opponents and has been blown out by both the Steelers and the Ravens. Pittsburgh and Baltimore remain on the schedule, and the Browns have a tough matchup with the Titans in Week 13.

    Cleveland can still get to 10 wins by beating the Jaguars, Giants and Jets, but the team is already without No. 1 wideout Odell Beckham Jr. and will be without its two best defensive players for the foreseeable future.

    Star pass-rusher Myles Garrett remains on the reserve/COVID-19 list after testing positive for the virus. Top cornerback Denzel Ward is expected to miss multiple weeks with a calf strain, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. This means a slip-up against a team like Jacksonville or the Giants is possible.

    And with a defense that ranks just 19th in points allowed and a mistake-prone quarterback in Baker Mayfield, it might even be likely.

    Cleveland's shot at the postseason may come down to Week 17 and whether the Steelers are in a position to rest their starters. If Pittsburgh remains undefeated or in danger of losing the AFC's No. 1 seed, that isn't going to happen.

    In typical Browns fashion, don't be shocked to see Cleveland blow its most promising start in nearly 30 years.

    Verdict: Out

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-4)

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    Remaining Schedule: KC, Bye, MIN, at ATL, at DET, ATL

    6th in NFC

    The Buccaneers have all the makings of a dangerous playoff contender. They have a defense ranked first against the run, fifth overall and 10th in points allowed. They have offensive weapons like Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. They have a six-time champion in quarterback Tom Brady.

    However, Brady and the Bucs also seem to have a problem with beating quality opponents—which could stem from Brady being in his first season with coach Bruce Arians.

    "I don't think it's a confidence problem whatsoever. It's not lack of trust—it's lack of continuity within the offense, of the whole picture," Arians said, per ESPN's Jenna Laine.

    The good news is that Tampa has exactly one winning team left on its schedule. If the Buccaneers can rebound and beat the Chiefs, they'll be in prime position to make the postseason, but even a loss this week will leave them in a strong position.

    The Vikings, Falcons and Lions all represent inferior opponents for the Buccaneers, and Tampa could finish on a four-game winning streak. The biggest problem for the Buccaneers may be if they and the Bears both finish 10-6—Chicago owns the head-to-head tiebreaker. However, as we've already discussed, 10 wins feels unlikely for Chicago.

    Barring a meltdown over the final month, Tampa should make the playoffs.

    Verdict: In