With the trade deadline having passed, teams have a better idea what everyone’s optimal stretch-run lineups will look like. A handful of dominant teams have surfaced, and several second-tier contenders are present as well.
But what about possible late-blooming teams? Multiple squads picked by many to advance to the playoffs are under .500. Which teams will the second-tier contenders have to worry about in the second half?
The obvious place to start is the AFC South, where a once-0-3 team is in front. The Texans entered the season with the best Las Vegas playoff odds and are living up to the hype. They’re a major threat to become the first 0-3 team to make the playoffs since the 1998 Bills. The division’s other three teams have three wins, hovering behind the Chargers, Bengals and Ravens in the AFC wild-card race.
Jacksonville’s decision to retain and extend Blake Bortles is backfiring, but the team still offers one of the best defensive outlooks in the game. However, the defending division champs have lost four straight and still have the Texans, Steelers and Redskins on the schedule.
Indianapolis won two straight going into its bye, has a three-game homestand on tap, and one winning team remains on its schedule. Featuring Andrew Luck (23 TD passes, second in the NFL) and an improved front — headlined by the first guard to win an a rookie of the month award in Quenton Nelson — Indy’s offense ranks sixth in scoring (28.9 points per game). Tennessee’s only 3-4 but may be in more trouble, having lost three straight and sporting the No. 30 passing attack. Marcus Mariota‘s thrown just three touchdown passes this season; the Titans have games against the Patriots, Texans and Redskins left.
Shifting to the NFC South, can the Falcons overcome their litany of defensive injuries and crawl back into the race? At 3-4, Atlanta is one game out of the NFC’s second wild-card spot, and Matt Ryan is on pace to surpass 5,000 yards in a re-established aerial attack. But the Falcons’ defense sits 31st in DVOA, though Deion Jones is on the way back, and their ground game ranks 30th. Atlanta also has six road games remaining.
The Buccaneers may be headed toward a postseason house-cleaning, with Dirk Koetter (and probably Jason Licht) back on the hot seat and Jameis Winston benched. Can Fitzmagic and a deep pass-catcher arsenal save Tampa Bay or at least stave off another bleak second half?
In trading a first-round pick for Amari Cooper, the Cowboys certainly believe they’re a stealth contender. At 3-4 and behind both the Redskins and Eagles in the NFC East, the Cowboys defied conventional wisdom and gave up what could be a top-12 pick for an inconsistent wide receiver. While Dallas carries the No. 11 DVOA defense, its offense (25th) hasn’t clicked. That said, the team’s lost its past two road games — against division leaders Houston and Washington — by six combined points. If the Cowboys can’t pull this off, might it finally be the end of the line for Jason Garrett? Jerry Jones said he’s not considering an extension for the signed-through-2019 HC.
The Jets were not expected to make the playoffs, have lost two straight and still have two Patriots games left. More was expected of the Broncos, whose post-Super Bowl 50 trajectory represents a prime modern example of the quarterback position’s importance. Although they quietly are DVOA’s No. 7 team, the Broncos are 2-10 in Vance Joseph-coached road games and have five remaining games against winning teams. Those will come after the team made a seller’s trade in unloading Demaryius Thomas. The Lions, too, sold a key asset and appear to be playing for the future. However, they’re still only one game out of the NFC North lead.
So, who has the best chance of re-routing their season into a playoff bracket? Vote in PFR’s latest poll and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.