In a season that features two divisions led by a team with seven losses, the landscape of the playoff picture is actually clearer than usual with two weeks remaining.
Entering Week 16, the NFC Wild Card race is basically decided, with the Falcons clinging to hopes of a miracle as the last team that could threaten the Vikings. The AFC does include three teams vying for two positions, but, in addition to no other competition, the Wild Card race might actually be settled before Week 17. Naturally, the state of the AFC South and the NFC East allows six teams to compete for two division titles, but the level of competition is so comparatively low that a division winner will be crowned by default.
Thankfully for the portion of the football-watching world that loves drama, many of the division teams still fighting for the title will be playing against one another in at least one of the next two weeks. With that, a de facto postseason is about to begin.
1. Carolina Panthers (LW: 1) – Record: 14-0
For the better part of their Week 15 game, it appeared as if the Carolina Panthers were going to cruise to a 14-0 record. Instead, they needed a last-second field goal to stave off the Giants who surged back to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. The obvious takeaway from the game is the determination of whether the Panthers showed their weaknesses or simply powered through to another win, however the story also circled around the play of cornerback Josh Norman and his constant battle with Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. Considering that the Panthers left MetLife Stadium unscathed, the scuffling that took place might actually propel Carolina further, as the team could have fallen victim to complacency.
2. Arizona Cardinals (LW: 2) – Record: 12-2
If the Panthers were not running away with the league, the story of the NFC would be the 12-2 Arizona Cardinals. Then again, perhaps a twelve-win team effectively flying under the radar is the best-case scenario, as the Cardinals have not lost since October 18, yet quietly go about their business. With only two games remaining, it appears unlikely that Arizona will catch the Panthers for home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but they are potentially on the verge of a first-round bye, regardless.
3. New England Patriots (LW: 3) – Record: 12-2
The New England Patriots have now completely recovered from their two-game skid to the tune of back-to-back victories and the best record in the AFC. With the success the franchise has experienced over the past decade, another twelve-win season should not come as a surprise to anyone. Then again, the 2015 Patriots have seen an abnormal amount of injuries to key players, yet keep moving forward.
4. Green Bay Packers (LW: 4) – Record: 10-4
Although the Green Bay Packers suffered a 1-4 skid that dropped them out of first place during the middle portion of the season, they are back in the postseason thanks to a Week 15 victory that extends the team’s winning streak to three games. The timing for Green Bay securing a playoff berth could not have been better, as the Packers close the season with two difficult games — in Arizona and hosting the Vikings. With a one-game edge, the Packers have a number of avenues to yet another division title.
5. Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 6) – Record: 11-3
While playing against the 49ers is as close to a ‘sure-win’ as it can get, the Cincinnati Bengals entered their Week 15 road matchup with some uncertainty — the team had turned to backup quarterback A.J. McCarron in place of the injured Andy Dalton. McCarron and the Bengals stalled for the first portion of the game, only to pull away and never look back. The win sealed another playoff appearance by Cincinnati — the franchise’s fifth consecutive postseason berth — and took strides to stave off the charging Steelers in the division race.
6. Seattle Seahawks (LW: 7) – Record: 9-5
The Seattle Seahawks never fail in defying the odds. It is completely reasonable for a team to start the season 4-5 and simply wallow in mediocrity. Not the Seahawks. Now riding a five-game winning streak, Seattle has clinched yet another playoff berth thanks to its home win against the Browns in Week 15. With the division out of reach, the best that the Seahawks can do is secure the fifth seed, but, considering where the team was only a handful of weeks ago, the Seahawks have already achieved their goal.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 8) – Record: 9-5
Like the Seahawks, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the perfect example of the value of consistency within a franchise. Devastated by injuries in the first half of the season, the Steelers finally fielded a complete team — albeit still without running back Le’Veon Bell — and subsequently went on a run. 5-1 in their last six games and barreling towards another playoff berth, the Steelers arguably faced — and beat — their toughest remaining competition with a road victory in Denver in Week 15. Now 9-5 and in control of their own destiny, the Steelers remain as dangerous as ever.
8. Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 9) – Record: 9-5
At this point, it has to happen. The Kansas City Chiefs have now won eight consecutive games, clinched a winning record, and control their own playoff destiny. To ice the cake, the Chiefs will also be hosting the Browns and Raiders to end the season. What seemed impossible now looks like the only logical outcome — Kansas City is tearing through the league and is poised to make the playoffs.
9. Denver Broncos (LW: 5) – Record: 10-4
Now, it’s getting interesting. Once 7-0 and leading the Chiefs by more than four games in the AFC West, the Denver Broncos have now lost back-to-back games, four of their last seven, and hold a single-game edge in the division. There is even the possibility that Denver might fall out of the playoff picture, entirely, although it would take a nearly impossible series of events. Regardless, the conclusion of the Broncos’ season might come down a decision at the quarterback position with only two games remaining.
10. New York Jets (LW: 10) – Record: 9-5
It would have been too much to ask for the New York Jets to do anything easily. Despite nine wins, New York neither controls its own destiny nor performed like a postseason team when beating the 4-10 Cowboys in Week 15. With a home game against Patriots followed by a trip to Buffalo to round out the season, if the Jets make the playoffs, it will be well-deserved considering the road they had to take.
11. Minnesota Vikings (LW: 11) – Record: 9-5
After losing three of their last four games, the validity of the Minnesota Vikings was called into question. As good teams do, the Vikings responded with a win against an inferior opponent, beating the Bears at home in Week 15. The Vikings had stored enough wins in the first half of the season to be able to survive a downturn, and now sit at 9-5 and in control of their own destiny.
12. Washington Redskins (LW: 12) – Record: 7-7
Finally, something is going right for the Washington Redskins. Aided by a mediocre division, all season, the Redskins have now ascended to the top of the NFC East alone. Of course, Washington cannot relax, as it travels to Philadelphia on Saturday night to face an Eagles team currently one game out of first place. For a division that refuses to be won with ease, the Redskins are the only NFC East team that can control how it concludes.
13. Houston Texans (LW: 15) – Record: 7-7
Considering someone had to leave Week 15 with the lead in the AFC South, the Houston Texans were as fit as anyone to hold the title. After beating the Colts in Indianapolis for the first time in history, Houston moves to 7-7, good for first place in the division. ‘Good’ is the operative word, as the Texans have clearly been aided by a pedestrian division. In addition, Houston completed its Week 15 game with its fourth-string quarterback, calling into question how successful the team can be if it cannot remain healthy at the most important singular position.
14. Atlanta Falcons (LW: 19) – Record: 7-7
The Atlanta Falcons could not have possibly lost every game. Once 6-1 and in prime position to waltz into the playoffs, the Falcons promptly fell apart, losing six consecutive games heading into Week 15. With a road win against the Jaguars, the Falcons’ slim playoff hopes remain alive, although they would have to give the 14-0 Panthers their first loss if they want to survive another week.
15. Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 14) – Record: 6-8
For some inexplicable reason, the math always appears to work out in favor of the Philadelphia Eagles, even if the outcomes do not. With a home loss to the Cardinals in Week 15, the Eagles fell to 6-8 on the year, but still only a single game out of first place in the NFC East. With the Eagles hosting the division-leading Redskins in Week 16, a win would, again, put Philadelphia back on track for a playoff berth.
16. Oakland Raiders (LW: 16) – Record: 6-8
Indeed, these are still the Oakland Raiders. Despite numerous attempts to turn 2015 into, at least, a winning season, the Raiders are now destined for an eight-loss season, at best. With the games against the Packers, Broncos, and Chiefs — twice — in the final four games, wins would be at a premium, but it is clear that the Raiders have not yet taken the proverbial ‘next step.’
17. New York Giants (LW: 13) – Record: 6-8
The New York Giants will either swirl in inconsistency or follow a script to perfection. Going from the former to the latter throughout the course of 2015 — that is, playing at a high level but failing to secure wins — the Giants performed exactly as expected when facing a powerhouse from Carolina in Week 15 — going toe-to-toe in a loss. Unfortunately for New York, style points only go so far, and, with the Redskins one game ahead in the division race, the Giants are left with a 6-8 record and a talented wide receiver who continues to put his personal agenda above the team’s.
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 17) – Record: 6-8
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had showed flashes of a potentially successful future throughout the middle portion of the 2015 season, however, their inadequacies are still prevalent. With three losses in their last four games — all against teams with losing records, as well — the Buccaneers are locked into a non-winning season for the fifth consecutive year.
19. Buffalo Bills (LW: 18) – Record: 6-8
While the Buffalo Bills have avoided an all-out free-fall, they have slowly descended as the season progressed. With a Week 15 loss in Washington — as well as a 1-4 record in their last five games, the Bills were officially eliminated from playoff contention. The focus now shifts to their Week 17 matchup — as Week 16’s game against the Cowboys has no postseason implications — when the Jets will come to town, likely still in a playoff race.
20. St. Louis Rams (LW: 24) – Record: 6-8
If the St. Louis Rams just played their final game in Missouri, they will, at least, go out with a win. After beating the Buccaneers on Thursday Night Football, the Rams will go into the final two weeks of the season trying to avoid a losing season for the first time since 2006. With a trip to Seattle next on the schedule, the task will not be easy, but the Rams will have the opportunity to play the role of ‘spoiler’ for their division rivals.
21. Indianapolis Colts (LW: 20) – Record: 6-8
As franchises go through the same highs and lows as their athletes, the Indianapolis Colts have teetered on the edge of a cliff for the entire season. Surviving the loss of quarterback Andrew Luck carried the team into a first-place tie entering Week 15, but a home loss against the Texans likely pushed the Colts over the edge. Indianapolis was simply dealt a bad hand in 2015.
22. Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 21) – Record: 5-9
In the end, 2015 will officially be another losing season for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Now 5-9 after falling to the Falcons in Week 15, the Jaguars clinched a losing record for the fifth consecutive year. With the AFC South being the disaster that it is, the Jaguars can still earn a division title by winning their last two games — and getting help — but, as the league’s third-worst scoring defense heads to New Orleans in Week 16, it will have to revert to the mid-season version of itself that held the Ravens and Titans to 20 and 13 points, respectively.
23. Detroit Lions (LW: 27) – Record: 5-9
If the Detroit Lions are out to prove anything, it is that their 1-7 start to the season was not indicative of their talent level throughout the season. With four wins in their last six games — including a loss against the Packers that ended with a Hail Mary — the Lions have, at least, regained respectability. As an exclamation point for the team’s recovery, Detroit capped off the last of its featured game with a nationally-televised win in Week 15.
24. New Orleans Saints (LW: 22) – Record: 5-9
The New Orleans Saints have been trending down for the past two years, and have finally guaranteed a losing record. With a Week 15 home loss to the Lions, the Saints have now clinched their first pair of back-to-back losing seasons since 1999. The nine-loss Saints marks the low point of Sean Payton era, and the final two games of the year might go a long way in determining the future of the organization.
25. San Diego Chargers (LW: 31) – Record: 4-10
For a previously 3-10 team, the San Diego Chargers finally exerted their will on an opponent when beating the Dolphins in Week 15. Like the Rams, the Chargers may have just played their last game in their current home, and, with only four wins on the season, arguably saved the best for last.
26. Chicago Bears (LW: 23) – Record: 5-9
In similar fashion to recent years, the Chicago Bears entered Week 15 with only the hope to play ‘spoiler’ to a division rival. Instead, the Bears lost in Minnesota for their fourth defeat in their last five games. With the Buccaneers and Lions left on their schedule, the Bears will close out another losing season with meaningless football games.
27. Miami Dolphins (LW: 25) – Record: 5-9
The ship continues to sink in Miami. Now losers of four of their last five — including a two-point victory over the lowly Ravens — and six of their last eight, the Miami Dolphins continue to spiral out of control. If interim head coach Dan Campbell had hoped to earn a job with the franchise in the coming years, his efforts remain to be wasted on a team that continually fails to show up to games.
28. Dallas Cowboys (LW: 26) – Record: 4-10
Mercifully, the 4-10 Dallas Cowboys are finally officially eliminated from playoff contention. With a Week 15 home loss to the Jets that featured the benching of backup-turned-starting quarterback Matt Cassel, the Cowboys also clinched their first double-digit loss season since 2010.
29. Baltimore Ravens (LW: 28) – Record: 4-10
Stop the fight. The Baltimore Ravens are nothing more than defenseless victims. After starting the season with an unprecedented twelve games decided by eight points or less, the Ravens have now suffered back-to-back blowouts at the hands of the Seahawks and Chiefs. Week 16 affords the Ravens no sanctuary, as the Steelers come to town with their playoff destiny in their own hands.
30. San Francisco 49ers (LW: 29) – Record: 4-10
Another week, another embarrassing performance by an offense that ranks last in the league for points and yards gained. With their Week 15 home loss, the San Francisco 49ers have now scored seventeen points or fewer in seven of its last eight games. In addition, while the 49ers have a one-game edge on the Browns and Titans for the worst record in football, San Francisco might actually challenge for the first pick in next year’s draft.
31. Tennessee Titans (LW: 32) – Record: 3-11
The Tennessee Titans cannot have the 2015 season end soon enough. Now 3-11 after playing the part of ‘sacrificial lamb’ in New England in Week 15, the Titans enter the final two games of the season tied for the worst record in the league. At least, they will get to play their two division rivals that are currently competing for the AFC South in an effort to have some impact on the postseason picture.
32. Cleveland Browns (LW: 30) – Record: 3-11
As unpredictable as the National Football League is, the Cleveland Browns are likely staring at another 3-13 season. After losing by seventeen in Seattle — Cleveland has six double-digit losses in its last eight games — the Browns will travel to Kansas City before hosting the playoff-hungry Steelers in Week 17. The Browns’ scouting department should be busy, as Cleveland appears to be on the verge of securing the top pick in next year’s draft.