Pittsburgh appears to be more in a race for the top overall AFC seed than any challenge in the North. Chicago has a choke hold on the NFC North.
And did anyone think New England would be challenged in the AFC East? Combine the three other rosters in that sector and the resulting team might not challenge Tom Brady and the Patriots.
That leaves one division in serious doubt, and with some serious turmoil: the NFC East.
You’ll never hear a coach or general manager or owner claim anything is in the bag until, well, it’s in the bag, tied up and secured in a safe place. So don’t ask Sean Payton or Sean McVay or Matt Nagy about playoff byes and home-field advantages.
“For us, there’s so many different things we can get better at,” McVay says, “and that’s the exciting thing about it is with football, there’s this never-ending goal of continuing to improve and focus on the little things. Whether that’s situational football, whether that’s taking care of it or taking it away defensively. So, there’s a lot of things within the framework of every single situation.
“Then, it’s going to be about continuing to improve and playing team football. If we do that, then we think good things are going to happen, but it’s going to be a tough stretch. We’ve got some great games coming up. For us, when we get back, the No. 1 focus will be on the Detroit Lions and then we’ll go from there.”
But it’s crystal clear what’s going on, even before we reach December.
Barring major injuries — the kind of thing that is destroying the season for Philadelphia and Atlanta and Cincinnati — here’s what is going on:
The most interesting race is for which teams will wind up with a week off in the postseason. Kansas City (9-2) has the inside position, followed by Pittsburgh (7-2-1), New England and Houston, both 7-3. Sure, the Chargers (7-3) could sneak through in the West, and the Colts or Titans in the South. Does anyone really believe that will happen?
Home field is a huge edge for the Patriots, of course. They almost never lose at Foxborough in January.
Oddly, the Chiefs rarely win in KC in the postseason. They have lost their last six and haven’t been victorious at Arrowhead in the playoffs since 1993, when Joe Montana was their quarterback.
The Steelers aren’t particularly dominant at Heinz Field in the playoffs, either, but Houston is 3-1 at home in January.
The Chargers have a nice cushion for a wild card and do have a Thursday nighter at KC remaining. No other team has a winning record in the conference.
Pittsburgh has the least enviable remaining schedule, with home games with the Chargers and Patriots, and a visit to New Orleans. New England’s only other likely test is against up-and-down Minnesota at Gillette Stadium.
Kansas City has that home game with the Chargers and a trip to Seattle as its most challenging contests, while Houston has no one remaining that has a winning record and has won seven in a row.
Look for the Chiefs and Patriots to lock up byes, with the Chargers and — a wild stab — the Colts grabbing wild cards.
Chicago’s victory on Thanksgiving Day with backup quarterback Chase Daniel said a lot about the Bears (8-3). They are as opportunistic as anyone, and their defense is the best of any contender. They do get the Rams (10-1) on Dec. 9, but at Soldier Field, and still have matchups with the Packers and Vikings — neither of whom is balanced enough to put together a closing streak.
With that defense, Chicago usually should be capable of winning anywhere, except that’s not how NFL 2018 is built. Playing at the offensive machines from New Orleans (10-1) or Los Angeles would prove hugely difficult.
The Saints own a victory over the Rams, which could be decisive in the race for top seed and, eventually, a spot in the Super Bowl. Still, New Orleans has trips to Dallas and Carolina, home games with the Steelers and Panthers, perhaps the most-testing schedule remaining.
The Rams, meanwhile, face only one opponent currently with a winning mark (Chicago) the rest of the way.
Dallas (6-5) unquestionably has the inside track in the East, especially owning wins over Washington (6-5), which has lost QB Alex Smith, and struggling Philadelphia (4-7). That might be the only division race in doubt come late December. Don’t count on it being undecided.
Of prime interest, though, will be the chase for the wild card. Plenty of big matchups remain, beginning Sunday with Seattle at Carolina, which also has those two games left against New Orleans.
Green Bay has an easier remaining schedule than Minnesota, and Seattle, like Carolina, has a tough road.
Look for the Rams and Saints to earn byes, with Carolina getting a wild card in the NFC. The other? Ask us around Christmas.
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