NFL playoff picture starting to take shape

Cameron McKeon, Sports Editor

Now that we’re nearing Thanksgiving, the NFL playoff picture is slowly beginning to come into focus. So, for the final eight weeks of the season my focus will shift from the power rankings to the playoff picture.

Here’s how the top six teams in each conference stack up heading into Week 11.

NFC Top 6

6. Washington Redskins: A solid 16-3 Redskins win and an Eagles loss helped Washington distance themselves a bit from the rest of the NFC East pack heading into week 11. With an underrated, professional, and consistent quarterback in Alex Smith, and a rejuvenated Adrian Peterson, this Redskins team continues to surprise people. This week will be a good test to see whether the ‘Skins are contenders or pretenders, playing the Texans. A win could solidify them as a legitimate threat in the NFC while a loss could question their surprising success.

5. Chicago Bears:The Monster of the Midway got Khalil Mack back last week, and he got to Matthew Stafford twice in another comfortable Bears win, defeating the Lions 34-22. Mitchell Trubisky described this game as probably his best yet, throwing three touchdowns, rushing for one, and finishing with a passer rating of 148.6. Chicago has a huge divisional game against the Vikings this week in an NFC North battle. Keep your eyes on that one and it’ll be interesting to see if the Bears can find their run game as Jordan Howard continues to struggle.

4. Carolina Panthers: Week 10 was not kind to the Panthers. Under the Thursday night spotlight, they faltered to the Steelers in blowout fashion, 52-21. Christian McCaffrey scored every touchdown for Carolina, building on an already brilliant sophomore season. The defense must find a rhythm in order to make a deep postseason run. They’ve given up 20+ points in 7 of 9 games, and last week’s 50-bomb does not help. If the defense can find a groove and Cam Newton stays relatively consistent, the Panthers should earn a wild card berth with ease.

3. Minnesota Vikings: Coming off of a bye week, this upcoming game against the Bears looms large for the Vikes. They have the tools to dethrone Chicago, with arguably the best WR combo in the league and a much more proven and consistent quarterback in Kirk Cousins. It’s all on that offense and whether they can break through that top notch Bears defense. Keeping Mack quiet will be a priority, because when he goes, that whole unit goes. Minnesota will look to avoid a post bye week slump and take top spot in the NFC North.

2. Los Angeles Rams: It’s very clear who the top two teams are in the NFC. Because of their loss to the Saints, the Rams slot in at No. 2 for now. This week’s Monday Night game against the Chiefs could very well change that though. The MVP race will meet head to head with Todd Gurley of the Rams carrying the rock while Patrick Mahomes calls the shots for the Chiefs. Both teams being 9-1 and having absolutely electric offenses, this game could not only be the most entertaining this week but possibly the whole season. A Monday night win for the Rams would bolster their Super Bowl odds.

1. New Orleans Saints: The hottest team in football doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The Saints have so many offensive weapons it’s silly, from the ageless Drew Brees to the versatile Alvin Kamara out the backfield. Michael Thomas cannot go amiss either, easily a top 5 wide receiver. New Orleans victimized the Bengals last week in a 51-14 offensive clinic. Their two-headed monster in Mark Ingram and Kamara combined for 264 total yards and a trio of touchdowns. The Saints made another good team look mediocre again in week 10, something they’ve done all year and look to continue this week at home against the Eagles.

AFC Top 6

6. Cincinnati Bengals: Sitting at the perimeter of the playoff picture, the Bengals suffered a very rough loss to the Saints last week. Now at 5-4, Cincinnati remains second in the AFC North, sandwiched between two contending teams in the Ravens and Steelers. At this point, the Bengals are playing for a Wild Card and this week’s divisional game is instrumental to their outlook down the stretch. Playing in Baltimore, the defense will have to tie up loose ends in order to maintain their current position.

5. Houston Texans: A remarkable six-game win streak has turned the Texans completely around after starting 0-3. Deshaun Watson is noticeably more composed than he was earlier in the year, and he will have to remain so following a bye week and facing the 6-3 Redskins. The defense has been most of the reason for the Texans resurgence, but the addition of Demaryius Thomas gives Houston a tough WR combo that’ll keep Josh Norman and the Redskins defense on their toes all Sunday.

4. Los Angeles Chargers: Constantly bashed for having one of the easiest schedules this year, the Chargers have done all that they can do and that is win. Keenan Allen is quietly having a healthy, productive year with 687 receiving yards, complemented by Melvin Gordon, who stays effective out of both the run and pass game. Whether it’s for their schedule of lack of a fanbase, the Chargers are given more negative media than positive, but they continue to tread on week after week and have found themselves with the second best record in the AFC thus far.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers are making a statement. Le’Veon Bell won’t be coming back this year, and it doesn’t matter. Tell anybody at the beginning of the year the Bell wouldn’t be playing, and they’d predict a down year for Pittsburgh. But no, the news of Bell didn’t faze fans because they know they have an absolute stud in James Conner carrying the load. The former cancer survivor continues to build on quite the story as he has helped his squad achieve success to the tune of a 6-2-1 record. Winners of five straight, Pittsburgh pays a visit to Jacksonville this week.

2. New England Patriots: How unfortunate it must be to lose to a squad of Patriots rejects (the Tennessee Titans). It wasn’t close either as New England was stunned 34-10 in Tennessee. Nobody is mentioning it, but Tom Brady is having an un-Tom Brady like season. The Boston legend’s 94.7 QB rating is his lowest since 2012, and hopefully it’s not his age showing. He has more weapons than last season, especially with the addition of Josh Gordon. Although the loss to the Titans was frightening, expect the Pats to bounce back as they always do over the course of the 17 week season.

1. Kansas City Chiefs: The franchise’s single season passing touchdowns leader, Patrick Mahomes, improved the Chiefs to 9-1 after handling the Cardinals 26-14. A little closer than many expected, Kansas City was able to pull away in the second half. They play the Rams in what is sure to be a dandy of a game on Monday night. We’ll see if the Chiefs can contain Aaron Donald long enough to stretch the field with their outstanding vertical passing game. The battle of young QBs won’t disappoint, but it’s up to the the shaky Chiefs defense to stop the Rams deadly offense if they want to come out victorious.