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NFL teams vie for playoff spots with four games left

Cameron McKeon and Cameron McKeon

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With three quarters of the season in the books, teams have four games left to prove their playoff worthy. Here’s the top six in each conference as the NFL races down the home stretch.

AFC

6. Baltimore Ravens: It’s a bit surprising to see the Ravens where they are right now, clinging onto a playoff spot. Lamar Jackson has been under center for the Ravens past three games, but the phenom is far from a finished product and would not be able to get this team into the playoffs. Thankfully, veteran Joe Flacco is possibly returning this week. Sure, the young Jackson has led his team to victory, but he’s been pretty fortunate. The defense has been stellar of late and Jackson’s legs have added a component to this Ravens offense. From a passing standpoint, the former Heisman winner has a ways to go. Nevertheless, Baltimore finds themselves with a solid 7-5 record.

5. Los Angeles Chargers: Week 13 officially legitimized the Chargers as a playoff threat coming out of the AFC. The Steelers were their test. After weeks and weeks of mediocre competition, at long last Los Angeles squared off against some competition and came out on top.  It wasn’t easy either. Overcoming a 16-point lead at half, the Melvin Gordon-less Chargers showed unbelievable resilience to battle back in a game that many considered in the pocket of the Steelers. The statement has been made, and the Chargers have have put a little bit of pressure on those division leading Chiefs.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers: Steeler players, coaches, and fans are going to want to forget about the past week quickly. A monumental comeback from the Chargers resulted in the Steelers fourth loss of the season. This is the second heartbreaker Pittsburgh has suffered in a row, and all of a sudden, that AFC North now looks very tight. With the Ravens breathing down their necks, the Steelers must take advantage of this week’s game against the Raiders to get back into a groove.

3. Houston Texans: The Texans took care of business and did what they should’ve done against a young Browns squad. Tallying their ninth consecutive win, Deshaun Watson ensured this game was over by halftime, carrying a 23-0 lead into the break. The franchise record win streak has propelled Houston to the top of the AFC South with a comfortable lead ahead of the Colts and Titans. Consistent play from their franchise quarterback, serviceable running backs in Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue, and the emergence of kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn complemented by an outstanding defense set the Texans up well for a playoff run.

2. New England Patriots: A win, another guaranteed winning record, and 1,000 career rushing yards for Tom Brady. Week 13 was kind to the Patriots as they took down the Vikings in Foxborough, 24-10. It was close for three quarters, but New England pulled away in the final quarter as the defense took it up a notch. The offensive line didn’t surrender a single sack, a scenario that has occurred 14 times in the past five seasons for Tom Brady. He has won all 14 of those games. The Patriots are now 9-3 and head to Miami this week.

1. Kansas City Chiefs: Say goodbye to Kareem Hunt. It’s amazing how quickly things can change, and with the violent video leaked all over the internet, the superstar running back no longer has a team. The Chiefs have an excellent backup in Spencer Ware, but it’s doubtful he can pull a James Conner and nonchalantly fill a superstar’s shoes with ease. Last week, Kansas City was barely able to defeat the lowly Raiders and that defense is a cause for concern. The mesmerizing offense distracts from it, but to get past those consistent Patriots, the Chiefs are going to need much better defensive play than they’ve been getting.

NFC

6. Minnesota Vikings: Last week was a crucial game for the Vikings, and they weren’t able to step up. Gifted with a Bears loss, Minnesota had the chance to capitalize but instead fell 24-10 to the Patriots. Kirk Cousins threw a pair of picks in a less than impressive performance from the veteran. If I had told you at the beginning of the season that the Vikings would have a 6-5-1 record through the first 13 weeks, it would be pretty hard to believe. Yet here we are. The best case scenario for the Vikes is that the NFC North comes down to week 17 in a matchup against the Bears, but it would take some serious tanking from Chicago to reach that point. A Wild Card seems more realistic for Minnesota at this point.

5. Seattle Seahawks: Are the Seahawks really to be taken seriously? Meh, probably not. But this may be something Seattle can use to their advantage down the stretch. Four of Russell Wilson’s 11 completions found the back of the end zone in the Seahawks 43-16 obliteration of the 49ers. Their recent run has put them in a position many doubted they’d be seen in, grasping onto a Wild Card spot with only a few weeks remaining. Chris Carson has lead a surprisingly balanced running attack as Bobby Wagner continues to man the defensive corps as Seattle prepares for a crucial game at home against the Vikings this week.

4. Dallas Cowboys: Speaking of not being taken seriously, the Cowboys somehow slayed the giant in week 13. Somehow limiting the Saints to just 10 points, Dallas pulled off a massive 13-10 upset. Leighton Vander-Esch and Jaylon Smith are both underrated elite defensive players, and they proved their status last week. Limiting Drew Brees to under 200 yards passing, Michael Thomas to just 40 receiving yards, and the two-headed monster of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to just 63 rushing yards combined. The rest of the NFC shivered as they witnessed what the Cowboys were capable of.

3. Chicago Bears: The Bears could’ve really separated themselves from the rest of the NFC North with a win against the Giants, especially with the Packers and Vikings losses also occurring on Sunday. Instead, an amazing comeback fell short during overtime. In an astonishing series of events, Chicago kicked a field goal, recovered an onside kick, and scored a touchdown to tie the game with no time on the clock. Not only that, but it was Tarik Cohen who threw the pass to Anthony Miller in the end zone. Unfortunately, the Bears were unable to answer the Giants’ field goal in overtime. The absence of Mitchell Trubisky hurt. No ground was lost in the division though, and the Bears sit atop the division at 8-4.

2. New Orleans Saints: This past week showed how hard it is to string together lengthy win streaks in the NFL. On paper, one could have easily predicted the Saints blowing out the Cowboys. With each drive, America waited for that huge play from New Orleans we so often see. But it never came. Outside of the third quarter, the Saints were completely held off the scoreboard. Drew Brees threw for just 127 yards in an uncharacteristically poor outing, and the Saints were ousted, plain and simply. They take on the Buccaneers this week, the same team who handed them their only other loss and stirred up worry around the Saints. Since then they’ve been nearly perfect.

1. Los Angeles Rams:: With a 30-16 defeat of the Lions, the Rams are the NFL’s first team to clinch their division. At 11-1, Los Angeles continues to fly above the rest of the league. It was refreshing to see some good defense on display from the Rams, especially after the shootout they participated in a couple weeks ago with the Chiefs. Offenses this year are flashy, but as is usually does, defense will be the determining factor when it gets down to it. The Rams have the potential to lockdown an opposing offense. It just hasn’t seemed to click yet. It’ll be interesting to watch for that down the stretch, as it’s apparent the offense is unstoppable.

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NFL teams vie for playoff spots with four games left