The Washington Post

Time to dig for division winners inside the logjam that is the NFL

- John Clayton sports@washpost.com John Clayton has covered the NFL for more than 40 years. During the season, he writes a weekly column for The Washington Post that publishes online Tuesday mornings.

The NFL is having one of its most competitiv­e seasons in recent memory, and that has set the stage for what should be a compelling final six weeks. In the AFC, 12 of the 16 teams have records that are .500 or better, while the NFC has a logjam of teams that could be in the mix for the final two playoff spots.

Several division races are shaping up to go down to the wire, too. We’ll take our best shot at predicting the winners for all eight:

AFC East: New England Patriots

What an amazing story this is turning out to be. Bill Belichick faced plenty of criticism following his first season without Tom Brady as the Patriots finished 7-9 and Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl title. That chorus grew louder during the Patriots’ 2-4 start this season.

But since then, everything has turned around. The Patriots are on a six-game winning streak that has led them to the top of the AFC East at 8-4. Quarterbac­k Mac Jones is the leading candidate for offensive rookie of the year honors. Free agent acquisitio­n Matthew Judon is having a defensive player of the year-type season.

The Buffalo Bills, on the other hand, have looked shaky recently, losing to the lowly Jacksonvil­le Jaguars and getting blown out by the Indianapol­is Colts. Opposing defenses appear to have figured out their offense, which has been one-dimensiona­l.

Buffalo is only a half-game back, but New England has the advantage in terms of the closing schedule, with the Bills having a road game against the Bucs upcoming. But the division is likely to be decided by the teams’ two head-to-head matchups — Monday night in Orchard Park, N.Y., and the day after Christmas in Foxborough, Mass.

AFC North: Baltimore Ravens This race is a dogfight. The 8-3 Ravens have the best record in the AFC, but the Cincinnati Bengals are right behind them at 7-4. The Cleveland Browns (6-6) and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5-1) remain in the wild-card mix.

The Ravens deserve credit for

their resilience, given that they have had one of the worst injury situations in the league and have found a way to win several close games — including Sunday’s 16-10 victory over the Browns in which Lamar Jackson threw four intercepti­ons. Their closing schedule is difficult, with three road games against division opponents along with home contests against the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams. But the Bengals, who have won their past two games by a combined score of 73-23, don’t have it any easier, having to play the Los Angeles Chargers, San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs down the stretch.

Baltimore clearly knows how to win, and Cincinnati is still learning. The advantage goes to the Ravens.

AFC South: Tennessee Titans The Titans’ injury issues have caught up with them. They’ve lost two in a row, and their top offensive weapons — running back Derrick Henry and wide receivers A. J. Brown and Julio Jones — are on injured reserve. But they maintain a two-game

lead in the division at 8-4 after the Colts lost to the Bucs on Sunday to drop to 6-6.

Tennessee has the inside track not just because of its advantage in the standings but because of its schedule. Its remaining opponents have a .366 winning percentage, which is the easiest closing slate in the NFL. The Titans’ opponents include the lowly Houston Texans and Jaguars, and they have winnable games against the Miami Dolphins, Steelers and 49ers.

The Colts also get games against Houston and Jacksonvil­le — but they have a three-game stretch against the Patriots, Arizona Cardinals and Las Vegas Raiders. Given that the Titans hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, their lead should be too much for the Colts to overcome.

AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs There is a great battle brewing. Every team in the division is above .500, with the Chiefs leading at 7-4 and the Chargers, Raiders and Denver Broncos just one game back at 6-5.

But the Chiefs are still the best team, and they are finally playing

like the Chiefs of the past couple of years. The defense is playing well. They have running back Clyde Edwards-helaire back healthy again. Patrick Mahomes has cut down on his mistakes, and the offense has looked sharper.

They have four division games remaining, starting Sunday night against resurgent Denver, so this race isn’t over. But the Chiefs are the favorite.

NFC East: Dallas Cowboys Despite their struggles over the past few weeks, when they’ve lost three of four, the 7-4 Cowboys maintain a comfortabl­e lead over the 5-6 Washington Football Team and the 5-7 Philadelph­ia Eagles.

That cushion should be enough for them to claim the division title, although they’re now dealing with further coronaviru­s-related issues, including Coach Mike Mccarthy being out for Thursday night’s game at New Orleans.

Still, the Cowboys are the most talented team in the NFC East, and with four division games down the stretch (two vs. Washington and one apiece against the New York Giants and Eagles), they’ll have the chance to prove it.

NFC North: Green Bay Packers

The Packers are 9-3 and rolling despite injures on the offensive line and to Aaron Rodgers, who has been hobbled by a broken toe but has pledged to play through it. The second-place Minnesota Vikings dropped to 5-6 with Sunday’s loss to the 49ers.

NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

With the Saints on a four-game skid since quarterbac­k Jameis Winston suffered a seasonendi­ng torn ACL and the Carolina Panthers fading just as fast, the 83 Bucs have clear command of the NFC South. They figure to be in competitio­n with the Cardinals and Packers for the NFC’S top seed.

NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

This is another crowded, complicate­d division, but the 9-2 Cardinals stand out as clear favorites. They are loaded with talent and expect to get quarterbac­k Kyler Murray and wide receiver Deandre Hopkins back after their bye, and they have the third-easiest closing schedule, with a winning percentage of .417 for their remaining opponents.

The Cardinals also have benefited from the recent slide of the Rams, who are 7-4 following a three-game losing streak. Despite adding a pair of big-name players in Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr., the Rams are not playing good football. Matthew Stafford is dealing with injuries and doesn’t look like the same quarterbac­k he was earlier in the season. The defense isn’t nearly as strong as it was a year ago.

The Rams have a chance to bounce back against the lowly Jaguars this week, but they have road trips to face the Cardinals, Vikings and Ravens down the stretch. They are only one game ahead of the surging 49ers, who have won three in a row to improve to 6-5.

 ?? STEW MILNE/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and the surging Patriots have two games remaining against the Bills.
STEW MILNE/ASSOCIATED PRESS Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and the surging Patriots have two games remaining against the Bills.

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