Rank­ing chances for six NFL teams

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - LIFE - Nate Davis

The Ti­tans woke up Thurs­day as a .500 pro­gram. Af­ter Der­rick Henry and team­mates tram­pled the Jaguars in front of the na­tion, they went to bed with a 7-6 record and a good chance to run the ta­ble given their re­main­ing games are against the Gi­ants, Red­skins and Colts.

How­ever, a scrum of teams scrap­ping for rel­e­vance, whether as late-sea­son spoil­ers or last-minute play­off en­tries, re­mains. “Av­er­age” is the watch­word this week­end given six of the league’s clubs are mired at 6-6. Here’s a break­down of each, ranked from worst to best in terms of their post­sea­son po­ten­tial.

6. Red­skins

Glass half full: Among the breakeven NFC out­fits, they have the eas­i­est re­main­ing sched­ule: the Gi­ants at home, fol­lowed by trips to Jack­sonville and Nashville be­fore the Ea­gles visit FedExField for the reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale. Even at 33, Adrian Peter­son lit­er­ally isn’t slow­ing down, ev­i­denced by his 90-yard TD run Mon­day. But he needs more than nine car­ries. The ’Skins are 0-2 against AFC teams, but those are the ideal games to lose once tiebreak­ers shake out.

Glass half empty: They haven’t won since Alex Smith went down and, bar­ring a mirac­u­lous re­cov­ery by Colt McCoy, are down to Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson in the quar­ter­back room. The of­fense was pedes­trian with Smith; now it’s in dan­ger of grind­ing to a halt. Worse, the de­fense has cratered. Since Novem­ber dawned, it’s al­lowed an av­er­age of 430.4 yards, as well as 30 points per game in four losses over that pe­riod.

5. Dol­phins

Glass half full: They have a 5-4 mark in AFC games; none of the other 6-6 teams in the con­fer­ence is bet­ter than .500 in that cat­e­gory, a po­ten­tially key tiebreaker con­sid­er­a­tion. QB Ryan Tan­nehill has been back for two weeks and play­ing with quiet ef­fi­ciency. The Fins have won four of five at home against the Patriots but need to beat them Sun­day to launch a vi­able wild-card drive.

Glass half empty: No­body on this team scares you. An­ti­quated Frank Gore is prob­a­bly Mi­ami’s MVP, not ex­actly an up­lift­ing de­vel­op­ment. Af­ter a 3-0 start, the Dol­phins have lost six of nine, with the de­fense al­low­ing at least 27 points and 400 yards in five of those games. With the Charg­ers al­ready hav­ing nine wins, the AFC’s 6-6 teams are ba­si­cally fight­ing for the sec­ond wild card given none are a threat to win their di­vi­sions.

4. Colts

Glass half full: Be­fore Sun­day’s clunker against the Jags, An­drew Luck had fought his way into the MVP con­ver­sa­tion, Indy’s of­fense av­er­ag­ing 34.6 points dur­ing a five-game win­ning streak. First-year coach Frank Re­ich is a gutsy play caller and must con­tinue to gam­ble if his club is go­ing to forge an­other hot streak. Rookie LB Dar­ius Leonard is be­com­ing a star on a de­fense that’s qui­etly blos­somed into a top-10 unit. The Colts have at least one take­away in ev­ery game.

Glass half empty: They just laid a po­ten­tially lethal egg in that 6-0 loss to Jack­sonville and must re­bound quickly given they’ll face the league’s hottest teams, Hous­ton and Dal­las, the next two weeks. WR T.Y. Hil­ton and TE Eric Ebron are nurs­ing in­juries. The of­fense has got­ten sloppy the last two weeks, com­mit­ting five turnovers.

3. Pan­thers

Glass half full: 2015 MVP Cam New­ton might be hav­ing his best sea­son — just ask him — though ques­tions arose about his shoul­der af­ter his four-in­ter­cep­tion per­for­mance Sun­day in Tampa. Else­where, LB Luke Kuechly is good as ever, and Chris­tian McCaf­frey has de­vel­oped into one of the league’s premier backs and could be­come just the third ever to have 1,000 rush­ing and re­ceiv­ing yards in the same sea­son. Wins over the Cow­boys and Ea­gles could help in the tiebreak­ing depart­ment. The Pan­thers are out of the divi­sion race but, un­like the AFC teams, part of a mix where both wild cards are still up in the air.

Glass half empty: They’re in a rut that’s hard to ex­plain — though coach “River­boat Ron” Rivera seems to think it has more to do with his now-al­tered de­fen­sive staff than some of his own ques­tion­able gam­bles. In fair­ness, the sec­ondary has been laugh­ably bad lately, and Carolina has just one take­away dur­ing a los­ing streak that’s reached four weeks. Maybe Rivera’s de­ci­sion to as­sume the play call­ing will turn out bet­ter than, say, go­ing for two points and the win in Detroit last month. TE Greg Olsen was lost to yet an­other foot in­jury. Losses to the Red­skins and Sea­hawks could be pe­nal ... though might also be ir­rel­e­vant given the Pan­thers must still face the Saints twice.

2. Ea­gles

Glass half full: Beat­ing the Gi­ants and de­pleted Red­skins hardly puts the reign­ing champs in high cotton, but they are now in the midst of their first “win­ning streak” of 2018. The long-dor­mant run­ning game has awak­ened with rookie bruiser Josh Adams team­ing with Darren Spro­les, whose ham­string is al­low­ing him to play at last. WR Golden Tate fi­nally had a break­out game with his new team af­ter three in­vis­i­ble weeks. And, un­like the Pan­thers, the Ea­gles are in play for both the NFC East crown and a wild card.

Glass half empty: Even if Philly wins in Dal­las on Sun­day and pulls into a tie atop the divi­sion, the sched­ule sub­se­quently serves up the Rams and Tex­ans. Dates with Ezekiel El­liott, Todd Gur­ley and even La­mar Miller loom as very prob­lem­atic for a run de­fense that’s gone to pieces in the sec­ond half of the sea­son. A loss to Carolina in Week 7 could come back to haunt them.

1. Bron­cos

Glass half full: They’ve caught fire at the right time, win­ning three in a row, a streak that could bil­low into a full-on blaze given Den­ver’s next three op­po­nents are the 49ers, Browns and Raiders. A Week 17 date with the Charg­ers has sig­nif­i­cant po­ten­tial to be mean­ing­less to the Bolts, bar­ring a col­lapse, un­less the AFC West is still at stake on the fi­nal day of the reg­u­lar sea­son. Af­ter a Rocky Moun­tain start, QB Case Keenum is turnover-free the past four games, helped largely by the per­for­mance of rookie Phillip Lindsay, now the AFC’s No. 1 rusher. There’s cer­tainly a solid op­por­tu­nity to catch the Ravens (7-5), who hold the AFC’s sec­ond wild card but also have road trips to Kansas City and Los An­ge­les to face the Charg­ers.

Glass half empty: CB Chris Harris broke his leg Sun­day but could even­tu­ally re­turn. The news wasn’t nearly as good for WR Em­manuel San­ders, who suf­fered a torn Achilles in prac­tice. The de­ci­sion to off­load De­mary­ius Thomas at the trade dead­line could come back to haunt GM John El­way. Keenum must now get by with a highly in­ex­pe­ri­enced trio of wide­outs (Court­land Sut­ton, Tim Pa­trick, DaeSean Hamilton), which is un­likely to de­ter de­fenses from try­ing to gang up on Lindsay.


Could AFC rush­ing leader Phillip Lindsay and the Bron­cos mount a be­lated play­off push?

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