The NFL playoff picture isn’t as cloudy as the records show

There are only five serious Super Bowl contenders this season — six if you count the Minnesota Vikings, which you really shouldn’t.

The top teams in the NFL are the Buffalo Bills (9-3), Cincinnati Bengals (8-4), Dallas Cowboys (9-3), Philadelphia Eagles (11-1) and Kansas City (9-3). All five are solid-spectacular both offensively and defensively, and more importantly, all are healthy enough to play well.

Beyond the Fab Five, however, the playoff field is littered with beaten or ineligible contenders. And the Vikings.

If the San Francisco 49ers (8-4) are on the list of serious contenders, Jimmy Garoppolo broke his leg last week, the injury that ended his regular season. With a defense that’s allowing a league-low 283.9 yards per game and an offense built around rushing and micro-passing, the 49ers quarterback is running on autopilot. Unfortunately, if Garoppolo can’t return for the playoffs, rookie backup Brock Birdie — the team’s third starter this season — will be tasked with grounding the team during the thunderstorms.

Purdy punched enough buttons for the 49ers to beat the Dolphins (8-4) last week, revealing Miami’s offense as a finely tuned sports car that can top 200 miles per hour and catch fire if a dusty mod gets under the hood. .

The Baltimore Ravens (8-4) were on oddsmakers’ Super Bowl shortlist before Lamar Jackson’s Week 13 knee injury. Jackson is expected to miss only a few weeks, but the Ravens are defying disaster artists probability in a three-game losing streak this season in which they led by two scores in the fourth quarter. If the Ravens need to convert a fourth-and-inch sneak to prevent an opponent’s late-game rally in the playoffs, lightning strikes their nest.

The Seattle Seahawks (7-5) were a pleasant surprise, but lack the sheer talent needed to sustain the playoff gauntlet. The Seahawks will be forced to settle for the “we won the Russell Wilson trade” trophy that comes with a 2023 first-round pick: not a bad consolation prize.

The AFC South is one of those college basketball conferences full of small-town schools, and the Tennessee Titans (7-5) are its perennial champions, earning an automatic tournament bid only to be walloped by Duke. The Eagles beat the Titans 35-10 last week, underscoring the difference between true contenders and teams built to beat the Houston Texans.

The NFC South is filled with mismanaged and financially strapped teams, allowing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6) to remain atop the standings with a tight defense and residual flickers of Tom Brady’s magic. The Buccaneers will clinch the division until the Atlanta Falcons (5-8) experience a surge. In other words, the Buccaneers have taken over the division.

The New England Patriots (6-6) are in the playoff picture because of the sense of tradition, even if it’s an offense from the 1968 edition of “Junior Varsity Strategies for Sluggish Lads.” Many opponents still succumb to the Patriots due to 20 years of Pavlovian conditioning, which is something to say about the Jets (7-5).

Los Angeles Chargers (6-6), losing to Las Vegas Raiders, Justin Herbert is better at producing viral-video highlights than wins.

The playoff chase has grown very dull The Giants (7-4-1) and the Washington Commanders (7-5-1) clashed It’s a win-or-take-all battle for a wild-card berth, with neither team winning. Nothing signals mutual unworthiness like a 20-20 tie.

Finally, there are the staggering Vikings (10-2), who can clinch the NFC North with a win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday. The Vikings offense ranks 19th in the NFL in yards per game (335.8), and the defense is giving up the league’s second-most yards per game (398.7) — not exactly the stat profile of a Super Bowl front-runner. Against the Ravens, the Vikings often win on last-second fumbles, multiple goal-line stands, accidental replay reviews or meteor showers.

The Cowboys and Eagles outscored the Vikings 64-10 in their meetings, illustrating just how far the Vikings’ luck should take the team in the postseason.

With five legitimate powerhouses jockeying for 14 playoff spots, the NFL will be hard-pressed to produce drama for the rest of the regular-season schedule. Outside of a few marquee matchups, compelling matchups are few and far between, while blowouts and meaningless contests abound.

A first-round matchup in the NFC could come when the Eagles meet the Cowboys on Christmas Eve. The Bengals host the Bills and Ravens in Weeks 17 and 18, matchups that finalize the AFC seeding.

Otherwise, the late-season broth is thin:

The Chargers host the Dolphins on Sunday night in a more boring Justin Herbert vs. playoff certainty. Tua Tagoailoa is more likely to make talk-show arguments.

The Giants and Commanders square off again in Week 15. While most games with playoff implications are “tilted” in prime-time TV windows, the networks could tilt this rematch at 4 a.m. Wednesday to present the Soybean Report.

Seahawks host 49ers Thursday night in Week 15: As all the experts predicted in the preseason, the NFC West will come down to a battle between Brock Purdy and Geno Smith.

There are plenty of games featuring teams that are at least mathematically still alive, including the Lions, Green Bay Packers, Las Vegas Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Indianapolis Colts (4-8-1) fired their head coach a month ago and lost to the Cowboys 54-19 on Sunday night. The Times’ playoff projection gives the team a 1 to 2 percent chance Reaching the postseason. Their Week 15 meeting with the Vikings, as lopsided and lackluster as it looks on paper, could have “playoff implications” for both teams.

The The NFL expanded the playoffs For exactly 14 teams in 2020, fans of four winning teams can dream of wild-card berths in mid-December and Giants-Commanders ties as a result. The top five contenders are much stronger (and healthier) than the field this year, which makes the final five weeks of the season feel like nothing.

Could Eagles-Cowboys and Bengals-or-Bills-or-Kansas City advance to conference championship games?

No, it wouldn’t be fair to the still-determined 49ers, snakebit Ravens, surprising Seahawks, entertaining Dolphins, Brady-led Buccaneers, hunger-affirming Jets and Giants or other playoff hopefuls.

For the Vikings, they need to enjoy every moment of this charming regular season while it lasts.

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