As the NFL season winds down, who are the real contenders?

Week 13 of the NFL season has come and gone, and while there is still plenty of season left for teams to either take a step forward into contention or collapse into irrelevancy, we now have a much clearer playoff picture than we did just a couple weeks ago. With less than a third of the season remaining, it is time to ask: Who can win it all? You could simply look at the standings, but records can be deceiving, especially this year. Heading into Week 13, there have been 79 games decided by six points or fewer in 2022, an NFL record, according to its website. There are 14 playoff spots (seven per conference) and 32 teams fighting for them, so let’s take a look at our contenders.

AFC

Initially, the AFC seemed to have one or two main frontrunners, but as the season progressed, we have seen more and more parity from this conference. The Kansas City Chiefs (9-3) and Buffalo Bills (9-3) still seem to be the frontrunners, but the gap between them and the rest of the pack is not so large anymore. 

Heading into this past weekend, the Chiefs had won five straight games and were cruising behind superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes. But they lost a tight game on Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals, and although they have a lot of wins, they haven’t been crushing their opponents and don’t have very many wins against good teams. The Chiefs  have lost to the Bills and now the Bengals, arguably the two best teams they have played all year. However, they are taking care of business against bad teams, and both of those Chiefs losses were by four points or less. There isn’t any reason to worry too much about Kansas City, but they do seem mortal. Having said that, the Chiefs hold a comfortable lead in their division (which has been weak despite all the preseason hype around the Broncos and Chargers) and are still very much in the conversation for the AFC’s number one seed. They still look like the strongest team in the AFC to me, if not the entire NFL.

The Buffalo Bills currently hold the number one seed in the AFC, in addition to clinging to a one- game lead in their division. The Bills have looked quite good all year, with a couple of strong wins against the aforementioned Chiefs and their fellow division leaders the Baltimore Ravens (8-4) and Tennessee Titans (7-5). However, they lost a very winnable game a few weeks ago when quarterback Josh Allen fumbled on his own goal line against the Minnesota Vikings late in the fourth quarter. They also lost to their division rivals, the Miami Dolphins (8-4), who are breathing down their necks for the division title. They still have one more game against Miami to prove they are the top dogs in the AFC East, and they are coming off a strong road win against their much-hated rivals the New England Patriots, who themselves are a decent team. The biggest concern with the Bills is health. They recently placed star LB Von Miller on injured reserve (IR), and although the team expects him to come back in January, in time for the playoffs, it is anybody’s guess as to whether or not he will be able to perform at 100 percent capacity. Additionally, Josh Allen is dealing with a UCL strain in his right elbow. Although he never missed any games for it, and it seems to be improving, he has not played as strongly since he suffered the injury and any time a QB hurts their elbow, it is a huge cause for concern. That said, assuming Allen doesn’t have any setbacks, I would still pick the Bills as one of the favorites in the AFC.

The Miami Dolphins are in second place in the AFC East, just one game behind the Bills. At 8-4, the Dolphins have had some real ups and downs this season. They started off 3-0, with wins against the Bills and Ravens, and looked like the best team in the NFL to start the season. But then in a Week Four game against the Bengals, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a horrific concussion and was hospitalized mid-game. Including the game where he was injured, the Dolphins lost three straight games and fell to 3-3. But then Tagovailoa returned to the field, and the Dolphins rattled off five straight wins. They are coming off a loss to a good 49ers team, and seem to be in good shape overall these days. Their true test will come against the Bills in Week 15. If they can win that game, they will likely win the division. Either way, I would certainly expect them to at least be a wildcard team. The Dolphins have the potential to make some noise in the playoffs.

The Baltimore Ravens are one of the more frustrating teams in the NFL. They sit atop the AFC North with an 8-4 record, which is good, but in those four losses they blew fourth-quarter leads of nine points to the Jaguars, 10 points to the Giants, 21 points to the Dolphins and a 10-point second-half lead to the Bills. Two of those teams are strong contenders, and two of them are mediocre. The Ravens leave a lot to be desired despite their talent, and things just got a whole lot more complicated in Week 13 when quarterback Lamar Jackson suffered a knee injury. While likely not  season-ending, a knee injury is still a huge cause for concern, especially for a QB who relies so much on his running. Additionally, the Ravens don’t have much breathing room in the division standings, so even a missed game or two from Jackson could cost the Ravens big time. I think the Ravens will definitely make the playoffs, but probably as a wild card at this point, and I don’t trust them at all once the playoffs roll around. They could be looking at a first round exit.

Next up in the AFC North are the Cincinnati Bengals (8-4), who had a slow start to the season but have gotten hot recently and are coming off a huge win against the Chiefs. Since they started 0-2, quarterback Joe Burrow has been on fire, throwing 22 touchdowns (TD) to just four interceptions (INT) with a quarterback rating of 111.4 in his last 10 games, according to Pro Football Reference. The Bengals have won four straight games and just got their star wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase back from injury. They are surging, and with a Week 18 matchup with the Ravens still to come, I expect the Bengals to take the division title. I still put them a step below the Bills and Chiefs, but the Bengals can absolutely win some playoff games and have a shot to go deep.

NFC

The NFC is much weaker than the AFC this year. It has a few good teams but also a whole lot of bad ones. The best of the NFC can’t compete with the Bills or Chiefs. Before I dive into the real contenders in this conference, let me get the frauds out of the way first. The Washington Commanders (7-5-1), New York Giants (7-4-1) and Seattle Seahawks (7-5) have all had decent seasons where they managed to stay above .500. Brian Daboll seems to be a good Head Coach who has the rebuilding Giants ahead of schedule, QB Taylor Heinecke continues to be a great underdog story for Washington and the whole NFL has enjoyed seeing a late career resurgence from Seahawks QB Geno Smith. All three of these teams have a decent shot of picking up a wildcard spot, but none of them will win come playoff time. If any of these teams make it, I expect them to lose in the first round. They are all fatally flawed teams that have benefitted from a weak conference. Additionally, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6) actually lead their division with a .500 record. Once again, Tom Brady is benefitting from having a putrid division. It seems as if there is some universal law that he must get an automatic pass to the playoffs every year, no matter how bad his team is. The Bucs could make the playoffs with a losing record, and although it is never possible to fully rule out Brady, I don’t think it is reasonable to call the Buccaneers real contenders. Now let’s move on to the actual good teams of the NFC.

The Philadelphia Eagles (11-1) have the best record in the NFL, but I do not believe they are the NFL’s best team. QB Jalen Hurts has had a great season, and the Eagles seem like a pretty complete team, but something about them makes me hesitant. I am not sure exactly what it is—maybe it is the fact that Hurts’ MVP caliber season has come out of nowhere (he was only okay in his first two seasons) and the fact that Philly hasn’t beaten many good teams. They do have wins against the Vikings and Cowboys, but they have recently had some close calls with not great teams such as Green Bay and Indianapolis. It feels like they may have peaked too early by starting 8-0, but only time will tell. On paper, there aren’t a lot of holes in their team, and they are in a great spot to earn the number one seed in the NFC and receive a first round bye in the playoffs. The Eagles are surely a contender, but my gut says to be wary of picking them to go all the way.

The Minnesota Vikings (10-2) have surprised everybody by being one of the NFL’s best teams this year. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is having a pretty mediocre year, but his flaws have been covered up by a monster season from wideout Justin Jefferson and a strong running game led by Dalvin Cook. But the Vikings leave a lot to be desired on defense, and although they have some impressive wins to their name (Week 10 against the Bills, for example), they had a head scratching 40-3 pummeling at the hands of the Cowboys just a couple weeks ago. Like the Eagles, I think the Vikings are a good team, but they make me a little nervous. They have the tools to go far, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them lose in the divisional round. They just don’t scream “Super Bowl contender” to me. 

Although they are in second place, the Dallas Cowboys (9-3) have looked very good this year. They have a strong defense led by LB Micah Parsons, QB Dak Prescott is looking strong again after returning from injury, and the rushing attack is solid as always. The Cowboys are coming off an absolute thrashing of the Colts, where they put up 54 points against Indianapolis; they have some wins against better teams as well, including the aforementioned drubbing of the Vikings. Although they lost to the Eagles in October, I feel like both teams have been trending in opposite directions since then, and I actually think the Cowboys might be the strongest team in the NFC right now. Having said that, recent history has not been kind to the Dallas Cowboys. They have not reached the NFC Championship since 1995 and have not won a playoff game since the 2018 season, according to Pro Football Reference. I think they are the best team in the NFC, but I can’t pick them to win since they have such a prolific history of choking. I expect everybody to have a grand old time watching “America’s Team” blow it against some inferior opponent like they always do.

Finally, we have the San Francisco 49ers (8-4), who I so badly want to pick to go to the Super Bowl because of how complete they seemed just a week ago. They have some of the most skilled players in the league, including Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk. They have a strong defense and seemed to me to be the most complete team in the NFC by far. But then their quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo broke his left foot on Saturday and could be done for the season. Garoppolo has taken his fair share of criticism over the years, and he is not an elite quarterback, but he was having a great year (16 TD, 4 INT, 2,437 yards with a 103 rating) and has lots of experience, including playing in the Super Bowl a few years ago. He has a 40-17 career record, including 4-2 in the playoffs, according to Pro Football Reference. His teams usually win, and now the 49ers will be without him. What’s worse is that they don’t even have a solid second string QB. Trey Lance kicked off the season as their starter and was supposed to be the next rising star in the NFL after being drafted third overall the season before, but he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2, leading to Garoppolo taking over. The 49ers offense was not driven by great quarterback play, but it will be hampered by sub-par quarterback play. They now must turn to rookie Brock Purdy, who was the very last player selected in this year’s draft. The 49ers are such a well-rounded team that they might still win a playoff game, but I find it hard to fathom them making the Super Bowl led by Brock Purdy.

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