AROUND THE NFL

If The Season Ended Today in the NFC – Wins by Seattle and Minnesota (plus by Atlanta) bunched the top six of the NFC in a tight little bunch, even as the other Wild Card contenders fell further off the pace.  The Eagles may be last in the three-way Wild Card tiebreaker, but they also are much closer to the playoffs than the Rams and Panthers, thanks to the Cowboys home loss.

 

So at the moment five teams (SF, NO, GB, SEAT, MINN) will take five of the playoff spots with some still to be determined combination of byes and division titles.  And then either Dallas or Philadelphia will get the 4th seed and the right to host a powerful Wild Card with a better record.

 

So it appears with seven weeks to go.


                                                Overall        Div           Conf

 

1          San Francisco   West     8-1               1          5-1

2          New Orleans     South    7-2              1           5-2

3          Green Bay        North     8-2               1           5-1

4          Dallas                East      5-4                1          4-3

5          Seattle               WC       8-2                2          5-1     

6          Minnesota         WC        7-3                2          6-2

7          LA Rams                         5-4                3          3-3

8          Carolina                          5-4                2          3-4     

9          Philadelphia                    5-4                2          3-4

10        Chicago                          4-5                3          3-3

 

More from Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The 49ers lost their first game of the year on Monday night, which didn’t knock them from the top perch in the NFC playoff picture but did make things tighter in the race for the No. 1 seed in the conference.

 

A win would have left them two games up on the Packers and Saints in the loss column and three games up on the Seahawks on the same front. All three of those teams are right on the 49ers’ tails now, however.

 

Here’s how the entire NFC playoff picture looks with Week 10 in the books.

 

LEADERS

1. 49ers (8-1) Monday night’s loss cost them a chance at a commanding lead in the NFC West, but they remain in front of both conference and division.

 

2. Packers (8-2) They rebounded from a bad loss and have a week off to prepare for their shot at the 49ers.

 

3. Saints (7-2) An upset loss to the Falcons stings less thanks to losses by the 49ers and Panthers.

 

4. Cowboys (5-4) Sunday night’s loss to the Vikings sets up a tense stretch run in Dallas.

 

5. Seahawks (8-2) They get a well-timed bye after playing 70 minutes that kept their hopes of a division title alive.

 

6. Vikings (7-3) Winning on Sunday night has solidified Minnesota’s Wild Card edge with six games left on the slate.

 

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

7. Rams (5-4) The Rams are home the next two weeks, but injuries are mounting at the wrong time for last year’s NFC champs.

 

8. Eagles (5-4) A loss by the Cowboys put them back into a horse race for the division title, but they’ll need to beat the Patriots this week to fully take advantage.

 

9. Panthers (5-4) They’ll need to guard against the kind of letdown against the Falcons that the Saints experienced in Week 10.

 

10. Bears (4-5) They got a much needed win on Sunday and will need another one against the Rams this week to fan their remaining playoff hopes.

 

– – –

You wouldn’t have known about it from listening to Monday night’s commentary, but Seattle won after playing for a tie.

 

Faced with 4th-and-2 at their own 45, out of timeouts just inside two minutes and armed with a bold QB and MVP candidate, Seattle meekly punted rather than boldly go for the win.  The chances of converting were about 60% (we actually think a little more with Wilson) and if Seattle got it, they would be extremely unlikely to lose, most likely to have a field goal attempt to win.

 

Instead they punted.  Surely, we thought the 49ers would think, with 1:50 to play, run two plays that kept the clock running, hopefully get one first down, then with inside a minute to play, go aggressively for another field goal try.  As division leader, make sure of the tie, then try to win with a walkoff.

 

Instead, only 25 seconds elapsed with three clunky incompletions and the punt.  The last incompletion, heaved downfield, was espeacially clunky.  A Seattle had plenty of time to move into place for the winning field goal opportunity they should never have expected when they punted.

 

You may not agree with the above.  But the issues are certainly worth discussing.  Instead, the ESPN telecast avoided them all, except for a fleeting reference by Joe Tessitore that only 25 seconds had elapsed after the San Francisco punt.

 

(Upon reviewing the tape, we also note nary a mention of Seattle using its last timeout with the clock stopped after the two-minute warning).

 

Dieter Kurtenbach of the San Jose Mercury News offers a defense of Shanahan’s play-calling, including the long pass on 3rd down:

 

The 49ers had the ball on their own 20-yard line with 1:50 remaining in a sudden-death overtime period.

 

A field goal would have won them the game.

 

But only 25 seconds, zero gained yards, and no timeouts later, the Niners punted and the Seahawks had the ball at their own 36. They drove 40 yards and kicked a game-winning 42-yard field goal as time expired.

 

The hot take is so easy to write: Kyle Shanahan — the Niners’ head coach and offensive coordinator — did it again. Just like in Super Bowl LI, the so-called offensive genius passed when he should’ve run the ball and his team lost because of it.

 

 It’s not really that simple, though.

 

It never is. (Though perhaps those clamoring over the play calls are.)

 

Yes, it looks suspect in retrospect that Shanahan called three straight pass plays in that scenario. The history of him in such moments makes it seem all the more controversial.

 

Hindsight or a random person on Twitter might tell you that the Niners should have peppered in the run a bit to wind down the clock — especially considering that Seattle had no timeouts left — or even that they should have merely taken a knee and accepted a tie.

 

But Shanahan was trying to win the game.

 

A frequent Madden player might think that a team can play the clock and the opponent at the same time — that they can gain yards on a perfectly timed schedule — but that’s now how real football works. After all, if the 49ers’ offense was capable of that kind of precision, they wouldn’t have been in overtime on Monday.

 

You call plays that can net you the needed 50-plus yards and put you in scoring position with less than two minutes to play. And given how poor the Niners’ run game was on Monday, that two-minute offense should not have included handing off the ball.

 

And playing for a tie? Only a coward does that.

 

Yes, a tie might look better than a 27-24 loss right now, but wouldn’t 24-24 feel like a loss if it was attained because the Niners had no desire to actually win?

 

Of course, the possibility exists that the Niners might regret losing Monday’s game come December — that they’ll wish they had tied — but for that to be the case, they’ll have to lose a few more games along the way. No matter how it all shakes out, this loss will not feel monumental. It’ll either be inconsequential or the start of something much larger and insidious.

 

But no matter how it shakes out, 49ers fans will at least know that their coach is trying to win, as opposed to trying to not lose.

 

Who was the last successful coach to do the latter?

 

Which fan base is cool with that being temperament being acceptable from their team leader and offensive play-caller?

 

The narrative that Shanahan should have called for more runs in that series also ignores the fact that all three of the Niners’ pass plays had a high likelihood of completion, and the third pass of the drive had an outstanding chance of winning the game.

 

“Definitely wish we took more time off the clock,” Shanahan said after the game. “But [I] was counting on us catching one of those balls.”

 

An NFL head coach expecting one of three passes to be completed in this pass-happy NFL? Run this guy out of town.

 

It should also be noted that had any one of the three passes been competed — as Shanahan counted on — the clock ceases to become an issue.

 

Perhaps it even becomes a detriment to the Niners, who had only one timeout and had to drive at a lot more yards to set up the game-winning field goal.

 

The Niners’ first pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage. That’s just a defender making a really good play. You can’t be angry about that.

 

The second pass was a drop by Dante Pettis. Perhaps Garoppolo led him a bit too much, but the ball hit Pettis square in both hands — had he made the catch, he likely would have picked up a first down. That’s not a bad play call, that’s bad execution.

 

And while you might wonder why Garoppolo threw a rainbow pass down the sideline on third down, had Shaquill Griffin not made an incredible, full-extension, two-handed pass breakup on the play, Deebo Samuel would have coasted into the end zone, winning the game for the Niners. (Had he not dropped it, of course.)

 

Samuel had a step — or two — on Griffin and the pass was on the money. Again, you have to tip your hat to a great defensive play.

 

In the end, that was the difference in the game — not the play calls.

 

The Seahawks, as flawed as they might be, made more plays in the clutch than the 49ers. They tipped accurate Garoppolo passes and didn’t drop first-down completions.

 

Oh, and when their field-goal kicker had a chance to win the game, he made his kick.

 

Obviously, ESPN didn’t have time to point that out – but at least pointing out that the Pettis drop meant Seattle was one play away from getting the ball back with time on the clock would have been nice.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

The Falcons will give up a home game in 2020 to aid the NFL’s international initiatives.

 

Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Falcons will only be playing seven games in Atlanta during the 2020 regular season.

 

It’s unclear where their eighth home game will be played, but we know it won’t be in the United States. The Falcons announced on Tuesday that they will be the home team for one of the NFL’s international games next year.

 

Whether the Falcons will be playing in London or Mexico City remains unknown. The Dolphins are set to host an international game next season and the Jaguars will be back in London for the eighth straight season.

 

In addition to the three other NFC South teams, the Falcons are set for home games against the Bears, Lions, Broncos, Raiders and the NFC West team that finishes in the same spot in the standings as the Falcons this season.

 

 

TAMPA BAY

The Buccaneers benched CB VERNON HARGREAVES III on Sunday, then flat out cut him on Tuesday.  Jenna Laine of ESPN.com:

 

Two days after he was benched for what coach Bruce Arians deemed lack of hustle, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released starting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves on Tuesday morning.

 

“After thoughtful consideration over the past few weeks, Bruce and I came to the conclusion that we needed to make this change,” Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said in a statement. “Decisions such as this are always difficult, but I felt it was in the best interest of our team to part ways with Vernon at this time and allow him to explore other opportunities. We are disappointed that it did not work out here for Vernon and we wish him continued success moving forward.”

 

Hargreaves, the 11th overall pick in the 2016 draft, was the most experienced cornerback on the Bucs’ roster.

 

He was the Bucs’ top cornerback heading into this offseason, which is why the organization picked up his fifth-year option for 2020, valued at $9 million. That fifth-year option was guaranteed for injury only, however.

 

“He didn’t look like he was hustling to go in for a tackle,” Arians said when asked about Hargreaves, who surrendered a 55-yard catch to Andy Isabella at the beginning of the third quarter against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. “He was chasing somebody across the field, and he wasn’t running fast enough.”

 

Hargreaves wasn’t defiant when approached by ESPN after the game and said he believed things could be resolved.

 

“If that’s what Coach saw, that’s what he saw,” said Hargreaves, who got back into the game after nickelback M.J. Stewart’s injury. “There’s no arguing it. I need to hustle, point-blank, end of discussion. And I’ll get better. I’m sure I’ll talk with him this week and we’ll get things straightened out, and we’ll see where to go from here.”

 

Now the Bucs’ most experienced corner is Ryan Smith, who was removed after two plays on defense Sunday because he surrendered a 69-yard touchdown and has played only five defensive snaps this season. The Bucs drafted him in 2016 as well.

 

This tweet from Thomas Bassinger of the Tampa Bay Times:

 

@tometrics

 

#Bucs 2016 draft

 

Vernon Hargreaves: gone

Noah Spence: gone

Roberto Aguayo: gone

Ryan Smith: chasing Christian Kirk

Caleb Benenoch: gone

Devante Bond: gone

Danny Vitale: gone

 

Their struggles today can be traced directly to this disaster. Teams miss on picks, but holy smokes.

 

WR CHRIS GODWIN was a great 3rd-round pick in 2017, TE O.J. HOWARD still a 1st round enigma.  2017 second-rounder S JUSTIN EVANS is oft injured and now on IR.

 

The 2015 draft featured JAMEIS WINSTON, but 2nd round RB RONALD JONES is finally getting some traction.  T DONOVAN SMITH and G ALI MARPET are starters from 2015 and LB KWON ALEXANDER was a fine pick who got his big 2nd contract from the 49ers.

 

NFC WEST

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Sean McVay and the Rams looked a lot better last year when the offensive line was stable and productive.  Now, C BRIAN ALLEN is done for the year – the latest in 2019 upheaval.  Gary Klein in the Los Angeles Times:

 

The Rams’ losses continue to mount, and not just on the field.

 

Center Brian Allen will sit out the rest of the season because of a knee injury that requires surgery, right tackle Rob Havenstein will be sidelined at least one game because of a knee injury, and wide receiver Brandin Cooks also will be sidelined another game because of concussions, coach Sean McVay said Monday.

 

A day after the offensive line was in injury plagued disarray during a 17-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Rams started to cope with the fact that they will have an even more inexperienced and undermanned group in Sunday night’s game against the Chicago Bears at the Coliseum.

 

That does not bode well for a team that is 5-4, in danger of falling off the pace for a playoff spot and possibly suffering a collapse less than a year after it played in the Super Bowl.

 

Austin Blythe will start at center, and Andrew Whitworth will play left tackle. Those are the only certainties for a position group that boasted near-unprecedented continuity during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

 

 “We’re working through those things right now,” McVay said during a news conference.

 

Allen and Joe Noteboom, both drafted in 2018, had replaced John Sullivan and Rodger Saffold, respectively. The Rams declined to exercise their option on Sullivan, a 10-year NFL veteran, after last season. Saffold, a 10th-year pro, signed a four-year, $44-million free-agent contract with the Tennessee Titans that included $22.5 million in guarantees.

 

Noteboom suffered a season-ending knee injury Oct. 13 against the San Francisco 49ers. Allen suffered a left knee injury during the second quarter Sunday at Heinz Field.

 

Havenstein played through a right meniscus injury against the Steelers but came out late in the game.

 

Rookies David Edwards and Bobby Evans, second-year pro Austin Corbett and perhaps Jamil Demby, who struggled in a reserve role earlier this season, will start or play against a Bears defense that features Khalil Mack and other outstanding pass rushers.

 

In what combination remains to be determined. The Rams are inclined to keep Edwards and Corbett at guard and possibly start Evans at right tackle, McVay said. But nothing has been decided.

 

 

SEATTLE

The Seahawks closed out their win at San Francisco without the services of WR TYLER LOCKETT, but Pete Carroll says his injury is not severe.  Nick Shook of NFL.com:

 

After a scare last night that required a visit to a Bay Area hospital, Tyler Lockett appears to be OK.

 

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told reporters Tuesday the receiver did indeed stay overnight at a Stanford hospital near the 49ers’ home of Santa Clara due to severe swelling in his leg, but it was more of a precautionary stay than anything, per 710 ESPN Seattle. The injury shouldn’t be a problem for Lockett in the future, Carroll added.

 

“It should be OK, it shouldn’t be a big problem going forward,” Carroll said. “There’s concern there could be some complications when you have something like that.”

 

NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported Tuesday on NFL NOW that Lockett did not need to undergo surgery, and his injury was a “very bad bruise” that swelled a lot.

 

Lockett had initially been hospitalized after suffering the contusion late in Monday night’s win over the 49ers. Lockett caught the final kick of regulation and downed it but didn’t return to the field after that, instead receiving medical attention and eventually making the trip to the hospital.

 

Carroll had talked about how serious the injury appeared to be for Lockett, but mentioned it was good that the Seahawks’ medical staff appeared to have gotten ahead of whatever issue was plauging Lockett. Less than 24 hours later, the prognosis is even brighter, with Carroll mentioning how fortunate the Seahawks are to have a bye this week.

 

At 8-2, Seattle’s Monday night’s overtime win over the 49ers helped put the Seahawks right back into the conversation for the NFC West crown. Their chances will be significantly improved if Lockett can play a part in the pursuit.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

WR ANTONIO CALLAWAY, no stranger to diva WR behavior, was benched on Sunday – and the Browns won.  Nick Shook of NFL.com:

 

After two months of public clamoring for more opportunities for Rashard Higgins, Browns fans entered their fever dream Sunday when Higgins caught the team’s game-winning touchdown.

 

The score snapped Cleveland’s four-game losing streak and earned the team’s first home win of 2019. It’s unlikely it would have happened had Antonio Callaway been available to play.

 

The Florida product did not dress Sunday, making a surprise appearance on the team’s pregame inactives list. Browns coach Freddie Kitchens at least partially explained Callaway’s absence Monday, telling reporters during a conference call that he benched the second-year wideout as a punishment for an undisclosed issue.

 

“I don’t know if he got the message or not,” Kitchens said, via the Associated Press’ Tom Withers. “But I’m not wavering.”

 

Callaway’s benching is the second time in which he’s been unavailable to play because of his own actions. The receiver served a four-game suspension to start the season due to a violation of the league’s policy and program for substances of abuse.

 

When he returned, he was clearly unprepared to play, confusing his assignment and alignment on multiple downs in Cleveland’s Week 5 loss to San Francisco and dropping what would have been a touchdown reception on the goal line. The blunder not only cost the Browns a score, but also resulted in an interception, thanks to the upward deflection off Callaway’s hands.

 

It’s been a work in progress since then, as the receiver has repeatedly shown flashes of the talent that convinced Browns general manager John Dorsey to take a risk on him in the fourth round of the 2018 draft, despite Callaway’s past off-field transgressions. Too often, though, the receiver has found himself in hot water with either law enforcement, the NFL, or now, his own coaching staff.

 

Kitchens refused to elaborate on the cause of Callaway’s benching, instead emphasizing that he hopes his decision made an impact on the young receiver.

 

“I always want our players to make good choices,” Kitchens said. “I did what I felt like I needed to do. It’s over.”

 

Callaway has eight catches for 89 yards in four games (two starts) in 2019.

 

AFC EAST

 

MIAMI

Coach Brain Flores didn’t get the memo that the Dolphins are supposed to be losing.  Nick Shook of NFL.com:

 

The Miami Dolphins showed their hand early in the 2019 season when they traded away Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills and Minkah Fitzpatrick in separate deals that landed them a total of three first-round picks, including two in 2020.

 

Lately, though, they haven’t exactly followed suit. The Dolphins own the longest active win streak in the AFC East at two games.

 

This seems to fly in the face of what many saw as an open teardown-and-rebuild process, to which first-year coach Brian Flores would be subjected. But Flores’ current team — the one filled with players playing for 2019, not 2020 or beyond — isn’t accepting a loss-filled fate as easily as one might expect.

 

“We’re going out to win every game. Period,” Flores said following his team’s win over the Indianapolis Colts, via ESPN. “I have been in this league for a long time, and if you are not motivated on a daily basis, you won’t be in this league long — that’s players, coaches, that’s personnel, that’s everybody.”

 

The Dolphins have done just that in consecutive weeks, first taking down the New York Jets in a battle of AFC East ineptitude before stunning much of the football world in Week 10 with their two-point win over the Colts in Indianapolis. The latter victory has some thinking its a sign of a possible turnaround under Flores.

 

“We’ve worked so hard for this,” rookie defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said, again via ESPN. “The outside world, the media maybe, thought this wasn’t possible. We got two more wins than the rest of the world thought we were going to have this year, so that’s always pretty cool. … This is all starting to come into fruition — what we envisioned. Guys are starting to buy into Flores’ vision, the team-first culture.”

 

While that might be true, it’s also a team led by key veterans who don’t care about the future, because such a future likely won’t include them. Few things motivate more effectively than a clock that is running out.

 

“People get mad when we win. I wouldn’t want anybody to go to their job and fail at it,” 31-year-old center Daniel Kilgore said, per ESPN. “We got 53 guys busting their ass every day, competing, trying to get a win. I understand the point [of tanking]. But I’m not down for it. I’m an old man in this league. I’m trying to get as many wins as I can get. My clock is running out. You’ve got many young guys coming in here over the next couple of years, so worry about it then. Win now.”

 

The Browns created something of a blueprint for a rapid teardown and rebuild that included bottoming out in the most severe way possible: 0-16. These Dolphins are doing everything they can to avoid such a fate, and after two straight victories, they’re rightfully focused on this week’s game — at home against the 6-3 Buffalo Bills — more than anything else.

 

Actually, only three teams in the entire league currently possess longer win streaks – Baltimore 5, Pittsburgh 4 and Seattle 3.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

AIKMAN RATINGS

No big changes in the Aikman Combined Ratings through Week 10 as the Patriots and Niners remain 1-2 with New England on bye and San Francisco losing in overtime.

 

Despite their loss, the Cowboys remained 3rd although their rating fell from 172.0 to 167.4.  After thumping Cincinnati, the Ravens jumped from 5th to 4th while continuing to sit atop Aikman Offense.

 

For those surprised by the Cowboys high ranking, we would note that their combination of Offense and Defense is the best in the NFL’s yards-only method of ranking. 

– – –

Hammered by the Ravens, the Bengals have moved to the bottom of the Aikman Combined.  Miami, winners of two in a row, has eased up another spot to 30th.

 

 

2019 Season Aikman Efficiency Ratings Through Week 10                                                                                                                                                                              

                                                ——  Aikman ——                      ——      NFL      ———

Rank     W-L      Team                Comb   Off      Def                   Off       Def       Com

1          8-1        Patriots             178.2    82.1     96.1                  15           1        16

2          8-1        49ers               174.5    84.4     90.1                    9          2        11

3          5-4        Cowboys          167.4    94.1     73.4                    1          7          8

4          7-2        Ravens             167.0    98.0     69.0                    2        14         16

5          7-3        Vikings             165.4    92.2     73.2                    8        13         21

6          8-2        Seahawks         160.1    90.4     69.7                    5        24         29

7          8-2        Packers            158.6    88.9     69.7                  17         28         45

8          6-3        Texans              157.8    93.2     64.6                    4        19         23

9          6-3        Bills                  156.9    82.5     74.4                  23           3        26

10         7-2        Saints               155.6    84.9     70.7                  14           5        19

11         5-4        Eagles             155.3    85.8     69.5                  20           8        28

12         5-4        Rams                154.5    82.0     72.5                  12         11         23

13         6-4        Chiefs               153.0    89.3     63.7                    3        22         25

14         5-4        Colts                152.2    83.9     68.3                  22         10         32

15         5-4        Steelers            151.9    73.6     78.2                  28         12         40

16         5-5        Titans               151.2    81.4     69.8                  25         18         43

17         3-6        Broncos            150.3    74.3     76.0                  27           4        31

18         3-6        Buccaneers       149.9    83.2     66.6                    7        25         32

19         4-5        Bears                148.9    74.5     74.4                  29           9        38

20         4-6        Chargers           148.2    79.6     68.6                  16           6        22

21         5-4        Raiders             146.2    87.8     58.4                  13         26         39

22         4-5        Jaguars            145.4    77.6     67.7                  11         16         27

23         5-4        Panthers           145.0    81.6     63.4                  21         20         41

24         3-5-1     Lions                143.9    83.5     60.3                    6        30         36

25         3-6        Browns             141.2    75.0     66.2                  19         17         36

26         2-8        Giants               139.1    73.4     65.8                  24         27         51

27         2-7        Falcons            138.9    83.0     55.9                  10         23         33

28         3-6        Cardinals          138.8    81.4     57.4                  18         31         49

29         1-8        Redskins          128.5    64.2     64.4                  30         21         51

30         2-7        Dolphins           124.4    66.4     58.0                  31         29         60

31         2-7        Jets                 124.2    59.7     64.5                  32         15         47

32         0-9        Bengals            123.7    65.7     58.0                  26         32         58

                                                                                                                       

                        NFL Average:    149.9    81.2     68.7                                  

 

 

 

ESPN RATINGS

As voted by ESPN.com’s experts.

 

1. New England Patriots (8-1)

Most important game left: Dec. 8 vs. Chiefs

A rematch of the AFC Championship Game, but this time at home, should be a playoff-type environment and provide a solid barometer as to how ready the Patriots (8-1) might be to make a return trip to the Super Bowl. Road games against the Eagles (Sunday) and Texans (Dec. 1) easily could have qualified, but Tom Brady-Patrick Mahomes has produced some of the best the NFL has had to offer within the last year. — Mike Reiss

 

2. San Francisco 49ers (8-1)

Most important game left: Dec. 8 at Saints

The 49ers have put themselves in position not only to win the NFC West but also to nail down home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Niners also have a big one against Green Bay two weeks before this, but that one is at Levi’s Stadium. The Saints game will go a long way in determining the Niners’ playoff position and offer an idea of how they stack up against another top team in the conference. — Nick Wagoner

 

3. Baltimore Ravens (7-2)

Most important game left: Sunday vs. Texans

A win over the Texans could prove huge for a Ravens team looking to secure a first-round bye for first time since 2011. Baltimore, which is one game ahead of Houston for that No. 2 seed, can extend its lead over the Texans and grab hold of the head-to-head tiebreaker. A loss would bump the Ravens out of that No. 2 spot with six games remaining and give the Texans the inside track to one of those first-round byes. — Jamison Hensley

 

4. Seattle Seahawks (8-2)

Most important game left: Dec. 29 vs. 49ers

The Seahawks’ remaining six games are against NFC teams, meaning they’ll all carry added weight in terms of playoff importance. As it stands now, none looks more important than the regular-season finale. The Seahawks’ next four games are against teams currently above .500, so they could be clinging to a wild-card spot heading into Week 17. It’s hardly out of the question that the 49ers could slip during a difficult stretch of their own. If so, the rematch at CenturyLink Field could determine the NFC West champion. — Brady Henderson

 

5. Green Bay Packers (8-2)

Most important game left: Dec. 23 at Vikings

Yes, the Nov. 24 game at the 49ers might help decide first-round playoff byes, but the Packers likely will be underdogs there, so the NFC North race might be more important if the Packers can’t upset the 49ers. With the Vikings only a game behind, a sweep of Minnesota could be key to winning the division. — Rob Demovsky

 

6. New Orleans Saints (7-2)

Most important game left: Nov. 24 vs. Panthers

Up until this past Sunday, I would’ve picked the Week 14 home date with the 49ers — which still might determine the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the NFC. But the Saints need to take care of their own backyard first after their stunning loss to the Falcons. The Saints must lock down the NFC South title, and that means they can’t open the door by slipping up again at home against another division rival in two weeks. It won’t be easy with the way league MVP candidate Christian McCaffrey has been playing. But ideally, the Saints can get the division title wrapped up before heading to Carolina for the Week 17 rematch. — Mike Triplett

 

7. Minnesota Vikings (7-3)

Most important game left: Dec. 2 at Seahawks

The Vikings took the first step to proving why they belong in the postseason by beating a contender in Dallas. If they want to cement themselves further in the playoff picture, they need to do it again by going to Seattle and coming away with a win. Playoff seeding comes into play between the seven-win Vikings and the Seahawks, who are currently seeded No. 6 and No. 5, respectively. A victory could boost Minnesota’s postseason standing even further and earn it a more favorable matchup. — Courtney Cronin

 

8. Houston Texans (6-3)

Most important game left: Sunday at Ravens

The Texans have a tough three-game stretch coming up (at Baltimore, vs. Indianapolis and vs. New England), but it begins with a huge game in Baltimore coming off of a bye. Yes, the game against the Colts is huge for the division, but if the Texans want to take a step forward, their focus can’t be on just winning the AFC South. Houston has won only one playoff game under Bill O’Brien, and if it wants to go to an AFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history, it starts with proving it can beat the best teams in the conference. — Sarah Barshop

 

9. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4)

Most important game left: Dec. 1 vs. Raiders

The following game against the Patriots once loomed large, but after losing four of their past six games, the more reasonable goal for the Chiefs is to hold on to their lead in the AFC West. The match against the Raiders could well determine which team wins the division. — Adam Teicher

 

10. Dallas Cowboys (5-4)

Most important game left: Dec. 22 at Eagles

This is likely going to be for the division title and a spot in the playoffs — if the Cowboys can grab wins before they get there. The Cowboys’ best and presumably only path to the postseason is by winning the NFC East. There simply are too many teams with better records at the moment to consider a wild-card spot. Philadelphia has a much easier schedule, so the Cowboys have to be in a position to make the Dec. 22 meeting matter. If this game ends up for the division, we truly can say Jason Garrett will be coaching for his job. — Todd Archer

 

11. Los Angeles Rams (5-4)

Most important game left: Sunday vs. Bears

A season after a making a Super Bowl run, the Rams’ season hangs in the balance coming off a loss to the Steelers. The Rams still have a chance to make the playoffs, but it is shrinking at an alarming rate with a 5-4 record while being in a division that has been dominated by the 49ers. The Rams must find a way to regroup on offense and get past the Bears; otherwise, their season could be lost. — Lindsey Thiry

 

12. Philadelphia Eagles (5-4)

Most important game left: Dec. 22 vs. Cowboys

The Eagles and Cowboys are tied atop the NFC East at 5-4, and there’s a real possibility this game will decide the division. The Cowboys currently have the advantage in the head-to-head and divisional-record tiebreakers, making it all the more important that Philadelphia takes care of business at home against the Cowboys. — Tim McManus

 

13. Buffalo Bills (6-3)

Most important game left: Dec. 15 at Steelers

The Steelers have been resurgent over the past few weeks, winning four of five games to vault into AFC wild-card contention. With the Colts, Raiders and Titans all jockeying with Buffalo and Pittsburgh for the conference’s two wild-card spots, this late-season matchup will go a long way toward deciding who gets it — and establishing a tiebreaker. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

 

14. Indianapolis Colts (5-4)

Most important game left: Nov. 21 at Texans

Losses to Pittsburgh and Miami in back-to-back weeks prevented the Colts from being able to head into Houston in first place in the AFC South. A victory over the Texans — combined with a win over Jacksonville in Week 11 — would put the Colts in a solid position in the division, because they would have swept the season series against Houston, which is likely their biggest competition to win the division and get an automatic playoff spot. — Mike Wells

 

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4)

Most important game left: Dec. 29 at Ravens

Seemingly out of the playoff race before it started with an abysmal start to the season, the Steelers are right back in the thick of things with four divisional games coming up. The most important one of them is the last, a regular-season finale in Baltimore against a team they nearly beat in overtime with Devlin Hodges at quarterback. If the Steelers continue their hot streak, it could wind up being for the AFC North title. — Brooke Pryor

 

16. Carolina Panthers (5-4)

Most important game left: Nov. 24 at Saints

Three of the Panthers’ next four games should be winnable, with two games against Atlanta and one against Washington surrounding the Saints game. With an upset of New Orleans and wins in the other three tilts, the Panthers would be 9-4 with two of their final three at home. It looks like it will take 10 or 11 wins to make the playoffs in the NFC, so Carolina will need to pull an upset somewhere. — David Newton

 

17. Oakland Raiders (5-4)

Most important game left: Dec. 1 at Chiefs

If they handle their business over the next two weeks — at home against the winless Bengals and at the 2-7 Jets — the Raiders will go to Kansas City with a 7-4 record and first place in the AFC West on the line. Pretty heady stuff for a team that gave up 278 passing yards and four TDs to Patrick Mahomes in the second quarter of the Chiefs’ 28-10 win in Oakland on Sept. 15, right? Especially since Arrowhead Stadium has been such a house of horrors for Raiders QB Derek Carr, who is 0-5 in Kansas City with three TD passes and five INTs. — Paul Gutierrez

 

18. Tennessee Titans (5-5)

Most important game left: Dec. 1 at Colts

Having lost to the Colts at home, it will be imperative for the Titans to win in Indianapolis. They have to overcome some bad history against the Colts — who have won 14 of the past 16 games in this series — and stay on pace for a wild-card spot. If the tiebreakers come down to division or conference record, another loss to Indianapolis likely would knock the Titans out of the playoffs. The Texans appear to be the front-runners for the AFC South, and the Titans have two remaining games versus Houston in December. The race for the division is going to go down to the wire. — Turron Davenport

 

19. Los Angeles Chargers (4-6)

Most important game left: Nov. 18 vs. Chiefs

At 4-6, the most important game for the Chargers is the next one, a Monday Night Football tilt against the AFC West rival Chiefs. With Kansas City losing over the weekend against the Titans, the Chargers still sit two games back in the division with six left to play. So even though it has been up-and-down year for the Bolts, they could catapult themselves back into the playoff conversation with a win over the Chiefs. — Eric D. Williams

 

20. Chicago Bears (4-5)

Week 10 ranking: 21

Basically, the Bears have to win Sunday night to keep their dim playoff hopes alive. At 4-5, the Bears are 3.5 games behind Green Bay and 2.5 behind Minnesota in the NFC North. Chicago’s best chance at qualifying for the postseason is probably a wild-card berth, but it’s a crowded picture in the NFC. The Rams are one of the teams ahead of the Bears, but Los Angeles has lost four of its past six. Despite all of the Bears’ struggles, the Rams game is winnable — and vitally important to Chicago. — Jeff Dickerson

 

21. Detroit Lions (3-5-1)

Week 10 ranking: 18

It’s cliché to say the next game is the most important because it’s the next one, but based on what’s happening with the Lions, it really is. Detroit has lost five of six games. Its defense doesn’t appear to be improving, and its offense might or might not have Matthew Stafford. The Lions get the Cowboys at home, and if they can’t beat Dallas, their season will be all but over considering the state of the NFC and that of the NFC North. — Michael Rothstein

 

22. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-5)

Week 10 ranking: 22

That’s the date of Nick Foles’ return, and the Jaguars pretty much have to go 5-2 over the final seven games to have a realistic shot at the playoffs. Dropping the first one after the bye would leave the Jaguars two games below .500 and essentially eliminate any margin of error. The Colts have not played well over the past two games, and they are coming off a home loss to Miami, so the Jaguars could get the second part of their season rolling by beating a reeling team. — Mike DiRocco

 

23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-6)

Most important game left: Sunday vs. Saints

When you start 3-6, every game becomes must-win. Just ask the 1994 Patriots, 1995 Lions and 2012 Redskins, who all overcame 3-6 starts to finish 10-6 and reach the playoffs. The 1996 Jaguars also did it with one loss in their final eight games to finish 9-7. Granted, the mistakes the Bucs make don’t warrant playoff conversation, but sometimes hope is the only thing keeping a struggling team running. This week’s home game against the Saints — which comes on the heels of the Bucs’ first win in over a month — could do wonders for the psyche of a young secondary that finally made a late stop. — Jenna Laine

 

24. Arizona Cardinals (3-6-1)

Most important game left: Dec. 8 vs. Steelers

This is the Cardinals’ next-best chance at getting another win. Arizona has been beating teams it should, and while the Steelers topped the Rams last week, Pittsburgh is playing with a backup quarterback. If the Cardinals can’t win that contest, their next — and possibly last — chance to get a victory would come the week after against Cleveland. — Josh Weinfuss

 

25. Cleveland Browns (3-6)

Most important game left: Thursday vs. Steelers

The Browns saved their season with a late, game-winning TD drive on Sunday. Now, they have a chance to generate momentum for the first time all year with a divisional rival coming to town. Beat the Steelers and all of a sudden Cleveland’s playoff outlook begins to change, especially considering that the Browns own the NFL’s easiest remaining schedule. — Jake Trotter

 

26. Denver Broncos (3-6)

Most important game left: Dec. 15 at Chiefs

This is the game in which the Broncos definitively will know where their season stands. The Broncos will know how Brandon Allen looks in the offense; rookie Drew Lock will either be on the roster or remain on injured reserve; and Denver will either be flirting with .500 or looking at a top-five pick going into its fourth road game in five weeks. This is also a measuring stick after the 30-6 thrashing that the Chiefs gave the Broncos in October, along with considering the Broncos’ traditional late-season woes in Arrowhead Stadium, where the Broncos are 2-14 all time in December visits. — Jeff Legwold

 

27. Atlanta Falcons (2-7)

Most important game left: Nov. 28 vs. Saints

As bad as the Falcons’ season has gone, things won’t appear nearly as bad on paper if they can sweep their division rivals. The Falcons made it look easy in New Orleans and frustrated Drew Brees. They have to bring the same type of intensity on Thanksgiving night. — Vaughn McClure

 

28. Miami Dolphins (2-7)

Most important game left: Dec. 22 vs. Bengals

The Dolphins are on a two-game winning streak and could play themselves out of what was setting up as the battle for the No. 1 pick. But as it stands, Cincinnati remains the biggest competition for Miami to land its choice of quarterback in the 2020 draft. The 0-9 Bengals have a two-game draft advantage over the Dolphins, but there could be a scenario going into Week 16 that the winner here gets the top pick. — Cameron Wolfe

 

29. New York Jets (2-7)

Most important game left: Dec. 8 vs. Dolphins

File this one under “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice …” The Jets can’t afford to be fooled twice by the Dolphins, who beat them in Week 9. It was the low point for the Adam Gase regime. Fortunately for the Jets, they get a chance for payback — at home. More than that, the Jets can use the game as a progress meter. If the team truly is making strides over the second half of the season — the only thing to sell to an angry fan base — it will take care of business. On a personal level, it would be embarrassing for Gase to go 0-2 against his former team. — Rich Cimini

 

30. New York Giants (2-8)

Most important game left: Dec. 15 vs. Dolphins

If the Giants lose this one, watch out. Everyone is going to be gone. This would be the ultimate embarrassment for the Giants and co-owner John Mara. Hey, it might be mid-November, but this is what the Giants’ season has become: trying to salvage some respectability; avoiding further embarrassment; and developing Daniel Jones. — Jordan Raanan

 

31. Washington Redskins (1-8)

Most important game left: Sunday vs. Jets

When you’re 1-8, there aren’t a lot of significant games remaining, and this could just as easily be Dec. 22 versus the Giants. The Redskins have lost eight in a row at home and need to give their fans something to feel good about. If you can’t beat poor teams, then it’s difficult to sell belief that you’re close to anything besides a massive rebuild. It’s a chance for rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins to build some confidence. But if the Redskins lose these games, they will help themselves in April; don’t be surprised if Redskins fans root for that to happen. — John Keim

 

32. Cincinnati Bengals (0-9)

Most important game left: Dec. 22 at Dolphins

 

This one is a no-brainer. Right now, the Bengals are two games ahead of Miami in the race for the No. 1 pick. However, if the winless Bengals get a win over the Jets in Week 13, there could be a one-game difference between the Dolphins and Cincinnati ahead of the penultimate regular-season game. Even though Miami is on a two-game win streak, this one is still big. — Ben Baby