Sorting through the NFL’s logjam of 7-5 teams
As we enter December, there is a mess of 7-5 teams fighting for a few precious playoff spots. Who are the pretenders and contenders? We break it down for you.
There are just four weeks left in the regular season to sort out a playoff race that is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in recent history. While some teams have separated themselves as the cream of the crop — five teams are tied for the league’s best record at 9-3 — there remains a logjam of contenders on the postseason bubble.
An unprecedented seven teams have identical 7-5 records entering Week 14, including six that are tied for the final wild card spot in the jam-packed AFC. Not all of these 7-5 teams will make the playoffs, and there are probably more pretenders than contenders in this jumble of still-relevant teams in the postseason hunt.
Who primed to make a meaningful late-season run and emerge from the chaos to play in January? We break down the postseason chances of these seven 7-5 teams:
Current playoff seed: 6th in AFC
Miami’s 16-13 win over the New York Jets on Monday night moved it from 11th in the pecking order up to the coveted sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. The Dolphins are the lone 7-5 squad in position to make the postseason — thanks to a complicated set of tiebreaking procedures that only Ryan Fitzpatrick’s son could figure out — and they also have the second best odds to make the playoffs among the “7-5s,” per Football Outsiders.
The Dolphins have several advantages over the other seven-win teams in the postseason race. They have momentum heading into December, with five wins in their last seven games. Miami also will likely be favored in three of its final four games — at home this Sunday against the 7-5 Baltimore Ravens, and in Weeks 16 and 17 against the Minnesota Vikings (5-7) and New York Jets (2-10). The Dolphins’ offense has been inconsistent at best this season, but a sixth-ranked defense should keep Miami competitive in its remaining games and lift it to a playoff berth.
Kansas City Chiefs
Current playoff seed: 7th in AFC
Although the Chiefs beat the Dolphins in Week 3, they are currently behind them in the playoff seeding because of a worse conference record. Football Outsiders actually gives Kansas City the best chance among the 7-5 teams to make the postseason (53.6 percent), but it’s hard to have that much confidence in a team that gave the Oakland Raiders their only win of the season.
The Chiefs have one of the more daunting remaining schedules among the contenders. They face three teams that are in the thick of the playoff race (Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers), and the only team with a losing record on their slate is the Raiders — and we know how that went the last time they played. The Chiefs’ seventh-ranked rushing offense (129.1 yards per game) and second-ranked red zone efficiency (67.6 percent) makes them a dangerous opponent if they can get an early lead. They’ve struggled to do that in the last two weeks, having been outscored a combined 21-0 in the first quarter during their two-game slide against the Raiders and Denver Broncos.
Current playoff seed: 8th in AFC
The Bills are in uncharted territory with chance to end the league’s longest active postseason drought late in the season. Having already far exceeded preseason expectations, Buffalo has somehow managed to hang on the periphery of the playoff race the entire season, never losing more than two games in a row and never falling below .500. Its postseason chances remain slim, however, with just 10.7 percent odds, according to Football Outsiders.
The reality is that the Bills have a very difficult schedule going forward, facing arguably the three best teams in the league (Broncos, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots) during the final month. Trying to beat the trio of Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady is a daunting task for any team, let alone one that features an offense ranked 30th in both Total QBR and red zone efficiency. The Bills also have head-to-head losses against two fellow 7-5 teams (Dolphins, Chiefs) and a poor 4-5 conference record, meaning that they’d likely lose any tiebreakers with other wild card candidates.
Current playoff seed: 9th in AFC
Despite holding the ninth seed, the Ravens appear to be the strongest 7-5 team on paper. They are the only team in the 7-5 pool that is ranked among the top seven teams in the NFL in both scoring offense and scoring defense. They also own the largest point differential (+86) among bubble teams. Football Outsiders is less optimistic about their playoff chances, however, giving Baltimore 44.8 percent odds to play past Week 17 (behind the Chiefs and Dolphins).
Baltimore’s biggest disadvantages are its poor 3-5 conference record and 2-3 mark within its division. However, the Ravens have the easiest remaining schedule among the 7-5 teams, and get head-to-head matchups with two of their fellow contenders down the stretch — Sunday at the Dolphins and in Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens have little margin for error, but a 3-1 finish or better in the final month seems feasible and would likely be enough to clinch a playoff spot.
Current playoff seed: 10th in AFC
Logic says that any team that has lost to the Jets (2-10) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-10) should not be considered a playoff contender. Yet here we have the most confusing team in the NFL — the Pittsburgh Steelers — who have somehow positioned themselves to make a postseason run despite their bizarre tendency to lose games they should win. Football Outsiders doesn’t like the Steelers’ chances to play in January, giving them slightly better than 1-in-3 odds (34.1 percent) to make the playoffs.
It’s hard to trust a team that not only has three losses to sub-.500 opponents, but also has a minus-4 turnover margin (20th in NFL) and a mediocre defense that has allowed fewer than 20 points in just two games this season. The Steelers have a difficult remaining schedule, but with two games left against the Cincinnati Bengals and another against fellow contender Kansas City, they still have a significant stake in this crazy playoff race.
Current playoff seed: 11th in AFC
If the Browns are going to make the playoffs, it appears they’ll do so with Brian Hoyer under center. Hoyer has struggled over the last few weeks — one passing touchdown and six interceptions in his last four games — but seems to have the support of the locker room and is probably the safer choice to lead this Browns team down the stretch.
That the Browns are playing meaningful games in December is one of the more surprising storylines of this season, but it’s likely that this Cinderella run is going to end without a postseason berth. Football Outsiders has the Browns with the lowest postseason odds (10.0 percent) among the 7-5 teams, and Cleveland’s plus-7 point differential is the worst among its on-the-bubble AFC peers. The Browns face just one team with a losing record in the final month, and finish the season with a daunting two-game road trip to Carolina and Baltimore.
San Francisco 49ers
Current playoff seed: 8th in NFC
The 49ers are the only 7-5 team in the NFC, but that doesn’t make their path to the playoffs any easier. The NFC could see a 10- or 11-win team miss the playoffs, because an awful NFC South champ is guaranteed a spot and the conference already boasts six teams with at least eight wins. Football Outsiders gives the 49ers a 29.6 percent chance to play in January, well below any of the eight- and nine-win NFC teams they are chasing.
San Francisco’s path to the postseason is likely via the wild card, and it’s going to be bumpy. After a trip to Oakland on Sunday, it finishes with three straight games against teams ahead of it in the standings (Seahawks, Chargers, Cardinals). Coming off a third straight NFC Championship appearance, the 49ers were expected by many to be Super Bowl contenders before the season started. But an underachieving offense (25th in NFL in scoring) and a series of second-half collapses has left them with uncertain postseason future.