I want to look back at the NFL teams in contention after Week 9 last uear and show you, the reader, how crucial the second half of the season was for playoff teams—how four to six teams worked their way in, or out, of postseason play based on the final eight weeks of the season.
But instead all six of the AFC teams slated to go to the playoffs ended up making it while five of the six NFC teams (Falcons instead of Cowboys) ended up playing in January.
Something about this year feels different, though. Sure, the two teams atop their respective divisions could safely earn first-round byes. But after that it’s wide open in a jumbled AFC and competitive NFC. Here are the playoff standings if the season ended right this moment:
AFC: 1. Kansas City; 2. New England; 3. Pittsburgh; 4. Houston; 5. L.A. Chargers; 6. Cincinnati.
NFC: 1. L.A. Rams; 2. New Orleans; 3. Chicago; 4. Washington; 5. Carolina; 6. Minnesota.
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I scoured the final eight weeks of this year’s schedule, and I now give you the 10 most crucial games in the second half of the season. (And holy Week 15!)
Week 10: Cowboys at Eagles
Washington just lost three key starters in one week and could be slipping. The Eagles are 4–4, a game behind Washington for the NFC East and returned Darren Sproles and Lane Johnson to practice this week. Meanwhile, the Cowboys, who are 0–4 on the road and coming off an embarrassing loss on a short week, are trying to not lose three straight. Dallas is desperate for a win and Jerry Jones’s patience is clearly running thin. How will he react to getting shellacked on national TV for a second straight week, this time by a rival?
Week 11: Chiefs vs. Rams (in Mexico City)
The Rams’ loss to the Saints only took a little wind out of the sails for this game. It’s still a battle between two of the game’s best offensive minds in Sean McVay and Andy Reid. A big, winning performance by either Todd Gurley or Patrick Mahomes would be a huge boon to either man’s MVP chances. However it’d be nice if one of these teams decided to play defense, though—shootouts are fun, but the team with the better defense will probably go further in January.
Week 11: Bengals at Ravens
The AFC North is far from decided, but the Ravens need this win to knot the season series with the Bengals after getting waxed in Cincinnati in Week 2. The Ravens will be coming off their bye losers of three straight. The future of both John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco will likely be decided in the second half of this season, and this game kicks that off for the 4-5 Ravens. If Flacco flounders as he has lately, how long until they give Lamar Jackson more of a legitimate look at quarterback? This game will be a tone setter for both teams, but especially Baltimore.
Week 12: Packers at Vikings
Their first meeting ended in a tie thanks to a miserable call (which one?) on Clay Matthews that extended regulation for Kirk Cousins. Yes, the Packers have lost two straight, but it’s been to two of the best teams in the NFL without giving Aaron Rodgers a real chance at a comeback. Green Bay is 3-4-1 halfway through the season, but they faced a similar situation in 2013 before making the postseason. Watching Jaire Alexander work against Adam Theilen will be a joy. This will be the third consecutive NFC North contest for the Vikings, and if they emerge 3–0, crown them.
Week 13: Chargers at Steelers
Did you know Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger were both drafted in 2004 and one will day be in the Hall of Fame? In case you didn’t, you won’t be able to avoid the story line in Week 13. Rivers is 2–4 against the Steelers all-time, including playoffs, and this will likely be their biggest regular-season meeting in the players’ shared history. The two AFC wild cards will probably come from the North and West divisions. Not only will the winner of this game help their overall record, but the head-to-head victory would probably decide a seeding tiebreaker should both teams lose their divisions.
Week 15: The Big Kahuna
Clear your schedule. There are four nights where we have games this week. This will be moving week for the entire NFL. I’ve checked, and there’s no better week on the NFL schedule than this one.
Chargers at Chiefs: I’ve touched on the Chargers and Chiefs in this post so I’ll make this brief. A win for Kansas City basically locks up the division. If Los Angeles wins, there’s a chance we’re talking about the Chiefs—currently tied for the best record in football—playing as the No. 5 seed on the road in the first round of the playoffs.
Packers at Bears: If things start going the Packers’ way as I suspect, do the Bears stand a chance here? Rodgers owns Chicago, going 16-4 against the Bears in his last 20. The maker of Chicago’s pain can do it again in Week 15, just as the Bears are assembling their best team since the Lovie Smith days.
Eagles at Rams: The Eagles could be rounding into form by the time they take their trip to L.A. and face the Rams. Carson Wentz will be revisiting the site of his torn ACL that ruined his MVP hopes from a year ago. The Rams could have their division wrapped up by this point, but a win could secure the first-round bye and the last bit of confidence with two bad games (Cardinals and 49ers) sandwiched between this game and the playoffs.
Patriots at Steelers: This could wind up being the most-watched regular-season game of the season. The Steelers have lost their last five against the Pats and need that one big win to lead them into postseason play. Fortunately the game isn’t being played too late, because the Pats will likely have a top-two seed locked in and will be playing to ensure homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Saints at Panthers: And then on Monday night, the Panthers host the Saints, who topped Carolina three times last season. A win for New Orleans could wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye, while a Carolina victory could exorcise 2017 demons and set the Panthers on a path they haven’t been on since ’15. These teams meet again in Week 17, and a Panthers win could very well force their season finale into the Sunday night spot for the division.