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The NFL playoff picture is a mess – here are reasons to believe in and doubt every team in the field

·9 min read
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It’s been a topsy-turvy regular season thus far in the NFL, and through 10 weeks, no team has truly emerged as the dominant power of its conference.

The Tennessee Titans hold the edge in the AFC with an 8-2 record. The Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens trail at 6-3, leading a crowded field that includes the Kansas City Chiefs (6-4), Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3-1), New England Patriots (6-4) and the Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals, who all own 5-4 records.

Meanwhile, the 8-2 Green Bay Packers cling to a slim lead in the NFC with the Arizona Cardinals (8-2), Dallas Cowboys (7-2), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) and Los Angeles Rams (7-3) all in hot pursuit. The New Orleans Saints (5-4) and Carolina Panthers (5-5) fight to hold off the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons, which all own 4-5 records.

Parity is seemingly at an all-time high in the NFL as even the most highly touted teams have fallen in upsets.

That means anything can happen over the course of the next eight weeks.

Despite the potential that the leading teams possess, every one of them seems to have its potentially fatal flaws.

Here’s a look at the teams that would make the playoffs if they began today and why they should be encouraged by their prospects, but also why they should be concerned.

AFC

Tennessee Titans

David Long #51 and Harold Landry #58 of the Tennessee Titans tackle Matthew Stafford #9 of the Los Angeles Rams during the first quarter at SoFi Stadium on November 07, 2021 in Inglewood, California.
David Long #51 and Harold Landry #58 of the Tennessee Titans tackle Matthew Stafford #9 of the Los Angeles Rams during the first quarter at SoFi Stadium on November 07, 2021 in Inglewood, California.

Once viewed as an area of weakness, the defense is coming on. Meanwhile, Ryan Tannehill and the rest of the offense are proving they can remain a formidable unit despite the indefinite loss of Derrick Henry. However, durability and depth are a concern, as are struggles in the secondary and along the offensive line. The Titans have 15 players on the injured reserve list and have dressed 80 different players because of rampant injuries. Can Mike Vrabel’s squad continue to absorb these blows as the year drags on?

Buffalo Bills

There’s a lot to like about the Bills. They boast the best turnover differential in the league (plus-14), the highest scoring average in the AFC (31.1 points per game) and the stingiest defense in the league (15.0 points allowed per game). However, inconsistency – especially at quarterback – ranks among the biggest questions when it comes to the Bills’ postseason prospects. Josh Allen will have games where he looks like one of the best in the league but then struggle to complete 60% of his passes in other outings.

Baltimore Ravens

Their biggest reason to believe: They have Lamar Jackson, who has carried this team to one of the best starts this season despite rampant injuries. However, at some point, these injuries could catch up to the Ravens. The run game outside of Jackson is another cause for concern. The Ravens are using a committee to get the job done, but consistency remains a challenge. Baltimore also needs more reliability from a defense that can turn in some lights-out performances on any given Sunday and then get lit up the next.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs have experience. They've been to three straight conference championship games and two straight Super Bowls. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the league and a great supporting cast. However, these Chiefs haven’t looked like the well-oiled machine we have come to know them as. Defenses seem to have caught up to Patrick Mahomes and Co. And, while feeling the pressure to compensate for a work-in-progress, revamped offensive line and defense that surrenders too many points, Mahomes has racked up the interceptions, ranking second in the league with nine. Even so, the Chiefs have clawed their way to three straight victories and back to first place in the AFC West.

OPINION: Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs' breakout proves that Super Bowl-caliber group still exists

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have a good defense, and after a 1-3 start to the season, Mike Tomlin’s team went on a roll, winning four straight prior to Sunday's tie (yuck) with the Detroit Lions while Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined with COVID-19. They might not be as potent offensively as they once were, but they’re still a well-coached team with strong veteran leadership. But how sustainable is their success? Big Ben’s decline is evident. And as we’ve seen in past years, his effectiveness wanes even more late in the season. If the Steelers have to get into a shootout, they could be in trouble.

New England Patriots

Bill Belichick appears to have regained his touch after an aggressive offseason, and his team has settled into a rhythm offensively and defensively. Rookie Mac Jones is evoking memories of a young Tom Brady, and the defense ranks tied for fourth in takeaways (17). The Patriots are back in the postseason conversation after reeling off four straight wins. Can they keep this up? Can Belichick continue to find ways to mask his secondary’s struggles to play man coverage? Can he and Josh McDaniels continue to position their rookie QB to succeed?

Los Angeles Chargers

The future seemingly is bright as the Chargers have garnered attention with quality wins over the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns. Justin Herbert is special, and he has a very good cast of weapons. But, Brandon Staley’s team also has struggled with consistency on both sides of the ball. The Chargers held their own against the aforementioned potential playoff teams. But they showed they're not quite ready for prime time after getting blown out by Baltimore and falling short against the Patriots and Vikings.

Potential threats

Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Cleveland are all on the outside but hope to force their ways into the picture. Indianapolis has won two straight, and although the Colts are unlikely to catch Tennessee in the division, they could potentially capitalize on slippage from the Chargers. The Chargers and Raiders both hold tiebreakers over the Bengals, so Cincinnati's margin for error is very slim, and it'll need some help. The Raiders – ah, the Raiders ... what a promising start followed by utter chaos. Initially, they looked as though they could weather Jon Gruden's resignation but then came more off-field turmoil and the release of their two 2020 first-round picks. The Raiders have lost two straight, and you just have to wonder if they are starting to fade.

NFC

Green Bay Packers

An 8-2 record, including a statement win over Arizona three weeks ago, has Green Bay atop the perch once again and aiming for a third straight NFC championship appearance. An improved defense now better supports Aaron Rodgers and the offense.

The Packers just need to stay out of their own way. Rodgers’ bout with COVID-19 likely cost the team one win, but Green Bay rebounded against the Seattle Seahawks. The Packers have dealt with a slew of offensive line injuries, although the pending return of David Bakhtiari should help. And although there seems to be little to no friction on the Rodgers-front office front, there’s always a feeling of uneasiness looming.

Arizona Cardinals

When they're right, they can go toe to toe with anybody in the league. Kyler Murray has displayed continued growth, as has Kliff Kingsburry, and many of the offseason additions have paid off during this 8-2 start to the season. But, as was the case last year, the Cardinals go as Murray goes. Once he got banged up last season, their fortunes took a turn for the worst. Now he's injured again, and it remains to be seen if he can come back from this ankle sprain at full force or if he'll find himself hampered by injuries and rendered ineffective in the second half of the season once again.

Dallas Cowboys

A healthy Dak Prescott and overall improved comfort in Year 2 under Mike McCarthy has the Cowboys believing they can make a deep postseason run. Even their once notoriously bad defense has displayed significant improvement under new coordinator Dan Quinn. Winners of seven of their last eight, the Cowboys are ready to run away with the NFC East. But it remains to be seen if the growth is significant enough. How will they fare against the league’s elite teams? A narrow loss to Tampa Bay in the season opener is the only time Dallas has faced one of the league’s elite teams. That’s why Sunday’s meeting with Kansas City will carry such significance. Despite the Chiefs' inconsistencies, the team does still have the potential to be very dangerous, so this will serve as a good measuring stick game for the Cowboys.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The defending champions boast the leadership, experience and talent it takes to again contend for a Super Bowl. They brought all of their major contributors back hoping to repeat. But unlike last year, health has not been on this Bucs team's side. Their secondary represents one of the most hard-hit areas of the team, and depth is an issue. Offensive weapons like Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown also have been banged up. As a result, it’s been an up-and-down year thus far for Tampa Bay, which averages 40.5 points per game at home, and only 18.5 points per contest on the road.

Los Angeles Rams

They went out and got their quarterback in Matthew Stafford and then added Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. But consistency and physicality represent some of the problem areas. Back-to-back losses have followed the trade deadline, and the Rams believe they should have beaten both Tennessee and San Francisco. Before gearing up for a playoff run, Sean McVay’s crew must develop better cohesion.

OPINION: Odell Beckham Jr. must change to make his fresh start with Rams work

New Orleans Saints

They're coached by one of the best minds in football, and they have a top-10 defense. But the retirement of Drew Brees and the season-ending injury of Jameis Winston has left Sean Payton and the Saints to make do with Trevor Siemian and Taysom Hill. That combo is good enough to keep the Saints in games, but also limited enough to lose meaningful contests down the homestretch.

Carolina Panthers

They have a top-10 defense and some nice pieces on offense. But the biggest problem has been at quarterback. Sam Darnold fell flat after a promising start and now is injured. The return of Cam Newton appeared to reinvigorate the franchise last week, but can the former MVP find sustained success after joining the team after midseason? And can Christian McCaffrey stay healthy enough to pace this offense?

Potential threats

The top four in the conference seem pretty solid. And you could argue that the Rams (despite two straight losses) have one of the highest ceilings in the conference. But from six on down to nine, you really could swap any of those out. The Vikings lack consistency but certainly could find a rhythm and overtake the Panthers. The 49ers (4-5) also should be better and, with a strong finish, could force their way into the playoff field.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Which top NFL teams are legit? Reasons to believe, doubt contenders