Mediocre and losing teams are NFL contenders

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The NBA has a yearly ritual in which sub-.500 teams make the playoffs. Looks like the NFL could emulate that approach this season.

With five weeks left in the schedule, two divisions (AFC South and NFC East) could wind up with a winner at 8-8 or worse. As for the wild-card races, you might want to shield your eyes.

Consider that for the final NFC berth, the Seahawks and Falcons are tied at 6-5. Seeing how Atlanta has performed recently, losing five of six, a winning mark on Jan. 3 is a long shot.

Also consider that the Bears and Buccaneers aren't out of it with 5-6 marks. The Giants and Redskins have the same record and are tied atop the wretched NFC East, where the Eagles (4-7) remain in contention.

The view from the AFC is a bit more pleasant because both the Texans and Colts, each 6-5, are playing good football. Houston has won four straight and five of six. Indy has won three in a row and is 4-0 with backup Matt Hasselbeck in for the injured Andrew Luck at quarterback. Did someone say Comeback Player of the Year?

Don't get carried away, though, by the surges the Texans and Colts have made. These are not complete teams, though they appear stronger than the likes of the Bills, Jets, Steelers and Raiders, all of whom are hovering around the break-even mark.

Worth watching the most are the Chiefs (6-5), who not only have won five straight, but have the easiest schedule remaining: two with Oakland, one each with San Diego, Baltimore and Cleveland.

''We're proud of where we are, but we still know where we want to go,'' says tight end Travis Kelce, who is having a terrific season. ''There's a lot of leaders in this room that care, that love this game, love this team. We're going to keep this thing rolling.''

Given that schedule, could be.

A look at the mediocre contenders for the playoffs and where things might be headed:


The muddled picture is not at the top, except in the South. The Patriots, even with all their injuries, are a virtual lock to take the East. Same for the Broncos in the West, despite Kansas City's surge. Barring a collapse, the Bengals will take the North.

The Colts-Texans race is intriguing because both have overcome disappointing starts and emerged the stronger for it. Houston's defense is as good as any in the league, and J.J. Watt is playing like a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. The offense is functional, and that could be enough.

But the schedule is kinder to the Colts: Houston has New England and Buffalo left outside the division, Indianapolis has Pittsburgh and Miami.

The key could be the Texans' trip to Indy on Dec. 20.

Both, of course, could get in should they continue their recent play, which might be asking a lot, and perhaps joining the Chiefs to fill out the field.

Of the 6-5 teams, the Jets and Steelers show no consistency and have some critical injuries (Darrelle Revis, Le'Veon Bell). Among the 5-6 squads, say the same for the Bills and the Raiders - plus they are a game behind three other teams.

Given who plays whom and their current health status and level of play, look for the Chiefs, Texans and Colts to all find a way into the postseason.


What a tangled web they weave.

Start with the clear stuff. Carolina (11-0) pretty much has sewed up the South as it chases perfection. It can clinch the division next weekend.

Either Minnesota or Green Bay should walk off with the North, which probably will be decided on the Lambeau Field tundra in the season finale - perhaps even in a night game. BRRRRRR!

Arizona has a huge edge in the West, even with Seattle getting things straight at last.

The two wild-card qualifiers, probably the runner-up in the North and the Seahawks, figure to have a better record than whoever emerges from the Least, uh East. That could be true even with Seattle at 8-8.

Not only did the Giants blow a chance to take a solid grasp of the East by losing at Washington, but they've displayed a penchant for disdaining prosperity.

Remember, this is a club that has lost four times in the final moments by self-destructing more than what the opponent has managed to do to them.

Now tied with Washington, the Giants have the Jets, Panthers and Vikings remaining, along with Miami and Philly. The Redskins get two meetings with Romo-less Dallas, plus the Bears, Bills and Eagles. The Redskins' biggest challenge might be how poorly they play on the road, where they are 0-5.

The most absurd part of it: The NFC East winner will get a first-round home game.


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