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  • Are the two title games this year destined to be played between the teams holding top seeds, or will one of the other contenders be able to crack the ranks of the elite?
By Chris Burke
November 16, 2016

The Cowboys and Seahawks currently hold the top two playoff seeds in the NFC. The Patriots and Chiefs are in those spots in the AFC. If you had to bet right now on the eventual Super Bowl participants, would you take those four teams or the field?

The conference title games are still two months away, and seasons can change in a heartbeat. But those teams with plans to chase down the current frontrunners better kick it into gear soon.

32
32Cleveland Browns
last week: 30
record: 0–10

“I never could have dreamt this—ever,” Cleveland coach Hue Jackson said of his team’s 0–10 start, via the AP. O.K., so, who was in charge of warning Jackson before he took this job? Please double-check the signup sheet. Someone dropped the ball here.

31
31San Francisco 49ers
last week: 32
record: 1–8
30
30Jacksonville Jaguars
last week: 31
record: 2–7

The Jaguars have lost their first two games this month, dropping Gus Bradley to 5–8 all-time during November as Jacksonville’s coach. Of course, that 5–8 mark (WOOP! WOOP! SAD STAT SIREN!!) is Bradley’s best monthly record. He’s 1–13 in September, 4–12 in October, 4–9 in December and 0–1 in January.

29
29Chicago Bears
last week: 28
record: 2–7

Good Jay Cutler shows up about one out of every four games nowadays. (This phenomenon is also known as the “Johnny Depp career arc”.) He was a lost cause in Tampa Bay on Sunday, then his top receiver, Alshon Jeffrey, was hit with a four-game suspension. The Bears are just playing out the string now, waiting for 2017.

28
28New York Jets
last week: 27
record: 3–7

Off a ghastly 9–6 home loss to the Rams, the Jets now hit their bye week. As in, “Bye, 2016 playoff hopes” or “Bye, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith” or “Bye, Todd Bowles’s honeymoon.” Things have gotten so bad, so quickly that the NFL already has flexed the Patriots-Jets game out of a Week 12 prime-time slot.

26
26Cincinnati Bengals
last week: 22
record: 3-5-1

In their past two games combined, the Bengals have been outscored 48–47, and they’re 0-1-1, so that’s about how the 2016 season is going for them. Unless Marvin Lewis pulls a rabbit out of his hat soon, there very well could be a new coach calling the shots in Cincinnati next season.

25
25Arizona Cardinals
last week: 25
record: 4-4-1

The Cardinals’ 23–20 win over San Francisco was like one of those September college football games where, like, New Mexico State pushes a mid-tier SEC team to the brink. Arizona is one extended run away from grabbing an NFC wild-card spot. It’s been a long while, though, since it showed any hint of finding the necessary groove.

24
24Green Bay Packers
last week: 18
record: 4–5

If you’ve ever seen a cat chasing a laser or a bunch of toddlers trying to catch a floating balloon, then you have some idea of how the Packers’ defense played in Tennessee. There are a lot of problems in Green Bay right now, and they extend well beyond anything Aaron Rodgers is doing.

23
23Indianapolis Colts
last week: 23
record: 4–5

Indianapolis hosts Tennessee this coming Sunday, then welcomes in Houston on Dec. 11. Obviously, sitting at 4–5, the Colts can’t afford to mail it in for their other five games, but their AFC South hopes rest on how they perform in those two home tilts. A Week 17 home game against Jacksonville is an ace in the hole, if Andrew Luck & Co. have anything to play for by that point.

22
22Minnesota Vikings
last week: 14
record: 5–4

21
21Tampa Bay Buccaneers
last week: 26
record: 4–5

Thanks to their Week 10 win and Atlanta’s setback in Philadelphia, the Buccaneers might be dreaming of chasing down the NFC South title. Unfortunately, their schedule’s about to slap them in the face until they wake up. They still go to Kansas City, San Diego, Dallas and New Orleans, and they host the Seahawks, Saints and Panthers.

20
20Pittsburgh Steelers
last week: 16
record: 4–5

When you score a go-ahead touchdown with 42 seconds left and the immediate consensus reaction is, “Oh, they left too much time on the board,” there’s an issue with your defense. The Steelers’ offense did look back in sync Sunday, which is the silver lining because they’re going to have to score in the mid-30s each week to rip off a winning streak.

19
19Baltimore Ravens
last week: 20
record: 5–4

The Ravens rallied to beat the Browns last Thursday, 28–7, and now let’s never speak of that game again. Baltimore’s offense has been hit or miss this season, but its defense is borderline dominant (third in points, first in yards). That might be enough to bring home the AFC North crown.

18
18Carolina Panthers
last week: 18
record: 3–6

Leading 17–3 in the third quarter Sunday, the Panthers embarked on one of the most amazing, confusing drives you’ll ever see: a 20-play, 10-minute march that resulted in a punt for a touchback. Their next possession lasted three plays, 1:30 and ended when Cam Newton tossed a game-changing pick-six to Eric Berry.

17
17Philadelphia Eagles
last week: 21
record: 5–4

Doug Pederson’s offense held the ball for 38:10 against Atlanta on Sunday, the second time this year (Cleveland, Week 1) that the Eagles have topped the 38-minute barrier. The last time they lost when controlling the ball for that long? Oct. 6, 1991 at Tampa Bay. They’re now 22–0 since then when they have recorded at least 38 minutes of possession.

16
16Buffalo Bills
last week: 17
record: 4–5

The Bills have scored exactly 25 points in three consecutive games, making them the first team in NFL history to do that. They’ve also lost all three of those games, while the other teams to hit 25 on the nose this season are 4–1. None of this information really helps or hurts Buffalo headed into Week 11, but #TheMoreYouKnow.

13
13Washington Redskins
last week: 19
record: 5-3-1

Asked for help researching this, but I think it’s going to be awhile. Anyway, Washington will play twice in about 92 hours starting Sunday—a Week 11 night game against Green Bay and a Week 12 Thanksgiving afternoon trip to Dallas. If that’s not the shortest turnaround for back-to-back games in league history, I’d be surprised.

12
12New Orleans Saints
last week: 10
record: 4–5

Is it too much to ask that the NFL be able to decipher when players step out of bounds? Make everyone wear dark cleats, put cameras up the sidelines, install an alligator-filled moat between the field and the benches ... I don’t care. Something. Together, Sunday’s loss to Denver and Week 1’s last-second heartbreaker against Oakland could keep New Orleans out of the playoffs.

10
10Detroit Lions
last week: 11
record: 5–4

The Lions’ Sunday essentially was like that part of Office Space where Peter decides not to show up for work but gets promoted anyway. While Detroit was enjoying its bye, every other NFC North team lost. So Jim Caldwell’s team, despite a 1–3 start to this season, will head into Week 11 as a division leader.

9
9Houston Texans
last week: 9
record: 6–3

Houston has scored the fewest points (161) of any AFC team. Only the Jets, Jaguars and Browns have worse point differentials in that conference than Houston’s minus-27 mark. And yet, here the Texans are, on top of the AFC South and in position to hold the conference’s No. 3 seed. Are they surviving through impressive fortitude or is most of the NFL just that crummy this season? ... Don’t answer that.

8
8Atlanta Falcons
last week: 5
record: 6–4

While Atlanta has not (yet?) imploded as it did over the second half of last season, it’s not all gumdrops and sunshine in the A, either. The Falcons’ recent 2–3 stretch has reopened the NFC South race—Tampa Bay and New Orleans could pull within a game of the lead with a Week 11 win.

7
7Miami Dolphins
last week: 12
record: 5–4

The Dolphins have won nine straight games when they force at least four turnovers, a streak dating back to 2008. Without takeaway No. 3 on Sunday—Kiko Alonso’s pick-six of Philip Rivers with one minute left—the Dolphins probably would be sitting at 4–5 and on the verge of playoff burial. Instead, they’re now just two games back of the Patriots in the AFC East.

6
6Denver Broncos
last week: 7
record: 7–3

A win is a win is a ... wait, what just happened? The Broncos needed a blocked extra point return to escape New Orleans with a win Sunday, not that you’ll find anyone in their locker room complaining about the result. Even better, they now have a bye week to find and replace all the bones knocked from Trevor Siemian’s body by the Saints’ pass rush.

4
4New England Patriots
last week: 1
record: 7–2

The Patriots’ defense clearly isn’t where it would like to be right now. On the other hand, the last time New England allowed 375-plus yards in three straight regular-season games was 2014, and it won the Super Bowl that season, so probably no need to panic just yet.

3
3Kansas City Chiefs
last week: 3
record: 7–2

A 17–0 deficit on the road against a desperate team, 256 yards of total offense ... the Chiefs had no business winning Sunday, yet they somehow managed to pull out another one. They’re now 17–2 in their last 19 regular-season games, and more than half of those wins (nine) have come despite Kansas City throwing for fewer than 200 yards.

1
1Dallas Cowboys
last week: 2
record: 8–1

There’s good blocking, and then there is what the Cowboys’ offensive line is doing to its opponents. On a few of those Ezekiel Elliott runs Sunday, it looked like when Lord of the Rings armies had those giant elephant things that cleared out like 50 guys at a time. Elliott’s now on pace for 1,787 yards rushing this season.

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