If you’re a playoff-calibre team, would you rather be in the NFC or AFC this season?
One might argue if you have legitimate championship aspirations it’s irrelevant who you face in the playoffs, but the reality is style matchups matter and the conference in which a team plays greatly impacts how difficult the path to a Super Bowl can be.
The three best records in the NFL (Arizona, plus Bays Green and Tampa) currently sit in the NFC, yet the league’s two hottest teams (New England and Kansas City) are in the AFC.
This is the second year of the league’s expanded playoff format, where finishing first in your conference has added value. Not only do the top seeds clinch home field advantage, but they’re also the only two teams that earn a first-round bye.
Arizona and New England currently control their own destinies in that regard. The wild-card races are more complicated.
There’s a two-game separation between the fifth-place NFC team and a bunch of teams battling for sixth. Any team above .500 in the NFC is currently in a playoff spot, but the same can’t be said of the AFC where the fifth-place team has just one more win than the 13th-place team.
Four teams heading into a Week 14 bye – the Patriots, Colts, Dolphins and Eagles – are coming off important victories as the Packers, Browns, Titans and Panthers return from their mid-season breaks.
With only five weeks remaining in the regular season, how much more jockeying will we see? And which conference will ultimately end up having the more dramatic playoff scenarios?
TEAMS THAT BELONG AT THE TOP
1. Arizona Cardinals (10-2; Last week: 1)
2. Green Bay Packers (9-3; Last week: 2)
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3; Last week: 3)
4. New England Patriots (9-4; Last week: 5)
5. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4; Last week:6)
Following Monday night's win in Buffalo, the Patriots are officially the team to beat in the AFC East... and they only needed half their playbook to do it. New England ran a whopping 46 times on a blustery night, Mac Jones attempting just three (!) passes in the low-scoring victory and putting them in excellent position as we look ahead to their Dec. 26 rematch that will likely solidify the divisional standings.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs' decisive win over Denver -- their fifth straight victory -- leaves no question about who belongs atop the AFC West (again). Two divisional games within five days next week (vs. Raiders Sunday, at Chargers Thursday to kick off Week 15) will be crucial to crown the champ. - Sadler
QUALITY TEAMS THAT HAVE UNDERPERFORMED
6. Buffalo Bills (7-5; Last week: 7)
7. Dallas Cowboys (8-4; Last week: 8)
8. Los Angeles Rams (8-4; Last week: 10)
9. Indianapolis Colts (7-6: Last week: 12)
10. Baltimore Ravens (8-4; Last week: 4)
11. Los Angeles Chargers (7-5; Last week: 14)
12. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5; Last week: 11)
13. Tennessee Titans (8-4; Last week: 9)
The Ravens have been stinking on offence, averaging only 15.25 points over their past four games, and the defence just lost CB Marlon Humphrey for the season, so that’s why they dropped several spots in our weekly rankings.
The Bills are at risk to miss the playoffs, record-wise, although three remaining home games against the Panthers, Falcons and Jets should bring three easy wins and enough to clinch a spot.
The Titans are in an ideal get-right spot at home against the Jaguars this week, but Tennessee is barely hanging on right now in the AFC South while the Colts are starting to click on both sides of the ball as they head into their bye. Indianapolis might sneakily be the best overall team in this tier -- and one you don’t want to face in the playoffs. - Johnston
DON’T LOOK NOW BUT…
14. San Francisco 49ers (6-6; Last week: 13)
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5-1; Last week: 19)
16. Cleveland Browns (6-6; Last week: 15)
17. Miami Dolphins (6-7; Last week: 20)
18. Philadelphia Eagles (6-7; Last week: 23)
19. Denver Broncos (6-6; Last week: 17)
20. Washington Football Team (6-6; Last week: 22)
21. Las Vegas Raiders (6-6; Last week: 16)
…Or, in the case of the Browns, this tier should probably be called "look away!" considering how they limped into their much-needed bye.
Every team in this tier is still very much within reach of the post-season with a few more wins and a little luck from the football gods.
While the 49ers have seen a significant resurgence, no team has transformed its fortunes as quickly as the Miami Dolphins. After starting the season with a 1-7 record, Miami strung together a streak of five straight wins and are now back in the wild card hunt thanks to impressive performances from Tua Tagovailoa and outstanding play on defence. It helps, of course, that they've had one of the easier strengths of schedules. That will continue following their Week 14 bye, when they take on the Jets and Saints before tougher matchups to close out the season in Tennessee and against the Patriots. The Dolphins could really make things interesting here. - Sadler
UNFULFILLED NFC POTENTIAL
22. Minnesota Vikings (5-7; Last week: 18)
23. New Orleans Saints (5-7; Last week: 21)
24. Atlanta Falcons (5-7; Last week: 24)
25. Carolina Panthers (5-7; Last week: 26)
26. Seattle Seahawks (4-8; Last week: 28)
27. Chicago Bears (4-8; Last week: 25)
It’s like a mini NFC South reunion in this tier of underachievers. Some teams here had bad injury luck, while others were plagued by poor play-calling or a dearth of top-level talent on either side of the ball. These sub-.500 teams have all likely fallen too far behind the pack at this point to be considered relevant in the NFC wild-card race. Considering how tight the NFC is, the 5-7 teams would need to run the table or go 4-1 down the stretch to have a realistic chance. - Johnston
YEAH, THESE TEAMS ARE BAD
28. New York Giants (4-8; Last week: 27)
29. New York Jets (3-9; Last week: 29)
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10; Last week: 30)
31. Houston Texans (2-10; Last week: 31)
32. Detroit Lions (1-10-1; Last week: 32)
The Lions, no longer winless after a thrilling walk-off victory against Minnesota, still find themselves as the front-runners for the first overall pick. Meanwhile, despite having one more win than Detroit, Houston became this season's first team to be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. - Sadler