We're moving into the portion of the NFL season when contenders begin to truly separate from pretenders. But some teams are still straddling that line, having won and lost at roughly the same clip heading into Week 10, leaving no hints in their record as to whether they'll matter at the end of December or fall by the wayside.
There are currently seven teams that are either at .500 or within a game (either a win or a loss) of that mark. I've examined each of these middle-of-the-road teams and separated them into those that are trending up and those that are trending down, as you can see below:
Philadelphia Eagles (4-4): So far, the Eagles have looked like a lesser version of the team that won Super Bowl LII -- but it won't matter in the NFC East. Division-leading Washington is in big trouble after losing three key offensive players -- guards Brandon Scherff and Shawn Lauvao and receiver Paul Richardson -- for the season, while the Cowboys feel like an 8-8 team at best and the Giants are a mess. Thus, a 9-7 record will probably be enough to take the title. With receiver Golden Tatenow in the fold, that should be attainable for the Eagles, especially with guys like tackle Lane Johnson (who has been dealing with a knee and ankle injury) getting healthy. And, of course, Carson Wentz will continue to get better as the season wears on; I expect him to really be dealing down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Atlanta Falcons (4-4): Over the past couple of years under Dan Quinn, this has been a second-half team. In each of the past two seasons, Atlanta finished 6-2 in the final eight games of the season, rolling to the Super Bowl in 2016 and reaching the Divisional Round last season. After starting 1-4 this year, the Falcons have reeled off three consecutive victories. Damontae Kazee has really filled a big void left by the injuries to safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, collecting four interceptions in his last five games, and he'll get help in the form of newly signed pass rusherBruce Irvin and linebacker Deion Jones, who returned to practice this week after spending the first portion of the season on injured reserve. The offense also hasn't missed a beat without injured RB Devonta Freeman, thanks to the performances of Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith. Matt Ryan is playing as well as he's ever played, operating at a truly elite level. Atlanta has a great chance to make the playoffs, likely giving the NFC South three postseason representatives (with the Saints and Panthers) for the second straight year.
Seattle Seahawks (4-4): When they started 0-2, I thought they were done for. Then "Legion of Boom" holdover Earl Thomasbroke his leg, and it looked like it was time for Seattle to throw in the towel. But give Pete Carroll credit. The Seahawks successfully transformed into a running team (Seattle and Tennessee are the only two teams in the NFL with more rushing attempts than pass attempts this season) and turned around their year, putting themselves in position to compete for a wild-card spot. Their remaining schedule isn't easy, even though four of their final five games will be played in Seattle: looming are matchups with the Rams,Panthers,Vikingsand Chiefs. Whatever happens this season, they've done a good job remaking their secondary, while offensive line coach Mike Solari has improved that unit quite a bit after being brought on for this season. The Seahawks appear to have greatly accelerated their so-called rebuilding phase, setting themselves up to be firmly among the contenders again in 2019.
Tennessee Titans (4-4): I'm really impressed with the way Mike Vrabel is handling this team in his first year as an NFL head coach. Regime change tends to bring certain challenges with it, but Vrabel has the Titans playing very well, forcing their way into contention. They really excel on defense, ranking first in scoring defense and eighth in yards allowed. And while a lack of offense (they're ranked 29th in scoring and 30th in yards) is still a factor, Marcus Mariota has been looking better lately after being slowed by an elbow injury that kept him from gripping the ball properly for multiple games. The Titans are set up to make some noise down the stretch, with a relatively favorable schedule in December -- especially if former first-round pick Corey Davis takes a step or two.
Miami Dolphins (5-4): The Dolphins are a good team -- but they're not a great team. Give them a quality opponent, and they'll struggle. Luckily for Miami, the remaining schedule features the Colts, Jaguars and Bills (twice), meaning there is a realistic chance for this group to finish 9-7, or maybe even 10-6 if the Fins can somehow steal one from the Packers, Patriots or Vikings. Adam Gase is doing a very good job with the Dolphins, who are showing resilience under the coach despite dealing with a glut of injuries, including a shoulder issue that will keep quarterback Ryan Tannehill out for his fifth game this year. For evidence of Gase's genius, look no further than backup QB Brock Osweiler. In five games this season (four starts), Osweiler has a 63.8 percent completion rate, a TD-to-INT ratio of 6:3 and a passer rating of 91.1. In his past three seasons, he completed 59.2 percent of his passes with a 30:27 TD-to-INT ratio and a passer rating of 76.3. I ultimately like the Dolphins' playoff chances less than the Titans', but I could see Miami squeaking in. Gase just knows how to press the right buttons.
Baltimore Ravens (4-5): Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens have a 15-48 (.221) record when trailing at halftime. While it can be tough to accurately evaluate whether someone is a good coach from an outside perspective, the ability to come back from a deficit does indicate something about a team. Losing four of his last five games after starting 3-1 hasn't helped Harbaugh's case. Joe Flacco won this franchise a Super Bowl -- but Harbaugh's loyalty to the quarterback this season has helped hasten Baltimore's decline. The Ravens' recent competitive slip coincided with a two-game stretch in which Flacco completed 59.2 percent of his passes for less than 200 yards per game, one total touchdown, two total picks and a passer rating of 66.7. I think Lamar Jackson can be the quarterback they need; his ability to make plays with his feet makes up for his lack of accuracy. Baltimore does have a good, young defense; with that, Jackson, a beefed-up receiver corps and (hopefully) a healthier offensive line, this team should be able to compete again soon.
Green Bay Packers (3-4-1): They're still in a wide-open NFC North race -- and yet, this season feels like the beginning of the end of Mike McCarthy's tenure as head coach. The 0-4 road record is a sign of trouble. Consider that, of the 179 teams that have gone 0-4 on the road since 1978, just eight have posted winning records and three have made the playoffs. Whatever you think of trading away safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dixand running backTy Montgomery (they probably had no choice but to move Montgomery, given how his last game with the team played out), parting ways with players will not help the Packers make the playoffs in 2018. Green Bay's postseason hopes likely hinge on Weeks 11 and 12, when the Packerstravel to Seattle and then Minnesota. They need to split those games, at least. The bottom line is, they just do not give you the feeling of a team on its way to greatness, even with the incomparable Aaron Rodgers under center.