We're in a bit of a strange place right now in the NFL.
With four weeks remaining in the regular season, no division has been clinched. And yet, there's only one divisional race that we'd go so far as to call truly up for grabs.
Last season, the Packers became the first team to clinch a division, doing so in Week 15. The eventual AFC champion Bengals didn't clinch the North until Week 17, while the Super Bowl-winning Rams backed into the NFC West title thanks to a loss by the Cardinals on the final day of the season.
Meanwhile, the 2020 Buccaneers won the Super Bowl as a wild card, winning road playoff games at Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay before blowing out Kansas City -- which had locked up its division title in Week 14 -- in the ring game.
Maybe clinching earlier isn't such a big advantage?
No, that feels like an overreaction. The 2019 Chiefs locked it up early and proceeded to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Same with the 2017 Eagles -- although, to be fair, the Carson Wentz injury (and accompanying Nick Foles promotion) made all those late-season games feel crucial at the time.
More than anything, this is a selfish plea: Maybe tap the brakes a bit, Eagles. Ease up, Chiefs -- try a new approach. Can you believe this Lions magic, Vikings?!
There's nothing better than a series of division races coming down to the wire all at once. We might not realistically get that this season. Instead, it appears we'll be nipping back and forth about who might be seeded where and which teams could sneak in the back door for the final wild-card slots.
And that's fine. But we're secretly hoping for a dose of divisional disorder down the stretch, because it feels a bit odd being able to make such confident calls with a decent chunk of the regular season remaining.
Just two weeks ago, this race was a dead heat. Then the Dolphins dropped two straight to fall to 8-5, continuing their roller-coaster season and taking some drama out of the AFC East competition. However, Miami's trip to Buffalo this weekend for a showdown with the 10-3 Bills -- the nightcap of NFL Network's Saturday tripleheader -- could ramp up the intrigue. Miami having only one division loss -- with Buffalo already having two -- keeps the door slightly more ajar.
Technically, the Jets and Patriots both remain in the hunt at 7-6, but their division dreams are all but gone. This one really comes down to Tua Tagovailoa against Josh Allen, and we just can't side with the Dolphins right now. Our answer might have been different not long ago, but the Bills -- despite their sporadic struggles in the red zone this season -- aren't fumbling the division this close to the goal line.
Well, this is the one. The schedule makers are rewarded for pairing the Ravens, the team that coughed up the division (and heck, at one point, the AFC's top seed) last season, against the Bengals, your reigning AFC champions, in a Week 18 bout in The Jungle. It might end up being the biggest regular-season game in Cincinnati in some time, although the Bengals have had two huge ones at home against the Chiefs in the past two years.
Can the Ravens hang on? They're technically in front -- and by a not insignificant margin -- despite matching 9-4 records by virtue of a head-to-head win over the Bengals (the first tiebreaker) and having a far better division record (the second tiebreaker). That's why so much could hinge on the final-week rematch. But is Lamar Jackson going to be healthy enough to stave off Joe Burrow and the swashbuckling Bengals?
We are going against our better instincts and saying yes, the Ravens can prevail. The Bengals are becoming fan darlings in a way, and you can't overlook how hot they've been -- and for how long -- outside of that Halloween hiccup against the Browns. But their closing schedule is an absolute bear, with road trips the next two weeks to face desperate teams (Buccaneers and Patriots) followed by challenging home games against the Bills and Ravens. It might take Cincinnati going 3-1 or better because it needs to win more games than Baltimore.
It says here that the Ravens, with a much more manageable slate, get it done one year after they could not. But just remember how dangerous the Bengals were on the road last year, winning at Tennessee in the Divisional Round and at Kansas City on Championship Sunday. Not taking the division won't sink them.
Thankfully, for division-race enthusiasts, this one has tightened out of nowhere. What in the heck has happened to the Titans? Since beating the Packers on Thursday Night Football last month, they've lost three straight, giving up 29 unanswered points in one stretch of Sunday's 36-22 home loss to the Jaguars. Sitting at 7-6, they've now been outscored in their home games this season.
It has left us with a strange crawl to the finish line. In no way, shape or form, should the 4-8-1 Colts mathematically remain in any playoff race this late in the season, but here we are.
Jacksonville is Tennessee's biggest threat. The Jaguars (5-8) can rue their string of five straight close losses (three at home) from Weeks 4 through 8, which likely will result in their eventual downfall. But the Jags are mostly on the rise right now, thanks to a few big recent wins, with Trevor Lawrence starting to look like he's turning the corner (10:0 TD-to-INT ratio over the past five games).
If the Jaguars stay hot, the Week 18 game in Jacksonville against the Titans could become a sneaky banger before we know it. But the Jags almost need to be perfect from here on out, and we're not ready to bank on that. The Titans find a way to grind their way to another division title.
You know the deal: The 10-3 Chiefs are going to win the division. There will be no banana in the tailpipe with the 7-6 Chargers, sorry. And you're right: I have been stricken with Chargers Stockholm Syndrome in the past, and I won't allow one win over the Dolphins to cause recurrence.
Kansas City carries the West, seemingly for the 39th year in a row. (OK, it'll be K.C.'s seventh straight division crown.)
There's more drama here than you might expect, but only a smidge. The 10-3 Cowboys are no joke, of course, and realistically could win it all. But catching 12-1 Philadelphia for the division could prove too tough to pull off.
Dallas must beat the Eagles in Week 16; that's pretty much non-negotiable. But even with that win, which would split the season series after Philly's Week 6 victory, the Cowboys must make up two games overall in the final four weeks. It's certainly doable mathematically -- there's even a bonkers scenario in play where the teams could end up in a third-tiebreaker (record in common games) situation -- but the way the Eagles are playing now makes it feel like a steeper climb.
We'd embrace the chaos -- have no illusions about that. We just can't see the Eagles botching this.
The Vikings held the door open for the Lions last week, and Detroit beat Minnesota, 34-23, crossing the first crucial threshold. Many more remain.
The 2022 Lions have been a phenomenal story, scraping themselves off the mat at 1-6 to reach 6-7. It's a terrific achievement for a team that easily could have run off the rails weeks ago, the way things were going. But Detroit needs to pull multiple inside straights coming up here. A 4-0 finish likely gets the Lions in the playoffs, but amazingly, they still could lose the division. Both the Lions and 10-3 Vikings have similar schedules remaining, with matching opponent win percentages of .385.
There is a path to a storybook ending, with the Lions making the postseason for the first time since 2016. Anyone with a functioning heart should root for it (... save for those functioning-heart folks who root for a team the Lions could knock out of the playoffs, of course). But winning the North just feels like waiting for the moon shot that isn't coming. Not this season, anyway. The Vikings will hang on.
Well, well ... While the AFC North might be the most compelling race, this one is in the running for second-most -- that is, if it weren't so darned ugly. Look, every season has a degenerate division winner, which is followed by a clarion call for playoff realignment. An annual tradition we won't miss this year.
But this thing suddenly has gone from an ugly division win for the Buccaneers to ... are we really sure they're going to win this thing? Sitting atop the South at 6-7, Tampa Bay's only win since Week 10 was a miracle, with the Bucs overcoming a 16-3 deficit in the final minutes to nip the Saints, 17-16. Had they lost that one, the Bucs would be in second place today.
And yes, the 5-8 Panthers would be in first. The team that fired its head coach and traded its best offensive player is suddenly very much in this thing. Since replacing Matt Rhule following Carolina's 1-4 start, Steve Wilks has admirably gone 4-4. Could he be this year's version of Rich Bisaccia, the interim coach who replaced Jon Gruden in Las Vegas and then led the Raiders to the playoffs, where they nearly took down the Bengals in Cincinnati?
What an insane story it would be if these Panthers somehow knocked off Tom Brady in what could be his final hurrah. The Falcons, also at 5-8, are right there, too. Right now, we're still leaning toward the Bucs to take the South, but we are hedging hard.
Week 14 dealt a major blow to Seattle's division-title dreams, as the Seahawks lost to Carolina while the 49ers responded to the loss of Jimmy Garoppolo with a blowout win over the Bucs. Seattle's 6-3 start surprised everyone, and the 'Hawks are still in the wild-card race at 7-6, but taking the West almost certainly must start by beating the 9-4 Niners on Thursday at Lumen Field.
We're not going to fully buy into the Brock Purdy hype yet, but how can you not be impressed by the seventh-round rookie's past two games? The 49ers also have the easier slate down the stretch, with the Seahawks facing three teams in the playoff race, as well as a Rams squad that rallied around Baker Mayfield last week and might have some fuel reserves down the stretch.
The 49ers will outlast the Seahawks for the division crown, even if it has come at a steep cost with all their injuries.