Skip to main content

The First Read: Buy/sell on 18 playoff contenders; plus, Week 17's most intriguing game, MVP rankings

In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 17 of the 2023 NFL season, including:

But first, a look at the postseason viability of 18 playoff contenders as we head into the final two weeks of the regular season ...

Just when it seemed the NFL was becoming a little more predictable, Week 16 reminded us how dangerous it is to think that way. The Raiders just beat up on the Chiefs in Kansas City, while the Patriots pulled a major upset in Denver. Four playoff contenders (Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Houston) got blown out and a few others (Buffalo, Green Bay and Seattle) escaped defeats by opponents that have some of the league's worst records. And if you really want some craziness, try this: Pittsburgh needed a third-string quarterback to help embattled wide receiver George Pickens improve his recently damaged reputation for lackluster effort.

The point here is that the final two weeks of the regular season are going to be nuts. There are still plenty of teams in the hunt for postseason spots and no easy way to evaluate whom to trust the most. That's where this edition of The First Read will come in handy. This writer is about to tell you exactly who you should be placing your faith in -- and who you should be ready to bury -- when it comes to predicting postseason participants.

Since we already have six teams that have clinched spots (Baltimore and Miami in the AFC; San Francisco, Philadelphia, Detroit and Dallas in the NFC), we'll eliminate them from the discussion. As for the others, we'll treat them like stocks: Here's who you should be buying and selling as the playoff race intensifies.


Kansas City Chiefs
9-6 · Current seed: No. 3

The Chiefs are officially out of the running for the conference's No. 1 seed, and after Monday's loss to Las Vegas, there's a legitimate debate about just how long this team might stick around once the playoffs begin. The Raiders manhandled Kansas City in a way that revealed all the problems with the Chiefs at the moment -- from unreliable receivers to lousy pass protection to devastating penalties and turnovers. As incredible as it seems, the Chiefs could miss the playoffs entirely if they completely implode over the next two weeks. However, the odds of that happening aren't very good because they still have Patrick Mahomes under center and Andy Reid at the helm. You have to think those two will lead the way to that AFC West-clinching win before the season ends -- most likely in the season finale against the Chargers.

Jacksonville Jaguars
8-7 · Current seed: No. 4

The Jaguars are mired in a four-game losing streak and it’s hard to feel good about them turning things around. The defense has been a disaster lately, as three of the last four opponents have scored at least 30 points. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence can’t stay healthy, either. In the last few weeks, he’s dealt with a high ankle sprain, a concussion and a shoulder injury sustained in Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay. The good news is the Jaguars will finish the season against two teams that have struggled all year: Carolina and Tennessee. That should be enough to get them across the finish line in the race to win the AFC South.  

Cleveland Browns
10-5 · Current seed: 5

You never would’ve guessed that the quarterback who would excite long-frustrated Browns fans would be a former Raven who turns 39 in January. But that’s what Joe Flacco has done. This offense was sputtering before his arrival just over a month ago, as head coach Kevin Stefanski kept looking for answers to replace injured starter Deshaun Watson. It’s been dynamic ever since Flacco stepped off his couch and back into the league. Cleveland already had a dominant defense capable of carrying the team in difficult times. What Flacco has provided is a Super Bowl-winning signal-caller with enough left in his tank to make this squad seriously scary heading into January. The question here isn’t whether the Browns get into the playoffs -- it’s how much damage they do if Flacco keeps playing at this level. 

Buffalo Bills
9-6 · Current seed: No. 6

The Bills escaped Los Angeles with a 24-22 win over the Chargers, which is all they needed to do. Style points don’t matter at this stage of the season. Winning does, and Buffalo has been doing exactly that over the last three weeks. The Bills have beaten the Chiefs and Cowboys -- and they took the Eagles to overtime in Philadelphia five weeks ago before falling. What’s exciting about this team is the inspired defensive play and the punch that could come from running backs James Cook and Leonard Fournette down the stretch. The narrow victory over the Chargers proved the Bills can still have some frustrating moments. It also showed they have various ways to get wins these days, and quarterback Josh Allen isn’t afraid to rely on them

Indianapolis Colts
8-7 · Current seed: No. 7

The Colts are coming apart at exactly the wrong time. You can say their blowout win over Pittsburgh two weeks ago was a positive sign, but they’ve lost two of their last three games, including a 29-10 shellacking at the hands of Atlanta on Sunday. No disrespect to the Falcons, but they shouldn’t be winning by 19 points against playoff-caliber teams at this stage of the season. Hell, they just lost to a horrible Carolina team by a score of 9-7 a week earlier. This latest defeat feels more ominous for the Colts because they’ve spent this entire season overcoming challenges. They may simply be losing steam as the stakes increase each week. This was once a team that stood at 7-5 with five winnable games to go. Indy has lost two of those, and the Raiders and Texans are coming next. Ouch. 

Houston Texans
8-7 · Current seed: No. 8

The Texans are praying quarterback C.J. Stroud can clear concussion protocol soon. They won one game without him and then took a thumping from Cleveland on Sunday. There’s clearly no shame in losing to a Browns squad that is playing at a high level. What also can’t be denied is that there are no gimmes left on Houston's schedule. The Texans needed overtime to beat Tennessee two weeks ago and the Titans are coming to Houston this week. After that, it’s a matchup with Indianapolis in the season finale that could have divisional-title implications, as well. As scrappy as the Texans have been, they need Stroud to finish the job. 

Pittsburgh Steelers
8-7 · Current seed: No. 9

The Steelers scored a huge win in Saturday’s blowout of Cincinnati. This team had a ton of offensive issues -- including the work ethics of George Pickens and fellow wide receiver Diontae Johnson -- so scoring 34 points in a must-win situation isn’t something to be minimized. A better exercise would be questioning if that victory is an indication that Pittsburgh has turned things around. This is still the same team that was blown out by Indianapolis a week earlier and also lost to lousy teams like Arizona and New England during the recent three-game losing streak. One big game from Pickens and Mason Rudolph doesn’t change that. It also doesn’t help that Pittsburgh has to face an improving Seahawks team and the mighty Ravens to close out the season. The Steelers might win one of those games. They definitely aren’t winning both. 

Cincinnati Bengals
8-7 · Current seed: No. 10

I know, I know -- the Bengals might be coming back to reality. They looked awful in Saturday’s 34-11 loss to Pittsburgh, with quarterback Jake Browning throwing three interceptions and the defense having no clue of how to contain third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph. These things also happen, especially in divisional games. The fact is that Pittsburgh is the only team to beat Cincinnati in the last five weeks, and the three Bengals wins in that span came against contending teams (Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Minnesota). Browning also played well in each of those victories, largely because wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase was healthy. If Chase can recover from a shoulder injury, the Bengals are good enough to win their final two games. At the very least, they can win in Kansas City and give themselves a shot vs. a Cleveland team that might not have anything to play for in the season finale. 

Las Vegas Raiders
7-8 · Current seed: No. 11

The Raiders keep fighting for interim head coach Antonio Pierce -- regardless of how slim their postseason hopes are -- and he just scored the biggest victory of his brief tenure. The Raiders didn’t merely pull off a major upset with their 20-14 win in Kansas City on Christmas; they physically manhandled the Chiefs after putting 63 points on the Chargers one week prior. This team seemed to be running out of gas when it was battling through a three-game losing streak a few weeks back. Vegas is now producing like a team that sorely wants to see Pierce get that job permanently. It’s a great story, but the hard truth is the Raiders need to win two tough games (at Indianapolis, vs. Denver) and get some help along the way to reach the postseason. That’s going to be a difficult task. 

Denver Broncos
7-8 · Current seed: No. 12

The Broncos took a brutal loss to New England on Sunday, and it’s hard to see how they recover. Denver now has lost three of its last four games, all in soul-crushing fashion. The Patriots beat them on a last-second field goal. The Lions obliterated them a week earlier in a 42-17 defeat. The Texans also beat them when Russell Wilson threw a red-zone interception in the final seconds of that contest. The Broncos were a fun story when they rebounded from a 1-5 start and entered the playoff conversation with five straight wins. It now feels like they’ve hit their ceiling. 


Tampa Bay Buccaneers
8-7 · Current seed: No. 4

The Buccaneers are in an ideal position. They need to only win one more game -- against either the Saints or the lowly Panthers -- and they win the NFC South crown. Why does that seem like a layup? It’s simple: Tampa Bay is playing its best football of the season. This team has won four straight games, but it’s the last two that stand out. The Buccaneers beat Jacksonville by 18 points on Sunday and the Packers by 14 in Green Bay two weeks ago. You don’t do that if you’re not clicking. Tampa Bay's defense has been impressive lately, but it’s the play of quarterback Baker Mayfield that has taken this squad to another level. His production (26 touchdown passes and eight interceptions) has turned him into a legitimate Comeback Player of the Year candidate. 

Los Angeles Rams
8-7 · Current seed: No. 6

The Rams look like the kind of team that could pull a playoff upset or two if they keep rolling like this. Los Angeles was once 3-6. It’s now won five of its last six games with an offense that becomes more formidable with each passing week. It helps that quarterback Matthew Stafford has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only two interceptions during this recent stretch. It means just as much that the Rams have discovered a valuable weapon in second-year running back Kyren Williams. He’s averaged 120 rushing yards over the past five games and made this team scarier in the process.

Seattle Seahawks
8-7 · Current seed: No. 7

The Seahawks picked the perfect time to start turning their season around. Their four-game losing streak suggested they were unraveling not that long ago. What they’ve done since is prove they’re mentally tougher than some thought. Backup quarterback Drew Lock led Seattle to a game-winning touchdown in a last-minute win over Philadelphia two weeks ago and then starter Geno Smith duplicated that feat in a victory over Tennessee this past Sunday. Those plays clearly revitalized the Seahawks and put them in terrific position to snag a wild-card spot. All they have to do is beat Pittsburgh and Arizona to qualify. 

Minnesota Vikings
7-8 · Current seed: No. 8

Like Cleveland, the Vikings have relied on four different quarterbacks this season. Unfortunately for Minnesota, that position hasn’t stabilized in the second half of the season. Josh Dobbs was a cool story for about three weeks, but he kept turning the ball over. Nick Mullens actually was the second-string quarterback when the season began, but now he’s thrown six interceptions in Minnesota’s last two losses, including four in Sunday’s 30-24 defeat to Detroit. The Vikings stumbled out to a 1-4 start largely because they couldn’t take care of the football earlier this season. It looks like they’re going to close the campaign with the same problem. 

Atlanta Falcons
7-8 · Current seed: No. 9

It’s hard to find a team that needed a more reassuring win than the one Atlanta produced in its 29-10 takedown of Indianapolis. The Falcons have been inconsistent all season, as they lost five of their previous seven games before that victory. Head coach Arthur Smith also has changed quarterbacks three times his season but he made the smart decision to stick with Taylor Heinicke over Desmond Ridder for the remainder of the year. Heinicke has more experience and he's played in bigger games. The problem is that the Falcons don’t have much time left to make a run at a playoff spot. They finish the season with two road games -- against the Bears and Saints -- and they still would need the teams above them to start losing. Don’t expect that to happen. 

Green Bay Packers
7-8 · Current seed: No. 10

The Packers have been the epitome of a young team. They’ve had moments when they’ve created excitement and others when they’ve induced predictable frustration. They were at their best during a three-game win streak that included victories over Detroit and Kansas City. The problem is that plenty has gone south since that point. It seemed like the Packers were in great position to cruise into the postseason when they were sitting at 6-6 and facing five games against teams with losing records. They’ve lost two of three since that point and Carolina nearly tripped them up this past weekend. The problem? A defense that can’t stop anybody anymore. The Panthers have one of the worst offenses in football and they put 30 on Green Bay. That tells you the Packers aren’t going to find any miracles on that side of the football. 

New Orleans Saints
7-8 · Current seed: No. 11

The Saints’ playoff hopes took a massive blow last Thursday night, when the Ram beat them in Los Angeles. Had New Orleans won, it could’ve surpassed L.A. in the race for one of the two remaining NFC wild-card spots and made this coming week’s game at Tampa Bay even more significant. Now the Saints have to win out and they need the Buccaneers to lose out in order to win the NFC South. A shot at a wild-card spot seems even more difficult to achieve. There’s simply no way a division as bad as the NFC South could put two teams in the postseason this year. The Saints’ best hope: Pray for a complete meltdown by Tampa Bay.

Chicago Bears
6-9 · Current seed: No. 12

Full disclosure here: It’s weird to even write about the Bears still being in the playoff picture. The math says they have a shot; reality says they clearly don’t. 


Jacksonville's continued implosion. The Jaguars were once an 8-3 team that had a legitimate opportunity to seize the top seed in the AFC. Now they're a flawed squad riding a losing streak that just stretched to four games with a blowout loss at Tampa Bay. This Bucs matchup was supposed to be the game where the Jags started to get right, as quarterback Trevor Lawrence cleared concussion protocol in time to start. The fact that it went so south -- and that Lawrence was knocked out of another game -- shouldn't be minimized. This is a team in free fall. It needs to regroup in a hurry.


  1. Dallas Cowboys at Miami Dolphins: Jason Sanders ends this one with a last-second field goal in a game that felt exactly like a playoff matchup.
  2. Seattle Seahawks at Tennessee Titans: Seattle notches its second consecutive comeback win with a late touchdown pass from quarterback Geno Smith to tight end Colby Parkinson.
  3. New England Patriots at Denver Broncos: Denver's playoff hopes are placed in peril after New England wins on a 56-yard field goal.


The top seed in the AFC playoffs will be influenced heavily by what happens in this contest. Baltimore holds the advantage in that race, but Miami is just one game behind and hoping for yet another signature win. The Dolphins finally proved they could beat a winning team with their home victory over the Cowboys on Sunday. The next step for Miami is showing people it can achieve the same feat on the road.


A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 17 (with Caesars Sportsbook odds as of 9 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Dec. 26):

Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens · QB
  • Caesars odds: -180
  • Weeks in top five: 7
  • Next game: vs. Dolphins | Sunday, Dec. 31
Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · QB
  • Caesars odds: +1100
  • Weeks in top five: 7
  • Next game: vs. Patriots | Sunday, Dec. 31
Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB
  • Caesars odds: +2500
  • Weeks in top five: 7
  • Next game: vs. Lions | Saturday, Dec. 30
Tyreek Hill
Miami Dolphins · WR
  • Caesars odds: +1300
  • Weeks in top five: 6
  • Next game: at Ravens | Sunday, Dec. 31
Brock Purdy
San Francisco 49ers · QB
  • Caesars odds: +800
  • Weeks in top five: 8
  • Next game: at Commanders | Sunday, Dec. 31


My slowly evolving Super Bowl LVIII pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Ravens over 49ers.

Previous picks ...

  • Week 15: 49ers over Bills
  • Week 14: 49ers over Ravens
  • Week 13: 49ers over Ravens
  • Week 12: 49ers over Ravens
  • Week 11: Eagles over Ravens
  • Week 10: Eagles over Bengals
  • Week 9: Ravens over Eagles
  • Week 8: Eagles over Bengals
  • Week 7: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 6: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 5: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 4: 49ers over Bills
  • Week 3: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 2: 49ers over Bills
  • Week 1: 49ers over Dolphins

Related Content