Predicting winners for each of the NFL’s closest playoff races

Close games were the theme of Week 11, with every result other than a pair of blowouts– — the Saints crushing the Eagles and the Colts running away from the Titans — coming by five points or less.

The races for several playoff spots are tightening as well. While the Rams and Saints are set up well to be the top two seeds in the NFC, and the Chiefs are in position to claim the top spot in the AFC, with the Steelers and Patriots not too far behind, there are some very close playoff races as we hit Thanksgiving week.

Outside of the aforementioned teams and the Bears and Texans, who at 7-3 have taken modest control of their divisions, let’s take a look at each playoff contender and predict winners for the competitive division and wild-card spots:

AFC wild card

Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense were dominating the Broncos defense on Sunday, running 72 plays to Denver’s 52 and possessing the ball for 38 minutes. By Rivers’ estimation, the game should have been a 33-7 victory for L.A., but mistakes turned it into a painful, 23-22 loss.

“We had every opportunity to close it out and we just didn’t get it done,” Rivers said.

The Chargers were their own worst enemy, committing 14 penalties for 120 yards. As a result, they are going to have a much tougher time challenging Kansas City for the AFC West title.

But despite the loss, the Chargers should still be a lock for the top wild-card seed. They are 7-3 and have a two-game edge over the other teams competing for wild-card spots — a group that now includes five teams with 5-5 records: the Bengals, Colts, Dolphins, Ravens and Titans.

Who will get in is anyone’s guess, but it’s starting to look as though Indianapolis could be that team. The Colts are on a four-game winning streak after beating the Titans Sunday, and Luck is making his case to be Comeback Player of the Year, completing better than 70 percent of his passes in the past four weeks. Just as important, the offensive line is rarely letting Luck get hit, and slowly but surely, a defense that has benefited from smart drafting over the past couple of years is getting better.

When he’s healthy, Luck has never had a losing season. At the very least, the Colts are on pace for an eight-win season, but they have an outside shot at a wild-card spot if they get to nine wins.

The New York Times projects the Ravens with the best chance of getting the No. 6 seed, but that is a tough sell with John Harbaugh on the hot seat and quarterback Joe Flacco dealing with a hip injury. What you like about the Ravens is their defense, but the offense they ran to beat Cincinnati Sunday isn’t sustainable. Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson ran 27 times for 117 yards, and while it was a dynamic performance, better defenses will shut down an offense that skews so run-heavy.

The Bengals can’t stop anyone on defense, and have been in a free fall lately. The Dolphins, meanwhile, are minus-57 in point differential and don’t know when they will get the injured Ryan Tannehill back as starting quarterback.

Predicted winners: Chargers, Colts


NFC East

This division is wide open, in part due to some significant injuries suffered by the Redskins. When starting guards Brandon Scherff and Shawn Lauvao were lost for the year, and left tackle Trent Williams went out for an extended period with thumb surgery, I thought they’d struggled to get to eight wins.

Then came Sunday’s 23-21 loss to Houston, which will be remembered for Alex Smith‘s broken leg that was eerily similar to the one suffered 33 years ago to the day by former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann. With Smith done for the season, you would have to think it would be tough for Colt McCoy — with a limited offensive line and 33-year-old running back Adrian Peterson — to win four of the next six games to get Washington to 10 wins (although nine might be enough in this division).

That gives the Dallas Cowboys — the Redskins’ opponent this Thursday — a chance to win the NFC East. They have won the past two games after firing their offensive line coach and acquiring wide receiver Amari Cooper from the Oakland Raiders for a first-round pick. The Cowboys all but eliminated the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, with a 22-19 win, and are now 5-5.

The Eagles are reeling at 4-6, but aren’t completely out of things yet given they play the Redskins twice and the Eagles once over their final five games.

Predicted winner: Cowboys


NFC wild card

Even though the Seahawks are behind the Panthers and Vikings in the standings, they have a decent chance of sneaking into the playoffs. They visit Carolina Sunday and host the Vikings in Week 14, and have a chance to win both games — and even if they split, they have two very winnable games against the 49ers and the Cardinals left on the schedule.

Minnesota is in the midst of a brutal stretch of games, following Sunday night’s loss at Chicago with a home game against the Packers and road trips to play New England and Seattle. The Panthers, meanwhile, finish with two of their final three games against the Saints. Ron Rivera’s decision to go for the two-point conversion and the win against Detroit Sunday could come back to haunt him.

Predicted winners: Seahawks, Vikings


More NFL story lines

— Harbaugh helped his job security with a win over Cincinnati, but there is an interesting scenario if he’s fired or mutually parts ways with the Ravens. Reports have surfaced that Gary Kubiak, who stepped down as Broncos head coach in part due to health issues following the 2016 season, could come back into the league as an offensive coordinator.

If there were interest in Kubiak and Harbaugh reuniting — Kubiak was the Ravens’ offensive coordinator in 2014 — then Denver could be a logical destination. It would give John Elway Kubiak to develop the quarterback position and Harbaugh to handle head-coaching duties. If Harbaugh does end up in Denver, you have to wonder if the next move would be to acquire Flacco.

— Even though the Jaguars denied an ESPN report they might trade star cornerback Jalen Ramsey in the offseason, you have to think it would be a consideration. Chemistry appears to be bad on the Jacksonville defense, and there is plenty of change ahead for this team. They can’t go back to Blake Bortles as quarterback, and blowing a 16-0 lead to Pittsburgh Sunday only further sets the Jaguars up for a major shake-up after the season.

— Jon Gruden’s sideline blowout with Derek Carr isn’t a big deal. Gruden is an emotional coach, and Carr isn’t one to back down. Don’t think that one incident would lead to Gruden not supporting Carr for next year.

Ryan Fitzpatrick threw three interceptions in Sunday’s 38-35 loss to the New York Giants, and has thrown seven in his last three games. Don’t be surprised if the Buccaneers go back to Jameis Winston in the next couple of weeks.

— The Titans have big concerns going into their Monday night game against Houston next week. In Sunday’s blowout loss to the Colts, Marcus Mariota reinjured an elbow that had previously sidelined him for two games. Blaine Gabbert might have to start in his place, and at 5-5, the Titans are two games behind the Texans and could be all but eliminated from the playoff picture with a loss.

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