The bottom-feeders are rarely winning games against teams with records at or above .500, and it could end up having an impact on which winning teams ascend to the top of the standings.
Which playoff contenders benefit the most? These five stand out:
Seattle Seahawks: They are off to a 5-0 start that has been aided by playing four teams with losing records and what is now a 3-3 Miami Dolphins team. All of those were non-division games, and outside of matchup with the Buffalo Bills, the rest of their non-division schedule looks like a cake walk.
The Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Washington Football Team and New York Jets have a combined record of 3-20-1, creating the possibility of the Seahawks going 10-0 or 9-1 in non-division games — putting them in position to win half of their divisional matchups and still earn 12 or 13 wins and the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Dallas Cowboys: They were already one of the NFL’s most disappointing teams, and then things got worse when star quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending ankle injury. In Andy Dalton’s first start with Dallas on Monday night, the Cowboys were blown out at home by the Arizona Cardinals, 38-10. Their defense hasn’t been able to stop anybody all year.
But in the struggling NFC East, Dallas remains in first place with a 2-4 record. The Cowboys still have a path to the division title, which would give them the fourth seed and a home playoff game. They play just three games in their final 10 against teams .500 or better. Over the next five weeks they play four games against teams that have just one win: Washington (twice), Philadelphia and Minnesota.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: While Dallas has the easiest closing schedule, the Bucs have the second easiest — and after Sunday’s 38-10 win over the Green Bay Packers, they might have the inside track to win the NFC South title over the New Orleans Saints.
The Bucs may have already played the toughest part of their schedule. They still have to play the Saints at home, but their only other games against winning teams are at the Las Vegas Raiders and at home against the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams. With Tom Brady leading the offense and the defense rounding into shape, the Bucs look like contenders.
Cleveland Browns: Blowout losses to the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers confirmed the Browns won’t challenge for the AFC North title. But their schedule indicates they have a great chance to be one of the AFC’s wild-card teams.
They have the third-easiest closing slate, aided by the AFC North getting to face all of the NFC East teams this season. At 4-2, Cleveland has a great chance of getting to 10 wins.
Las Vegas Raiders: Even though the Raiders stunned everyone by beating the Chiefs in Kansas City last week, few people think they will win the AFC West. But they have five remaining AFC West games left and a good chance to go 4-2 or 5-1 in the division. They also have a favorable non-division schedule with opponents such as the Jets and Atlanta Falcons. They could get to nine or 10 wins and make the playoffs as a wild card.
Around the NFL
— Here is an interesting debate: Who is the better Titans MVP candidate, Ryan Tannehill or Derrick Henry? Henry sets the tone for Tennessee and leads the league with 588 rushing yards. But Tannehill has led his team to a 12-3 record since becoming the Titans’ starter last year, completing 70 percent of his throws for 3,966 yards, 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions. My vote is for Tannehill. Tennessee plays Pittsburgh this weekend in a battle of unbeaten teams.
— Many people think San Francisco’s Robert Saleh is the next defensive coordinator to get a head coaching job. Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles may have jumped ahead of him. The Bucs are only the second team in the past 20 years to have at least 10 takeaways and 20 sacks over their first six games while also allowing 70 or fewer rushing yards in each game. The last team to do so was the 2008 Steelers, who won the Super Bowl. Bowles has his unit stopping the run as well as any team in the NFL, and his blitzes have been effective.
— Cam Newton’s novel coronavirus-related absence affected his play in Sunday’s loss to Denver. The lack of practice time with his teammates had an impact, and Newton finished 17-for-25 passing for 157 yards and two interceptions. New England was down two starters on the offensive line, and Newton was sacked four times. He led the team in rushing with 76 yards on 10 carries; the running backs were ineffective. FiveThirtyEight projects the Patriots to finish 8-8, which would keep them out of the playoffs.
— The NFL is supposed to be a talent acquisition game. That isn’t the case with the Jets. After trading Jamal Adams, having C.J. Mosley opt out and cutting Le’Veon Bell, the Jets have one position player on their 53-man roster who has been to the Pro Bowl: 37-year-old running back Frank Gore. It’s no wonder the Jets are the only winless team in the NFL.