But those teams and other top contenders are in good enough position with their records and upcoming schedules that those flaws aren’t fatal. All of them should have no trouble making the postseason — and perhaps make a run once they get there.
The same can’t be said about some of the teams on the fringe of the playoff chase, each of which has serious reason to be concerned about being left on the outside looking in. Here are the playoff contenders with the most reason to worry:
Baltimore Ravens: Believe it or not, the issue is the defense. The Ravens have one of the most talented defenses in the NFL, but injuries have decimated it. Not having defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams has left the Ravens vulnerable to opposing running attacks in back-to-back losses. The Tennessee Titans rushed for 173 yards on 34 carries Sunday, a week after the New England Patriots ran all over Baltimore.
All of a sudden, the Ravens have dropped from being the third-best team in the AFC to one spot out of the playoffs. It doesn’t help that the Ravens play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thanksgiving, limiting their ability to get back both defenders. (Baltimore is also dealing with positive coronavirus tests, which will keep out, at a minimum, running backs Mark Ingram II and J.K. Dobbins.)
Coach John Harbaugh said after Sunday’s overtime loss to Tennessee that the team’s tackling needs to get better. Without Campbell and Williams, the Ravens aren’t as strong against the run. Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue is a great pass rusher but not as good of a run defender, and first-round rookie linebacker Patrick Queen has a Pro Bowl future but can be overpowered at 232 pounds.
Baltimore has time to turn things around (its closing five games: Dallas, at Cleveland, Jacksonville, New York Giants, at Cincinnati), but to get back to the postseason, it’ll have to be better at stopping the run.
Philadelphia Eagles: In any other year, Philadelphia would be miles from playoff contention. But it is still the favorite to win the lowly NFC East, which features four teams with three wins apiece.
Still, the Eagles are playing so poorly that they’re at risk of losing the division title to Dallas, the New York Giants or Washington. Injuries have ravaged the offensive line and receiving corps, but the issue now is that Carson Wentz looks lost. He is completing 58.4 percent of his passes and is averaging only 232.6 passing yards — and just 6.2 yards per attempt. He has thrown 14 interceptions and been sacked a stunning 40 times.
Coach Doug Pederson said he has no plans to bench Wentz because he thinks it would signal to the team that he’s giving up on the season — but if they don’t fix their issues on offense, the Eagles could fall short of winning the worst division in NFL history. It doesn’t help that the schedule is brutal; Philadelphia plays the Seahawks on Monday night and follows that up with games against Green Bay, New Orleans and Arizona. The Eagles could be 3-10-1 going into their final two games against Dallas and Washington.
Miami Dolphins: Before the season, few would have thought the Dolphins would be in the playoff discussion, but they have made it to 6-4 and second place in the AFC East as a result of the great coaching job done by Brian Flores.
But after two great games by Tua Tagovailoa, the rookie quarterback was so bad in Sunday’s 20-13 loss to Denver that Flores benched him. Tagovailoa will remain the starter and get a bounce-back opportunity this week at the winless New York Jets, but it’s clear there will be a quick hook if he struggles.
Miami’s schedule ends with New England, Las Vegas and Buffalo — a difficult closing stretch for a rookie quarterback to navigate.
Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals remain the most improved team in football, and they differ from the other teams on this list in that the odds are still in their favor to make the postseason. They are 6-4, and the NFC might end up with only six or seven teams with winning records.
But Arizona’s defensive line is in trouble. Last week, the Cardinals placed defensive linemen Corey Peters and Jordan Phillips on injured reserve, and they still haven’t gotten over the loss of edge rusher Chandler Jones for the season.
Making matters worse: The Patriots and Los Angeles Rams, two successful running teams, are up next on the schedule. They will have the opportunity to follow the formula used by Seattle in Thursday’s win, during which the Seahawks built a lead by running the ball effectively and dished out a lot of hits to quarterback Kyler Murray. Murray isn’t expected to miss playing time with the sprained AC joint in his shoulder, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
Chicago Bears: As for one of the teams that could steal a playoff berth from Arizona, Chicago has its own issues to deal with after losing four straight games following a 5-1 start. The Bears don’t have a running game and their offensive line is a mess, but the core issue remains quarterback play.
Nick Foles was injured during the Nov. 16 loss to Minnesota, although it appears he wasn’t seriously hurt. It’s unclear whether it will be him or Mitchell Trubisky starting Sunday night against Green Bay, but for an offense averaging just 19 points, a postseason spot doesn’t seem likely.
Around the NFL
It was stunning to see the Patriots’ lack of athleticism on defense in their loss to the Houston Texans. On the one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising given how many players they lost in free agency or to opt-outs. On the other hand, this was the best defense in the league last season.
They are still fine in the secondary, but the front seven lacks high-level athletes. Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson took advantage, completing 28 of 37 passes for 344 yards, rushing for another 36 yards and posting three total touchdowns. New England registered zero sacks and only two quarterback hurries.
Given how run-dependent the Patriots’ offense is, they aren’t well-positioned to come from behind. At 4-6, it’ll take a marked turnaround to get back into playoff contention.
Joe Burrow’s injury ended his impressive rookie season, and unfortunately it wasn’t surprising. The Bengals’ problems on the offensive line caused Burrow to take hits all season. Heading into Sunday’s game at Washington, he ranked along with the Giants’ Daniel Jones as the most-hit quarterbacks since 2000. His knee injury will keep him out until next season.
Despite there being few fans in the stands, home-field advantage is coming back. In the first nine weeks of the season, home teams were a combined 65-67-1. Over the past two weeks, home teams were 20-8.