Could a Surprise Team Work Its Way into the NFL Playoffs?

A few weeks ago, we spent some time tinkering with various playoff simulators to craft three different postseason realities based on what might happen over the remaining weeks of the NFL season. Looking back on that now, some of the strange turns have unfolded: The Steelers lost in Oakland Sunday while Miami stayed alive with a last-second lateral victory over the Patriots at home.

But there wasn’t a seismic shift to the landscape. Right now, the fields (sans seeding, in no particular order) look like this:

AFC: Kansas City, New England, Houston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles (Chargers), Baltimore
NFC: New Orleans, Los Angeles (Rams), Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, Minnesota

Over at FiveThirtyEight, there are nine teams who have either made the playoffs or have a 90% chance or better of making the playoffs. The fun part starts with Minnesota in the NFC, and slides down the remainder of the AFC for that elusive final wildcard spot. To illustrate how interesting this thing can still be, here’s a few notes to consider:

• It won’t take much for three teams (Titans, Colts, Dolphins) to upend Baltimore for the sixth spot. Here’s the remaining schedule of all four teams:

Tennessee: @Giants, Redskins, Colts
Baltimore: Buccaneers, @Chargers, Browns
Indianapolis: Cowboys, Giants, @Titans
Miami: @Vikings, Jaguars, @Bills

All of these schedules are riddled with pitfalls (Giants on the road, Buccaneers, Bills on the road at the end of the season).

• The Chiefs, who looked wounded against Baltimore on Sunday, and take on the Chargers in Week 15 in a game that could dictate a roadmap for L.A. to host a home playoff game at their notoriously ill-attended microstadium. After Kansas City, the Chargers have Denver and Baltimore to close the season out.

• The Steelers lost to the Raiders on Sunday and despite enjoying the status that comes with a division lead, they are 7-5-1 heading into a game against the Patriots at home. After that? The Saints on the road, possibly with some high-level NFC seeding to be determined. Pittsburgh could be 7-7-1 heading into their finale against Cincinnati.

That brings us back to Baltimore, who, may not even need the sixth seed at all if this Steelers free fall continues.

While the early-season offensive explosion gave us a few obvious contenders for the Super Bowl, there are still a handful of good coaches, quarterbacks and defensive talent left fighting in the trenches. Could the surprise team of 2018 work their way into the mix?

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