Deep Dive: Breaking down the NFL playoff contenders

With another week of NFL football in the books, we’ve reached the point where we are counting down the weeks rather than counting them up. This week, I’ll be taking a look at teams that have a 40% to 75% chance of making the playoffs according to The New York Times or the FiveThirtyEight’s predictive models.  


Buffalo Bills (7-3) 

FiveThirtyEight: 71%, NYT: 66%

The Bills have the best record of the teams in this cluster of playoff contention, but they lack impressive wins. They’ve beaten up on cellar-dwellers and lost handily to the Patriots, Eagles and the enigmatic Browns. Buffalo’s defense has been among the league’s best, but it might be due to weak opponents. On offense, quarterback Josh Allen and wide receiver John Brown have flashed their potential but remain unproven against stronger competition. 

The chances to prove themselves will come. The Bills play at Dallas, versus Baltimore, at Pittsburgh and at New England from Weeks 13-16: all games they could drop. With two winnable home games against the Broncos and Jets, the Bills have a decent shot at going 3-3 in the last six weeks, which would almost certainly get them into the playoffs. 

Oakland Raiders (6-4)

FiveThirtyEight: 41%, NYT: 48%

The Raiders have played surprisingly well this season, with all four of their losses coming against legitimate contenders. Head coach Jon Gruden has put together a viable offense with quarterback Derek Carr, rookie running back Josh Jacobs and tight end Darren Waller all exceeding expectations. 

They haven’t quite proven they can hang with the best, but they won’t need to do so to get into the postseason. Aside from an easy game against the Jets in Week 12 and one they will probably lose in Kansas City in Week 13, the Raiders have four games where they should be slight favorites: versus Tennessee, versus Jacksonville, at L.A. Chargers and at Denver. If they win all four of those and get to 5-1 on their last six, they are a lock to make the playoffs.

Indianapolis Colts (6-4)

FiveThirtyEight: 54%, NYT: 46%

The Colts are another team that has surprisingly earned its way into the AFC playoff conversation with impressive wins over the Chiefs and Texans. However, the Colts are also the team with the most perplexing losses, falling to the tanking Miami Dolphins and the underwhelming Chargers. If they can upset the Texans again next week, they will control their destiny in the AFC South, but if they lose, they’ll likely need to win four of their final five games to secure a playoff berth. 


Dallas Cowboys (6-4)

FiveThirtyEight: 62%, NYT: 66%

Philadelphia Eagles (5-5)

FiveThirtyEight: 47%, NYT: 39%

It would be impossible to tell the story of either team without the other. Unlike the AFC, where four teams are vying for the two Wild Card slots, the NFC has a clear gap between the Wild Card teams and the rest. The biggest uncertainty is which of these bitter rivals will make it out of the NFC East. 

On the shoulders of quarterback Dak Prescott, the Cowboys’ offense has seen a revival this season and is currently fourth in the league in points per game. The story of the season for the Eagles has once again been injuries — this time, mainly in the receiving corps. They are still loaded with talent on the offensive and defensive lines, but the defensive backs continue to be the team’s biggest liability. 

It’d be irresponsible not to mention the 37-10 thrashing the Cowboys handed the Eagles in Week 7 in Dallas. The Week 16 rematch in Philadelphia will likely decide who wins the division title.

Four of the Eagles’ remaining games should be easy wins (at Dolphins, at Redskins and the Giants twice), and their upcoming Week 12 matchup against the Seahawks will be a good indicator of whether they deserve to play in January. The Cowboys have the more difficult remaining schedule; they play two tough road games against the Patriots and Bears and host the Bills and Rams. Unless they miraculously manage to win all four of those, the Cowboys’ hopes will likely depend on their matchup with Philly. 

Dario Offstein is a junior writing about sports. His column, “Deep Dive,” runs every other Tuesday.