NFL: Play-off picture tightens
It was believed by many that the 2023-24 National Football League (NFL) play-off picture would have become a bit clearer after last weekend’s matchups, but it was quite the opposite. Five of the top teams in the league — the Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, and Miami Dolphins — suffered troublesome defeats in Week 14, that saw only the San Francisco 49ers cementing a spot in this season’s play-offs.
The aforementioned losing teams lost significant ground in the race for the top seed in their respective conferences, and only served to make the remaining four weeks all the more interesting. In the National Football Conference (NFC), the marquee game of last weekend saw the Dallas Cowboys holding homecourt against the Eagles, and made them look less than second-best. The Cowboys extended to a 15-game home win streak following a 33-13 mauling of the Eagles, a loss that displaced Philadelphia from the No 1 position in the NFC to No 5, and conversely catapulted Dallas from No 5 to No 2. And with San Francisco bettering the Seattle Seahawks 28-16 last Sunday, they now lead the NFC and have secured a play-off spot, having already beaten both Dallas and Philadelphia, with all three teams having a 10-3 record.
In the American Football Conference (AFC), things are more tightly bunched. The Baltimore Ravens, having overcome the charge of the Los Angeles Rams in an exciting 37-31 overtime victory last Sunday, lead the conference with a 10-3 record. The Dolphins, after a historical shock defeat on Monday night (more on that in a bit), were nudged into the second spot (9-4), but there are three teams in the conference with 8-5 records, and six with 7-6. The race to the wire in the AFC is going to be fierce.
Here is a look at the path to the play-offs for four of the more interesting teams in the postseason race: the Dolphins, Cowboys, Chiefs and Eagles.
The Dolphins surrendered a 14-point lead, with three minutes left in the game on Monday night, to lose 27-28 to the Tennessee Titans. The Titans registered their first road win of the season (as the Dolphins suffered their first home loss) but, more than that, the game saw the first time in NFL-history where a team trailing by 14 points in the last three minutes, won the game — the record was 0-767 prior.
In their remaining schedule, the Dolphins (on paper) have the most difficult run to the end of the regular season, of the four teams being featured here. They have the New York Jets visiting this weekend, then the Cowboys coming to Miami the following week, after which they visit the Ravens before closing at home against the Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins could possibly go 2-2 over this period, but that would leave them with a 11-6 record, which would fall short of topping the AFC. Winning out is their only hope to get to the top, but it’s hardly likely that will happen.
The remaining schedule for the Cowboys is almost as daunting as that of the Dolphins. They enter this weekend high on the victory over Philadelphia last week, but they travel to tackle Buffalo this Sunday, who put a chokehold on Kansas City last weekend. Next is the visit to Miami, before Detroit travels to AT&T Stadium (where the Cowboys are 7-0 this season), then the closer will take place on the road against the Washington Commanders.
The Cowboys head into this weekend as JustBet underdogs against the Bills and, depending on the outcome of the game, their status against the Dolphins will be determined. While there are no guarantees in sports, the Commanders provide the only sure win in the remaining games, so topping the NFC is going to be an uphill climb for Dallas. The Bills have won the last two encounters between these teams and are 5-2 at home this year, but if the Cowboys can muscle a win this weekend, they can fancy a possible 12-5 (or better) for the season. That may not be enough to win the conference, but it would be seen as a success considering their offensive woes to start the year.
Kansas City lost to the Bills at home last Sunday and is now 8–5, but they maintained third place in the AFC despite the loss. They lead the league with 33 total dropped passes and have had six games with 20 points or less this season (they had six such games from 2018 to 2022), but they have a fairly easy remaining schedule that could see them winning out. The New England Patriots (3-10) are up this weekend, followed by the Las Vegas Raiders (5-8) next week, before the Chiefs face the Cincinnati Bengals (6-6) and close against the Los Angeles Chargers (5-8).
The Bengals and Chargers have been forced to start second-string quarterbacks — Jake Browning and Easton Stick, respectively — due to injuries, so wins in the last two games for the defending champions are not unforeseeable. If the Chiefs can pull this off and get to a 12-5 record, they may be able to look past all the inopportune dropped passes and enter the postseason with an energised attitude.
The Eagles, despite losing miserably to the Cowboys last week and the 49ers one week prior, have a very high possibility of still topping the NFC. They face the easiest schedule of the four teams featured, as this weekend’s game against the Seattle Seahawks (6-7), should provide their stiffest test on the remaining schedule. Following Seattle, they have the New York Giants (5-8), then the Arizona Cardinals (3-10), before closing against the Giants on January 7, 2024. The expectation is for the Eagles to finish the regular season atop the NFC with a 14-3 record, but while the Seahawks have not had a victory in their last four games, the Giants are currently on a three-game win streak and thing could get interesting.
Starting with the two games tomorrow, Saturday, almost every game has play-off implications this weekend and no team will want to be on the short side of the score. Only the Carolina Panthers have nothing to play for, so a dogfight is expected on every snap of the ball…. Are you ready for some football?
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