With three weeks left in the season, the NFL playoff picture is beginning to take shape. The Dallas Cowboys have already clinched a playoff bid and set their sights on the top seed in the NFC. Six other teams, including the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, can clinch postseason spots this week if everything goes their way.
Other teams are fighting to remain in playoff contention, but suddenly have major injuries that may either keep them out of the postseason or prevent them from succeeding if they get there.
That includes last year’s Super Bowl champions, who are in danger of missing the playoffs. Sure, the Denver Broncos currently hold the final wild card in the AFC, but only by the skin of their teeth. Plus, a rash of injuries at running back has been a huge blow to a team that had little offensive firepower anyway.
Last season, the Broncos rode their venerable defense to a Lombardi Trophy. Despite Peyton Manning already playing like he was retired, the offense was fairly middle of the pack and managed to do just enough. This year, however, they have fallen down the ranks and are one of the least-productive rushing offenses in the league.
C.J. Anderson, who emerged as No. 1 threat at running back, had knee surgery and was placed on injured reserve in October. Devontae Booker took over as the starter, but is dealing with a shoulder injury that has limited his production. Kapri Bibbs, who was reportedly on the verge of overtaking Booker, suffered an ankle injury and was also put on IR. The team then signed Justin Forsett, a 31-year-old back who was cut by the Ravens earlier this year and fumbled his first carry for Denver in a 13-10 loss to the Titans.
At quarterback, Trevor Siemian has been serviceable — and also banged up. Even the Broncos’ stout defense can’t mask all the injuries and lack of running game.
Panic index: Gary Kubiak hasn’t given up hope on fixing the ground attack, but the Broncos’ playoff hopes could soon be running on empty. They close out their season against three teams with a combined record of 31-8: the Patriots, Chiefs, and Raiders. The Dolphins, Ravens, and Titans are right behind him in the playoff standings, ready to pounce if the Broncos drop another game. Unless Denver starts letting Von Miller carry the ball on top of making quarterbacks fear for their lives, then the Broncos could be on their way to getting bounced out of the postseason picture as early as this week.
One good stretch doesn’t mean the Packers’ secondary is fine
The Packers didn’t just look like playoff contenders in Week 14 — they looked like Super Bowl favorites. Green Bay dragged Seattle up and down Lambeau Field on a cold, snowy afternoon, gleaning an MVP-level performance from Aaron Rodgers while badgering Russell Wilson into a career-worst five interceptions. The end result was a 38-10 beatdown that put the Packers back in the hunt for a playoff spot.
That doesn’t mean Green Bay can rely on that kind of production every week, however. An embattled Packers secondary had allowed opposing quarterbacks to post the second-highest quarterback rating in the league up until last week’s game. While they’ve hamstrung passing offenses in their recent three-game winning streak, two of those performances came against rookie Carson Wentz and factory-reject piñata Brock Osweiler.
The Bears’ Matt Barkley will give a young, developing secondary the chance for a fourth-straight strong performance, but the last two games of the season — against the Vikings and Lions — will test just how far Green Bay’s aerial defense has really come. Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford combined for 681 passing yards, five touchdowns, and a 116.7 passer rating in their first 2016 appearances against the Packers.
Green Bay is just now starting to recover from losing veteran Sam Shields for the season in Week 1. They’ve leaned on young cornerbacks Quinten Rollins, Damarious Randall, and LaDarius Gunter to prop up one of the league’s weakest coverage units. While the trio has stepped up its performance lately — 11 passes defensed and three interceptions in that span — the level of competition they’ve faced leaves questions about whether or not this growth is sustainable.
And that doesn’t even address the team’s issues at tailback, where converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery remains Green Bay’s top threat.
Panic index: Low. If you can make Russell Wilson look stupid in the state where he led his college team to a Rose Bowl, you deserve some confidence. The Packers’ secondary should be able to handle Matt Barkley this weekend.
The Falcons are running low on weapons
Atlanta has several key players hobbled or sidelined, and it makes the road to the playoffs a little rockier for the Falcons.
Cornerback Desmond Trufant, a Pro Bowler last season and one of the best players on a defense that desperately needs all the help it can get, is out for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury. The Falcons are also missing Adrian Clayborn, who has been an underrated component of the team’s improved pass rush.
Offensively, Julio Jones is dealing with turf toe, and that’s an injury that can be quite debilitating, especially for a player whose explosiveness is his greatest strength. It will make it difficult for Jones to plant and make cuts effectively, and since the Falcons haven’t locked up a playoff spot yet, it’s difficult for Atlanta to justify resting Jones until the playoffs.
The Falcons have found ways to succeed without Jones this season. The offense is built around Matt Ryan’s ability to use his entire arsenal of offensive weapons, from speedy receiver Taylor Gabriel to running back Tevin Coleman out of the backfield. But those weapons seem to be dwindling.
Mohamed Sanu, who is second on the depth chart behind Jones, missed Atlanta’s Week 14 win over the Los Angeles Rams with a groin strain. Jacob Tamme, one of Ryan’s most reliable targets early in the season, was placed on injured reserve in November with a shoulder injury. Nick Williams, the wide receiver who was elevated from the practice squad to the active roster with Jones and Sanu out for Week 14, left the game in Los Angeles with a concussion.
Jake Matthews, Atlanta’s left tackle, suffered a knee sprain against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 13, and while he was able to take the field against the Rams, he was limited and played fewer snaps than usual.
The 8-5 Falcons have maintained a hold on the top spot in the NFC South, but it’s tenuous. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won five in a row, and they’re also sitting at 8-5 and penciled into a wild card spot. Atlanta is fully capable of making the playoffs, but injuries to key players will make it more difficult to get there.
If the Falcons do make it happen, the injuries may lead to another one-and-done postseason for Atlanta.
Panic index: Ask again next week. The Falcons play the struggling San Francisco 49ers this week, and Tampa Bay faces off against the Dallas Cowboys. If Atlanta wins and the Bucs lose, it will make this situation seem less dire.
The Seahawks are going to really miss Earl Thomas in the playoffs
The Seattle Seahawks can lock up a playoff spot this Sunday, with just three weeks left in the season. Typically, we see the Seahawks come to life this time of the year, which has allowed them to be a contender since the arrival of Russell Wilson.
One of the main reasons for this success has been the defense. Earl Thomas is very much the heart and soul of the “Legion of Boom.” Thomas broke his leg against the Panthers in a Week 12 blowout victory, and there might not be a greater injury for any team than this one.
This past week, their defense looked weak against a Packers team that’s been trying to find its identity. They went into the game allowing a league-low average of 16.2 points per game.
Thomas recorded two interceptions, a fumble recovery for a touchdown, and 24 tackles for the Seahawks this season. He had not missed a game in his career leading up to this season, and now he’s on injured reserve.
Panic index: Pete Carroll told reporters that Thomas’ absence against the Packers “had no impact." And Richard Sherman said, "I mean, you turn the ball over six times; he can’t play both sides. So we’ve just got to clean things up and continue to push forward." That’s what the Seahawks do, and they haven’t given us a reason to believe otherwise. But Thomas is a dang good player that you don’t want to lose.
Matthew Stafford’s finger injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Lions
At 9-4, the Detroit Lions are sitting atop of the NFC North. If Detroit can defeat the Giants in Week 15, it will clinch the NFC North title.
However, the Lions are dealing with a huge injury heading into their showdown with New York. Quarterback Matthew Stafford dislocated the middle finger on his throwing hand in a Week 14 comeback victory against the Chicago Bears.
Before he dislocated his finger Sunday, he completed 6 of 7 passes for 50 yards. When he had to play with the glove, Stafford completed 15 of 28 passes and threw two interceptions.
The veteran quarterback will be under center in Week 15 and have to play with a glove for the rest of the season. Lions head coach Jim Caldwell is confident that his quarterback will be fine.
“He feels that obviously he can get it done and also the doctors do as well” Caldwell said. "You can anticipate he’ll be a little bit better by the time we get to next week.”
Stafford is having a great season, throwing for 3,447 yards and 22 touchdowns. He also has eight comeback victories this season.
Panic Index: Detroit fans might want to take up meditation. The Lions have to play the Giants, Cowboys, and Packers to close out the season. That is a tough three-game stretch. Do you remember the last time your star quarterback dislocated his finger? In 2011, he fractured his finger and had to play with a glove for three games. He did not play well at all. Stafford threw four interceptions in the first game and five more in the next two. Even though Detroit has a two-game lead in the division, it cannot afford to lose games at this juncture, especially with the Vikings and Packers lurking. Stafford’s play will be pivotal for the next three games.