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7 dark horse teams creeping into the NFL playoff picture

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Teams like the Rams and Raiders are sneaking into the playoff conversation, just as nobody predicted, but it's going to make the second half of the 2015 NFL season a lot of fun.

We're approaching the halfway point of the NFL season (just stop and consider that for a minute ... they grow up so fast). That means it's that special time of year when we all have to relearn the NFL's playoff tiebreaker rules, which of course are more complex than the original Enigma machine cipher.

This has been a really weird season so far. The league is top-heavy. There are the four undefeated teams -- the Panthers, Patriots, Broncos, and Bengals -- that are almost surely going to be in the playoffs, barring some catastrophic choke. There are a few others that look like good bets, like the Cardinals, Packers, and ... well, okay that's it. That's six teams out of a playoff field of 12 that I have a pretty good feel for.

After that, this frickin' league is a mess. Six playoff spots are still very up for grabs, and a few surprising teams have the inside tracks to secure those precious berths.

NFC

Let's take a look at the NFC first. This is what the picture looks like right now:

NFC W L
1. Carolina Panthers 7 0
2. Green Bay Packers 6 1
3. Arizona Cardinals 6 2
4. New York Giants 4 4
5. Atlanta Falcons 6 2
6. Minnesota Vikings 5 2
St. Louis Rams 4 3
Seattle Seahawks 4 4
New Orleans Saints 4 4
Washington 3 4
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3 4
Philadelphia Eagles 3 4
Dallas Cowboys 2 5
Chicago Bears 2 5
San Francisco 49ers 2 6
Detroit Lions 1 7

St. Louis Rams

Look who's sitting there, just outside of the field behind the Vikings. And those teams get to square off this week in Minnesota. The Rams have a chance to make a statement.

St. Louis has been accumulating first-round talent for what seems like decades, so it should be no surprise they're contenders this year. For whatever reason, it does feel like a surprise though.

They've beaten the Seahawks, Cardinals, Browns, and Niners on their way to a 4-3 record and they did that with the eighth-hardest schedule through eight weeks, according to Football Outsiders. Here's the good news for St. Louis fans, though: They're now looking at the 26th-toughest schedule by DVOA from here on out. After the Minnesota test this Sunday, they've got very winnable games at the Ravens, at home against the Bears, Lions, and Bucs, and at the Niners to close out the year. They've got tough ones at the Bengals and Seahawks, and at home against the Cardinals. They're looking at a relatively easy path to 9 wins, and with an upset or two, 10 or 11.

The Rams have got maybe the most dominant defensive lineman in the NFL right now, Aaron Donald -- wrecking shop and practically taking handoffs from opposing quarterbacks before they can hand it to their running backs -- and a fast-flowing, athletic defense behind him. On the other side of the ball, Todd Gurley has emerged as a superstar, a put-his-team-on-his-back type of foundational back. They finally truly have that punch-you-in-the-mouth identity that Jeff Fisher has tried to put together for years, and they've got a lightning aspect to pair with Gurley's thunder in Tavon Austin. The pieces are there, but Nick Foles has to be consistent. Will he be? That's the question.

Football Outsiders have the Rams at a 47.4 percent chance for the postseason (14 percent chance to win the West, 33 percent as a wild card). ESPN's FPI rating gives them a 36.4 percent chance for the playoffs, while numberFire has them at 45.4 percent odds to make the postseason. For each one of those outlets, St. Louis still sits above the Seahawks. Not too shabby. If the Rams can get this thing done, it'd be their first trip to the playoffs since 2004.

Philadelphia Eagles

I list the Eagles here not because they'd necessarily be a surprise to make the playoffs, but because of the way things started out for them this season. After going 1-3 and gaining very little traction on the offensive side of the ball, they've won two of their last three to put themselves back into the mix. It doesn't hurt that the NFC East is a shit show. Tony Romo isn't back until Week 11, New York's defense leaks like a sieve, and Washington is, well, Washington. It's a battle of the least implosive team.

The oddsmakers and playoff-machines like the Eagles out of that group despite their 3-4 record. They've got a really, really good defense (third in DVOA per Football Outsiders) and some semblance of weaponry on offense. The Eagles could easily make a run with even a marginally better performance out of Sam Bradford, though that may be asking too much.

They get five of their last nine at home, including the Dolphins, Bucs, Bills, Cardinals, and Washington, while traveling to play the Lions, Patriots, and Giants. That's the 21st-toughest future schedule per DVOA.

ESPN's FPI Rating gives Philly a 64 percent chance at the playoffs, Football Outsiders gives them 49 percent odds at the postseason, and numberFire's got them at 50 percent.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints are maybe one of the most surprising 4-4 teams in recent memory after a tumultuous offseason and a fire sale of several of their major weapons, but a three-game winning streak has put them back into the postseason conversation. They sit just outside the picture right now, but boast the distinct advantage of having the easiest schedule from here on out, per Football Outsiders.

New Orleans gets to host the Titans, Lions, and Jaguars in the second half while traveling to Washington, Houston, and Tampa Bay. That's not exactly a murderer's row (a combined record right now of 13-31). The Saints are looking at 10 wins if they can take care of business in those games. Their two biggest challenges -- on paper -- would be a home game against the Panthers and a trip to Atlanta to close things out.

Now, there's tons of time for the wheels to fall off, and the New Orleans' defense has been baaaaaaad, but a team that can score in bunches like the Saints has the chance to put themselves in every game. Drew Brees is playing like his vintage self and developing rapport with a new set of weapons, and Mark Ingram is doing it all.

ESPN's FPI has the Saints with an 19 percent chance at the playoffs, while Football Outsiders gives them 22 percent odds, and numberFire a 15.5 percent chance.

Others:

There's still a ton of season left, so if you're looking for the real dark horse teams for the playoffs then keep an eye on Washington and Tampa Bay. It's almost absurd to say it right now, but both teams are still in the hunt.

AFC

Moving to the AFC, here's what the picture looks like right now. I'm not going to bother with too many tie-breakers this early.

AFC W L
T1. New England Patriots 7 0
T1. Cincinnati Bengals 7 0
T1. Denver Broncos 7 0
4. Indianapolis Colts 3 5
5. Oakland Raiders 4 3
6. New York Jets 4 3
Pittsburgh Steelers 4 4
Buffalo Bills 3 4
Miami Dolphins 3 4
Kansas City Chiefs 3 5
Houston Texans 3 5
Jacksonville Jaguars 2 5
San Diego Chargers 2 6
Cleveland Browns 2 6
Baltimore Ravens 2 6
Tennessee Titans 1 6

In terms of contenders for the playoffs, you've got your usual suspects in the Steelers and Colts, but there are a few surprising teams still very much in the hunt.

New York Jets

This is a team that can play defense (fifth per DVOA), and despite its loss last week to fellow surprise playoff contender Oakland, New York looks to have a good shot at a Wild Card spot. With Ryan Fitzpatrick likely to return to action this week, they can get themselves back into the win column by knocking off the Jaguars at home.

New York has the 24th-toughest schedule going forward per DVOA, hosing the Jags, Bills, Dolphins, Titans, and Patriots, while traveling to the Texans, Giants, Cowboys, and Bills.

Football Outsiders currently has the Jets at 70 percent odds for the playoffs while ESPN's FPI and numberFire both have them at 68 percent. Not shabby for a team that went 4-12 last year. Head Coach Todd Bowles has them playing good ball on both sides and this week gives them a great chance to get their season back on track.

Oakland Raiders

Oakland has an exciting young gunslinging quarterback in Derek Carr, a couple of really good options for him in the passing game in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, and they have a defense that can get after the passer. That's a pretty cool combination.

Don't look now, but the Raiders have the fifth-ranked offense per DVOA (this is no fluke) and the 15th-ranked defense, and their second-half schedule is a mix of easy games and tough matchups. Reggie McKenzie has taken a team that was once a laughingstock and turned it into a real playoff contender.

Football Outsiders has them at 55 percent odds for the playoffs based on DVOA, while ESPN (18.6 percent) and numberFire (24 percent) are not as optimistic.

I personally like the Raiders, and with the wide-open field in the AFC I think they have a good shot. Even despite their recent gains in confidence and in the win column, Vegas still has them at an NFL-worst 300-1 odds if you're looking for a nice flier.

Speaking of long-shots, let's talk about two teams that are somehow still alive in this thing.

Kansas City Chiefs

It really looked like the Chiefs were dead in the water when they lost to the Bears on the same day they lost Jamaal Charles for the season, then the loss the week after to the Vikings put them six feet under in my mind. 

But, credit to the Chiefs, they bounced back to win two in a row. Their back-to-back victories have increased their playoff chances from 5 percent to 30 percent, according to ESPN's FPI. Football Outsiders is not as optimistic, and has them at 21 percent, while numberFire is just plain mean and puts them at 13 percent. Still, they've got a great defense on paper -- one that could catch fire at any moment -- and their offense is actually more efficient than you might think (ninth-ranked per DVOA at Football Outsiders).

I do not think Kansas City has much of a shot at this thing, but again, the AFC is a mess and when you see that their three non-division games down the stretch are against the the Browns, Ravens, and Bills, you think they could still be alive. It's an uphill climb, but don't start shoveling dirt on them quite yet like I did a few weeks ago.

Houston Texans

Similarly, we have the Texans, tied for first place in the AFC South with the Colts, who are slowly collapsing into themselves like a black hole. I never, ever thought that I'd be saying this after the beginning of the year that the Texans had, especially after they lost Arian Foster with an Achilles injury, but Houston is actually in the playoff hunt. Here we are.

They still have the league's best defensive player in J.J. Watt, and on offense they have one of the best receivers in the game right now in DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins has absolutely exploded onto the scene and is on pace for 132 catches, 1,740 yards, and 12 touchdowns with a combination of Ryan Mallett (now at home) and Brian Hoyer.

ESPN FPI has Houston at 12.6 percent odds to make the postseason even though they're tied with the Colts right now, while numberFire is more optimistic at 32 percent. Football Outsiders gives them 17 percent odds.

It's hard to imagine the Texans in the playoffs after the start they've had, but then you look over and see what Indy's doing. The winner of the AFC South could end up having six wins. What a time to be alive.

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At the end of the day, we're still not to the halfway point for many teams this year, so trying to project the next eight or nine games is a fool's errand. Still, projecting based on how teams are performing right now is an interesting exercise, and there are more than a few teams that could get themselves back into the playoffs after long droughts or truly atrocious starts to the season.

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