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The 5 fringe playoff teams we’re rooting for to close out the NFL season

These teams are currently on the outside of the playoff picture, and some have really bad odds to make the postseason. But we’re still holding out hope.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Only three teams in the NFL have been assured playoff spots through 14 weeks of the regular season — the Saints, Chiefs, and Ravens. The Patriots, 49ers, Seahawks, Bills, and Packers appear destined to join them in the days ahead.

That leaves four playoff spots looming for 12 other not-yet-eliminated franchises. The NFC East and AFC South are both primed to come down to the wire as they sort out their 2019 division champion. The final wild card spots in each conference are also up for grabs. Teams like the Vikings, Titans, and Steelers all have decent odds to break brief playoff droughts. For others like the Bears, Browns, Rams, Colts, and Broncos, the path to the postseason features far more detours.

So which fringe contenders are we backing as they conclude their runs to either postseason glory or January vacations? These are the most compelling teams in the NFL this December ... who’ll probably fall short of a playoff bid.

Cleveland Browns

The 2019 Browns have been a tragedy. The league’s most cursed franchise came into the year as AFC North favorites thanks to Baker Mayfield’s MVP-caliber run through a 5-3 finish to 2018 and the offseason addition of players like Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Morgan Burnett, and Odell Beckham Jr. If all went according to plan, Cleveland would cut a path to its first division title since the 1980s.

All did not go according to plan. Beckham has played hurt and Mayfield has dealt with some severe sophomore struggles. A defense packed with young talent has been consistently mediocre (and then lost its best player when Myles Garrett, uh, clubbed a rival with his own helmet). As a result, the Browns ran through the first half of the season with a worse record (2-6) than the one that got Hue Jackson fired a year before (2-5-1).

And yet, the team can still cling to a shred of postseason hope. Mayfield has nearly justified the 50,000 insurance commercials he’s been featured in by slowly turning around a lost season. Over his last five games — a stretch in which Cleveland has gone 4-1 and claimed the unofficial Rust Belt crown by beating Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh — he’s got an 8:4 touchdown-to-interception rate and an 88.4 passer rating. Those are mediocre numbers for sure, but still significantly better than the Brandon Weeden cosplay he put together in the first half of the season.

Unfortunately for the Browns, they need to win out while hoping for bad things to happen to the Steelers and either the Titans or Texans. Games against the Cardinals and Bengals are certainly winnable, but sandwiched between those games is a return date against the Ravens. Baltimore represents Cleveland’s best win of the season (a 40-25 drubbing), but it also represents the last time Lamar Jackson’s Ravens looked like anything less than a contender. Jackson will likely be out for revenge when he brings his team west for the rematch.

But the Browns have the most interesting punter in the game. That’s worth something, right? — Christian D’Andrea

Oakland Raiders

Remember back in mid-November when the Raiders looked like they might actually pull it off? A three-game winning streak had Oakland at 6-4 and right on the bubble for the second AFC Wild Card berth. (sigh) Those were the days.

Even when things were going well, it wasn’t like everyone was picking the Raiders to win the Super Bowl. Just the idea of coach-turned-commentator-turned-coach Jon Gruden leading a ragtag group of rookies and castoffs to the postseason was fun enough. It sounded like a perfect way to send the Raiders out of the Bay Area in their last season in Oakland.

Then, the Raiders were blown out in back-to-back-to-back weeks — including an inexplicable 34-3 loss to the Jets.

Now Oakland needs a miracle to get into the playoffs. The team will almost certainly need to win out and finish 9-7, then hope it can catch the Steelers and either the Texans or Titans.

Fortunately, that pursuit begins with a home game against the Jaguars — losers of five straight games by at least 17 points. Then the Raiders end the season with back-to-back road games against the 5-8 Chargers and 5-8 Broncos. Those are all winnable games, so long as Oakland doesn’t lay another Jets-sized egg.

Las Vegas is inheriting an intriguing team with a lot of promise. Boy would it be fun if the Raiders could leave Oakland with an odds-defying run at the playoffs, though. — Adam Stites

Philadelphia Eagles

There isn’t much about the current Eagles that I find all that interesting, but I do have a very good reason for rooting for Philadelphia: It’s pitiful how bad the Cowboys are under Jason Garrett.

Now, as a 49ers fan, I’m supposed to hate the Cowboys — and I do. But my love of young, exciting players like Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper and DeMarcus Lawrence override that hatred, just a little bit. I don’t want to see those guys in the playoffs this year on the off chance that they screw up and save Garrett’s job for another year.

The NFL is more fun when every division has something to offer. Right now, the combined might of the NFC East might be enough to win a playoff game, but separately they’re all a mess. The best thing that can come out of this mess in the immediate future is a spark for Dallas in the form of a change at the head coaching position.

I truly don’t know what Jerry Jones is waiting for at this point. Garrett hasn’t said or done anything to upset me, but his Cowboys have looked completely lifeless off and on for several years now.

Put a merciful end to this reign, Eagles. Even if it means you might be making the Cowboys stronger in the future. — James Brady

Tennessee Titans

By Week 9, it looked like the Titans were nowhere near playoff contention, sitting at 4-5, with conference losses to the Colts, Jaguars, Bills, and Broncos. But this team majorly turned a corner at the midway point of the season. One of the biggest reasons? It looks like the quarterback change Mike Vrabel made from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill has paid off, as Tennessee is 6-1 with Tannehill as the starter under center.

Tannehill has been improving with each and every week, and he’s coming off his best performance of the season against the Raiders, throwing for 391 yards and three touchdowns with a passer rating of 140. Running back Derrick Henry has found his stride in recent weeks, too. In the last four games, he’s averaging 150 yards, and he’s scored seven touchdowns.

Look, everybody loves an underdog, and the Titans coming out of pretty much nowhere during the backend of the season to make the playoffs would be a lot of fun. The only tricky part for the Titans is their remaining schedule, featuring two games against the Texans with one against the 10-3 Saints in between. If Tennessee can pull out two out of those three, it has about a 78 percent chance to make the playoffs as a wild card, per the New York Times. It’s a tall order for sure, but I think it’d be pretty cool to see them make it in. — Morgan Moriarty

Indianapolis Colts

It’s hard not to root for a team that has had such a string of bad ... don’t say it don’t say it don’t say it ... luck. (Sigh, there’s really no avoiding that pun here.)

Big things were expected out of the Colts in 2019 after their late-season surge got them all the way to the Divisional Round last year. Then Andrew Luck unexpectedly retired in August, leaving the team’s uncertain future in the hands of Jacoby Brissett.

The Colts silenced the doubters early in the season when they jumped out to a 5-2 start. Then it all came crashing down. Indianapolis has now dropped five of its last six games.

It all started when Brissett went down with a knee injury and sat out for a game and half, both of which were losses. Since his return, he hasn’t been the same player who threw for nearly 1,600 yards in the first seven games. Injuries to other key players — including Brissett’s top two targets, T.Y. Hilton and tight end Eric Ebron — have hamstrung the offense as well. Recently, kicker Adam Vinatieri, in the midst of the worst season in his GOAT career, was shut down for the season as well. That brought the number of Colts on injured reserve, fittingly, to unlucky 13.

Their current skid doesn’t show their resiliency, however. It takes a strong, confident locker room to not bat an eye when your franchise quarterback retires before he hits 30. Yet that’s what the Colts did. They got straight to work, at least until the injuries started taking their toll.

Not that everyone’s letting that stop them:

It’ll take a lot to get the Colts to the playoffs. Not only do they have to win out (at Saints, vs. Panthers, at Jaguars), but they also need a lot of help. Their best bet is probably for the Titans and Texans to each go 1-2 and split their season series, leaving all three teams tied at 9-7 atop the AFC South. In that case, the Colts, with the better divisional record, would win the tiebreaker.

So yeah, it’s a long shot — like a 2 percent long shot. Then again, not many thought the 1-5 Colts would get to the postseason in 2018, and that’s exactly what they did. — Sarah Hardy