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NFL Bubble: The cases for and against nine teams’ playoff chances

The NFL playoffs are three weeks away, and only four teams — the Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders — have secured their spots in the 12-team field.

According to the Football Power Index, the Kansas City Chiefs (10-4), New York Giants (10-4), Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) and Atlanta Falcons (9-5) have at least a 95 percent chance of making the postseason.

That leaves the rest of the field on the bubble with just two regular-season games remaining.

Who will get in, and whose bubble will burst? Our NFL Nation reporters make the case for — and against — each team. Each team's current record and playoff chances based on FPI are also included.


Tennessee Titans (8-6, 53.8 percent)

Why they will make the playoffs: The schedule is soft. The Titans just beat Denver and Kansas City back to back. The Jaguars on the road and Texans at home are not nearly as tough of assignments. The Titans went to Arrowhead Stadium, turned the ball over three times, missed a two-point conversion and still escaped with a win. They’ve become a resilient team that should find ways to win its final two games.

Why they won’t make the playoffs: They’ve been resilient and found ways to get into great position. But the Titans have a 1-3 record in the AFC South, and the win was over the Jaguars in October. Now the Titans head to Jacksonville on Christmas Eve to face a team with which they’ve split the season series for seven consecutive years. They finish against Houston, a team that already beat them.

— Paul Kuharsky

Houston Texans (8-6, 56.8 percent)

Why they will make the playoffs: Recently promoted quarterback Tom Savage will add a passing threat to the offense that already has an efficient running game, led by Lamar Miller. Meanwhile, the defensive unit is ranked first in yards allowed per game, allowing just 306.5. Although the Texans struggled to win games on the road, they have improved away from NRG Stadium later in the season, with wins over divisional opponents Indianapolis and Jacksonville.

Why they won’t make the playoffs: The Texans’ road struggles could doom them in a crucial Week 17 showdown with the Titans to decide the AFC South. Although they have two wins away from NRG Stadium this season, the Texans will have to win the big one behind Savage, which might be a lot to ask.

— Sarah Barshop

Miami Dolphins (9-5, 44.9 percent)

Why they will make the playoffs: The Dolphins, unlike most teams on this list, don't need outside assistance. They control their path with the simplest formula: Win, and they're in. Miami is 8-1 in its past nine games and in good position to finish strong. The Dolphins beat the Bills in October by pounding the ball with tailback Jay Ajayi, who had 214 rushing yards, and they shouldn't stray far from that formula in Saturday’s rematch.

Why they won't make the playoffs: Injuries eventually could catch up to the Dolphins. The Dolphins played without Pro Bowlers Reshad Jones (shoulder) and Mike Pouncey (hip) most of the year and currently are without starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill (knee), who will likely sit the rest of the regular season. It takes only one week for overcoming these injuries to become too much, and if Miami loses once, it will be in trouble with tiebreakers. Splitting the final two games is risky, and losing the final two would essentially guarantee the Dolphins miss the playoffs for the eighth straight season.

— James Walker

Baltimore Ravens (8-6, 27.4 percent)

Why they will make the playoffs: Their defense is stingy and opportunistic. The only reason Baltimore is in the playoff hunt is its ability to keep teams out of the end zone and take the ball away. The Ravens are third in the NFL with 26 turnovers, with safety Eric Weddle roaming the secondary and linebacker Terrell Suggs putting pressure on quarterbacks. But here is the defining stat: Baltimore is 6-1 this season when holding teams to fewer than 20 points. The Ravens’ last two opponents in the regular season — Pittsburgh and Cincinnati — were each held to 14 points by Baltimore in this season’s previous meetings.

Why they won’t make the playoffs: Joe Flacco and the schedule. Baltimore finishes the season with two road games at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. That spells trouble. The Ravens have beaten only two teams on the road this season, and those teams (Cleveland and Jacksonville) have a combined record of 2-26. Flacco has been awful away from home. In six road games, he has thrown five touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 75.7 passer rating, which is fifth-worst in the NFL. How bad has it been? The Ravens are the only team to lose at the Jets this season.

— Jamison Hensley

Denver Broncos (8-6, 25.5 percent)

Why they will make the playoffs: Start on defense, where the Broncos have taken on many of the best the league has to offer at quarterback this season yet still sport the league’s No. 1 pass defense. They have faced Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers (twice), Derek Carr, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, and they frustrated all of them in some fashion. They have a potential Defensive Player of the Year in Von Miller, and their depth in the secondary gives them the ability to match up with any offense effectively in a one-and-done situation, like they’re in right now.

Why they won’t make the playoffs: The biggest shame of what has happened to the Broncos' offense this year is that quarterback Trevor Siemian went from the guy most people thought was the biggest question mark in the group to the guy who is doing everything he can to get the team into the postseason. Siemian has averaged 300 passing yards per game his past six starts and has had one of the best first-year performances the team has seen. But the Broncos have been unproductive almost all season on the offensive line, so they can’t run the ball when they need to or protect Siemian better when they want to. He takes too much punishment because of it, they don’t convert third downs, and in the red zone, they kick too many field goals.

— Jeff Legwold


Detroit Lions (9-5, 75.2 percent)

Why they will make the playoffs: There are three reasons, really. The first is Detroit’s improved defense. Coordinator Teryl Austin has again put together a strong unit that is good against the run and improved against the pass as the season has gone on. The second is Matthew Stafford, Matt Prater and the team’s belief in their clutch abilities in the fourth quarter. The Lions consistently believe that as long as they are within a possession of an opponent in the fourth quarter, they can win, with evidence from eight come-from-behind wins this season. The last thing to consider is that the game that will ultimately decide their playoff fate — Jan. 1 against Green Bay — is at home and will be as close to a playoff atmosphere as Detroit has had since the turn of the century. After all, Detroit hasn’t won a division and played host to a playoff game since the 1993 season.

Why they won't make the playoffs: The Lions have their three hardest games of the season in the final three weeks, starting with Sunday’s 17-6 loss to New York and continuing with Monday’s game at Dallas and the season finale against the Packers. Detroit’s run game has been nonexistent, and that has put a lot of pressure on Stafford, who is playing with a hurt right middle finger. Plus, the Lions have beaten only one team that has a winning record this season — Washington — so it isn't clear how Detroit will handle three straight games against opponents equal to or better than the Lions' roster.

— Michael Rothstein

Green Bay Packers (8-6, 67.8 percent)

Why they will make the playoffs: The Packers have a wicked combination working in their favor right now: Aaron Rodgers, despite his nagging calf injury, has been razor sharp, and he isn't relying on just one receiver. One game, it might be Davante Adams. The next, it might be Jordy Nelson or even tight end Jared Cook. That makes them tough to defend. Then there’s the newfound semblance of a running game with converted receiver Ty Montgomery, who appears able to handle whatever workload coach Mike McCarthy gives him. Don’t discount the importance of momentum late in the season. A four-game win streak has changed attitudes in Green Bay.

Why they won’t make the playoffs: Last Sunday’s game against the Bears should be worrisome because of what happened in the fourth quarter. The defense had another one of its troubling collapses, blowing a 17-point lead. That’s been the bugaboo for this team the past couple years. If they don’t get takeaways, they have trouble getting off the field. If they need a defensive stand to win, say, the regular-season finale at Detroit to get into the playoffs, that seems like a shaky proposition.

— Rob Demovsky

Washington Redskins (7-6-1, 23.9 percent)

Why they will make the playoffs: The Redskins still have a lot of talent in the passing game and have shown they can get hot against just about any team. The defense has played a bend-but-don’t-break style the past two weeks, which is an improvement. Chicago ranks 29th in points per game; the Giants rank 24th. As such, the hope is that the Redskins' defense can at least keep the scoring down. They’re still bad; they just need a lot more help from an offense that has provided it in the past. But really, what will help here is that Chicago is 3-11 and the Giants might be able to rest their starters in the finale.

Why they won't make the playoffs: Their defense is bad and incapable of making big plays that can help change games. Plus, they’re facing two excellent defenses to close the season — both the Bears (10th) and Giants (seventh) rank in the top 10 in yards per play allowed — which means the offense won’t be able to do as much as in other games (especially if Jordan Reed is limited or can’t play).

— John Keim

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6, 33.8 percent)

Why they will make the playoffs: The Bucs will make the playoffs if their defense can continue forcing turnovers to help an offense that has struggled to put points on the board the past five weeks. Against the Bucs’ next two opponents, the Saints and Panthers, whom they’ve already faced this year, the defense forced seven turnovers. Since Week 5, the Bucs are 7-0 when forcing two or more turnovers in a game and limiting the opposition to 21 points or fewer.

Why they won't make the playoffs: The Bucs won’t make the playoffs if quarterback Jameis Winston isn’t given ample protection to make downfield throws. They also won’t make the playoffs if the ground game can’t get going to set up the offense’s play-action. They were limited to 52 rushing yards against the Cowboys last week, a season-low. It doesn’t help if Mike Evans can’t get open. He has been kept out of the end zone for three weeks — his longest stretch of the season — yet he’s responsible for 40 percent of Winston’s scoring output this year.

— Jenna Laine


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