The NFL playoff picture is coming into focus, but it’s still fuzzy around the edges.
With one Sunday to go, seven of the eight divisions have been claimed, with only the NFC South up for grabs. But the wild-card berths are still wet cement, with four teams in each conference vying for those fifth and sixth seeds.
Here are the strengths and weaknesses of the 15 teams that have either locked down postseason spots, or are in the running to do so:
NFC West winner
They’re going all the way: The Rams deserve to win the triple crown: most valuable player (Todd Gurley), defensive player of the year (Aaron Donald), and coach of the year (Sean McVay). They’re 8-1 away from home, counting their London game, and second-year quarterback Jared Goff is showing the promise the Rams had hoped when they drafted him No. 1 overall.
They’re doomed: This is the league’s second-youngest team, and there’s next to no playoff experience on the roster. But the real issue is the kicker. Losing Greg Zuerlein, the NFL’s leading scorer, could be devastating, and Sam Ficken didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in his debut. The Rams could be the first team to go from No. 32 to No. 1 in scoring from one year to the next. Now that’s a ewe-turn.
NFC East winner
They’re going all the way: Even without Carson Wentz, the Eagles have plenty of talent. They have home-field advantage in a stadium where they haven’t lost all season. Their defense is coming off a game-saving performance against the Raiders and is No. 1 against the run — although that ranking has a lot to do with opponents falling behind and giving up on the ground game.
They’re doomed: The drop-off from Wentz to Nick Foles is drastic. Wentz is what made this team special. The Eagles have lost the leading MVP candidate, a nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle in Jason Peters, the explosive Darren Sproles, and a defensive centerpiece in Jordan Hicks. Hard for anyone to weather that.
NFC North winner
They’re going all the way: The Vikings are tremendous on defense — from Anthony Barr to Xavier Rhodes to Harrison Smith, these guys are smothering. There have been some hiccups lately — in two of the last three games, in fact — but quarterback Case Keenum is having a career year.
They’re doomed: The interior of the offensive line is damaged with guard Nick Easton out and center Pat Elflein hurting. With the way Keenum played against Carolina and Green Bay, it prompts the question: Has the clock struck midnight?
They’re going all the way: Look at all the inexperienced quarterbacks in the NFC picture — Foles, Goff, Keenum — and the Saints still have Drew Brees. The offensive line is intact from the start of the season. There’s a decent amount of postseason experience on this roster, and the Superdome is a hostile environment for visiting teams.
They’re doomed: Five defensive starters from the beginning of the season are out, and the Saints don’t have a lot of depth. The offense is ranked 22nd in third-down conversions when it’s typically at or near the top of the league. These Saints aren’t loaded with playmakers like New Orleans teams of the past.
They’re going all the way: The Panthers had six sacks against Minnesota and six more against Tampa Bay, forcing three fumbles by Jameis Winston. On offense, Cam Newton hasn’t played great, but he has protected the ball, with only two interceptions in the last seven games (one off a receiver’s hands). The Panthers have lots of playoff experience.
They’re doomed: Two speed receivers are done for the year, Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd, so the Panthers can’t stretch the field the way they had. Receiver Devin Funchess had a string of good games but has tailed off lately. The secondary is young and vulnerable.
They’re going all the way: Defensively, the Falcons are trending upward, especially with Vic Beasley returning to the pass-rushing role he had last year when he led the league in sacks. Matt Ryan is well off his MVP pace of a year ago, but he’s still a seasoned passer in a field of newbies.
They’re doomed: This is not Kyle Shanahan’s high-scoring offense, and the Falcons are still adjusting to coordinator Steve Sarkisian. The receivers haven’t been as sure-handed, with 24 drops. The team’s just not the powerhouse that got to the Super Bowl 11 months ago.
They’re going all the way: The Seahawks’ defense has gotten a bit healthier with the return of linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Although he hasn’t played well the past couple of weeks, quarterback Russell Wilson is still the elusive X-factor who can win games on his own.
They’re doomed: This just isn’t the same defense without Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril. The passing game has been terrible, and tight end Jimmy Graham has disappeared.
AFC West winner
They’re going all the way: The Chiefs are back to running the ball the way they did at the start of the season. Handing play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy is paying dividends. The defense is learning to play without All-Pro safety Eric Berry, giving up 15 or fewer points in each of the past three games. Under Andy Reid, the Chiefs have been a good road team.
They’re doomed: This team needs to capitalize in the red zone. The Chiefs are kicking way too many field goals — 12 in the past three games, not counting two misses. In the playoffs, you need to score touchdowns.
AFC East winner
They’re going all the way: Tom Brady has been OK with most of his receivers, but he and tight end Rob Gronkowski have been on fire lately. That combo will be tough to stop. The defense has been playing pretty well, surrendering only nine points to Buffalo last Sunday, with the other Bills touchdown coming on a pick-six. Nobody wants to face Brady and Bill Belichick at Gillette Stadium in January.
They’re doomed: This is a banged-up team, with lots of key players out, starting with Super Bowl standouts Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower. Brady has been intercepted in five consecutive games — his longest such streak since 2002 — and all six of those picks have come on third down.
AFC North winner
They’re going all the way: Even without Antonio Brown, the Steelers offense is hitting its stride. So many weapons — Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Brown (who should be back for the playoffs), JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, newcomer Vance McDonald, and a really good offensive line. The secondary is much better with cornerback Joe Haden back in the lineup, and the defense is second in sacks with 50.
They’re doomed: The Steelers have had trouble all year stopping the run and are in even worse shape now without linebacker Ryan Shazier. There has been a lot of bad tackling. Jacksonville could present big problems in that regard. Defensive consistency is a problem, a great play followed by a lousy one.
AFC South winner
They’re going all the way: “Sacksonville” leads the league with 52 sacks, and has already set a franchise record with 21 interceptions. When they’re playing well they get to the quarterback and create turnovers. Quarterback Blake Bortles is playing surprisingly well, especially with three receivers and a running back who weren’t in the NFL last year.
They’re doomed: The big men up front aren’t the great run blockers the stats might suggest. The Jaguars gained less than four yards per carry in four of their last six games, including a 44-33 loss to San Francisco last Sunday. Talented as they are on defense, the Jaguars have had youthful lapses and dumb penalties. They give up a lot of explosive plays. But the big question is still: Can Bortles get it done in the playoffs?
They’re going all the way: The Chargers have a terrific pass rush with Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa on the edges, and they’ll be far better against the run with Denzel Perryman returning. This team has the offensive weapons to get hot and make a playoff run — if it can get in.
They’re doomed: With Philip Rivers, Keenan Allen, Melvin Gordon and others, the Chargers should be putting up more points. Their inconsistent kicking game has been an issue all season.
They’re going all the way: Titans defenders got a lot of pressure on quarterbacks earlier this season but didn’t have a lot to show for it, statistically speaking. Now they’re hitting home with those blitzes and are tied for fifth in sacks with 41. Tight end Delanie Walker is having a good season, as is punter Brett Kern.
They’re doomed: The team has been inconsistent on offense and lousy on third down. Quarterback Marcus Mariota has had his moments, but he has 15 interceptions, the most in his three seasons. The Titans tend to fall behind early in games and are forced to abandon their running game, which was supposed to be their strength.
They’re going all the way: Although defense is their strength, the Ravens have figured out how to score points again. Since Week 8, they’ve averaged an AFC-best 29.75 points per game. Joe Flacco, who missed the entire preseason with a bad back, is starting to look healthier. In the last four games, he has seven touchdowns and one interception.
They’re doomed: The running game has been trending downward, with leading rusher Alex Collins averaging 1.6 and 2.8 yards per carry the last two games. The Ravens, short on offensive weapons, need to be able to run to hog the clock.
They’re going all the way: LeSean McCoy is among the best running backs in the league, and the Bills could have the NFL’s hottest safety tandem in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer (last seen taking a Brady pass back for a touchdown).
They’re doomed: Get up on the Bills early and it’s game over. In the last nine games, Buffalo has scored zero touchdowns in the third quarter, and the team doesn’t have any fourth-quarter points in the last five games.
(c)2017 Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.