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Saints, Steelers among playoff hopefuls set for second-half run

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The playoff clock is starting to tick.

Eight weeks in, the 2014 NFL campaign is taking shape -- and teams hoping to be in the mix to qualify for postseason play should be feeling a sense of urgency.

If the season ended today, a number of high-profile teams, including the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, would not be in the playoffs. As we cross the season's midpoint, I thought I'd look at 10 teams that are currently sitting just outside the playoff picture and figure out which squads have the most favorable second-half setups -- considering remaining schedules and players returning from injury and/or suspension, among other factors -- as that will go a long way in determining who can make a serious run at the promised land.

Here is my take on each team, ordered from best second-half setup to worst:

1) New Orleans Saints (3-4)

The Saints are below .500 for now, but I think they'll assume first place in the NFC South on Thursday, after they beat (and thus leapfrog) the 3-4-1 Carolina Panthers. They seem to be running the ball better than they have at any point this season. Young left tackle Terron Armstead, meanwhile, has really come on in both pass protection and run blocking. New Orleans likely will be the favorite in all five remaining home games and has a chance to take three of its last four on the road. I expect the Saints to win their division and make the playoffs.

2) Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)

The Steelers have many things working in their favor: They can run (the Le'Veon Bell-led ground attack is ranked ninth in the NFL), they have a good field-goal kicker in Shaun Suisham and, of course, they have a quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger who is having an outstanding year. Then there's the schedule. Pittsburgh will play four at home and four on the road -- and I think the Steelers have a chance to win at least three of those four away contests (at New York Jets, at Tennessee Titans, at Cincinnati Bengals and at Atlanta Falcons). I know they've been inconsistent this season, but they always seem to tighten up down the stretch; just think of last year, when they started 0-4 and came back to win six of their last eight before narrowly missing the playoffs.

3) Baltimore Ravens (5-3)

The Ravens were riding high until they stumbled in Cincinnati last week. Despite that setback, Baltimore should be able to control its own destiny, with late-season home matchups against the Jaguars and Browns providing a good opportunity to take care of business if necessary. Between their Joe Flacco-led offense and a stingy defense, the Ravens have been handily outscoring their opponents -- Baltimore's point differential (86) is the best in the league, even better than the Denver Broncos' mark.

4) Miami Dolphins (4-3)

The Dolphins are about where they were at this point last season (3-4 through Week 8). Of course, they ultimately fell short of the playoffs, thanks to a year-ending two-game skid in which they scored seven total points. I don't see Miami collapsing as easily this time around. Ryan Tannehill is ascending; with the exception of the first half against the Jags last week, he's played much better in the past four games (3-1 record, 68 percent completion rate, 8 yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio of 7:4) than he did in the first three. I'd expect Miami's offense to continue improving under first-year coordinator Bill Lazor. Dion Jordan's return from suspension, meanwhile, should help the pass rush. Looking at their schedule, I think the Dolphins have a shot at nine or 10 wins.

5) San Francisco 49ers (4-3)

I like the Niners to finish ahead of Seattle, though I think both squads are facing a very real danger of missing out on the playoffs. San Francisco has five games left in its new stadium, where it has played well. Plus, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are on their way back. The 49ers' fate might come down to a pair of home dates at the end of the season: vs. the Chargers in Week 16 and the Cardinals -- to whom they've already lost this year -- in Week 17.

6) Kansas City Chiefs (4-3)

Kansas City's got a huge feather in its cap heading into the second half: The Chiefs have already beaten a key division rival in the Chargers, and in San Diego, to boot. Their defense has been on a roll. No opponent this season has scored more than 26 points, and Kansas City has yielded just 15.6 points per game over the past five weeks. Also, Justin Houston's on a tear -- the fourth-year pro is on pace to challenge Michael Strahan's single-season sack record (22.5). Still, the Chiefs' home slate includes some imposing opponents in the Seahawks, Broncos and Bolts, and they have to go to Arizona and Pittsburgh.

7) Seattle Seahawks (4-3)

A daunting second-half schedule looms, including four road dates with very good teams: at Kansas City, at San Francisco, at Philly and at Arizona. Russell Wilson is a boon for Seattle's offense, but the Seahawks must revive the ground game that powered last season's championship run. They also have to get a pass rush going. I don't think they miss Percy Harvin, however, as they weren't really utilizing him before he was traded away.

8) Houston Texans (4-4)

The Texans can knock out the Browns and Jaguars on the road -- their ground-based attack, led by Arian Foster and Alfred Blue, makes them particularly well-equipped to compete in the cold weather that almost certainly awaits in Cleveland. And J.J. Watt, of course, just completely dominates everything. Still, they won't get anywhere if quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn't start making more plays downfield -- and I don't see that happening. Houston does have five home games left, though its opponents in three of those games -- the Eagles, Bengals and Ravens -- figure to be tough outs.

9) Cleveland Browns (4-3)

The Browns are having a better season than they did in 2013, but they're facing an uphill battle in the AFC North. Yes, they split with the Steelers, but they still have two games with the Bengals and close out the regular season in Baltimore. This division could wind up with three teams in the playoffs, leaving Cleveland as the odd team out. Still, Josh Gordon's return from suspension next month should help.

10) New York Giants (3-4)

New York would seem to be in a good position coming out of its Week 8 bye. Eli Manning has been surpassing almost everyone's expectations with his performance of late. If Rashad Jennings can get back on the field, the offense could get something going, especially with rookie receiver Odell Beckham coming on strong. But at least four of the Giants' five home games (against the Colts, 49ers, Cowboys and Eagles) will be a challenge -- and they have to visit Seattle in Week 10. I see them finishing with about eight wins, though they could reach 10 if things break the right way.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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