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Chiefs, Seahawks contenders; Steelers, Falcons pretenders

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Welcome to the time of year when things really become interesting in the NFL. The next four weeks will bring clarity to the currently muddled playoff picture. As usual, there are plenty of teams hoping they can do enough to keep playing well into January.

Every game, all season

Since there are so many squads still vying for postseason spots, it's worth handicapping the field at this stage. In doing so, it's also wise to operate under a designated set of rules. So this space will be devoted to teams that: 1) have a record of at least .500 or better; 2) are within one at least one game of claiming a wild-card spot; and 3) aren't alone in first place in their division. Those factors alone allow for this project to be confined to 11 teams.

There are other benefits, as well. That criteria means we can avoid dissecting the chaos that is the NFC East. It also allows for certain assumptions to be made: for example, that the postseason field will include Carolina, Arizona, New England, Denver and Cincinnati (all of whom already have won 10 games). Those factors further alleviate the need to evaluate the possibilities of all those teams hovering around the 5-7 mark. Nobody needs to waste time working out the probability of miracles happening.

Besides, there are plenty of candidates worth discussing. So here are the best guesses at who are the real contenders left in the postseason race and which teams are going to be best remembered as pretenders:

AFC


Indianapolis Colts (6-6, tied for first in AFC South): There is something weird about betting on a team that is: 1) playing without starting quarterback Andrew Luck; 2) relying on a banged-up 40-year-old backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck; and 3) just coming off a 45-10 nationally televised butt-whipping by the Pittsburgh Steelers. But that is exactly where things stand with Indianapolis. This team has a solid chance of winning its third consecutive AFC South title because the schedule works in its favor. The Colts have won 15 straight games against divisional opponents, and they'll face the Jaguars, Texans and Titans in three of their final four contests. The other opponent: a fading Miami squad that now stands at 5-7. The question becomes whether the Colts can overcome their quarterback problems and win enough games until Luck is cleared to play again. Hasselbeck was bullied and beaten down in that Steelers loss, and that means Indianapolis might have to turn to third-string quarterback Charlie Whitehurst for help. That's a discouraging proposition. But think about this: Nobody expected Hasselbeck to lead this team to four straight wins when he took over for Luck. The Colts' entire season comes down to a home game with Houston in two weeks. FINAL VERDICT: CONTENDER

Houston Texans (6-6, tied for first in AFC South): The bad news is the Texans lost a huge game at Buffalo last Sunday, one that could have a major impact on their playoff hopes. The good news -- sort of -- is that they still control their own destiny. If Houston can beat New England at home this week and the Colts on the road in Week 15, they'll be in an ideal position (especially since they finish the season with Tennessee and Jacksonville). The question is whether the Texans have enough magic left in them to make that happen. This team fought back from a 2-5 start but couldn't make the requisite plays to beat the Bills. What was especially discouraging in that contest was the play of Houston's defense. A unit that had given up 35 total points in its previous four games surrendered 30 to Buffalo. That kind of setback can't happen again this season. Houston doesn't have enough talent left on offense to overcome such challenges, and the AFC South isn't putting two teams in the playoffs. Oh yeah, there's this kicker: The Patriots -- who are coming off back-to-back losses -- haven't lost three straight games since 2002. FINAL VERDICT: PRETENDER

Kansas City Chiefs (7-5, second in AFC West): Kansas City has won six straight games, and the Chiefs' prospects only look better in the final four weeks of the season. Their opponents during that stretch -- San Diego, Baltimore, Cleveland and Oakland -- have a combined record of 14-34, and Kansas City has already beaten the Chargers and Raiders on the road. This isn't just about schedules, though. The Chiefs have rebounded from a 1-5 start because they've squeezed every last bit of talent out of their roster since losing Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles to a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. Quarterback Alex Smith hasn't thrown an interception in 305 attempts. Unknown running backs like Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West have kept the ground game viable. A defense that surrendered three 30-point efforts in the first four games has become suffocating. This is no longer a team hoping to make the playoffs. It's one that is now capable of doing some damage once it gets in. FINAL VERDICT: CONTENDER

New York Jets (7-5, second in AFC East): The Jets control their own destiny, which is the best thing one can say about their playoff hopes. If they win three of their remaining games -- which include matchups with Tennessee, Dallas, New England and Buffalo -- they will have no problem making the postseason. If they only win two, it will be a different story. New England and Buffalo both have already beaten the Jets, and each should have plenty to play for at the end of the season. However, the Jets are riding the emotions that came out of their 23-20 overtime win over the Giants last Sunday. There's also something hard to define about this team that makes it worth believing in at this time of year. Maybe it's the toughness quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick displayed in playing through a thumb injury on his left hand. It could be the collective balance in this bunch, as the Jets rank in the top 10 in both total offense and defense. Whatever it is, it just feels like the Jets have fought hard enough to catch some breaks down the stretch. FINAL VERDICT: CONTENDER

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5, second in AFC North): Of all the teams trying to make the playoffs in the AFC, none have a harder road to travel than Pittsburgh. The Steelers have to play at Cincinnati on Sunday before hosting Denver the following week. Granted, they should beat Baltimore and Cleveland after that, but this already is a team that could be on the outside looking in. If the playoffs started today, the Steelers wouldn't qualify because their conference record is currently worse than those of the Chiefs and Jets. Of course, Pittsburgh does possess enough offense to make things interesting. Even with Pro Bowl running back Le'Veon Bell out for the season, this unit still ranks second in the league in total yards (409.1) and sixth in points per game (25.9). The defense, however, is a different story. The Steelers are 29th in the league in passing yards allowed, and that's no place to be, with so many stud receivers -- including A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders -- on the horizon. The hard truth: It's tough to see the Steelers coming out of these next two weeks in good shape. FINAL VERDICT: PRETENDER

Buffalo Bills (6-6, third in AFC East): The Bills proved there's still a reason to believe in them during last Sunday's 30-21 win over Houston. They rode the three-headed monster that is quarterback Tyrod Taylor (four total touchdowns), LeSean McCoy (112 rushing yards) and Sammy Watkins (109 receiving yards) to a victory that was critical to keeping their playoff dreams alive. Buffalo also isn't facing another opponent that isn't beatable the rest of the year, with the Eagles, Redskins, Cowboys and Jets left on their schedule (New York is the only team in that group with a winning record). The Bills would look even more encouraging if their once-vaunted defense was playing at a higher level. The same unit that ranked fourth in the NFL in scoring defense a year ago now ranks 18th. The Bills also have been hurt by the season-ending knee injury sustained by star defensive tackle Kyle Williams, while cornerback Stephon Gilmore sustained a shoulder injury against Houston. Given that Buffalo is sitting one game behind the Chiefs, Jets and Steelers, that may be too much ground to make up for a banged-up team. FINAL VERDICT: PRETENDER

NFC


Green Bay Packers (8-4, tied for first in NFC North): It would be easy to say the Packers completely turned around their entire season with a 27-23 win over Detroit that ended on a Hail Mary touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Richard Rodgers. It also would be very wrong. As exciting as that victory was, it revealed the same issues that led to this team losing four of its previous five games. It's easy to forget now that Green Bay trailed 20-0 at one point, and that the final play was set up by a bogus facemask penalty. This team is still struggling with its passing game and ability to score points. However, the Pack did win, and they are well-positioned to capture either the division or a wild-card spot. The two biggest hurdles on their schedule will be the final two games: a road trip to Arizona and the regular-season finale at home against Minnesota. Given that Green Bay needed a miracle to beat Detroit last week, it's hard to see the Packers beating the Cardinals. The Minnesota game is a different story. The Packers beat the Vikings, 30-13, in Minnesota already, and they should have a far more pronounced advantage in Lambeau Field. FINAL VERDICT: CONTENDER

TNF Challenge

Minnesota Vikings (8-4, tied for first in NFC North): It's difficult to make sense of the Vikings these days. When they were 7-2, they were one of the league's top feel-good stories, a plucky squad that ran the ball well, played strong defense and displayed enough grit to earn hard-fought victories. But there's been a different story in Minnesota over the last three weeks. Green Bay routed the Vikings, 30-13. The Seahawks blasted them, 38-7. If not for a 20-10 win over Atlanta -- and everybody seems to be beating the Falcons these days -- Minnesota might be in full-scale panic mode. This is a team that still has to play at Arizona this week and at Green Bay in the regular-season finale. Even if the Vikings win their final two games, there's a good chance they lose to both the Cardinals and the Packers. Nobody wants to minimize a potential 10-win season, but it's apparent that Minnesota might be limping its way into the postseason. FINAL VERDICT: CONTENDER

Seattle Seahawks (7-5, second in NFC West): Does anybody else think Seattle is becoming more dangerous with each passing week? The Seahawks have won five of their last six games, with their offense displaying impressive big-play ability. Seattle has scored at least 29 points in each of its last four games. Over the last three contests, undrafted running back Thomas Rawls has averaged 130.3 yards, while quarterback Russell Wilson has completed 76.7 percent of his passes (with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions). It's scary enough to deal with Seattle's defense. Throw in an offense that is thriving without Marshawn Lynch (who's recovering from a sports hernia operation) and tight end Jimmy Graham (who's on injured reserve), and the Seahawks look like they have another Super Bowl run left in them. They won't catch Arizona for the NFC West title, but they're good enough to beat any team come January. FINAL VERDICT: CONTENDER

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6, tied for second in NFC South): There's a lot to like about the Bucs right now. After starting the season 1-3, they've won three of their last four. Rookie quarterback Jameis Winston has become more confident with each passing week, and a young team is starting to believe in its potential. The next three games on the schedule are also quite winnable: the Saints at home, the Rams on the road and back home again for the Bears. The Bucs currently are good enough to finish with nine wins. Their problem is that it will take 10 victories to vault them into this year's postseason dance. Tampa Bay is already two games behind whoever doesn't win the NFC North (either Green Bay or Minnesota), and they're one game behind a Seattle team that has plenty of momentum. The good news here is that Tampa Bay is growing up faster than most thought after finishing with the league's worst record in 2014. The bad news is that there's too much ground for them to make up in this race. FINAL VERDICT: PRETENDER

Atlanta Falcons (6-6, tied for second in NFC South): No team in the NFL has been imploding faster than Atlanta. They started the season with five straight wins. They've gone 1-6 since, with all the good vibes associated with the start of the Dan Quinn era evaporating in the process. So where to start with this bunch? If the Falcons aren't being plagued by quarterback Matt Ryan tossing back-breaking interceptions at the worst possible time, then they are being disappointed by a defense that seems to miss too many tackles in critical moments. Too often, the Falcons have dealt with both those problems -- as well as others -- in the same game. If all that weren't bad enough, a 23-19 loss to Tampa Bay put Atlanta into a hole that is likely too deep to escape in the coming weeks. The Falcons also will see the undefeated Panthers twice in the next three weeks. That's not how you want to start a turnaround. FINAL VERDICT: PRETENDER

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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