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2017 NFL division leaders: Steelers a lock, Rams no sure thing

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This has been a topsy-turvy NFL campaign, but with a solid half-season of action in the books, we have a clearer idea of the playoff picture taking shape. Some divisional races appear to have crystallized to the point that we can more or less call them now, while others remain decidedly in flux.

Below, I've ranked all eight division leaders (per NFL.com's standings) according to the likelihood that they will still be in first place when the 2017 regular season comes to an end, naming the top challengers to the most vulnerable front-runners:

LOCK 'EM IN TODAY

1) Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2 in the AFC North)

There is not a bona fide challenger to the Steelers' supremacy in this division, with the Ravens (4-5), Bengals (3-5) and Browns (0-8) all floundering. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is one of just two teams to rank in the top 10 in both offense (No. 10) and defense (No. 5), joining the Jaguars (who rank ninth in offense and third in defense). The Steelers' schedule also lines up very much in their favor, with all their remaining road games (at Colts, at Bengals, at Texans) coming against teams with losing records, while they should be the favorites in all five of their remaining home games (vs. Titans, vs. Packers, vs. Ravens, vs. Patriots, vs. Browns). Yes, I like Pittsburgh to win its pivotal Week 15 matchup with New England, which I also expect to decide home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.

2) Philadelphia Eagles (8-1 in the NFC East)

Since the 12-team playoff format was first implemented in 1990, 100 percent (35 of 35) of the teams to start 8-1 have reached the postseason. The Eagles are in the top 11 in both offense (No. 5) and defense (No. 11), and they've outscored their opponents by 104 points thus far this season, the second-highest mark in the NFL. Carson Wentz is having an MVP-caliber campaign, with 23 touchdowns, a 104.1 passer rating and an impressive yards-per-attempt mark of 7.8. General manager Howie Roseman has done a great job adding talent, such as receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, rookie kicker Jake Elliott and recent trade acquisition Jay Ajayi. Some challenging road matchups loom, including games at the Seahawks, Rams and Cowboys. And there's the question of how much losing tackle Jason Peters to ACL and MCL tears will hurt the offense. But the Eagles have a 2.5-game lead over the second-place Cowboys and have already beaten Washington twice and should at least split their two games with Dallas, the NFC East is theirs for the taking.

3) New England Patriots (6-2 in the AFC East)

The Patriots have won the AFC East in 14 of the past 16 seasons. With Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at the helm, they seem to be as automatic a lock as you can find. So why are they third? Looking at this season only, the Patriots do face obstacles that could be slightly tougher to overcome than those in front of the Steelers and Eagles. Yes, it would be a shock if anyone else won the division, but the Bills (5-3) and Jets (4-5) are better than expected. New England has the unenviable task of playing three road games in a row (at Bills in Week 13, at Dolphins on "Monday Night Football" in Week 14 and at Steelers in Week 15, with the latter game coming after a short week). And then there's the upcoming two-game stretch of games in Denver and Mexico City (against the Raiders), although that does not look as tough as it once did. Finally, the second-place Bills get two more shots against them, although Brady is 26-3 against Buffalo in his career. Those factors make New England slightly more likely to finish out of first place than Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, if only by a hair.

WHERE'S THE COMPETITION?

4) Minnesota Vikings (6-2 in the NFC North)

The Vikings have a two-game lead over Detroit and basically face only the up-and-down Lions as a threat, as the Packers look lost without quarterback Aaron Rodgers (broken collarbone) and the Bears are lacking on offense. Minnesota's fourth-ranked defense is very good, giving up just 16.9 points per game. The offense has been OK despite the absences of running back Dalvin Cook and quarterback Sam Bradford, with Case Keenum playing well in Bradford's place, completing 63.9 percent of his passes and notching seven scoring tosses (I don't see Teddy Bridgewater being more than a backup this season). The upcoming schedule includes a potentially problematic five-game stretch (at Redskins, vs. Rams, at Lions, at Falcons, at Panthers). But if the Vikings win at least two of those, they should be in good shape, given that they finish with games against the Packers and Bears. Minnesota is the most consistent team in the division, and that will be rewarded with a title.

5) Kansas City Chiefs (6-3 in the AFC West)

Back when the Chiefs were 5-0, it seemed like they would roll to home-field advantage in the playoffs. But they've lost three of their last four and look vulnerable, with the disappointing performances of the Raiders and Broncos (and the early-season struggles of the 3-5 Chargers) keeping Kansas City in this tier. Veteran QB Alex Smith is still playing very steady ball, but running back Kareem Hunt has slowed down -- the dynamic rookie has averaged just 48 rushing yards per game over his last four games after putting up 122 yards per contest in the first five games. The Chiefs' 29th-ranked defense is also giving up lots of yards -- I think they really miss safety Eric Berry (ruptured Achilles). The roster is strong, but the team is not playing well right now, which is why Kansas City is a notch below Minnesota.

OBSTACLES AHEAD

6) New Orleans Saints (6-2 in the NFC South)

After starting 0-2, the Saints won six straight and are now 6-2. Only two other teams have done that before in the Super Bowl era: the 1993 Dallas Cowboys and the 2007 New York Giants. Both went on to win the Super Bowl. New Orleans' defense has improved dramatically, ranking 15th overall and ninth in points allowed after finishing 27th and 31st in those categories last season. Two rookies are starting at defensive back -- Marcus Williams and Marshon Lattimore -- and both are playing well. The running game, meanwhile, has been much better; the Saints averaged 94 rushing yards in their first four games and 151.5 in their last four.

WATCH OUT FOR: the Carolina Panthers. Carolina, which already lost to the Saints at home, would need to win in New Orleans in Week 13 and get some help from Atlanta, which has two games against the Saints left. But the Panthers do have the No. 1 ranked defense, and that gives them a legitimate shot in this race.

7) Los Angeles Rams (6-2 in the NFC West)

The Rams are averaging 32.9 points per game this season, an increase of 18.9 over 2016's average -- that's the biggest increase from one year to the next by any NFL team since 1960. Interestingly, the next-biggest increase since 1960 was logged by the 1999 Rams, who made a jump of 15.1 points from 1998 -- and went on to win the Super Bowl. Jared Goff and Todd Gurley are soaring, with veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth -- who is four years older than head coach Sean McVay, for whatever that's worth -- proving to be a crucial addition. That said, how this team will perform down the stretch, with a tough remaining schedule that includes games against New Orleans and Philadelphia and road contests against Minnesota and Seattle, remains something of an unknown.

WATCH OUT FOR: the Seattle Seahawks. The Rams are currently ahead of Seattle by one game, but statistically, there is very little gap between the teams, as Los Angeles ranks third on offense and 16th on defense and the Seahawks rank fourth on offense and 13th on defense. Where I'd give an edge to the Seahawks is in experience; this Seattle team has a proven record of succeeding late in the year, with a 34-10 regular-season record in November, December and January since Russell Wilson became the starting QB in 2012. Los Angeles, meanwhile, is new to the scene of NFL contenders. Plus, Seattle has already beaten the Rams in Los Angeles. The Seahawks have a brutal schedule ahead of them, with just one sub-.500 opponent on the docket (San Francisco in Week 12), but the Rams have just two (Houston in Week 10 and San Francisco in Week 17). Of course, Seattle must take care of business in both remaining games against the Cardinals, beginning with this week's "Thursday Night Football" matchup in Arizona.

8) Tennessee Titans (5-3 in the AFC South)

The Titans are in first place by virtue of their Week 2 win over the Jaguars -- who are also 5-3 -- in Jacksonville. But they look extremely vulnerable, with a 17th-ranked defense, 20th-ranked offense, a point differential of minus-12 and a pedestrian takeaway differential of plus-1. Tennessee also has games against Pittsburgh and the Rams on its schedule.

WATCH OUT FOR: the Jacksonville Jaguars. In contrast to the Titans, the Jaguars rank in the top 10 on both offense and defense, while quarterback Blake Bortles has been playing well. The Jags also have the easiest remaining strength of schedule in the league, with their opponents posting a combined winning percentage of .348. It might come down to the regular-season finale, but even if it doesn't happen until the two teams' Week 17 showdown, I think Jacksonville will knock the Titans out of first place in the division. I do still see Tennessee as a wild-card team, however.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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