It's Week 13, and the playoff picture remains as muddled as ever.
The playoff picture
How would your team's prospects look if the season ended today? See where each team stands in the playoff picture midway through the season. **More ...**
No, seriously: 24 teams are either in or within one game of a postseason slot, the highest number at this point in a season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. And nothing is more chaotic than the race for the second AFC wild-card berth. Right now, the Titans hold that spot through tiebreakers, but five other teams own the same 5-6 record as Tennessee. How will this six-team derby play out over the next five weeks?
Through decades in this game, I've come to understand which statistical measurements are the best indicators of future success. I won't bore you by listing every stat that I take into serious consideration, but I will say two really stand out: passer rating and turnover differential. Of course, in an exercise like this, remaining schedules also must be taken into account, not to mention good old-fashioned gut instincts on the coaching staffs and personnel involved.
With all of that in play, I'll rank these six playoff hopefuls, from most likely to least likely to make it:
1) San Diego Chargers
San Diego has one obvious -- and crucial -- advantage: four home games over the remaining five weeks. No other team on this list has that luxury.
Another advantage for the Chargers: Philip Rivers easily has the highest passer rating of any quarterback in this group. In fact, Rivers' 106.6 rating ranks fifth in the NFL. The 10th-year pro is enjoying a resurgent season in San Diego, with 22 touchdown passes to just eight interceptions. In Sunday's thrilling upset of the Kansas City Chiefs, Rivers eclipsed 390 passing yards for the fourth time this season -- a feat accomplished just twice before in NFL history, by Hall of Famers Dan Marino and Joe Montana.
First-year head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have received plenty of credit for Rivers' renaissance -- and rightfully so -- but two key personnel additions also have been integral factors. Danny Woodhead is turning out to be one of the year's best free-agent signings. The pint-size playmaker is a matchup nightmare in the passing game, as he leads NFL running backs in receptions (59) and receiving touchdowns (five). And third-round draft pick Keenan Allen has been a revelation in his first NFL season, establishing himself as Rivers' No. 1 receiver and a bona fide Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
The question with San Diego is its defense, which ranks 29th in the league. But take another glance at that remaining schedule: Outside of Denver, it's not exactly a murderer's row of offenses.
2) Baltimore Ravens
While San Diego's offensive firepower outweighs its defensive ineptitude, it's the other way around for Baltimore. The Ravens' defense has emerged as a force over the course of the season, now ranking seventh in scoring defense (19.5 points per game).
That's due in no small part to Terrell Suggs. The outside linebacker just wasn't himself last season after hurrying back from an offseason Achilles injury. But this year, despite his production dipping a bit in recent weeks, Suggs looks like the disruptive force who won the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year award. Additionally, veteran inside linebacker Daryl Smith has proven to be a free-agent steal, and cornerback Jimmy Smith is beginning to live up to his first-round draft status in his third NFL season.
After signing a $120.6 million contract in the offseason, Joe Flacco has received much of the blame for the offense's disappointing production. And the numbers don't lie: Flacco ranks 29th in passer rating (76.8) and has thrown four more interceptions through 11 games than he did all of last season -- playoffs included. That said, Flacco has dearly missed three key figures from last season: center Matt Birk (retired), receiver Anquan Boldin (traded to San Francisco) and tight end Dennis Pitta (out since the preseason with a hip injury, though he returned to practice last week). And it certainly doesn't help that Ray Rice's yards-per-carry average has plummeted to a career-low 2.9 this season. Flacco (and inherently, this offense) cannot be completely discounted, though -- not after the run we witnessed last postseason.
Baltimore also has some favorable schedule quirks of its own. On Thanksgiving night, the Ravens host the next team on this list, Pittsburgh, in the latest installment of a fierce AFC North rivalry. And I'm giving the edge to Baltimore, the home team in a short week of preparation. Another game to focus on is the regular-season finale in Cincinnati. If the Bengals have clinched a playoff spot by that time and aren't in play for a potential bye, Marvin Lewis could end up resting his starters.
3) Pittsburgh Steelers
From 0-4 ... to playoff contenders? Bucky Brooks explains how Big Ben and Co. have found new life this season. **READ**
This is the time of the season when inclement weather comes into play. It's certainly something to keep in mind when you look at Pittsburgh's remaining slate, with every game outdoors in cold-weather environments. Fortunately for the Steelers, they have a quarterback who can spin it in any climate. Ben Roethlisberger is a wind cheater, thanks to his big hands and big arm. He also boasts the second-best passer rating among quarterbacks in this group at 92.2.
The Steelers' offense struggled to produce early in the season, leading to constant questions about Roethlisberger's relationship with second-year coordinator Todd Haley. But the unit has picked it up of late, with Pittsburgh scoring at least 23 points in four consecutive games.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown has been rock steady all season long, despite general offensive fluctuation, and that's a testament to Pittsburgh's front office. The Steelers signed Brown to a reasonable extension before last season, then let fellow wideout Mike Wallace walk in free agency last offseason. Brown now leads the league in receptions (80) and ranks second in receiving yards (1,044), while Wallace has been a bust in Miami.
Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell is another positive development on offense. Sure, he hasn't quite set the world on fire in Year 1, but the 244-pounder improves each week and provides the Steelers with the versatile three-down back they so desire.
Dick LeBeau's aging defense remains suspect, but at least it's beginning to generate turnovers, with eight takeaways during Pittsburgh's current three-game winning streak.
The Steelers have overcome an 0-4 start by winning five of seven games, but they have to keep it rolling. One remaining game to circle is the Week 16 visit to Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers should be back in action for that contest, and both teams could have plenty on the line.
4) Miami Dolphins
Ryan Tannehill has a tough row to hoe down the stretch of his second NFL season. No team does a worse job of protecting its quarterback than Miami, as evidenced by its league-high 44 sacks allowed. The Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito saga clearly hasn't helped matters, depleting the Dolphins of two starters along the offensive line. And center Mike Pouncey's recent gallbladder issue has taken another key piece off the field.
Furthermore, Tannehill doesn't get any relief from the ground game. The Dolphins average just 85.4 rushing yards per game (26th in the NFL), and now they must proceed without second-leading rusher Daniel Thomas, who suffered a torn ankle ligament in Sunday's loss to the Carolina Panthers. This inability to run the football looms large over the next five weeks, as Miami faces three road games in cold-weather cities. While Tannehill does have the arm strength to cut through wind, he'd definitely be better off with a strong ground attack flanking him in potentially inclement weather.
Miami's attack seems to sputter when it's needed most -- the Dolphins haven't scored a fourth-quarter touchdown on offense since Week 4. Meanwhile, the defense ranks a respectable 10th in points allowed. Second-year coordinator Kevin Coyle is a sharp defensive mind. One notable aspect about the team as a whole: It owns the second-best turnover differential (completely flat at 0) among these clubs. On the other hand, Miami has the second-worst scoring differential at minus-16.
The Dolphins do have a secret weapon on special teams, though. Brandon Fields is one of the best punters I've ever seen.
5) Tennessee Titans
As mentioned above, the Titans currently own the No. 6 seed through tiebreakers, but their stay in the catbird seat could be short-lived. Just look at Tennessee's next three games: at Indianapolis, at Denver and home versus red-hot Arizona. Not an enviable slate, to say the least.
With Jake Locker on the shelf for the season, the Titans have turned to veteran signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick. The 31-year-old never has possessed a cannon arm, but he makes up for it with mental quickness (no surprise for a Harvard grad). Fitzpatrick has performed spectacularly over the past three weeks, posting in-game passer ratings of 111.2, 111.6 and 109.2. But this guy always has been prone to streakiness. Just ask the Buffalo Bills, who regrettably gave the quarterback an exorbitant contract extension in the midst of a prior hot run ... before cutting him a year and a half later. I'm just not sure Fitzpatrick can withstand the test of time.
Tennessee is stout on D, ranking 10th in scoring defense and 11th in total defense. Cornerback Alterraun Verner might be the most underrated defensive player in the NFL today. While the fourth-year pro isn't blessed with the size or physical gifts of a Patrick Peterson, he has natural playmaking ability reminiscent of former Cowboys great Everson Walls. In a contract year, Verner grades out as one of the NFL's most effective corners and is tied for the league lead with five interceptions. With 19 total takeaways (against 14 giveaways), the Titans are the only team on this list with a positive turnover differential.
6) New York Jets
Just glancing at the Jets' remaining schedule, which looks very appetizing, it's hard to fathom how they fall to the bottom of this list. But Gang Green is staggeringly bad in two critical areas: point differential (minus-101) and turnover differential (minus-16). Those are damning numbers -- easily the worst among this group of teams.
The bulk of the blame falls on the atrocious offense, as the Jets rank 31st in the NFL in scoring (16.9 points per game). While I do believe rookie quarterback Geno Smith has flashed enough potential at times to remain in the franchise's future plans, he clearly isn't cutting it right now. Smith easily owns the lowest passer rating among qualified quarterbacks (62.1), has thrown the most interceptions in the NFL (18) and hasn't reached 160 passing yards in any of the last four games. Who do the Jets have in the QB bullpen? Matt Simms, who went undrafted in 2012 and has yet to make an NFL start. This is not a recipe for a successful playoff push.
So, where does this leave embattled coach Rex Ryan? Personally, I believe Ryan is a very good football coach. But unfortunately, in today's "what have you done for me lately?" league, a lot of good football coaches get fired. The reality of this situation, as I see it, is that the Jets' remaining five games will decide Ryan's fate.