We've got four weeks left in the regular season and, once again, we're looking at something comparable to a photo finish for playoff spots. More than half the league remains legitimately alive in their hopes of playing in the postseason. Less than a handful of teams have proven to be truly dominant thus far. What does this all mean? Basically, that it's time to start predicting who is going to be around when the dust clears, an exercise otherwise known as separating the contenders from the pretenders.
Since there are so many squads vying for postseason spots, it's critical to operate under the same set of rules that helped focus this project last year. So this space will be devoted to teams that: 1) have a record of at least .500; 2) are within at least one game of claiming a playoff spot; and 3) aren't alone in first place in the division. Those factors alone mean that a mere 14 teams will be the focus of this analysis.
That criteria keeps us from wasting time talking about teams that already are locks for the playoffs (that would be Dallas and New England). It also means little attention will be paid to all those middling 5-7 squads that are hoping to turn their seasons around with a late run. There's already plenty to predict within the group that's assembled in this space. In fact, it's best to start figuring these squads out right now.
Let's take a look at each conference, with the teams in question presented in alphabetical order:
Baltimore Ravens (7-5, tied for first in AFC North): The Ravens would win the tiebreaker over the Steelers for divisional supremacy if the season ended today. That actually is the best news Baltimore might get over the next few weeks. The Ravens play three of their last four games on the road, including an upcoming Monday night game against New England in Foxborough and a Christmas Day trip to Pittsburgh. The Ravens have been as tough as any team in the league under head coach John Harbaugh. Still, it's hard to see them surviving that stretch without losing ground in the AFC North race. As usual, they're playing serious defense in that town, as the Ravensrank first in the NFL in total yard allowed (296.1 per game) and second in points yielded (17.2). The problem is an offense that has been inconsistent and unable to run the ball effectively. That will be Baltimore's undoing in the long run. FINAL VERDICT: PRETENDER.
Denver Broncos (8-4, third in AFC West): The Broncos are starting to realize they can't always rely on their defense to carry the day. In fact, even that unit has started to show its share of warts this season, particularly when it comes to stopping the run (Denver ranks 28th in the league in that department). The Broncos might be able to overcome that deficiency with more help on offense. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case. This is a team that has the 27th-best offense in the NFL and it's hard to see the numbers improving any time soon. Denver simply has too many issues along its offensive line and in its backfield. Now for the really bad news: The Broncos' final four games come against teams with a combined winning percentage of .729 (Tennessee, New England, Kansas City and Oakland). If Denver is good enough to win two of those, that should be enough to get them in. FINAL VERDICT: CONTENDER.
Houston Texans (6-6, tied for first in AFC South): This was supposed to be the year when we saw a different version of the Houston Texans. They spent big money on a quarterback (Brock Osweiler), signed a speedy running back (Lamar Miller) and added dynamic skill players on offense in an attempt to balance out a team that relied heavily on its defense the past two years. Well, J.J. Watt landed on injured reserve. It also doesn't help that Osweiler has failed to live up to expectations (14 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions this season) and this team seems to implode whenever it faces a quality opponent. The only reason to still like the Texans right now is the division they play in, the underwhelming AFC South. Last year, they were good enough to win the crown because they had more talent. That won't be the case this year, as they're riding a three-game losing streak that doesn't seem likely to end in Indianapolis this Sunday. FINAL VERDICT: PRETENDER.
Indianapolis Colts (6-6, tied for first in AFC South): The Colts picked the right time to get hot. They've won three of their last four games and they've got a critical home game this week against Houston. The winner of that contest takes control of the AFC South, which explains why the Colts sounded so confident after their 41-10 win over the Jets on Monday night. The major reason to like Indianapolis: Andrew Luck is playing like Andrew Luck again after an erratic, injury-plagued season in 2015. He's thrown 23 touchdown passes against eight interceptions this year and, like his teammates, he'll be eager to see Houston for a second time. Remember, the Colts blew a 14-point lead in losing to the Texans earlier this year. If they can avenge that loss, the road gets easier after that. They'll play road games at Minnesota and Oakland before facing Jacksonville at home in the season finale. FINAL VERDICT: CONTENDER.
Kansas City Chiefs (9-3, second in AFC West): The Chiefs have a huge Thursday night home game against the first-place Raiders. It wouldn't be surprising to see Kansas City win that contest and run away with the AFC West. One of the most underrated statistics in the league is the Chiefs having won 19 of their last 22 regular-season games. This is a group that simply finds a way to win, regardless of what it's facing. What makes the Chiefs especially scary is that they're likely to become healthier down the stretch. They've dealt with injuries to key defensive players (including cornerback Marcus Peters, defensive end Jaye Howard and outside linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford), while their biggest star has been sidelined nearly the entire year with knee problems (running back Jamaal Charles). The good news in Kansas City is the Chiefs still control their own destiny. Along with Oakland this week, they'll get Denver at home down the stretch. FINAL VERDICT: CONTENDER.
Miami Dolphins (7-5, second in AFC East): The Dolphins came crashing back to Earth last Sunday, as their six-game winning streak ended with a 38-6 rout delivered by the Ravens. Before that point, Miami was turning into one of the more intriguing stories of this season. After it, the skeptics had plenty of ammunition to use when arguing whether this team really has grown up enough over the last few weeks. This much we can say: We all knew this final month was going to be the critical to a Dolphins squad that has only one win over a team currently above .500 all year. The Fins still have two more road games left (including one against a Buffalo team still hoping to force its way into the playoffs) and their remaining home games will come against Arizona and New England (neither of which will be easy, unless the Patriots are resting starters). There's still plenty to like about Miami, including the promise of first-year head coach Adam Gase, the maturation of quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the surprising success of running back Jay Ajayi. It's just that these Dolphins might not have enough juice to hold off other teams pursuing the same wild-card spot they covet. FINAL VERDICT: PRETENDER.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5, tied for first in AFC North): The Steelers quietly have won three straight games and it wouldn't be surprising to see them finish the season with four more victories. They have a couple road games coming up (at Buffalo and Cincinnati), but they'll finish the season with Baltimore and Cleveland at home. That Ravens game may very well end up being the deciding factor in who wins the AFC North. Let's also remember that Pittsburgh just earned a huge win over the Giants -- another team that had been playing with a ton of momentum lately -- and that the Steelers tend to show up more consistently at this time of year. Look, Pittsburgh has found ways to overcome suspensions (to Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant) and injuries (Ben Roethlisberger) and an offense that hasn't been nearly as explosive as it was in 2015. But head coach Mike Tomlin is a master at keeping his team focused when it matters most. He'll do it again in crunch time this year. FINAL VERDICT: CONTENDER.
Tennessee Titans (6-6, tied for first in AFC South): It's really tempting to pick the Titans to win this division. They're watching quarterback Marcus Mariota mature into a confident leader and their running game is as devastating as any in the league (with DeMarco Murray enjoying a serious bounceback year after a disappointing campaign in Philadelphia last season). In many ways, this team is built for playing its best ball in December and January. The only problem is that Tennessee has to beat Denver or Kansas City over the next two weeks just to have a shot at avoiding an eight-loss season. It's hard to see that happening. FINAL VERDICT: PRETENDER.
Atlanta Falcons (7-5, tied for first in NFC South): The Falcons should be 8-4 right now, as they had the Chiefs beaten last Sunday until Kansas City safety Eric Berry returned an interception of an attempted two-point conversion for the go-ahead score late in that 29-28 loss. That was a crushing home defeat for Atlanta. If the Falcons want to feel better, all they have to do is look at the remaining games left on their schedule. Atlanta won't see a team that currently has a winning record over the next four weeks, and that includes two upcoming games against the Rams (4-8) and 49ers (1-11). That's a great way to get healthy, particularly when you have an offense as potent as this team's. Even with all the problems the Falcons have on defense -- they have the league's worst pass D -- the only team that can really exploit those down the stretch is New Orleans in the season finale. By that point, the Falcons could have the NFC South locked up. FINAL VERDICT: CONTENDER.
Green Bay Packers (6-6, tied for second in NFC North): It's been a long season for the Packers, of that there can be no question. This is a team that entered this year with lofty expectations and a strong belief that the issues that plagued the Pack in 2015 -- including key injuries and inconsistent offense -- would be a thing of a past. What we've learned thus far is that this year's Packers look a lot like last year's version, except with a worse running game and a more suspect defense. Those problems normally would be enough to write off most teams. Fortunately for Green Bay, most teams don't have a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. He has had his own share of struggles this year, but he also hasn't missed the playoffs since 2008, which was his first year as a starter. He has too much talent and pride to go out without a fight. The problem is Green Bay might have to win out to feel good about securing a spot, a task that seems all the more difficult when considering Seattle's coming to town this weekend. FINAL VERDICT: PRETENDER.
Minnesota Vikings (6-6, tied for second in NFC North): There's been so much to love about the Vikings all season. They lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater before the campaign even began and found Sam Bradford in a trade. They watched running back Adrian Peterson go down with a knee injury in Week 2 and continued to scuffle their way to a 5-0 start. Even with other losses -- including the unexpected resignation of offensive coordinator Norv Turner at midseason -- they've never lost that fighting spirit. However, it's just hard to believe they have anything left to mount a serious run. They still play tough defense, as the Cowboys learned in a 17-15 win last Thursday night. It's just that a beat-up offensive line and a limited running game only can take this team so far. Remember, Minnesota's lost six of its last seven. FINAL VERDICT: PRETENDER.
New York Giants (8-4, second in NFC East): The Giants had been riding a six-game winning streak before Pittsburgh snapped it last Sunday. Now for even worse news: New York's final four games come against teams with playoff aspirations, including Dallas this week and Detroit the following Sunday. The Giants have more than enough sizzle to their offense, with Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. being as dynamic a passing combination as you'll find in the league. The real question is whether they're built to win games in December. Their defense has been staunch all season (currently ranked eighth in points allowed), but they also have the league's second-worst running game. That could be problematic down the stretch. Thankfully for the Giants, they've stacked enough wins already this year to be in a good spot. FINAL VERDICT: CONTENDER.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5, tied for first in NFC South): The Buccaneers are peaking at the right time, as they would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Tampa Bay's success has plenty to do with strong defense and the growth of quarterback Jameis Winston. He's thrown 15 touchdown passes and just four interceptions over his last eight games (six of which the Bucs have won). Tampa Bay also has displayed some impressive mental toughness over their last three wins. They beat the Chiefs in Kansas City, held the Seahawks to five points and then traveled to San Diego to beat a dangerous Chargers team this past Sunday. Victories like those make it easy to want to believe in the Bucs, but there's a critical Sunday night game awaiting them in Dallas on Dec. 18. The Bucs can afford to lose that contest if they can handle New Orleans (twice) and Carolina in the season finale. If they can beat the Chiefs and Seahawks, they can deal with that task. FINAL VERDICT: CONTENDER.
Washington Redskins (6-5-1, third in NFC East): The Redskins have proven they have plenty of offense this season. What's killing them -- especially lately -- is a defense that has a penchant for falling apart at the worst possible time. Fortunately for Washington, that won't be as big a problem down the stretch. The Redskins finish the season with the Eagles, Panthers, Bears and Giants. Of that group, only New York has a winning record and an offense that can generate big numbers. However, it's apparent that the 'Skins are trending toward being on the outside looking in. They no longer control their own destiny in the NFC playoff picture -- Tampa Bay surged ahead of them in the race for the second wild-card spot this past weekend -- and their margin for error is too slim for a team so inconsistent. FINAL VERDICT: PRETENDER.