So if this streak is to continue in 2017, which of the teams trying to pull off the rally is the most dangerous -- in December, January and maybe even beyond?
"Right now, [the Chargers] are most dangerous," one AFC scouting director told me. "Good, veteran football team with the best QB of the group."
One NFC executive said of the Chargers: "Everyone thinks them. And it's hard to disagree. I don't know what their schedule looks like, but they can rush the passer, they have an experienced quarterback and they have some weapons. In the AFC, they could be the third-best team."
That context is important. It looks a lot easier to sneak into the playoffs in the AFC, and particularly the AFC West, where the Chiefs' surprising slide of late has allowed the Chargers to pull within one game of the lead after an 0-4 start. The wild-card race is equally favorable. In the NFC, the 7-4 Seattle Seahawks would be out if the season ended today; in the AFC, the 6-5 Baltimore Ravenswould be in. The Chargers' schedule doesn't hurt their chances, either. They face the winless Browns and banged-up Redskins before a Dec. 16 visit to Kansas City, then close with the Jets and Raiders.
It was a nationally televised blowout of the Cowboys on Thanksgiving -- one week after a 30-point pounding of the Bills -- that really propelled the Chargers into this discussion, though. Under first-year coach Anthony Lynn, the Chargers have holes -- most notably, they're not running the ball well (25th in the league) or stopping the run (dead last). But they stack up well in a number of other key categories, including turnover margin (tied for third), sacks recorded (tied for fourth) and allowed (tied for first), red-zone defense (third) and passing yards (fourth).
One NFC personnel director pointed out the Chargers have been in every game -- their only loss by more than one score was to the Chiefs in September -- and they now seem to be figuring out how to finish. The pass rush, led by Bosa (10.5 sacks) and Melvin Ingram (8.5), helps with that. And they're spreading the ball around on offense, while also feeding top receiver Keenan Allen (23 catches for 331 yards, three TDs in the past two games).
Two other things that jumped out in doing this poll: Nobody mentioned the 5-6 Packers, who famously ran the table after a 4-6 start a year ago and potentially could get star quarterback Aaron Rodgers back before season's end if they can hang in the race with Brett Hundley. And several executives went out of their way to mention the Atlanta Falcons, who at 7-4 don't meet the criteria, but are getting healthy, have explosive young players on defense and are recapturing some of the magic they had on offense during their Super Bowl run last year.
The Five Ws for Week 13
WHO in the AFC can beat the Patriots? Every year we say, "Maybe the Steelers," but they never do it. (Submitted by @Grossed_Out) I asked several NFL executives this question while conducting the poll, and the prevailing thought remains that the high-powered Steelers have the best shot, in part because there seems to be a drop-off to the rest of the AFC field. People also know the Steelers have struggled against the Patriots under coach Mike Tomlin, who drew attention recently by telling friend and NBC analyst Tony Dungy that Pittsburgh's Dec. 17 home game against Bill Belichick's crew is "probably going to be Part One," helping determine the venue for a playoff rematch on what Tomlin feels should be a championship run. The Patriots rolled the Steelers 36-17 in last season's AFC title game -- their fourth straight win in the series. In Tomlin's 11 seasons, the Steelers' record against New England is 2-6. Who else? The Chargers are compelling, thanks to Rivers' presence. The Jaguars' defense would be fun to watch against Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense, but could Blake Bortles and company get anything going against a Bill Belichick defense? Maybe the answer is ... nobody. Said one scouting director: "I think the Pats will run through it."
WHAT are Eli Manning's options? For now, waiting. Requesting his release would be a bad idea, since veteran players are subjected to waivers after the trade deadline. Imagine if the Giants agreed to let him go ... and Manning got claimed by the Browns, who would owe him only the balance of his salary for this season (about $3.8 million) and have him under contract for two more years at non-guaranteed, relatively team-friendly cap numbers of $16 million in 2018 and $17 million in 2019. Even if Manning refused to play for the team that claims him, he could be held hostage as a trade chip. If Manning sits tight until March, when the Giants have a decision on whether to pay him a $5 million roster bonus, he'll either get released outright, be able to veto undesirable destinations thanks to his no-trade clause -- or perhaps be the Giants' starter again. Who knows who the GM and coach will even be at that point? As long as there is no lingering awkwardness between Manning and Giants co-owner John Mara, who signed off on the decision to play Geno Smith and eventually rookie Davis Webb down the stretch of a lost season, everything is in play. One way or another, there figures to be a market for a healthy, low-end starter, even one in decline at age 36.
WHEN do we start comparing Philadelphia's rise to the quick turnarounds enjoyed by the 49ers and Seahawks a few years ago? Are the Eagles on that level? (Submitted by @Josh_Henig) As one NFL executive pointed out to me this week, these Eagles are winning a little like the 2013 and '14 Seattle teams that went to the Super Bowl when you look at the numbers. Those Seahawks ranked No. 4 and No. 1 respectively in rushing yards; these Eagles rank No. 2. Those Seahawks led the NFL in scoring defense each season; these Eagles rank third. Those Seahawks ranked 31st in pass attempts in Russell Wilson's second season in 2013 (and 32nd in 2014), but Wilson ranked seventh with a 101.2 passer rating; the Eagles rank 23rd in pass attempts and Carson Wentz has a 104.0 passer rating (fourth). Spending time in the Eagles' locker room last week, I heard some things from players about Wentz that reminded me a little of Wilson, too. "We're scoring touchdowns on plays where this dude's going somewhere the ball never goes on that play or [against] that coverage," veteran receiver Torrey Smith told me last week. "Because he can make plays with his feet. You always have to stay ready and know that, at any time, he can check [the play]. He can do whatever he wants to do. He's very free within the offense." That spin Wentz used to elude an all-out Bears blitz on third down in last week's rout was downright Wilson-esque.
WHERE should expectations be set for Browns receiver Josh Gordon's return? Word out of Cleveland is Gordon looks like his old self in practice, and coach Hue Jackson says he'll start Sunday against the Chargers. But does anyone really know until Gordon plays in a game? There's no precedent for a former All-Pro receiver coming off a three-year layoff (preseason games last year notwithstanding), to say nothing of the substantial issues that led to Gordon falling off the radar. I asked one veteran evaluator how you advance-scout a guy like that with no recent film. His (joking?) response: "Say a couple prayers and hope for the best." Gordon's still only 26. He should be entering his prime. Whether he can reach his potential again -- and stay there -- remains to be seen.
WHY has the NFL never seen a tight end with the size and build of Shaq? Try stopping him in the red zone! (Submitted by @RamsFanDK) This question is so weird I had to get an answer from scouts. Short version: Shaquille O'Neal was listed at 7-foot-1, 294 pounds at LSU (before getting a whole lot heavier in the NBA) and could run the floor. He was the rarest of physical specimens. Most college basketball players are significantly lighter, with lower body fat than NFL players and surprisingly skinny lower bodies. If anything, scouts find some body types for wide receiver, but by and large they're not going to have the speed and athletic skill set to play that position. The likes of Antonio Gates (6-4, 255) and Jimmy Graham (6-7, 265) defied the odds to become dominant NFL players -- and Shaq would tower over them. As one area scout said, Shaq would probably have been an "awesome" tight end, but there isn't even another Shaq in the NBA. Good luck finding one for the NFL.