Midway through the 2015 NFL season, the playoff picture is far from solidified, but it's definitely starting to take shape. In other words, those on the outside looking in still have time -- but the window of opportunity is getting a bit narrower.
Which teams on the playoff bubble have hope -- and which can already practically pack it in until 2016? For the sake of simplicity, I looked at every team that would miss the playoffs if the season ended today, using a formula to identify the 10 in the best position to have a good second half. I further split these 10 teams into two groups: those with a legitimate shot at making the playoffs and those for whom the postseason light is dimming.
HOPE IS ALIVE AND WELL
1) Seattle Seahawks (4-4)
As with seemingly everything else in the NFL, a team's ability to fight its way back into playoff contention rests largely on the quarterback, and Russell Wilson gives Seattle a serious leg up. The passing offense ranks 26th, but I don't think that's necessarily reflective of Wilson, who does not throw picks at home and has the 12th-best passer rating (95.0) in the league, despite being sacked an NFL-high 31 times. A lot of that is on the offensive line, and I have faith position coach Tom Cable will get that group playing better. Jimmy Graham has picked it up of late, and of course, there's that Seattle defense, which ranks second overall and against the pass.
They might be in third place right now, but I think the Seahawks have a good shot to challenge the Arizona Cardinals for the NFC West title. Five of their last eight games will be at home, and they should be able to win most of those, if not all five. They also face an easier schedule than the Cards: the rest of Seattle's opponents (a group that includes the Browns and Ravens) have a combined record of 27-26, while the rest of Arizona's opponents (a group that includes the Packers and Bengals) have a combined record of 31-20. Finally, the Seahawks still have not played the Cardinals, and while the two teams are close, I think Seattle matches up well and is slightly better. I like the Seahawks to at least split that series.
2) New Orleans Saints (4-4)
The Saints can't stop anyone, but as we saw in Sunday's 52-49 win over the Giants, they can seriously score. After a slow, injury-marred start to the season, Drew Brees has really come on; he looks like the Brees of a few years ago, moving around and leading an offense that can manufacture points in buckets. New Orleans' defense gives up 406.2 yards (31st in the NFL) and 29.2 points per game (30th), but I trust their second-ranked offense to fuel a real fight for a playoff spot.
Of course, given the head starts of both the Panthers (7-0) and Falcons (6-2) in the NFC South, the Saints might have to secure a wild-card berth if they want to make the postseason. But I like their odds, given that they have a very good quarterback in Brees and coach in Sean Payton. I also like their sechdule, which includes four home games and matchups with the Titans (1-6), Redskins (3-4), Texans (3-5), Bucs (3-4), Lions (1-7) and Jaguars (2-5).
3) Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4)
The Steelers' biggest plus is Ben Roethlisberger. He has such a remarkable history of success, including seven playoff appearances in 11 previous seasons, a 10-5 career playoff record and two Super Bowl rings, and he makes plays -- he's just a really good football player. Yes, the Steelers will miss injured running back Le'Veon Bell, but between Big Ben, a receiving corps led by Antonio Brown and a capable replacement for Bell in DeAngelo Williams, they should survive. Pittsburgh has a relatively tough schedule, including dates with the 4-3 Raiders, 4-4 Seahawks (in Seattle), 7-0 Bengals (in Cincinnati) and 7-0 Broncos. And the Bengals have a monstrous lead in the AFC North. But I like the Steelers' chances to land a wild-card spot.
4) Philadelphia Eagles (3-4)
The Eagles have the curious distinction of being the only team in the NFL with a scoring differential of 20-plus and a winning percentage below .500. That shows you just how well they can move the ball when things are clicking, even if that hasn't always translated to victories. Chip Kelly practically overhauled the entire roster during the offseason, and when you do something like that, I think it can take time before a team starts playing together as a cohesive unit. I still think Sam Bradford has the potential to be pretty good, even if he hasn't been performing up to his capabilities. The defense is also much better than it was last season, especially against the pass (ranking 31st in 2014 and 16th so far this year). Given Philly's talent level and the Giants' glaring weakness on defense, I like the Eagles to win the NFC East.
5) Buffalo Bills (3-4)
It won't be easy for the Bills to overtake the other wild-card contenders in the AFC, but there's reason for optimism, not least because of a talented defense. While that unit has underachieved some, especially in the sacks department (Buffalo has 11, tied for 29th, after leading the NFL with 54 in 2014), it still ranks 13th overall and sixth against the run. My main question with Buffalo centers on the quarterback. Tyrod Taylor hasn't been bad, but he's inexperienced, and that can hurt come crunch time. I'm not ready to write the Bills off quite yet, of course, but I like the wild-card contenders ahead of them -- including the Jets -- more.
6) St. Louis Rams (4-3)
They boast a great defense and a stellar rookie running back in Todd Gurley, who has simply been lights-out. And they've already beaten the Seahawks and Cardinals. So the Rams have a chance. Even so, it's going to be tough to make it to the playoffs with a quarterback (Nick Foles) who's cracked the 200-yard mark just once this season.
BETTER LUCK NEXT YEAR
Four teams that will improve down the stretch -- but miss the playoffs nonetheless.
8) MIAMI DOLPHINS (3-4):Ryan Tannehill -- who I think is a notch below Alex Smith -- is good enough to keep the Dolphins alive, and interim coach Dan Campbell has brought some enthusiasm and toughness to a talented squad. But the Dolphins will miss Cameron Wake. I expect Miami will still finish at the bottom of the AFC East and outside the playoff picture.
9) TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (3-4): They've become a sleeper team to me, courtesy of their decent statistical showings on both sides of the ball (ranking 11th overall on offense and 15th on defense). And Jameis Winston has gotten better every game. But they're facing an uphill battle in the NFC South, and I don't see them competing for a wild-card berth.