When this weekend wraps up, all 32 NFL teams will have had their bye. That’s a sign, along with the arrival of Thanksgiving football, that the home stretch of the regular season has arrived. At this time next week, everyone will have exactly six games remaining, and we’ll start obsessing over playoff scenarios.
This year, that obsession might become a full-time job.
Going into Week 11, 20 of the league’s 32 teams are either holding playoff spots or are within one game in the win column. And many of the remaining 12 (Washington, Arizona, Houston, Cincinnati, Denver and the Chargers) are also still very much alive.
At this point, it’s probably only safe to rule out the 3-7 Colts (2.5 games out, but free-falling with Andrew Luck shut down), the 3-6 Buccaneers and Bears (momentum isn’t on their side in the tough NFC race), and then the 1-9 49ers, the 1-8 Giants and the 0-9 Browns.
A total of 29 teams have won between three and seven games, compared to 27 at this point last year and 23 at this point in 2015. The league is drunk on parity.
The Jaguars have a two-win pad over Baltimore, Oakland, Miami and the Jets, but did you see the way they performed against the Chargers in Week 10? Does anyone trust Blake Bortles? Have you seen that receiving corps? That’s a young, inexperienced team which is asking for a collapse. And the other AFC wild-card team at the moment is the train wreck that is the Buffalo Bills, who have followed up a paper tiger 5-2 start with back-to-back losses by a combined 50 points.
Things are so bad in Buffalo that the Bills just benched their high-profile starting quarterback in favor of a rookie fifth-round pick who sucked in the preseason. Again, this is a team that currently owns a playoff spot!
The NFC is even wilder, though, because the 7-3 Panthers have not been consistent and the 6-3 Seahawks have not been as good as their record. Now, Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary is in shambles, and the ‘Hawks face a really tough schedule down the stretch.
Hunting those cats and birds are four teams that are just a game back at 5-4 (Atlanta, Detroit, Green Bay, Dallas) and two more than are still in the picture at 4-5 (Washington and Arizona).
Beyond that, several teams that aren’t technically part of the wild-card race are just a loss away from potentially falling into it. Tennessee, New Orleans and the Rams all hold slim leads in their respective divisions, and none have strong track records when it comes to attempts to contend.
It’s bound to become a beautiful mess, mainly because there’s a good chance the rest of the division leaders (New England, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Philadelphia and Minnesota) all win their divisions by wide margins.
America’s middle class might be shrinking, but the NFL’s appears to be growing. And with the same number of playoff spots up for grabs, that dynamic could make for one of the wildest wild-card races we’ve ever seen.