The final two weeks of the regular season promise to be memorable thanks to a perfect storm of who's hot and who's not. The Lions, Packers, Jaguars and Panthers all have realistic playoff chances after being at least four games under .500 at some point, and written off. There's never been a season where even TWO teams made the postseason after being that far below .500.
On the flip side, there are seven notable contenders slumping, leaving us with 24 teams left in contention.
A month ago, the Dolphins looked like Super Bowl contenders, and I wouldn't have put it past Geno Smith to win a playoff game or two. The Jets and Giants looked like they would at least make the tournament. So who can rebound to make the playoffs? Better yet, who can flip a switch and make some noise once they get there?
Let's dive into seven slumping contenders below:
Dolphins (8-7): lost 4 straight
Playoff chances: 57% (SportsLine simulations)
Simplest playoff path: Win out OR win one game and get help
What happened? The Dolphins went 0-4 in December. No team has ever made the postseason after going 0-4 in December (the Jets and Titans are also 0-4 this month). It started with a West Coast slide as the 49ers and Chargers figured out how to slow down Miami's quick-pass offense. After appearing to rebound in a tight loss in Buffalo, the Dolphins faltered late against the Packers in Week 16, with Tua Tagovailoa throwing three fourth-quarter interceptions.
What's next? The Dolphins likely need to win out against two fellow wild card contenders, the Patriots and Jets, to make the playoffs. They also have to do it with Teddy Bridgewater for at least Week 17 after Tagovailoa suffered another concussion in Week 16. The deck seems stacked against Miami lately and Tagovailoa's long-term health is the biggest concern after another head injury. I was all-in on Miami as a Super Bowl sleeper for most of the year, but I don't see the Dolphins recovering from the latest setback. Tagovailoa hasn't played like himself all month, and Bridgewater was up and down in losses to two contenders, the Bengals and Vikings, earlier this year.
Patriots (7-8): lost 4 of 5
Playoff chances: 24% (SportsLine simulations)
Simplest playoff path: Win out
What happened? Jakobi Meyers' lateral to Chandler Jones happened. The Patriots were exposed by playoff teams, too, also losing to the Vikings, Bills and Bengals during their slump. New England is now 0-5 vs. current playoff teams this year, allowing more than 27 points per game, compared with 7-3 and just over 15 points per game allowed vs. non-playoff teams.
What's next? The Patriots' offensive issues are well-documented. This is arguably their worst offensive performance since Bill Belichick's first season in 2000. I don't expect that to change, but if the defense isn't going to carry them against contenders, I don't see a rebound in sight. New England might squeak by a slumping Dolphins team in the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium in Week 17, but I'd be shocked if they won in Buffalo against a Bills team fighting for home-field advantage in Week 18.
Jets (7-8): lost 4 straight
Playoff chances: 15% (SportsLine simulations)
Simplest playoff path: Win out + Patriots lose one game
What happened? The Jets' four-game losing streak comes with injury (Mike White) and poor play (Zach Wilson) at the quarterback position along with a sudden decline from a defense that has one takeaway during its losing streak.
What's next? The Jets need to win road games against the Seahawks and Dolphins to get in, coupled with a Patriots loss. I like New York's chances to make the postseason with White returning from a rib injury and slumps by Seattle and Miami. Unlike the Jets other quarterbacks, White has shown the ability to get the Jets' best weapons involved while driving the ball downfield. I also think the defense can turn it around. Takeaways can be a lucky stat, and all of the other numbers on defense (yards/play, pressure rate, third downs, red zone efficiency) have been stable, suggesting a rebound is around the corner. Since the team has rallied around White and already played the Bills close twice this year, I don't see why the Jets can't make a run and threaten a playoff upset.
Titans (7-9): lost 6 straight
Playoff chances: 27% (SportsLine simulations)
Simplest playoff path: Win at Jaguars in Week 18
What happened? The wheels fell off in Philadelphia with a 35-10 loss at the hands of their former star wide receiver A.J. Brown, which happened to be followed by their general manager Jon Robinson being fired two days later. The Titans have now lost six straight.
What's next? The Titans' Thursday night loss to the Cowboys was meaningless, as their Week 18 game in Jacksonville will be a win-or-go-home game for both teams barring wild results around the league. Tannehill won't be coming to the rescue after being placed on IR on Thursday after surgery. The team is clearly dejected from the events of the last month, and its lack of firepower has finally caught up. The Titans rank bottom three in the league in both passing offense and defense, something no team has done since the 2005 49ers during Alex Smith's rookie season. This isn't close to the same 2019 team which featured an explosive offense and challenged Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game. I don't think Tennessee has the goods to make noise in the postseason or even get there after what it showed against Jacksonville in Week 14.
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Giants (8-6-1): 2-5-1 in last 8
Playoff chances: 91% (SportsLine simulations)
Simplest playoff path: Win one game
What happened? Seven of the Giants' last eight games have come against playoff contenders, and their only wins over that span have been against the Texans and Commanders (with a controversial finish). The Giants simply can't get stops. They rank third-worst in defensive EPA per game since Week 8, and only the Colts have allowed more fourth-quarter points over that span, which explains why New York is no longer winning the close games they won earlier in the year. Wink Martindale's defense plays man coverage and blitzes at the highest rate in the league this year. The scheme, coupled with injuries and inconsistency in the secondary, have caught up with the Giants, who have started 12 different defensive backs, tied with the Bills for the most in the league.
What's next? The Giants need to win one of their next two games, which come against Jeff Saturday's Colts and an Eagles team that could be resting starters in Week 18. I think they'd take that entering the year. Starting defensive backs Adoree' Jackson (out since Week 11) and Xavier McKinney (out since Week 8) are nearing a return, which could plug some holes in the leaky secondary. With the emergence of Kayvon Thibodeaux and the newfound ball protection skills of Daniel Jones, I don't see why the Giants couldn't pull off a playoff upset, especially if they draw the Vikings again.
Commanders (7-7-1): lost 2 straight
Playoff chances: 30% (SportsLine simulations)
Simplest playoff path: Win out
What happened? Washington has lost two straight, one via a controversial finish against the Giants, and another to the 49ers. Taylor Heinicke was benched in favor of Carson Wentz after turning the ball over twice in back-to-back games.
What's next? The Commanders need a spark, and if they're looking to Carson Wentz, I'm not alone in saying that probably won't be enough, especially after his performance in the final two games last year. Also, Wentz ranked bottom five in the league in turnovers while he was the starter earlier this year, just like Heinicke did during his chance. It's not like he solves that problem. Washington could make the postseason thanks to home games against the Browns and Cowboys in the final two weeks. Dallas could be resting starters if it is already locked into the fifth seed. Barring a turnaround from Wentz and a superstar impact from Chase Young, though, I don't see them as a playoff threat even if they did nearly beat the Vikings and Eagles in back-to-back games two months ago.
Seahawks (7-8): lost 5 of 6 (3 straight)
Playoff chances: 25% (SportsLine simulations)
Simplest playoff path: Win out + Commanders and Packers lose once
What happened? The Seahawks have been dominated at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They have been outrushed by 642 yards in their last six games, the worst mark in the NFL since Week 10. They rank bottom 10 in the league in rush EPA per game on offense and defense over that span. Geno Smith's had a great season, but even he hasn't been able to shoulder the load with no balance on offense and a struggling defense. Smith ranks 21st in EPA per dropback in the last six games (eighth through nine games) and has turned it over eight times in that span.
What's next? The Seahawks have home games against the Jets and Rams to finish out the season. I don't think the Jets are a good matchup, though, with Mike White returning, coupled with a disruptive defensive line that plays into Seattle's struggles on offense. Seattle's only win since Week 10 was a thrilling finish against the reeling Rams, so a win against them might not even come easy in Week 18.
I can't believe I'm saying this, but of the slumping contenders I think the Giants and Jets are mostly likely to rebound and potentially upset someone in the postseason if they make it there. I wouldn't be surprised if none of these teams truly rebounded, though, given how teams limping into the postseason generally perform come playoff time. Since 2016, teams with a losing regular-season record in December/January combined to go 3-9 in the postseason. None made a conference championship game. Six of the seven slumping teams I dove into above are guaranteed to finish this December/January with losing records, with the exception of the Giants.