Throughout seven weeks, the NFL season has seen some wild ups and downs, but enough games have been played to establish a clear line between playoff hopefuls and those in tank mode. In this Gavel Guide to the NFL, we’ll talk about all the teams we still think are in the playoff hunt and give you our best predictions of which 14 teams will be left competing for the Lombardi trophy in January.
Our predictions for the division winners may look a little familiar to those who followed football last year, as the only change will come from the Ravens usurping the Bengals. That means our division winners are the Bills, Ravens, Titans, and Chiefs. While our wild card predictions may not surprise many readers, two out of our three did not make the playoffs last year. In no particular order, we think the Dolphins, Bengals, and Chargers will all make it into the postseason as well.
Top to bottom, the Bills have the best roster in football. Leading the way is Josh Allen, who is the most physically gifted player at quarterback in all of football. He’s able to sling it to weapons such as Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis while still being able to use his legs to run over the opposing team. Backing him up is the most talented and well-rounded defense in football, meaning opponents have to deal with a two-headed monster when they go to Buffalo.
Unlike the Bills, the Ravens do have some holes in their roster that stick out on the field. Historically, they have had lockdown defenses, but this year, their back end seems vulnerable. While they do have star cornerback Marcus Peters, teams have still been able to move the ball through the air against them. On the offensive end, they’re headlined by the impressive talents of Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrews, but they spend the least amount of any team in the NFL on their wide receiver core. That being said, this Ravens team has led in every game by at least ten points, and while they’ve blown that lead on three separate occasions, they have the talent to fix their mistakes and go far.
The Titans are the worst of our projected division winners. While they have an elite running back in Derrick Henry, the rest of their offense is defined by mediocrity. The Ryan Tannehill-led offense is missing their best wide receiver, AJ Brown, who they traded to the Eagles in the offseason, and they didn’t get a suitable replacement in return. Their defense is also plagued by an average group of players without any star to truly make them stand out. The saving grace of the Tennessee Titans is that they’re in the AFC South, which is far and away the worst division in the AFC.
Kansas City Chiefs
Led by coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have been a relentless force in the AFC for the past half-decade, and this year, nothing has changed. They may have lost star wide receiver Tyreek Hill in the offseason, but that hasn’t slowed down this high-powered offense. Mahomes has found his favorite target, Travis Kelce, over and over again, and has learned to spread the ball around to his other wide receivers in the absence of a true star. The Chiefs' defense, while not as potent as the offense, is excellent at defending the run. While they do struggle to defend the pass, this leads to high-scoring games which the Chiefs are primed to win. There’s a reason this team has been to the AFC championship for the past four years.
The Dolphins might just have the fastest offense in the NFL. Their star receivers are the aforementioned Tyreek Hill alongside Jaden Waddle, who are both high-flying weapons that opposing defenses struggle to cover. When their number one quarterback Tua Tagovailoa starts and finishes the game, they’re 5-0 this season and can keep up with any offense in the league. While their defense isn’t as star-studded as the opposing side of the ball, they usually aren’t asked to do much as their offense is so potent. That being said, there are flashes of brilliance, and they seem particularly deep at the cornerback position. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, they’re in the same division as the Bills, which leaves them with a wildcard spot.
The Bengals made a surprise Super Bowl run last year, but not without good reason. Their story was centered around breakout stars Joe Burrow and Ja'marr Chase. They were the star quarterback/wide receiver tandem at Louisiana State University, who both got drafted by the Bengals in back-to-back years. Their chemistry was apparent, and it led to a 10-7 record with a division title and an AFC Championship. This year has been much the same with contributions from an underrated defense also keeping the Bengals in games. Unfortunately, they will have to contend with a Ravens team that is not racked by injuries this year, which is why we have them as a wild card. To be fair, both the Bengals and the Ravens are incredibly close and this division may come down to tiebreakers in the end.
Los Angeles Chargers
It’s hard to bet against Justin Herbert and his star wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Both receivers are incredible playmakers that can push the pace of play downfield, and Justin Herbert has the arm to get it to them. Their defense is nothing to laugh at either, with Kahlil Mack, J.C Jackson, and Joey Bosa leading the way. They have had to deal with a number of injuries this year, most notably to their star quarterback and receivers which has limited their potential thus far. They also suffer from being in the same division as the Chiefs which, much like the Dolphins, leaves them scrounging for a wild card spot.
Our NFC division winners are once again not all that controversial, with half of our picks currently in the lead for their respective divisions. While not all these teams currently have winning records, we believe they’ll emerge as the clear frontrunners in each division by the end of the year. Our picks are the Eagles, Vikings, Buccaneers, and 49ers. Our wildcard picks drift off the path a bit more, but we think the Giants, Cowboys, and Seahawks will all make the playoffs. Yes, this means the defending Super Bowl Champion Rams won't even make it to the postseason.
Last year, the Eagles went 9-8, sliding into the seventh seed only to get knocked out by the Buccaneers in the first round. In the offseason, they made a few big acquisitions, most notably trading for star wide receiver AJ Brown. Needless to say, there were hopes of surpassing last year’s highs, and they have blown these expectations out of the water. They’re off to a 7-0 start, making them the only undefeated team in football. They’re being led by breakout quarterback Jalen Hurts who is a dual threat, as he’s able to use his arm or legs to pick up the first down. He’s surrounded by weapons on the offensive front and a suffocating defense that makes the Eagles the premier team to beat in the NFC.
Even though the Vikings currently reside in one of the more dysfunctional divisions in the NFL, they’re still an impressive team to contend with. While the defense isn’t as suffocating as past Vikings teams, they have enough to keep games close. On offense, they’re led by Kirk Cousins at quarterback, who isn’t anything special but is able to spread the ball around to their playmakers. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson and running back Davlin Cook are impressive pieces in this offense that give them a lethal edge. While this team isn’t weak in any category, it's hard to point to an area of this team that really stands out. While they’ll do well in the regular season, when the pressure of the playoffs comes around, there are concerns about them rising to the occasion.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
On paper, the Buccaneers are a premier team primed for Super Bowl contention. In reality, they have struggled and lost games where they were heavy favorites. What seemed to be an offensive line problem may be something deeper as stars like quarterback Tom Brady and wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are all uncharacteristically underperforming. Their defense is suffering from the same issue, failing to even come close to the high expectations placed on them before the season. All is not lost for this team, however, as a correction of the offensive line and the establishment of a good run game may help them turn around a disastrous start to the season. While their talent may bail them out in the end, their true saving grace is the division they play in. At the time of this article, the NFC South has no team with a winning record and is far and away the worst division in football. All the Bucs need to do is end up on top of this dumpster fire to make it to the playoffs.
San Francisco 49ers
At the time of this article, the 49ers do not have a winning record, yet are one the premier Super Bowl contenders in the NFC. This year, they have dealt with a lot of injuries, which is partially to blame on their subpar record, but they are still on track to finish as one of the top teams in the NFC. When healthy, their defense is second only to Buffalo’s in terms of talent, and their offense is filled with some of the best offensive weapons in the game such as Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey, and George Kittle. The only knock against this team is their starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who is only average in comparison with his counterparts. However, if Garoppolo can manage to limit his turnovers and efficiently get the ball out to the rest of his offense, the 49ers can beat any team in the league.
New York Giants
The Giants are the biggest surprise in a season full of surprises this year. Last year, they were one of only five teams with four wins or less, and it took them only six weeks to surpass that win total from last year. Much of the credit has to go to newly hired head coach Brian Daboll, who reorganized the culture and calling of this team. While this roster isn’t incredibly talented on paper, he has leaned into its best parts, notably star running back Saquon Barkley, and used them to great effect. This team won’t be blowing anyone out, however, as they play a gritty form of football that allows them to compete with anyone in the league. In some of the weaker divisions in football, they may have a chance of claiming a division title, however, the NFC East has both the Eagles and Cowboys, which will leave the Giants with just a wildcard spot.
The Cowboys are a team based on defense. Led by Micah Parsons, this team has a suffocating front seven that can get to the opposing quarterback as fast as anyone in the league. This, combined with elite cornerbacks like Trevon Diggs, makes this defense top five in the league in takeaways per game, and a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. The offensive side of the ball is less impressive, but still has enough stars to get the job done. Dak Prescott is a reliable quarterback that can distribute the ball to high-end receivers like CeeDee Lamb, but the real strength of the offense is in the run game. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are both reliable running backs that allow the Cowboys to efficiently run the ball and keep the opposing offenses off the field. While they are one of the best teams in the NFC, they’re in the NFC East, which leaves them with a wild card spot due to the strength of the division.
This is a team that was expected to be near the bottom of the league, making this our boldest playoff prediction. In the offseason, the Seahawks traded away their star quarterback Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos, indicating they were going to be in a rebuilding year. However, between rookies like Kenneth Walker stepping up and Geno Smith playing better than anyone could have predicted, the Seahawks have found themselves on top of the NFC West. While we don’t think this will hold up for the rest of the season, we do believe they can slide into a wild card spot. The keys for the Seahawks will be continuing success from their offensive line and a Pete Carrol-led defense that can keep games close.
Are there any teams we didn’t talk about that you think have a shot at the postseason? Are our playoff predictions wildly out of step? Who do you think will make it to the postseason this year, and who has a shot at winning it all?