The NFL's expeditious march toward Thanksgiving means it's time to start separating the contenders from the pretenders.
Since 1990, clubs that start the season 6-4 through 10 games have made the postseason 59.1 percent of the time. A 5-5 club has earned a playoff bid in just 45 of 151 occurrences, 29.8 percent. That figure dips to a measly 8 percent for 4-6 teams.
Entering Week 11, the bottom of the playoff position remains jumbled tight, with a host of teams sitting on the cusp of upending the status quo by getting on a hot streak.
Of course, each club currently out of the postseason is flawed for one reason or another -- but close enough to make a run. Let's take a look at the case for and against each team with at least four wins that sit out of playoff positioning.
Case for postseason: On paper, the Chargers have the talent -- if they can get key playmakers like Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Joey Bosa back for the stretch run. Los Angeles still has stars like Khalil Mack and Austin Ekeler who can make the difference in December. At the most critical position in football, Justin Herbert gives the Bolts a chance in every game, as evidenced by Sunday's close loss in San Francisco that very easily could have been a blowout. Among fringe AFC teams, L.A. has the easiest schedule down the stretch, including five games against clubs with four or fewer victories.
Case against postseason: Another year, another injury-riddled Chargers season. The Bolts can't stay healthy, squandering their potential, and nothing suggests the lousy luck will miraculously change. It feels like the Chargers are more likely to suffer more injuries than get everyone back healthy, though Allen and Williams did return to practice this week. The defensive line has been obliterated, rendering an already-struggling run D inept. Meanwhile, Herbert is throwing to Nos. 3 and 4 targets. It's not a winning formula, particularly with a prime-time date against division-dominating Kansas City on tap.
Case for postseason: After starting the season 0-2, the reigning AFC champs have won five of their last seven to worm their way back into contention. Despite Ja'Marr Chase missing time due to injury, the Bengals still have the firepower to put up points, particularly if they continue to commit to Joe Mixon. Joe Burrow remains a difference-maker despite the line's blocking struggles. With Chase poised to return in the coming weeks, Cincinnati can still light up a scoreboard and stick with any team. Injuries on both sides of the ball have been brutal, but the return of some crucial defenders should give the Bengals a chance to defend their conference title. If Cincy can't catch Baltimore (which has the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL) for the AFC North lead, it might actually help the Bengals' wild-card chances for the Ravens to wrap up the division before Week 18's rematch. Baltimore could rest players before the playoffs in that scenario, aiding the Bengals' prospects.
Case against postseason: The schedule doesn't lighten up for Cincy in the latter half of the season. Already with three division losses, the Bengals have the third-toughest remaining schedule in the AFC -- four games against current division leaders and a prime-time showdown versus the Buffalo Bills in Week 17. Injuries on defense, particularly in the secondary, leave the Bengals vulnerable, and they've been gashed on the ground in recent weeks. A Week 11 rematch with the Steelers sets the table for a gauntlet. A loss in Pittsburgh would be killer for the Bengals' chances of plowing their way back to the postseason.
Case for postseason: Well, wouldn't this be something? In a wild season adrift with QB changes and firings, Jeff Saturday enters and leads his team to the postseason. Talking heads would melt, and Jim Irsay would rock-n-roll his way to the sublime. Seems wild, but isn't seemingly every NFL season defined by the improbable coming to fruition? The Colts still have Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman Jr. to move the ball. Even diminished, Matt Ryan can move the ball when he's not fumbling. And studs up front in DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart lead a very good defense. The reasons Indy was optimistic about its playoff chances entering the season are still in play despite the left-field coaching move.
Case against postseason: Unfortunately, Saturday's club won't face the Raiders seven more times. The Colts' schedule is brutal, the toughest in the AFC, beginning with the 8-1 Eagles on Sunday. Only 14 of 177 teams with four wins through 10 games since 1990 have ever made the postseason. The issues that plagued Indy this season remain, even if they were mostly covered up in Saturday's first game. The offensive line continues to struggle. Explosive plays are often lacking, and turnovers kill. Greenhorn play-caller Parks Frazier called a good game in his first chance, but what will happen when defenses track his tendencies and he faces better opponents? The first win under the interim coach was a nice story, but repeating it against heavyweights is a vastly different task.
Case for postseason: Washington displayed moxie, beating the previously undefeated Eagles on Monday night. Ron Rivera's club plays tough and has turned the season around after a 1-4 start. Since Week 6, the Commanders have been in every contest, including a close loss to the AFC South-leading Titans and narrowly falling late to the 8-1 Vikings. Taylor Heinicke's insertion into the lineup has opened things up for star receiver Terry McLaurin, a difference-maker who can propel a club to postseason heights. In addition, the potential return of Chase Young should help boost a defense that has coalesced in recent weeks. The Commanders have two winnable games against the Texans and Falcons on deck. Take both, and they'd be sitting at 7-5 with two tilts against the wild-card-leading Giants (who have the most challenging schedule in the NFL down the stretch) sandwiched around a bye. Oh, boy, things could get saucy in D.C. with a hot streak.
Case against postseason: Outside of Monday's win, there hasn't been much to get excited about in Washington, as the Commanders had mostly beaten bad teams and lost to contenders. They want to run the ball, but it's inefficient -- at best. Heinicke is a gunslinger who makes plays but is prone to mistakes that could sink the club. Despite the improved play, it's still an uphill climb for Washington, particularly if the young secondary struggles down the stretch. The teams currently ahead of the Commanders in the standings are more well-rounded at this point. For a club that lives on the razor's edge, finding consistency could keep Washington from digging out of the early-season hole completely.
Case for postseason: In a muddled NFC, the Packers are hanging around in the outskirts like an old western gunfighter waiting to enter the fray. Sunday's win over the Cowboys showed the type of team they can field when everything clicks. Aaron Jones blasting through the second level repeatedly and Aaron Rodgers dropping dimes is a formula for victories. A turnaround could be achievable if the defense can continue to create turnovers and stop giving up big plays. What if Christian Watson's three-TD performance wasn't a blip but rather a sign of a young player finally figuring it out? Completely discounting the back-to-back MVP's potential to go on a late-season surge, regardless of who he's throwing the ball to, would be a fool's errand in a conference lacking firepower.
Case against postseason: The recent five-game skid -- which included losses to the Giants (a current wild-card team), Commanders and Lions -- might be too much to overcome. With their best pass rusher, Rashan Gary, out for the season, the defense is vulnerable. The offense is a disjointed amalgam of botched plays, poor protection and lost-in-the-wilderness play calls. For far too long, the Packers have lived off the greatness of Rodgers. Now things could be coming home to roost. With the third-toughest remaining schedule in the NFC, there aren't many gimme-games for a Green Bay squad that hasn't shown the consistency to stack Ws.
Update Following Thursday Night Football: Well, Christian Watson's performance wasn't a blip. Everything else? Woof. Joe Barry's defense continues to get ripped apart. The pass D allows far too many receivers to dance free on key downs, and the rush isn't getting home consistently. The offense remains on the struggle bus. On Thursday night, with a chance to keep it close in the fourth quarter, the Packers went three-and-out, three-and-out, and four-and-out. The performance was symbolic of how the season has gone in Packerland. Rodgers missed a host of throws, and his rapport with his receivers remains erratic this late in the season. Falling to 4-7 all but dooms Green Bay. Just four of 145 teams since 1990 have made the postseason after such a start. At this point, it feels more likely that Rodgers, still nursing a right thumb injury, could be shut down for the stretch run rather than the Packers' streak to the postseason.
Case for postseason: In a soft NFC South, the Falcons aren't out of the race despite a roller-coaster season that saw Arthur Smith's club beat the likes of Seattle and San Francisco but get humbled by the Carolina Panthers on national television. The Falcons' methodology is simple: pound the rock on the ground, churn out yards and keep the opposing offenses on the sidelines. That game plan should come in handy this week against a Bears defense giving up the third-most rushing yards on the season. The Falcons also own the NFL's fourth-easiest schedule the rest of the way, facing just one team currently with a record above .500.
Case against postseason: Marcus Mariota has aided the Falcons' rushing attack, but when forced to throw, it's been dismal, particularly the past few weeks. The inability of Mariota to consistently involve playmakers Kyle Pitts and Drake London is maddening -- not just to fantasy football managers. The defense has also struggled -- thanks in part to injuries in the secondary -- ranking 30th in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics. While the run game is swell, the Falcons also face several solid run defenses down the stretch that could put that plan in peril, including Washington and Pittsburgh, before a Week 14 bye. Adding to the deficit in the division, Tampa is the only team in the NFC with an easier schedule than Atlanta down the stretch.
Case for postseason: With DeAndre Hopkins back, the Cards have a playmaker who can win one-on-ones and make life easier on Kyler Murray. Hopkins' presence opens up the entire operation, allowing Rondale Moore to make plays and taking defenders out of the box for the run game. After missing Sunday's game, the QB1 needs to come back and be the playmaker he showed early last year. Murray owns the talent to get hot and take over games. If he plays within the offense and makes splash plays when warranted, the Cards' offense could hum down the stretch. After previous hot starts under Kliff Kingsbury led to late-season swoons, perhaps the embattled coach can finally flip the script and go on a late-season run.
Case against postseason: Sunday's win over the Rams kept the season alive, but stiffer tests remain, starting with Monday night's battle against the 49ers in Mexico City. The Cards follow that up by facing the Chargers and Patriots at home. Not an easy slate. Their season could rest on how they perform in the next three contests. We have yet to see a fluid game from Arizona all season, with the offense coming out sleeping seemingly every week and frantically turning it on late. That's a recipe for losses. Despite the presence of J.J. Watt and Budda Baker, the defense has been middling, giving up 30-plus points in three out of the last four weeks. Kingsbury has yet to prove he can turn around a ship lost at sea. Until he does, there is little reason to trust Arizona to storm back into the postseason.