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2023 NFL season: Six playoff contenders facing the toughest schedules down the stretch

The holiday season brings the stretch run for the 2023 NFL campaign. However you celebrate, we can all gather 'round and appreciate what is sure to be a fascinating finish.

With four games remaining for all 32 teams, a single playoff spot has been secured, and two clubs have been eliminated from postseason contention. Only the San Francisco 49ers hold more than a two-game lead for a division title, and both No. 1 seeds are up for grabs.

Most division races could come down to the wire, particularly after the results of Week 14 left the door open for several comeback bids (SEE: losses by Miami, Detroit and Kansas City). But the biggest jumble this season in the final four weeks is the hoard of clubs at or on the cusp of a wild-card spot.

Six AFC teams (Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Houston, Denver, Cincinnati, Buffalo) sit at 7-6, with the top wild-card spot held by the Joe Flacco-led Browns at 8-5. In the NFC, the loser of the East title (Philadelphia or Dallas) is likely to secure the No. 5 seed, but the final two slots are there for the taking. Minnesota (7-6) sits at No. 6, and Green Bay is No. 7 but is joined by five other teams in the conference at 6-7 (Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta and New Orleans).

The final quarter of the season sports some tough stretches, but the strength of schedule is only part of the equation. With backup quarterbacks thrust into prime roles throughout the NFL landscape, other injuries jarring teams, and inconsistent play characterizing many clubs, predicting performance down the stretch is a hodgepodge guessing game.

The ebb and flow of a wild season changes the dynamics every week. Are the Titans suddenly a spirited team not to be walked over following Monday’s road win? Can Jake Browning keep up his stellar play, or is a regression coming? Who are the Detroit Lions?

The landscape is sure to look much different on New Year's Eve than it does today, as Week 15 includes nine games between teams in or within one game of playoff position. But we should still expect those wild-card spots to be up for grabs. Let's take a closer look at the six toughest remaining schedules among those contenders for a wild-card berth.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Remaining four games: at Colts (7-6), vs. Bengals (7-6), at Seahawks (6-7), at Ravens (10-3)

Pittsburgh doesn't own the toughest remaining strength of schedule in the league, but the circumstances surrounding the Steel City's club make it the most difficult of this bunch. 

The Steelers offense was already hosting tea parties in Strugglesville before Kenny Pickett went down with an ankle injury that required surgery. In retrospect, after watching Mitch Trubisky attempt to run the operation, Pickett looks like the Martha Stewart of pigskin matriculation. 

Through Week 14, Pittsburgh is averaging 16.2 points per game, the third-fewest by a club with a winning record in the last 40 seasons, per NFL Research. Mike Tomlin's team has relied on the defense to create game-altering plays, which, stunningly, it has done at a higher rate than should be expected. But the formula is breaking down as the defense deals with a multitude of injuries and fatigue from needing to be perfect to carry the offense. 

The final four weeks sees the Steelers facing four clubs, each clawing for playoff position, including three road tilts and two rivalry games. After losing back-to-back home games to two-win teams, do the Steelers have it in them to right the ship? If they do, particularly with Trubisky under center for at least one more week, it might be Tomlin's most masterful job to date. 

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Minnesota Vikings

Remaining four games: at Bengals (7-6), vs. Lions (9-4), vs. Packers (6-7), at Lions (9-4)

The five-game win streak that propelled Kevin O'Connell's club into playoff position is a month in the rearview. Sunday's 3-0 win in Las Vegas didn't exactly instill confidence that it can go on another run against four teams jostling for postseason position. 

The good news for Minnesota is that Brian Flores' defense is terrorizing opponents, having not allowed a touchdown since Week 11 and only allowing 15 points per game since Week 6 (fewest in the NFL). The crew bamboozles quarterbacks with pressure, and the backend flies around, creating turnovers. It's a playoff-worthy unit. 

The bad news is the offense has cratered. Since Josh Dobbs' magic ran out, the Vikings' offense can't consistently generate drives and finds itself too often in long down-and-distances. In their last three games, the Vikings have registered three total touchdowns. The lack of a rushing attack leaves the passing game vulnerable. Can Nick Mullens, who sports a 5-12 record as a starter, be the answer

The Vikings' one-game lead on a cluster of 6-7 clubs gives them some wiggle room in the NFC, but Minnesota needs Flores' defense to lead the way. It faces backup Jake Browning, who has played well replacing Joe Burrow. Two games are against a suddenly floundering Lions team, and the Vikings get a home matchup against a Green Bay team they've already beaten on the road. The Vikings would be lower on this list if not for the glaring quarterback concerns. 

Cincinnati Bengals

Remaining four games: vs. Vikings (7-6), at Steelers (7-6), at Chiefs (8-5), vs. Browns (8-5)

Just when the season appeared lost, Jake Browning swooped in and saved Cincy -- for now. The backup quarterback has managed the game with aplomb, spearheading Cincy to two straight wins in which the offense put up 34 points in each tilt. It's been a masterful coaching job from Zac Taylor to keep the Bengals in the hunt

The true tests for Browning await. The Bengals face four defenses that can control contests and make game-winning plays. Three of the four rank in the top 10 in points allowed, and the fourth (Cleveland) has allowed the fewest yards for the season. 

Cincinnati doesn't face a team with a losing record and must travel to Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Those tilts might not look as daunting as they once appeared, but hostile environments tend to bring out the worst in backup quarterbacks.  

The Bengals will need Lou Anarumo's defense to stand tall against suspect offenses to make a run back to the playoffs. 

Buffalo Bills

Remaining four games: vs. Cowboys (10-3), at Chargers (5-8), vs. Patriots (3-10), at Dolphins (9-4)

The magnitude of Sunday's win in Kansas City can't be understated. Going 3-2 in their past five games, Sean McDermott's club currently sits in the No. 11 spot -- not where the Bills expected to be with four games left. 

The Dolphins’ loss on Monday night re-opened the door in the AFC East, but Buffalo must worry only about the game in front of them: a date with the streaking Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. A home loss would put its four-year playoff streak in jeopardy. 

Buffalo has been inconsistent since October. If it wasn't the offense turning the ball over in droves, it was McDermott's defense cratering in tight games or head-scratching mental and coaching mistakes.

Can Josh Allen spin magic down the stretch? The QB is 15-2 in December/January in the regular season since 2020, the most wins in the NFL in that span. He also leads the league with 39 pass TDs and 47 total TDs in regular-season games in December and January since 2020.

The Bills see two lighter matchups sandwiching big games, facing a Chargers team starting Easton Stick in Week 16 and a home date against the three-win Patriots. But Buffalo already lost to New England once this season, so that shouldn't be considered a gimme. 

If Allen & Co. go on a run, it could set up a massive showdown in Miami in Week 18. Given the roller-coaster play from McDermott's club to date, however, we can't pencil that in just yet. 

Seattle Seahawks

Remaining four games: vs. Eagles (10-3), at Titans (5-8), vs. Steelers (7-6), at Cardinals (3-10)

When Pete Carroll's club sat at 6-3 after Week 10, we knew a gauntlet awaited. Seattle has fallen in every test since then. The four-game skid, highlighted by two double-digit losses to the 49ers, marked the first four-game losing streak of the Carroll era. Now, the Seahawks host the 10-3 Eagles in a massive prime-time affair for both teams on Monday night.

While Drew Lock played well enough in Sunday's loss in San Francisco, Geno Smith's latest injury looms over the Seahawks' stretch run. In Seattle's six wins this season, it has scored 20-plus points each tilt. In the seven losses, it has gone over the 17-point mark once. Carroll doesn't sport a defense that can currently win them games.

The schedule finally lightens up after Week 15, but the test in Tennessee won't be easy. Seattle hasn't won a road game since Week 4, and the Titans play much better at home. It's conceivable Kenny Pickett could return for the Week 17 game versus the Steelers. And the Seahawks didn't exactly blow the doors off Arizona in their Week 7 win over the Josh Dobbs-led Cards.

A year ago, Carroll's club used a late-season surge to sneak into the postseason. They'll need to do so again.

Houston Texans

Remaining four games: at Titans (5-8), vs. Browns (8-5), vs. Titans (5-8), at Colts (7-6)

It's less the schedule than the circumstances surrounding DeMeco Ryans' club that lands them on this list. 

The two tilts against the Titans look friskier following Tennessee's road win over Miami on Monday night, and the Browns and Colts are battling for playoff position. But it's the brutal string of injuries that have cause for concern for an upstart young squad. 

Losing Tank Dell for the season was seismic. Security blanket Dalton Schultz has been out. Nico Collins is dealing with a calf injury yet again. Then sensational rookie C.J. Stroud suffered a concussion in Week 14. Even if the QB returns, will he have enough weapons to make a late-season push? 

Stroud has been otherworldly in his rookie campaign as the Texans managed a litany of offensive line injuries. But can he survive the line shuffling and playing without his top receiving targets? Dell, Collins and Schultz have combined for 18 of the Texans' 21 touchdown receptions in 2023. 

Even being in a position to make a postseason run in Year 1 under head coach DeMeco Ryans is one of the stories of the season. The youthful group is clearly ahead in its rebuild. However, playoff chances in future years are never a given. If Houston overcomes all of the injuries down the stretch to make the postseason, Ryans would deserve Coach of the Year honors. 

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