By David Currie
The 2020 NFL regular season draws to a close on Sunday, with plenty still to play for, playoff places on the line, and seedings still to be determined; but what exactly are the storylines to watch out for?
Who misses out from the AFC?
How strong is the AFC this season? Even ignoring the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and their league-leading 14-1 record right now, five teams sit on 10 wins from the No 4 seed down.
Even with the expansion of the playoffs to seven teams per conference this season, there is a genuine possibility that an 11-5 team misses out on the postseason for only the third time in NFL history (2008 New England Patriots, 1985 Denver Broncos).
Most at risk right now of that fate befalling them are the Indianapolis Colts (No 8), who need other results to go their way, as well as a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars – who they lost to in Week One – to ensure their playoff place.
Making the Colts’ position even more remarkable heading into the final NFL Sunday of the season is that they could just as likely win their division as they could miss out on the postseason altogether. If the Tennessee Titans (No 4) stumble against Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans, it would be them in danger of being on the outside looking in.
In that case, the Titans would be left needing one of either the Miami Dolphins (No 5), Baltimore Ravens (No 6) or Cleveland Browns (No 7) to lose.
Baltimore are arguably playing their best football of the season right now, owning a four-game win streak, while contrastingly Miami and Cleveland’s preparations have been affected with the news that some key players will miss out on Sunday due to COVID-19.
The Dolphins can no longer call upon QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to bail them out from the bench, while the Browns will be without Denzel Ward and Malcolm Smith from their defence, but should at least get Jarvis Landry and co back on offence.
Surely Cleveland can’t come this close to a first postseason appearance in 18 years only to deny their long-tortured fan base by falling to the lowly New York Jets and a second-string Pittsburgh Steelers side down the stretch? Watch on Sunday – Steelers @ Browns, live on Sky Sports NFL, 6pm – to find out.
Who gets final NFC Wild Card?
Quite incredibly, the Chicago Bears occupy the No 7 seed from the NFC, following up a six-game winless run with a three-game win streak – riding on the coattails of the suddenly inspired play of Mitch Trubisky at quarterback.
The Bears own the same 8-7 record as the Arizona Cardinals but, by comparison, the Cards are coming in cold as they get set for their final weekend clash against the Los Angeles Rams, who they could yet knock out of the playoffs.
Arizona have won just two of their last six since Kyler Murray’s ‘Hail Murray’ heroics to beat the Buffalo Bills, which had them talked up as possible NFC West winners. It was thought then that the Rams would provide stiff opposition for that crown, but they too have dropped off in recent weeks, with three defeats in five – including the ignominy of being the Jets’ first win.
It’s currently advantage Bears, with a victory at home against the Green Bay Packers ensuring them of their place in the postseason. Even with defeat – a prospect that is more than possible, with the Packers still playing for the No 1 seed in the conference – Chicago could still sneak in.
That’s because the Rams and Cardinals face off against each other in Los Angeles – live on Sky Sports NFL, 9.25pm – and defeat for Arizona will ensure that the Bears make it through, whatever the result of their game.
If the Rams – led by backup QB John Wolford after Jared Goff broke his thumb last weekend – were to lose, it would be them who tumble out, unless a Chicago loss or tie were to save them.
Who wins the NFC East?
This one is a bit simpler. The NFC East has been hugely disappointing this season, with it a distinct possibility that a six-win team claims this division – in the same season that 11 wins isn’t good enough for a playoff spot in the AFC.
That said, the East arguably holds the most intrigue heading into the final weekend, with three winners still possible as only the 4-10-1 Philadelphia Eagles are eliminated – though Philly could still have a big say on the destination of the division title come Sunday night.
First up, the 6-9 Dallas Cowboys travel to the 5-10 New York Giants at 6pm in a straight-up elimination game, with the Cowboys quite incredibly considered favourites after having just three wins to their name only three weeks ago. The Giants, contrastingly, have lost three straight but victory over their bitterest rivals will put them back in the mix.
Whoever ultimately comes away victorious, they will have a nervous wait on their hands, needing the Eagles to do them a favour and beat the 6-9 Washington Football Team in the prime-time Sunday Night Football matchup – live on Sky Sports NFL, 1.20am, Monday.
A Washington win will ensure a first playoff berth for the team for five years, a tie will only be good enough should New York triumph in the early game, and defeat would see them drop out altogether at the expense of the Cowboys-Giants winner (or for Dallas if that game were to be a tie).
What else is there left to play for?
Plenty. Specifically, playoff seeding, with plenty of movement still possible from how the playoff picture currently looks.
Kansas City have the AFC top seed sewn up, earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and the only bye from the conference this year. But the Bills and Steelers are battling it out for the still much-coveted No 2 seed.
The benefit of that second-placed spot would not only be a home game in the AFC Championship should the Chiefs get knocked off their perch in the divisional round, but also the likelihood that it will see them avoid the streaking Ravens on Wild Card Weekend.
Baltimore are the form team of the bunch from the AFC chasing pack, owned the NFL’s best record only a year ago and have the reigning league MVP leading their offence. If Lamar Jackson’s team beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, as expected, they’ll sit at No 5 or 6 and so would avoid a road trip to the No 2 seeds.
In the NFC, the road will most likely run through Green Bay, though defeat to Chicago would open up the possibility of the New Orleans Saints or Seattle Seahawks suddenly stealing the No 1 seed from under their nose.
The Saints are first in line in that scenario, so long as they beat the Carolina Panthers, while the Seahawks need them to lose or tie that game, plus a Packers loss, to go with them beating the San Francisco 49ers.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are most likely travelling to the winners of the NFC East on Wild Card Weekend, unless Tom Brady’s team lose to the Atlanta Falcons and the Rams beat out the Cardinals, in which case it would be them heading east from L.A.
As for Arizona and Chicago, they are left simply fighting it out for either the No 5 or 6 seed depending on how results fall on Sunday night.