Sorting out the crowd of fringe teams hovering on the edges of the playoff picture can be daunting, especially in early December. Some will fall away as division and wild-card races tighten up. But some will fight to the bitter end, potentially even pushing their way through to postseason glory. These squads will bear watching until the final whistle of Week 17.
Below, I've listed the seven fringe squads I'm not counting out in the 2020 season, pulled from the NFL teams that are currently either projected to own a No. 7 seed or miss the playoffs entirely. Because this is an assessment of teams on the brink at this moment in time rather than a projection of wild-card contenders, I excluded the teams in the fifth and sixth positions in each conference. Yes, the Browns (No. 5 in the AFC), Dolphins (No. 6 in the AFC), Rams (No. 5 in the NFC) and Buccaneers (No. 6 in the NFC) could get into a dogfight with any of the teams below down the stretch, but it didn't feel right to characterize them as "fringe" teams right now.
NOTE: The teams below are ordered not according to their chances of making the playoffs, but according to their chances of winning at least nine games, which would strongly increase their playoff odds.
ALSO: Projected seeds were current heading into Wednesday's game between the Ravens and Steelers.
Current playoff positioning: No. 7 in AFC; second in AFC South.
What I like: The defense is still among the NFL's best, even after Sunday's debacle against the Titans -- and the top-10 scoring offense is playing strong complementary football.
What I don't like: The chances of securing a sweep of Houston, which would go a long way toward also securing a playoff berth, don't look as strong as they did a month ago.
Outlook: The Colts showed Sunday they aren't good enough to overcome the loss of key players like stud D-lineman DeForest Buckner (reserve/COVID-19 list) and linebacker Bobby Okereke (ankle). It's unknown still whether Buckner (or offensive linemen Anthony Castonzo, dealing with an MCL sprain, or Ryan Kelly, who missed Week 12 with a neck injury) will be available for the upcoming matchup against a Texans squad that is playing much better of late. That said, even if Buckner's out, Houston's 31st-ranked rushing attack doesn't provide nearly the challenge Tennessee just did. If the Colts can at least split with the Texans and beat the sputtering Jaguars, they'll reach that nine-win threshold that will give them a strong chance to land a postseason bid.
Current playoff positioning: No. 10 in NFC; fourth in NFC West.
What I like: The resiliency San Francisco continues to show despite the roster being ravaged by injuries and COVID-19-related absences.
Outlook: The return to the field Sunday of receiver Deebo Samuel (who logged 11 catches for 133 yards), cornerback Richard Sherman (who made a team-high seven tackles and snagged a pick) and running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson (who gained 86 combined rushing yards) paid huge dividends in a 23-20 win over the Rams. Kyle Shanahan's teams are always among the best-coached in the NFL. This is why I give the Niners a chance of winning at least four of their next five games, even taking into account the wrinkle that the team will have to play its next two home contests in the Cardinals' stadium in Arizona, due to COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County, where San Francisco usually plays.
Current playoff positioning: No. 7 in NFC; third in NFC West.
What I like: Kyler Murray blossoming into one of the league's most exciting players in his second NFL season under head coach Kliff Kingsbury.
What I don't like: Arizona's injury-riddled defense -- though I should point out the unit, which has been without Chandler Jones since October, did a great job holding New England to 179 yards on Sunday -- and kicker Zane Gonzalez's recent struggles (missing three go-ahead or game-tying field-goal tries in the last five games).
Outlook: Even if Arizona loses to the Rams in Week 13, all will not be lost, thanks to the two remaining NFC East matchups on the schedule. If the Cardinals can defeat the Giants (who could be without Daniel Jones) and Eagles (Arizona should be favored in that one), they'll just need to win one more of their three divisional contests to get to nine wins, which would give them a decent chance to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
Current playoff positioning: No. 9 in AFC; second in AFC West.
What I like: The well-balanced nature of their offense, which can grind it out with the rush attack and lean on quarterback Derek Carr, who has found his groove in Jon Gruden's system (excepting Sunday's dud against the Falcons, who are better than everyone thinks).
What I don't like: The 28th-ranked scoring defense, which is allowing opponents to average 29 points per game -- that's the highest mark among any NFL team with a winning record.
Outlook: A 43-6 mistake-filled loss to Atlanta marked the largest margin of defeat for this franchise since Gruden returned as head coach in 2018 -- and it was the second-worst overall defeat since the Raiders fell to the Jets 38-0 in Week 7 of the 2009 season. Speaking of the Jets ... Las Vegas couldn't ask for a better Week 13 opponent to help get back on a winning track. Three home games follow, featuring showdowns with the playoff-chasing Colts and Dolphins. Beating both Indianapolis and Miami would help the Raiders in potential tiebreaker scenarios.
Current playoff positioning: No. 8 in AFC; third in AFC North.
What I like: John Harbaugh's team is known for its toughness in adverse circumstances, and it's hard to imagine a more difficult obstacle than having your game pushed back nearly a week while losing huge chunks of your roster -- including your QB, the reigning MVP -- to COVID-19-related absences. Baltimore should still have a chance to play up to its potential down the stretch, as players begin to return from the reserve/COVID-19 list with potential gimme wins on tap against the Jaguars, Giants and Bengals.
What I don't like: That the Ravens faded from the AFC North title race by dropping three of four heading into their pivotal Week 12 matchup with Pittsburgh. It was also concerning to see Lamar Jackson and Marquise Brown offer public (albeit fair) criticism about the offense. While it's justifiable to question the lack of effectiveness on deep strikes, which were such a huge part of the Ravens' 2019 success, comments like those can indicate an even bigger internal rift with the potential to tear down a team.
Outlook: The Ravens' best game of 2020 came way back in Week 1, when Baltimore routed Cleveland. This team has the potential to get rolling, but the fallout from the COVID-19 situation, along with struggles in recent weeks, makes that possibility a crapshoot. The first hurdle to overcome is facing Pittsburgh without Jackson this week. I could see the Ravens winning five of their final six games -- but I could also see them losing five of six. It all hinges on what happens against the Steelers, who historically play them close; 19 of the 25 games these franchises have played under Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin have come down to a final margin of seven points or less.
Current playoff positioning: No. 8 in NFC; second in NFC North.
What I don't like: The 23rd-ranked defense, which is the worst Minnesota has fielded since Mike Zimmer became head coach in 2014.
Outlook: The Vikings would really be sitting pretty right now if they hadn't laid an egg in a Week 11 home loss to the Cowboys. Still, they have a strong shot to climb back to .500 against the lowly Jaguars, and with the Cardinals and Bears skidding, have a good chance to be in the mix down the stretch. Minnesota's postseason fate may rest on the team's ability to pull off a road upset against either the Bucs or the Saints.
Current playoff positioning: No. 10 in AFC; third in AFC East.
What I like: Bill Belichick. Enough said.
What I don't like: A 29th-ranked passing attack that threatens to hold back a fifth-ranked ground game.
Outlook: The Patriots may have dug themselves too deep a hole to climb out of. That said, does anyone out there want to face a Belichick-coached team with a potential playoff berth on the line? Even if this year's New England team has major offensive problems, it can still run the ball, while the defense has allowed just one opposing quarterback to break the 300-yard passing mark (Deshaun Watson in Week 11). The key for the Pats will be surviving a three-game road stretch that could have them on fumes by the time they play at Miami in Week 15. If they make it through that, will they be able to avenge a close Week 8 loss to Buffalo?