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Burning questions as 2022 NFL playoff picture takes shape

We are familiar with Aaron Rodgers preaching calm in moments of adversity. He first did it in 2014, when Packers fans began panicking after Green Bay lost two of its first three games and ranked 28th in total offense.

Rodgers, who was on pace for a career-low completion percentage, used the media as a conduit to fans, spelling out just what he wanted them to do.

"R-E-L-A-X," he said.

The Packers proceeded to win nine of their next 10 and advance to the NFC Championship Game, where they fell to the Seattle Seahawks. It was a run that showed Rodgers to be not only one of the greatest to ever play the position, but also a clairvoyant.

When the team started 4-8 this season and appeared to be erased from the playoff picture, Rodgers stood before reporters and pointed to the possibility of something positive to come. Although he did not appear to be as convinced as he was in the past, there was still that cool defiance that they had a chance to make things right.

Like many others, I scoffed and laughed at the suggestion. Now Rodgers is laughing at me, if not directly then in a universal sense. The Packers have won three in a row since bottoming out and, with a little help, have a chance to make the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year.

Will they get there? I dusted off my crystal ball in hopes of answering the burning questions that remain as we head toward the final two weeks of the regular season.

1) Will the Packers make the playoffs?

The short answer: no.

The Packers will advance if they win out in home games against NFC North foes Minnesota and Detroit while Washington loses at least once or the Giants lose twice. While possible, here's the issue for Green Bay:

Washington finishes at home against Cleveland and Dallas; the Browns already have been eliminated from playoff contention and might have their bags packed for the offseason, while the Cowboys might rest their regulars in Week 18 if the team has been eliminated from contention for the top seed in the NFC, something that could happen this coming weekend if the Eagles defeat the visiting Saints.

The Giants close their home slate against the visiting Colts, one of the league's worst teams, then travel to Philadelphia, which might sit some of its regulars if it has locked up the NFC's top seed.

For now, the Packers need to focus on what they can control, and Rodgers has to like the idea of two teams that play their home games in domes coming to the Frozen Tundra to finish the regular season. The Packers beat the Vikings 37-10 last season in Week 17 in Green Bay, when the temperature was 11 degrees at kickoff, and they've won three in a row at home against the Lions, the last two by 18 and 21 points, respectively.

But for both of those games to matter in the playoff picture, the Packers need help from others, and I don't think they're going to get it.

2) Is the Vikings' 11-0 record in one-score games a positive or a looming problem?

Minnesota has been as comfortable living life on the edge as any team, which was apparent Saturday against the Giants when they overcame third-and-9 and third-and-11 situations in the final two minutes to drive for the decisive, 61-yard field goal as time expired.

Unspoken is that the comebacks have been necessary at times because of the Vikings' inability to close out games. For instance, they were ahead by eight points with three minutes to play Saturday, but allowed the Giants to drive 75 yards in 59 seconds and convert the two-point attempt to tie the game. That's concerning, and something that's likely to catch up to them in the playoffs.

3) Will Patrick Mahomes have to play a postseason game as a member of a visiting team for the first time in his career?

Mahomes has 11 career playoff starts. Nine have been in Arrowhead Stadium, the two others in the Super Bowl. If the season ended today, Buffalo would be the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Here's the thing: I don't expect the Bills to hold onto the top spot. I expect the Chiefs to earn it.

They're currently tied with Buffalo at 12-3 for the conference's best record, but the Bills own the tiebreaker based on a head-to-head victory on Oct. 16. That said, look for the Bills to lose on Jan. 2 at Cincinnati, thereby opening the door for the Chiefs to garner the top seed with wins over the Broncos at home and the Raiders on the road.

4) Most dangerous team in the AFC?

The Bengals. They're 11-4 and seeking a second consecutive trip to the Super Bowl. They have won seven in a row and nine of 10, including a win over the Chiefs. Not all of the victories have been pretty, but Cincinnati has displayed an ability to find light amid the dark.

5) Will the Eagles hold on to the NFC's No. 1 seed?

Yes. They are the league's most complete team, and quarterback Jalen Hurts is the rising tide that will keep them floating above challenges from Minnesota, San Francisco and Dallas. It's unclear whether Hurts will miss a second consecutive game with his shoulder injury, but the Eagles are deep enough that they should be able to get by the Saints without him. If not, he could be healthy enough to return for the season finale against the Giants, whom they beat 48-22 two weeks ago.

6) Most dangerous team in the NFC?

San Francisco. It speaks to the depth of talent and coaching that the 49ers can start their third-string quarterback and still be legitimate Super Bowl contenders, riding an eight-game win streak that features six victories by 13 points or more.

The 49ers have a suffocating defense, a big-play running game and a passing attack that comes at opponents from everywhere. Take away their wideouts, and tight end George Kittle will break your back and your heart. He has 10 receptions for 213 yards and four touchdowns the past two weeks, becoming much more than a security blanket for rookie quarterback Brock Purdy.

7) Can Steve Wilks lead the Panthers to the NFC South title and get the permanent job as head coach?

Wilks is one of the season's best stories. He took over as interim head coach in mid-October, after the Panthers fell to 1-4 and fired Matt Rhule. Among his first moves was firing the defensive coordinator and special teams assistant. He saw the team's best player, running back Christian McCaffrey, traded to San Francisco, and was forced to play a handful of games with his third-string quarterback.

Yet, the Panthers have won three of their last four, and four of their last six, and can earn a spot in the playoffs by winning their final two games, at Tampa Bay and at New Orleans. They've already beaten both teams, but those were at home. Carolina is 1-5 on the road, which come to think of it is just another obstacle for Wilks to overcome.

Owner David Tepper said Wilks would be considered for the permanent role if he did an "incredible job." I'd argue he has done that, considering all he had to overcome.

8) Team no one wants to see in the AFC playoffs?

The Jaguars. They have been stockpiling talent and supplementing it with expensive free-agent signings in recent years. Now everything appears to be coming together under coach Doug Pederson, who has connected with players in a way that the previous coach, Urban Meyer, did not.

They have won three in a row and four of five since their bye with the victories coming against the Ravens, Titans, Cowboys and Jets. Baltimore was leading its division at the time; Tennessee was attempting to extend its own division lead; Dallas was seeking to chase down Philadelphia for the NFC East lead; and New York was battling for a playoff spot. In other words, each of the games involved a sense of urgency, and the moments were not too big for Jacksonville.

The Jaguars can advance to the playoffs with wins in their final two games, against Houston and Tennessee, and should they get there ...

Stay tuned.

9) Will Mike Tomlin experience his first losing season as Steelers head coach?


The closest that Tomlin came to a losing season in his first 15 years were the 2012 and 2013 seasons, when he had to win the season finale to finish .500. In both instances, the Steelers defeated the Browns to avoid a losing record.

At 7-8 this season, the Steelers need at least a win and a tie over their final two games to keep the streak alive. And after they play the Ravens in Baltimore this coming weekend -- a game I expect Pittsburgh to win -- guess who the finale will be against. Yep, the Browns.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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