With three weeks remaining in the 2022 NFL gauntlet, teams sitting on the bubble have little time to push their way into the postseason.
There are five 7-7 squads in the hunt for a spot in the playoff tournament. The winding NFL season has been a roller coaster for these .500 teams, with win streaks abutting losing skids and disappointments buffered by surprises. Of the group, only the Detroit Lions are currently playing winning football in December. The other four must turn the tide in the final three weeks to make the postseason dance.
Let's look at each 7-7 club's remaining schedule, ranking them from least to most dangerous heading into the final stretch of the season:
REMAINING GAMES: vs. Bengals; vs. Dolphins; at Bills.
In most universes, the Patriots aren't even on this list. But in this world, they bumbled last week's defeat in Vegas in epic fashion. The special teams had a punt blocked, the offense sputtered, the defense collapsed late, and Bill Belichick's band topped it off with the most bewildering tie-game lateral in NFL history gone sideways. It was the most un-Belichickian loss. The Pats are the least dangerous playoff hopeful because the offense (ranked 25th in the NFL) is downright pitiful. There are high schools in Texas with more creativity and better execution. If Mac Jones can't puncture a flimsy Raiders secondary (13-of-31 for 112 yards on Sunday), how can we expect him to lead a postseason push? The only reason the Pats still have a shot is a defense that creates turnovers (22, tied for fourth in the NFL) and sacks (48, third). But the remaining schedule is chock full of offenses that can stack points. Unless New England pitches near shutouts, it's hard to picture Jones and Co. conjuring the firepower to go on a winning streak.
REMAINING GAMES: vs. Texans; vs. Cowboys; at Jaguars.
Injuries might have finally caught up to Mike Vrabel's warriors. No one can question the Titans' grit; they've battled despite being outmatched on paper and dealing with a trove of absences. The offensive line is struggling and battered. The defense has seen key playmakers exit since August. And now quarterback Ryan Tannehill is dealing with an ankle injury that puts his availability into question down the stretch. Vrabel's crew built a big division lead mostly by beating up doormats during a 7-3 start. Their current four-game losing streak, featuring opponents in playoff position, showed cracks. The blowout loss to Jacksonville in Week 14 was the starkest defeat and could cost Tennessee a playoff spot if the Jags continue to surge. The Week 18 rematch could be for all the division marbles. At this point, with a banged-up club lacking weapons, even if the Titans get back into the postseason, it's difficult to imagine them lasting long.
REMAINING GAMES: at Chiefs; vs. Jets; vs. Rams.
After a hot start to the season, the Seahawks have nosedived. Losers of four of their past five games, Pete Carroll's club has misplaced its mojo. Geno Smith continues to play stellar football, leading a passing attack that can churn out yards and hit explosive plays. The QB isn't the issue. The troubles rest nearly everywhere else. The running game went into the tank even before Kenneth Walker III injured his ankle, against the Rams in Week 12. Seattle has gained more than 75 yards rushing once in the past five games. I'm no "establish the run" zealot, but the inability to generate yards on the ground has led to long down-and-distances that have killed the offense. At the same time, Seattle's D has come back to earth, allowing opponents to pile up yards -- 426 on average in the past four losses. The next two weeks will make or break the Seahawks' chances. Wins over K.C. and New York would put Seattle in the driver's seat to leap into the postseason, as they own the tiebreaker over Detroit. Lose, and a once-promising campaign behind Smith's resurgence comes up shy.
REMAINING GAMES: vs. Jaguars; at Seahawks; at Dolphins.
The Jets would be ranked No. 1 on this list if Mike White were healthy enough to start on Thursday. Then again, they'd likely be 8-6 if White had played Sunday instead of Zach Wilson. Gang Green boasts an excellent defense. Despite not having Pro Bowl vote-magnet Quinnen Williams against Detroit, the Jets slowed down a Lions club averaging 32.2 points in its previous five games. It was a smothering performance -- outside of allowing a back-breaking fourth-and-inches TD. But that's what it's been like for Robert Saleh's club recently, enduring four losses in five games. Wilson displayed the ability to make off-schedule plays Sunday for big gains. We already knew he could do that. The second-year QB has been unable to play within the framework of the offense, keep things on schedule and allow his receivers to make plays in space. With Wilson at the helm, we can't trust the offense to avoid bumbling away big moments. White has been generously given a gold star for close losses -- the expectations should be raised if he returns this season -- but the offense simply runs better with the former fifth-rounder at the helm.
REMAINING GAMES: at Panthers; vs. Bears; at Packers.
Well, well, well. What have we here? A Lions team that's (gasp) actually fun to watch? Detroit has washed off the stench of a 1-6 start that had some questioning Dan Campbell's future. During their current 6-1 streak, the Lions have boasted an entertaining offense behind coordinator Ben Johnson. The defense has improved, if only slightly, thanks largely to its performance against the run and surging improvement from rookies. With help from a good offensive line, a go-to star in receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and diverse play-calling, Jared Goff is playing the most efficient football of his career -- even better than in his 2018 Pro Bowl season, if not as explosive. The team that general manager Brad Holmes put together, and which Campbell lit a fire under, has overperformed in Year 2. Can the Lions keep the pedal to the metal?
After Sunday's big road win in New York, the schedule sets up nicely for Detroit to make a postseason run, presenting three teams all under .500. Get a little assistance along the way, and the Lions would become just the second team in NFL history to start 1-6 and make the postseason (joining the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals). Of course, all this bubbling optimism is sure to make lifelong Lions fans queasy, anticipating the rug getting pulled out in Week 18 in Green Bay -- probably by backup Packers quarterback Jordan Love, because that's how these things usually go.