NFL

NFL playoff picture: How the bracket looks right now

The passing of Week 9 means that we’ve moved into the second half of the NFL season. More games have been played than will be played. And you know what that means, don’t you? It’s time to start digesting the 2018 playoff picture.

What follows is a snapshot of what the playoffs would look like if the season were over. It’s not, of course, and there are so many games remaining that three division leaders — the Bears, Saints and Redskins — have two games left against the current No. 2 team. But we can still get into the spirit of the thing.

AFC

1. Kansas City Chiefs (8-1)

The Chiefs have been the most entertaining team in the NFL this season. They’ve eclipsed 40 points in two games and scored less than 30 points only once. And while there is no indication that they’re primed for a slide, it’s worth looking back to 2013 for context. In coach Andy Reid’s first season with the Chiefs, they started 9-0 before losing five of their final seven regular season games and losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs. In other words, there is a long way to go. But thus far, little has slowed Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense.

2. New England Patriots (7-2)

A Week 6 victory over the Chiefs means the Patriots really only need to gain one game in the AFC standings to get control of the No. 1 seed. (The Patriots would win via head-to-head tiebreaker in the event of identical records.) Their schedule looks promising. At the moment, only three of their final seven opponents have winning records. Overall, ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) rates the Patriots’ second-half strength of schedule as the third-easiest in the NFL.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2-1)

After finding their stride during a four-game winning streak, the Steelers are moving into a tough part of their schedule. They host the red-hot Panthers on a short week and soon will face the Chargers, Patriots and Saints in a four-week stretch. For that reason, FPI rates their strength of schedule in the second half as the NFL’s fifth-most difficult. And despite it all, they have put almost no distance between themselves and the Bengals.

4. Houston Texans (6-3)

What do we make of the Texans? They are the fourth team in NFL history to win at least six consecutive games after an 0-3 start, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. If nothing else, we can say they have been the best team in a bad division. Every other member of the AFC South has a losing record, with the Titans (3-4) set to play Monday night.

5. Los Angeles Chargers (6-2)

A five-game winning streak has kept the Chargers within striking distance of the Chiefs and well atop the early wild-card race. FPI’s live projections Sunday night gave the Chargers a 93-percent chance of going to the playoffs. That in itself is a wild development in recent franchise history. They’ve missed the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons, with 2013 as the sole exception.

6. Cincinnati Bengals (5-3)

The Bengals are in the thick of the AFC North race and would qualify as a wild card if the season ended today. The second tier of the AFC appears thin at the moment. The only other team with a winning record outside the top six is the Dolphins (5-4). And with the annual discussion of coach Marvin Lewis’ job security, would a return to the playoffs after a two-year absence be enough to extend his tenure?

In the hunt: Miami Dolphins (5-4), Baltimore Ravens (4-5), Tennessee Titans (3-4), Jacksonville Jaguars (3-5), Indianapolis Colts (3-5)

NFC

1. Los Angeles Rams (8-1)

In one day, the Rams went from undefeated at the season’s midpoint to losing control of the NFC lead. The Rams would fall short in the head-to-head tiebreaker for playoff positioning, possibly for the No. 1 overall seed, after losing to the Saints in Sunday’s track meet at the Superdome. (The Saints have played one fewer game, holding them behind the Rams for the time-being.) And although they have a relative cakewalk ahead of them in the NFC West, where they are three games ahead of the Seahawks, the Rams will have to work to keep up with the Saints. Their remaining out-of-division schedule includes games against the Chiefs, Bears and Eagles.

2. New Orleans Saints (7-1)

Riding a seven-game winning streak, the Saints are as good as any team in the NFL. They can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they win out. That’s the good news. The bad news? The NFC South is shaping up to be a heavyweight fight. The Panthers are only one game worse, and the teams will play twice in the final three weeks of the regular season. Overall, the Saints will have the third-toughest strength of schedule during the second half of the season, according to FPI.

3. Chicago Bears (5-3)

Some of you might question whether the Bears are for real, or if they are just a gimmick offense with a good defense that has played an easy schedule thus far. Here’s what we can tell you: They had the NFL’s weakest strength-of-schedule during the first half of the season, per FPI. That will change a bit in the second half, when they will play the Vikings and Detroit Lions twice, and the Packers once. Much of the Bears’ story remains to be told.

4. Washington Redskins (5-3)

Sunday’s loss to Falcons was one of the NFC’s highest-leverage games in terms of playoff probability, per FPI. Although they hold a one-game lead in the NFC East, FPI gives them a 39-percent chance to advance to the postseason. (That figure does not include all of Sunday’s action.) Losing to a potential wild-card competitor is significant. Just as important: The Redskins’ remaining schedule includes two games against the Eagles, who have won two of their past three games.

5. Carolina Panthers (6-2)

While everyone was congratulating the Rams and Saints for their innovative schemes, the Panthers were winning five of six games — and averaging 30 points per game while doing so. The Panthers present a sizable obstacle to the Saints winning the NFC South, and both teams at this point should be considered Super Bowl contenders.

6. Minnesota Vikings (5-3-1)

The Vikings enter their bye with much to look forward to. They’ve gotten top running back Dalvin Cook back on the field after he missed five games because of a hamstring injury. Pass rusher Everson Griffen has played in two straight after being away from the team since Week 3 to deal with mental health issues after a series of incidents. In the meantime, Danielle Hunter has emerged as one of the top pass rushers in football. Receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs will have time to get healthy. And the Vikings’ remaining schedule, which includes two games against the Bears, gives them an opportunity to challenge for the NFC North title. Minnesota is trending up.

In the hunt: Atlanta Falcons (4-4), Seattle Seahawks (4-4), Philadelphia Eagles (4-4), Dallas Cowboys (3-4), Green Bay Packers (3-4-1)

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