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NFL Contenders and Pretenders: Week 11

[lead align=”default”]It’s that time of the year when, after looking at the teams and their standings, we figure out the NFL contenders and pretenders.[/lead]

Obviously, the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys are contenders. In another compelling twist, the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns have as much chance at the playoffs as you do. It’s many of those teams in the middle that are in question.

Which AFC teams are legitimate and who appears to have a shot but doesn’t? Who in the NFC will best weather the last two months? Please keep in mind that these are contenders for the playoffs, not necessarily the Super Bowl.

NFL Contenders and Pretenders: NFC

New York Giants. The Giants are contenders because their defense is much improved and the offense has several elite receivers. Sure, Eli Manning throws picks and the offensive line is suspect. Oh, and the Giants don’t have a run game, either. They do have Odell Beckham, Victor Cruz, and Sterling Shepard. Big Blue also has a vastly improved defense that includes big playmaker Landon Collins. At 6-3, they can pick up a wild card.

Detroit Lions. This is an interesting call, but the Lions are contenders for the playoffs. It’s less because of what they are and more what their opposition is not. Green Bay and Minnesota look like crap right now, and Chicago never got off the runway. Why can’t Detroit keep up in the NFC North?

Philadelphia Eagles. Because the Eagles are a better team than most were willing to admit early on, Philly are contenders. They’ve bagged a couple of good wins already, and Carson Wentz is having a fine rookie year. Defensively, the Eagles are one of the best performing teams in the NFC.

Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota is a playoff contender if we assume that the team we saw in September comes back. Their defense has a lot of talent, but it’s the offense posing a serious problem. (No, we’re not absolving the defense for recent lapses, but it’s still one of the best and it’s much better than the offense.) If Sam Bradford’s offense ever figures it out, they can work their way back into the field.

Green Bay Packers. The Packers look like pretenders to me, and it’s not just because of the Titans disaster. Green Bay’s defense is terrible and seldom have they looked impressive this season. Aaron Rodgers is still slinging it, but the Pack have too many holes on the other side of the ball.

NFL Contenders and Pretenders: AFC

Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens are contenders, I guess, but it’s hard to be sold on them. As the first place team, yes, contenders, but there’s a legitimate question as to how good they are. The defense looks fine, but their offense is unimpressive. Joe Flacco’s numbers are at best pedestrian, and they have no run game.

Miami Dolphins. I don’t think Miami is all that good, personally. At best, they are an average football team, but on the other hand, they’re 5-4. They’re not going to clip the Pats to win the AFC East, and chances are they’re not catching the three-headed monster in the AFC West to grab a wild card. Therefore, they are pretenders, but here’s the thing: Miami’s schedule is very easy. I could see this team at 9-7.

Tennessee Titans. The Titans are pretenders despite being 5-5. Their division is led by Houston, a likely playoff team but perhaps not a Super Bowl contender. Houston is catchable, but Tennessee’s schedule doesn’t lend itself to a big surge. If they lose to the Broncos, Chiefs, and Texans, they’re no better than 8-8. Marcus Mariota is having a great season, but the Titans are maybe another year or so away.

Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh are contenders because they’ve been there, they play in a lousy division, and their schedule is doable. They still get Cleveland twice plus beatable Bills, Bengals, and Colts teams, as well as a chance for revenge against Baltimore. Their most difficult game is against the Giants, but it’s a home game.

Buffalo Bills. Sorry, Buffalo, but the Bills are pretenders. You can pretty much copy and paste the situation with Miami down in here: easy schedule, okay overall performance, but too far out to catch anyone.

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