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Thursday, September 19, 2019

10 NFL teams rising and falling ahead of the playoffs

Dak Prescott

We’re getting to the time of year when momentum starts to matter for potential NFL playoff teams. Bad losses can pile up and prove mentally taxing, while a winning streak breeds swagger and confidence. With the playoffs looming, every team is looking for a hefty dose of the latter to power them through the right time of the year.

Whose stock is rising — and falling — at this pivotal time of the season? Here’s a look at ten teams.

Rising: Dallas Cowboys (8-5)

No team has done more for their playoff aspirations in less time than the Cowboys, who have won five in a row. The acquisition of Amari Cooper, widely derided at the time for the first-round pick they gave up, now looks like a masterstroke, with Cooper looking like the No. 1 wide receiver the Cowboys dreamed he’d be. An improving offense coupled with a strong defense that shut down the Saints means Dallas should be a force to be reckoned with in the NFC playoffs, just weeks after looking like they might not even make it to that point.

Falling: Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5-1)

It’s tough to diagnose what has happened to the Steelers in the last three weeks. A loss at the Broncos wasn’t great, but Denver can be a tough place to play, and the Steelers blew some golden scoring opportunities in that one. Blowing a big lead at home to the Chargers wasn’t ideal either, but at least they lost to a playoff-caliber opponent. There’s no excusing a road loss to the Oakland Raiders, though, even if you take into account Ben Roethlisberger missing part of that game with injury. With the Patriots and Saints due up next, it gets no easier for Pittsburgh, who suddenly have work to do to consolidate a playoff spot after looking like they were in line for a possible bye. Having Big Ben and James Conner banged up doesn’t help matters either.

Rising: Los Angeles Chargers (10-3)

The Chargers lost two of their first three games but are 9-1 since. The biggest of those wins came in Pittsburgh, where Los Angeles rallied from a 23-7 halftime deficit to win on the road against a playoff team. It may or may not be a watershed moment for the team, but right now, few look capable of slowing down Philip Rivers and a defense that is really rounding into form at the right time. Thursday night’s game at Kansas City, which could decide the AFC West, will tell us a lot about this team.

Falling: Minnesota Vikings (6-6-1)

The Vikings keep blowing chances to keep themselves in the NFC North race. They’ll almost certainly be forced to settle for a wild card if they make the playoffs at all, despite preseason expectations that had them up with the Rams and Saints among the class of the NFC. Kirk Cousins has not lived up to expectations, and it’s gotten the offensive coordinator fired. It’s not too late for them to make the playoffs, but they have to pull together what looks like a real mess right now.

Rising: Seattle Seahawks (8-5)

The end of the Legion of Boom was supposed to mean the end of the Seattle Seahawks as a contending football team. That hasn’t happened at all, mostly because Russell Wilson is an elite quarterback and the Seahawks have proven exceptionally adept at replacing their losses on the defensive side of the ball. Only two NFC teams have allowed fewer points, and four consecutive wins have the Seahawks well-positioned to make a return to the playoffs, where it would be exceptionally unwise to write them off prematurely.

Falling: Carolina Panthers (6-7)

Cam Newton isn’t healthy, they’re not doing the little things right, and the defense suddenly looks a lot less sturdy. The Panthers have lost five games in a row after a 6-2 start, and it looks increasingly likely that they’ll miss the playoffs entirely in a collapse that could cost a lot of people their jobs. Even if they somehow pull it together and make it, they’re severely damaged goods, and it’s hard to see Newton beating any playoff-caliber opponent in the state he’s in.

Rising: Chicago Bears (9-4)

A win over the Los Angeles Rams, backed by one of the season’s most suffocating defensive performances, seems to have clued many people in on what this team is capable of. Khalil Mack has transformed the defense into one of the league’s best units, while Mitchell Trubisky’s growth has led to a better offense, even if he clearly has work to do yet. The Bears appear to be cruising to the NFC North title, and you only need to watch tape of their game against the Rams to realize the type of threat they could pose against even the most elite offensive opposition.

Falling: Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)

The Eagles’ loss to Dallas in overtime was so crushing because it looked like they were on the verge of a resurgence. They’re not out of the playoff race, but every time it looks like they’re about to turn a corner, they lose a game — often in ugly or devastating ways. With games against the Los Angeles Rams and Houston Texans looming, Philadelphia could very quickly fade out of the playoff conversation that they’re only barely clinging to as it stands.

Rising: Indianapolis Colts (7-6)

The Colts are 6-1 in their last seven games, culminating in a statement win against the division-leading Houston Texans last week. Andrew Luck is healthy and resurgent, and the Colts have piled up the points with him under center. Only four AFC teams have outscored them this season. A sturdier line and good-enough defense actually have the Colts well-positioned for a playoff race. Though a tough game against the Cowboys remains on their schedule, Indianapolis must be taken seriously as a potential playoff team gaining momentum at the right time.

Falling: Denver Broncos (6-7)

The Broncos actually looked well-positioned for a late playoff run. At 6-6, they had games against the 49ers, Browns, and Raiders, all beatable, before having to deal with the Chargers. Unfortunately, one of those winnable games fell by the wayside as the Niners stunned them on Sunday, sending Denver’s playoff chances hurtling. It’s not impossible, especially if they handle their business, but this team’s outlook appears a lot worse after the loss to the Niners.

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