Each year, there's at least one NFL team that goes on a run in the second half of the season and sneaks into the postseason. In 2013, the 5-7 Chargers won four straight to win a wild-card berth, while the 5-6-1 Packers held on just long enough for Aaron Rodgers to return and win the NFC North. In 2014, the Panthers went on a six-game losing streak to fall to 3-8-1 before winning four straight and claiming an unlikely NFC South title. A 5-7 Washington team won out to capture the NFC East in 2015, and last year, the Texans lost three straight to hit 6-6 before clinching the South with a three-game winning streak.
Some team will do the same thing this season, if only because there's still a bunch of playoff spots up for grabs. The AFC wild-card picture is wide-open. The AFC West, which belonged to the Chiefs after five weeks, is suddenly a real race. The Seahawks-Rams game in Week 15 could end up deciding the NFC West, and there's a three-way battle brewing in the NFC South between the Falcons, Panthers and Saints. One of those five teams is going to miss the postseason.
In an attempt to identify the teams that are most likely to make that breakthrough into the playoff picture, let's run through all of the viable contenders and look at why they might (or might not) be bound for meaningful football past Week 17, ranked from 11-1 in terms of my expectations of how likely they are to make the postseason. In addition, I'll identify which current playoff team is most likely to suffer if this outsider team sneaks into the postseason.
This analysis includes each of the teams that the ESPN Football Power Index projects to have at least a 1 percent shot of making the postseason after Week 12. It doesn't include the 12 teams that FPI already projects to make the playoffs, so if your favorite team is missing, you shouldn't be insulted. Note that this is different from the teams that are currently positioned in the six playoff spots in each conference, which is why the 6-5 Bills are included here as outsiders when the 5-5 Ravens are not.
Here are FPI's six projected playoff teams in each conference, plus their playoff odds:
11. Miami Dolphins (4-7)
Playoff odds: 1.1 percent
Last year's sneaky entrant into the playoffs, the 2016 Dolphins rode a rush of narrow victories over middling opponents to a 10-6 record and a wild-card berth. It's tough to see a repeat engagement, given that the Fins were 7-4 this time in 2016, and the 2017 schedule still has another game against the Patriots, a trip to Kansas City and a home-and-home with the Bills to come. Even if the Dolphins win out, The New York Times' playoff simulation says they would still miss the playoffs 22 percent of the time.
Who misses out: The Dolphins would bump the Bills out of the playoff picture by sweeping their division rivals. They also hold the tiebreaker over the Titans after beating Matt Cassel in Week 5, so a Dolphins playoff berth probably would come at the expense of Tennessee.
10. Houston Texans (4-6)
Playoff odds: 6.7 percent
This would be an entirely different conversation if rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson were around, of course. Last week's Cardinals game was almost certainly Tom Savage's best performance of the season, and it still included an interception and a strip sack. Running back D'Onta Foreman is now done for the season, and Will Fuller is out for Monday night's game against the Ravens, injuries that aren't about to help matters with the Houston offense.
The defense already has suffered mightily with its own injuries. Romeo Crennel's unit has basically turned opposing quarterbacks into Pro Bowlers since Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt dropped out of the lineup. With either or both of those edge rushers on the field in 2017, the Texans allowed a passer rating of 87.4. While both of those two stars have been sidelined, Houston's defense has given up a passer rating of 105.3, which would be the second-best mark for any quarterback in football this season.
Even with the Jaguars losing Sunday, the Texans are basically out of the playoff picture in the South, with just a 1.1 percent chance of toppling Jacksonville and Tennessee. They probably have to hope for a total collapse among the league's wild-card candidates, which also involves a win over the Ravens. The Texans still have games against the 49ers and Colts to come, but their other tilts include road trips to Jacksonville and Tennessee along with a home game against the Steelers.
Remember that the Texans fell narrowly short of beating the Patriots and Seahawks during Watson's tenure under center. If they had won both of those games, Bill O'Brien's team would be 6-4 and might have been able to limp into the playoffs. At 4-6, limping isn't really an option.
Who misses out: The Texans probably aren't leaping past both the Jaguars and Titans, but with games to come against each team, it's entirely possible they could jump past Tennessee (whom they beat in Week 4) to sneak into the playoffs. There also might be a universe in which three AFC South teams somehow make it into the postseason, but I'm not emotionally ready to live in it right now.
9. Dallas Cowboys (5-6)
Playoff odds: 1.6 percent
Have you heard about the Cowboys' decline? After finally losing Ezekiel Elliott to his six-game suspension, the Cowboys have lost three straight while scoring a total of just 22 points. The vaunted Dallas offensive line is banged up, with Tyron Smith making it back onto the field on Thanksgiving just long enough for Zack Martin to go down with a concussion. I'm going to look deeper into the topic later this week, but it's fair to say that Jason Garrett's offense is a mess.
As much as the offensive injuries have dragged down that side of the ball, allow me to suggest that the biggest absence for the Cowboys is star linebacker Sean Lee. He has missed nearly five full games this season, and the Cowboys' defense has allowed an average of 28.8 points in those five contests. The defense is at 17 points per game in the other six contests. Its on-field/off-field splits with and without Lee are remarkable:
The Cowboys should theoretically have the offensive firepower to overcome the absence of Elliott, although it certainly hasn't been on display yet. Despite drafting Jaylon Smith in the second round of last year's draft, they don't have the linebackers or broader defensive talent to play well without their defensive leader. The offense can help by producing longer drives -- they produced eight possessions in the Eagles game alone without a first down -- but this is more about one defensive player than one offensive player.
Dak Prescott & Co. are five games behind the Eagles with five to go, so we can basically out rule the division. They still have to play Philadelphia again, but the good news for Dallas is that the rematch won't come until Week 17, so the Eagles might very well be sitting their starters after clinching the top seed in the NFC. The Cowboys otherwise have home games against the Seahawks and Washington and trips to play the Giants and Raiders, so this is otherwise an average schedule. But with a handful of their stars missing and/or hobbled, the Cowboys don't look to be much more than an average team.
Who misses out: If the Cowboys do make a run to the postseason, they're going to have to beat the Seahawks along the way. The New York Times' projection model suggests that the Cowboys cannot make the playoffs unless they beat Seattle in December. With Dallas having lost to Atlanta in Week 10, the most plausible path to the playoffs for the Cowboys would see the Falcons finish 9-7 and the Cowboys and Seahawks tie at 10-6, which would push Dallas into the postseason with a victory over Seattle in what will be Elliott's return game on Christmas Eve.
8. Oakland Raiders (5-6)
Playoff odds: 5.4 percent
The free-falling Chiefs have helped open up things for the Raiders, even though Oakland hasn't been playing impressive football. Sunday's victory over the rival Broncos was probably the Raiders' best win since Week 2, given that they went up 21-0 before allowing two fourth-quarter scores to fill-in quarterback Trevor Siemian. The only downside -- unless you have a specific interest in Michael Crabtree's chain collection -- was the concussion suffered by wideout Amari Cooper.
Sunday was certainly the best defensive performance of the season for a unit that ranked dead last in defensive DVOA before the Raiders fired coordinator Ken Norton Jr. last week. You might want to chalk up Oakland's first interception of the season to the presence of Paxton Lynch, who went 9-of-14 for 41 yards before leaving with an ankle injury, but this is the same defense that allowed Jay Cutler to rack up 311 yards and three touchdowns in Week 9. Lynch isn't the first bad quarterback they've faced.
What was promising, instead, was that the pass-rush cavalry finally showed up to support Khalil Mack. Oakland's superstar edge rusher had 5.5 sacks and 15 knockdowns heading into the game, but his teammates had only managed to support him with 8.5 sacks in their first 10 games. It's not as if this wasn't a problem last season, either, given that the defenders other than Mack accounted for only 14 sacks in 16 games.
Against the Broncos, though, those other Raiders answered the call. New defensive coordinator John Pagano moved Mack around more frequently and everyone else benefited. Oakland's non-Mack rushers racked up four sacks on Sunday, with Bruce Irvin and Denico Autry getting two each. Oakland needs to produce more afternoons and evenings with steady pressure to ease the stress on its struggling secondary.
If you're rooting for the Raiders to make it back to .500, you'll be excited to hear that the Giants come to town next Sunday. The schedule gets much tougher after that: Three of Oakland's final four games are on the road, with trips to play the Chargers, Chiefs and Eagles, along with a home game against an Ezekiel Elliott-less Cowboys team. The Raiders feel like a team that's going to require some serious changes this offseason, but if the defense can piece together a competent run of games, they might be able to recreate the 2014 Panthers and sneak into the playoffs after an ugly run in midseason.
Who misses out: Week 12 left the Raiders with a 4 percent shot of winning the AFC West, so their most likely path to the postseason is as division champs. A win over the Chiefs would give the Raiders a guaranteed tiebreaker over Kansas City and draw their overall records even, excluding what happens in Week 13. If the Chiefs do fall out of the race, it's not out of the question to imagine Oakland traveling to Los Angeles for a Week 17 play-in game against the Chargers with the division title on the line. Won't that be an interesting crowd?
7. Green Bay Packers (5-6)
Playoff odds: 2.5 percent
Packers fans know the drill on this one from when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in 2013. Green Bay keeps the door open just long enough for Rodgers to come back, giving the league's most talented player just enough time to sneak the Pack into the postseason.
I'm not sure that's going to happen this time around. As I wrote in October, the reason that plan worked in 2013 is because no team wanted to win the NFC North. The Packers ended up at 7-7-1 heading into Week 17, at which point Rodgers converted a fourth-and-10 late in the fourth quarter to send the Bears franchise into a downward spiral and grant Green Bay a division title.
This time around, the Packers would need a far bigger miracle to win the division. FPI gives Green Bay just a 0.2 percent chance of winning the North. The team's slim postseason chances revolve around a wild-card spot, which is far tougher to earn with eight wins. The Packers also still have games against the Panthers and Vikings to come. This isn't going to be easy.
Let's work backward. Rodgers is eligible to return in Week 15, nine weeks after Anthony Barr fractured his collarbone. The games against the Panthers and Vikings come in Weeks 15 and 16 before a season-ending trip to Detroit. Just about any scenario for a Packers playoff berth involves sweeping those three games, leaving the Pack at 8-6.
Pull that off and this miraculous run seems feasible. Green Bay's other two games are hosting Tampa Bay and at Cleveland, both of which should favor the Packers even with Brett Hundley under center. If the Packers run the table, they end up at 10-6, which The New York Times projects would give Green Bay a 90 percent chance of making the playoffs.
The problem, of course, is that winning five straight games is difficult. FPI gives the Packers a more than 60 percent shot of beating both the Buccaneers and Browns and then considers the Packers to be comfortable underdogs against their three other matchups, although that's with Hundley projected to play. Even if we were to be extremely generous and project the Packers to be 50-50 propositions in each of their three games after Rodgers returns, the Pack would have just a 4.7 percent shot at running the table.
Who misses out: Probably the Panthers or Seahawks, given that the Packers lost to both the Falcons and Saints but beat the Seahawks in the opener and would hold the tiebreaker over Carolina with a win in Week 15.
6. Washington (5-6)
Playoff odds: 2.7 percent
Having less than a 3 percent chance to make the playoffs doesn't sound particularly optimistic, but even that 2.7 percent might be generous given how many injuries Washington seems to be battling on a weekly basis. Its offensive line has gotten healthier, but nearly every key Washington player short of Kirk Cousins and Ryan Kerrigan has missed time or been an injury concern at one point or another this season.
It's a shame, too, because Washington's résumé is underrated. It takes a pretty good team to win on the road against the Rams and Seahawks in 2017, and five of its six losses have come against teams that are currently projected to make the playoffs. (The other loss was against a full-strength Cowboys team.) The Washington schedule the rest of the way isn't particularly tough, either: Jay Gruden's team gets the shareware version of the Cowboys next week and the Chargers on the road before finishing with the Cardinals, Broncos and Giants.
Nobody would bat an eye if Washington went 4-1 against that slate of opponents to finish 9-7. The reality, though, is that 9-7 probably won't be good enough to nab a wild-card spot in the NFC. The Falcons and Seahawks, currently competing for the sixth spot, are each projected to hit 10 wins after rounding. Cousins & Co. don't have any margin for error or injury left.
Who misses out: With wins over the Rams and the Seahawks, a 10-6 Washington team probably would keep the second-place NFC West team out of the postseason.
5. Buffalo Bills (6-5)
Playoff odds: 22.4 percent
Two weeks ago, rookie head coach Sean McDermott would have been delighted to hear that he was going to come away from Buffalo's two-game road trip out West with a split. How the Bills got there is another story: They benched Tyrod Taylor for what ended up as one of the most disastrous debut starts in NFL history from Nathan Peterman before shocking the Chiefs as nine-point underdogs on Sunday. They also lost recently acquired wideout Kelvin Benjamin to a torn meniscus last week.
Assuming the Patriots don't forfeit the remainder of the season, the Bills are competing for one of the two wild-card spots available in the AFC. At 6-5, Buffalo has the sixth spot in the AFC playoffs to itself, pending the Ravens' game against the Texans on Monday Night Football. Baltimore would move ahead of Buffalo by virtue of a slightly better record within the conference with a victory, with the Bengals, Chargers and Raiders lurking one game behind.
The most promising thing to come out of Sunday's win over the Chiefs was the return of what had been a fading Bills defense. Leslie Frazier's crew had allowed 129 points over their three previous games, but with much better average starting field position, the Bills starved the Chiefs of production. Kansas City's offense also has been struggling, but it's rare to see an offense held to one first down in the first half, as was the case with Alex Smith's unit Sunday.
For all the talk about the quarterback change over the past two weeks, the Bills are going to win games by playing sound defense, running the football and avoiding giveaways on offense. They're now 4-1 this season and 13-6 during Taylor's run with the team in games in which they don't turn the ball over. The running game didn't show up Sunday -- LeSean McCoy ran 22 times for 49 yards and just four first downs -- and as I mentioned last week, the Bills might need to move Taylor back into the shotgun to get the timing of their running game going again.
The Bills now return to the East for a three-game homestand, beginning with the first of their two games to come against the Patriots. That home-and-home with New England is the biggest hindrance to Buffalo's playoff chances, given that the three other remaining games include the Colts and a pair of contests with the Dolphins. It's a lot to ask because the Bills are 1-9 in their last 10 games against the Patriots when New England hasn't been sitting its starters, but if Buffalo could just come up with another split ...
Who misses out: Could it be the Chiefs? If Kansas City blows its AFC West lead and has to compete for a wild-card berth, the Bills would hold the tiebreaker over Andy Reid's team. On the other hand, if the Bills are tied with the Chargers, they would be kept out of the playoffs by virtue of losing the Peterman game in Week 11. For the sake of long-suffering Bills fans, let's hope it doesn't come down to that.
4. Detroit Lions (6-5)
Playoff odds: 19.2 percent
Losing to the Vikings on Thanksgiving probably cost the Lions their chance at winning the North, as their division odds dropped from 14.0 percent to 1.6 percent. Jim Caldwell's team is now three games behind with five to play, whereas a win over the Vikes would have put them one behind with a guaranteed tiebreaker over Minnesota in their back pocket. The Vikings are capable of collapsing -- look at what happened after their 5-0 start last season once their defense stopped forcing an absurd amount of takeaways -- but the Lions might not have enough time to catch up.
Coincidentally, it's the Lions who have the same concerns about their defense without turnovers. Detroit forced 14 takeaways in six games before its bye, a stretch that saw its defense rank as 10th best in win probability added (WPA). Since the bye, the Lions have been able to generate only five takeaways in five games, and their defense has subsequently fallen to 28th in WPA.
The likely season-ending biceps injury suffered by Haloti Ngata in Week 5 also has ruined Detroit's run defense. The Lions were allowing 3.4 yards per carry and 1.8 yards before first contact with Ngata in the lineup, but Detroit has allowed 4.6 yards per carry and 2.7 yards before first contact with the former Ravens star sidelined. Detroit also hasn't been able to find a reliable corner across from star Darius Slay for yet another season, which has led to a rotation between D.J. Hayden and Nevin Lawson for the spot.
Unsurprisingly, the Lions also haven't been able to keep up their remarkable run of late-game success under Matthew Stafford, who set a league record with eight fourth-quarter comeback victories last season. Stafford has just one fourth-quarter comeback this season, and that came against the Cardinals in Week 1. The former first overall pick came up a half-yard short against the Falcons, failed to score on a goal-to-go situation against the Steelers, and missed a would-be big play to Golden Tate before throwing a game-sealing interception against the Vikings on Thursday.
Stafford also admitted that he was banged up after the game, a common occurrence after his run-ins with the Vikings in years past. The signal-caller struggled with his accuracy after injuring his ankle in the second half, and if the ailment lingers, the Lions won't be able to compensate for any Stafford drop-off. They don't have the running game or the defense to win without huge doses of Stafford, and the only backup they have on the roster is 2016 sixth-round pick Jake Rudock.
With a healthy (or at least functional) Stafford on the field, the Lions will be facing a relatively friendly schedule, with no winning records remaining on their opposing slate. It would help matters if the Packers fall out of the race, given that Ezekiel Ansah & Co. would be in line to face Aaron Rodgers in a possible wild-card play-in game in Week 17. Their toughest game remaining is against the Ravens next Sunday, with the extended rest likely helping Stafford to get healthy.
Who misses out: The second-place team in the NFC West, given that the NFC South is likely to send two playoff teams out of the Falcons, Panthers and Saints, and the Lions have lost to all three. Detroit has a better shot at winning a tiebreaker with the Rams, who are 5-3 in games against the NFC but still have the Eagles to play.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (5-6)
Playoff odds: 5.7 percent
Nobody gets excited by the Bengals at this point, but they're quietly rounding into form, especially on offense. The Andrew Whitworth-less offensive line was a disaster early in the season, and I'm still not sure I trust Cedric Ogbuehi at left tackle, but this passing game might have turned the corner. Let's look at two anonymous quarterbacks and how they've performed since Week 8:
He has played one additional game, but Quarterback A -- Andy Dalton -- has put up similar rate statistics to Quarterback C, who is Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. Wentz's Total QBR has been significantly better, but if you're in the same neighborhood of raw statistics as the guy who has been solidifying his MVP candidacy, you're doing something right. Dalton also has played the Broncos and Jaguars over that stretch, so it hasn't all been against Browns-level opposition, either.
The offense might not need to contribute all that much, either. The Bengals' defense ranked 12th in DVOA heading into this week's game against the Browns, which saw them allow 405 yards while holding DeShone Kizer & Co. to 16 points. Cleveland was one of the reasons why the Bengals had the easiest remaining slate of opposing offenses heading into the week; after the Steelers next week, the Bengals finish up with the Bears, Vikings, Lions and Ravens.
Crucially, the Cincinnati defense is getting healthy, which could come in handy in December. The only starter it missed against the Browns was safety Shawn Williams, with Adam Jones and depth corner Darqueze Dennard returning to the fold. The Bengals did lose linebacker Nick Vigil during the game with an ankle injury, but they are capable of getting by with Kevin Minter and Vontaze Burfict as their linebackers in the nickel.
Cincinnati's season might very well come down to what the Bengals do against the Steelers next week and whether they can beat the Ravens in Week 17. The New York Times suggests that Bengals victories in both games would bump their playoff chances from 9 percent to 43 percent. Given how inconsistent both those teams are from week to week, it's hardly out of the question to peg Cincinnati as a surprise candidate to soar up the ranks.
Who misses out: The Ravens would be the obvious pick to drop out of the playoff picture if the Bengals sneak in. Cincinnati also holds a head-to-head win over the Bills, which would come in handy as a tiebreaker.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (5-6)
Playoff odds: 38.5 percent
After four weeks, the Chargers were 0-4 and four games back in the AFC West behind the 4-0 Chiefs, who were one of three teams to beat Philip Rivers & Co. during their three-game debut homestand in Los Angeles. The Broncos were at 3-1 after beating the Raiders, who were 2-2 but likely to right the ship after going 12-4 last year. ESPN's Football Power Index gave the Chargers a better shot at finishing with the first overall pick in the draft (3.1 percent) than it did to make the playoffs (1.8 percent).
Since then, the division has turned. The Broncos have lost all seven of their games after the bye and have cycled through three quarterbacks. Oakland never bounced back and has gone 3-4, leading to the firing of its defensive coordinator. Even the Chiefs have disappointed, with their own 2-5 stretch punctuated by an embarrassing loss to the lowly Giants in Week 11, which ruins the Andy Reid-after-the-bye stat for the remainder of time.
The Chargers, meanwhile, have gone 5-2. They've only Chargersed (TM) once, somehow blowing a three-point lead to the Jaguars despite forcing Blake Bortles to throw two interceptions late in the fourth quarter and taking the ball over with a 95.9 percent chance of winning. They haven't beaten any great teams, but after narrow victories over the Giants and Raiders, Anthony Lynn's team has beaten the Broncos, Bills and Cowboys by a combined 73 points.
As much as it might feel like the Chargers are in shootouts every week, it's the defense that has carried Los Angeles back toward .500. Split their season into that 0-4 start and the 5-2 return and you can see how their pass defense has improved dramatically:
As tempting as it is to ascribe the improvement to the devastating one-two punch of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, they were one of the few elements of this team firing on full cylinders during the 0-4 start. The difference has been much-improved tackling in the secondary and a drastically improved takeaway rate. The Chargers have racked up 12 interceptions in their past five games, with the only zero-interception game in that stretch coming against Tom Brady. The defense has actually improved since losing Jason Verrett to another season-ending injury, with rookie Desmond King delivering a wildly impressive rookie season in the slot.
If you're rooting for the Chargers to keep up this torrid interception rate, good news: The Browns are coming to town next weekend, and the Chargers still have a game against Josh McCown to come. I suspect Los Angeles will have a tougher time forcing picks against the Chiefs, Raiders and Washington, though, and I'd note that nine of those 12 picks came from the arms of Bortles, Nathan Peterman and Trevor Siemian. The Chargers won't get another game against any of those quarterbacks until the playoffs.
There are also still concerns about the tackling against the run. The Chargers were 32nd in average yards allowed after first contact against the run from Weeks 1-4 and ... have also been 32nd in the same category from Weeks 5-12. The best-case scenario for an improvement there is the return of inside linebacker Denzel Perryman, who spent the first half of the season on injured reserve. The Chargers have allowed 2.45 yards after first contact per run with Perryman on the sideline, but with Perryman on the field for 34 rushing attempts since returning three weeks ago, Los Angeles has allowed only 1.12 yards after contact and four rushing first downs.
It seems dangerous to pencil in a win over the Browns, given what happened when the two teams played last year, but if the Chargers can win as heavy home favorites and take their record back to 6-6, they'll be in for a very interesting backstretch to their season. The Chiefs are their only game remaining against a team with a winning record, and three of their final five games are at home.
FPI gives them a 23.5 percent chance of overcoming the Chiefs for the AFC West title and a 15 percent shot at a wild-card berth, even though it projects Los Angeles to finish with only 8.5 wins. As anyone who has watched the Chargers over the past couple of seasons knows, there's no team in football capable of looking more dominant and then more inept in the same game than the Chargers. Their biggest obstacle might be themselves.
Who misses out: The Ravens, who are projected to win only 8.9 games while coming away with the sixth seed 36.6 percent of the time. Even though it feels like the Chiefs might not ever win a game again, they still have a 72.5 percent shot at winning the West.
1. Atlanta Falcons (7-4)
Playoff odds: 54.7 percent
The Falcons are the favorites to come away with the sixth seed in the NFC, with a 25.5 percent shot of opening the playoffs against the 3-seed, but the Seahawks have a better shot at making the postseason (60.4 percent) by virtue of their more competitive division race. Seattle still has a 38.1 percent chance of winning the West, while Atlanta has just a 9.8 percent chance of making up its deficit in the South.
After the Saints lost to the Rams on Sunday, they fell into a tie with the Panthers for first place in the South at 8-3 and dropped to within one game of the Falcons at 7-4. The tiebreakers currently favor New Orleans, given that they blew out the Panthers, who beat the Falcons in Week 9. An optimistic Falcons fan probably would point to the fact that Atlanta still gets to play New Orleans twice and has a home game in Week 17 against Carolina, but those are also three games against very good teams. They also have a home game against the red-hot Vikings next week.
The concerns about Atlanta's offense under Steve Sarkisian after the Panthers loss were overblown at the time, something Matt Ryan & Co. have proved over the past month. They've averaged 29.3 points per game in three wins over the Cowboys, Seahawks and Buccaneers, with Ryan posting a passer rating of 110.5 and a Total QBR of 88.8, the latter of which is second in the league behind Case Keenum. Over the entire season, the Falcons are third in yards gained per possession (36.7) and fifth in both points per possession (2.24) and three-and-out percentage (29.5 percent).
Instead, the real improvement has come on defense, particularly with the pass rush. Atlanta was 25th in pressure rate during the first half of the season, racking up 31 knockdowns in eight games. During this three-game winning streak, though, the Falcons have been 10th in pressure rate and generated 25 knockdowns. Not all of that is the Adrian Clayborn MVP game against the Cowboys, either; the Falcons have knocked down the opposing quarterback at least eight times in each of their past three games.
Concussions have sidelined Devonta Freeman and Desmond Trufant, but those are the only two Falcons starters currently on the shelf, which is rare for a competitive team after Thanksgiving. Last season, Atlanta hit a new level in January when its defense suddenly took a leap forward and started getting after the quarterback. It's entirely possible we're witnessing the Falcons' young, speedy defense make the same sort of jump two months earlier in 2017.
Who misses out: The Seahawks seem like the obvious candidates, given that they're the most vulnerable team in the field and lost to the Falcons two weeks ago. If the Falcons sweep the archrival Saints, though, New Orleans could suddenly be in danger of missing out on both the division and a wild-card berth.