With just 4 weeks remaining in the NFL’s 2023 regular season, the league’s two conferences and 8 divisions break down thusly: The Good, the Glad, and the Fugly (or in lesser cases, just Ugly).
At the top of the pyramid (The Good) sit the three 10-win, division leaders (San Francisco, Dallas, Baltimore) as well as NFC East co-leader Philadelphia. At 9-4, Miami and Detroit lead the AFC East and NFC North respectively. At 8-5, Kansas City and Jacksonville deserve mention by virtue of their tenuous positions atop the AFC West and South. Barring catastrophic injury and/or cataclysmic collapse, these eight teams figure to be among the 14 who ultimately will qualify for the NFL post season.
Near the bottom (the Ugly’s and Fugly’s), Carolina (1-12) and Las Vegas (5-8) have already cashiered head coaches. The Commandeers (4-9), Bears (5-8), and Chargers (5-8) may soon follow suit. At the very bottom, the Cardinals and Patriots (3-10) rank as officially "fugly." The Jets, Bears, Chargers, Raiders, Giants and Titans (5-8), though not yet mathematically eliminated, will likely not qualify for the playoffs—although rookie quarterbacks Tommy DeVito (NYG) and Will Levis (Tennessee) haven’t yet gotten that memo. DeVito actually has won three straight games as the Giants’ starting QB. Can you say “Quarterback controversy?”
In all, 21 teams who are not leading their respective divisions remain in contention for post-season berths with various chances of getting there: (the Glad). Here’s where we find NFL 2023’s most compelling December dramas.
For example: Three teams with losing records are tied atop the NFC South: Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and New Orleans. All are presently 6-7. It’s possible this division’s champion will host a playoff game despite a winning percentage below .500! And yet, the competition remains keen and the games exciting.
Without a doubt, one of last weekend’s best contests pitted Baker Mayfield and the Bucs against the Falcons. Atlanta—looking to win three consecutive games for the first time since 2019 and make the playoffs for the first time in six years—took its only lead of the game (25-to-22) at the 3:23 mark of the fourth quarter.
But Baker Mayfield drove the Bucs 75 yards in twelve plays, capping it with an 11 yard TD pass to tight end Cade Otton. With just 31 ticks left on the game clock, Tampa took a 29-to-25 lead—and Atlanta still nearly won the game! Alas, Falcons QB Desmond Ritter’s last second pass to Drake London ended up 3 yards shy of the endzone, and Atlanta relinquished first place (via tiebreaker) to Tampa Bay.
New Orleans, the best team in the division if ranked by point differential, pounded the Panthers 28-to-6 for its own 6-7 record and share of the division lead. The Saints play both the Bucs and Falcons in coming weeks. Stay tuned!
In the NFC West, the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks (both 6-7) remain well behind the division leading 49ers. Last Sunday in Baltimore, the Rams could have scored a major overtime upset over the 10-3 Ravens. But 22-year-old rookie tight end Davis Allen, who made four key catches in regulation, dropped a third down pass that would have extended the Rams’ potential game-winning OT drive into Ravens territory. Moments later, Baltimore’s Tylan Wallace returned LA’s punt 76-yards for a walk-off touchdown win.
The loss conceivably could cost the Rams a playoff spot. And if the Seahawks fall to the Eagles this Sunday in Seattle, they, too, likely will fade into oblivion.
The Minnesota Vikings (7-6) and Green Bay Packers (6-7) both trail the 9-4 Lions in the NFC North. The Vikings kept their postseason hopes alive with an anemic 3-to-0 win over the even more anemic Las Vegas Raiders. Meanwhile on Monday Night Football, the Giants' rookie QB sensation Tommy DeVito ended the Packers four game winning streak and extended New York’s slim postseason hopes.
Despite the Packers' loss and the Vikings abysmal offensive display, both teams could still qualify for the Super Bowl derby, or just one of them—or neither. Again, stay tuned.
In the AFC, six teams sit at 7-6 while three others (Chiefs, Jaguars and Browns) are one game better at 8-5.
The Colts and Texans (both 7-6) remain a game behind the AFC South leading Jacksonville Jaguars. And the only completely healthy quarterback among the three contenders is the Colts’ Gardner Minshew. As often happens in December when when roster depth becomes an issue, the healthiest team will likely win out. Vegas oddsmakers still list Jacksonville as the betting favorite. But if Jaguars’ quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s ankle doesn’t hold up…???
The AFC North boasts 4 winning teams, the only NFL division enjoying this level of success. But while the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6) and backup QB Mitch Trubisky have dropped back-to-back games against a pair of 2023 "Fugly’s" (Arizona, New England), the Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) are peaking around backup QB Jake Browning, winner of his last two starts, and rookie RB Chase Brown, clocked at 22.05 MPH by NextGen Stats during his 54 yard sprint against the Colts—Brown’s very first NFL touchdown!
The Cleveland Browns (8-5) recently signed 38-year-old Joe Flacco to play QB. Last Sunday, Old Joe threw three TD passes and Cleveland’s defense picked off Trevor Lawrence three times as the Browns dispatched the Jags 31-to-27. If the season ended today, the Browns would clinch the AFC’s fifth seed.
Also in the AFC wild card chase are the surging Denver Broncos (7-6). After a 1-5 start, Denver now has won six of its last seven games. Most of the credit belongs to a defense that surrendered 70 points to Miami before coalescing around defensive coordinator Vance Joesph’s schemes. Denver’s D currently leads the NFL with 24 takeaways (including 13 forced fumbles), and the Broncos play only one more team with a winning record (Detroit this week). If Kansas City continues to drop passes and line up offsides, Denver could finish with double digit wins and possibly steal the division title from the Chiefs.
The same is true for the Buffalo Bills. If Sean McDermott’s dangerous team somehow manages to defeat the Cowboys this Sunday in western New York, they may wind up playing the Dolphins in Miami on January 7th with the AFC Eastern division title at stake. The Bills own the tiebreaker, and the momentum Buffalo would carry into the post season might be enough to take them all the way to the AFC Championship game—or even Super Bowl LVIII (58).
The same goes for the rest of the more than two dozen NFL teams who are still playoff eligible. With just four regular season weekends remaining, these teams (the Glad) comprise the largest single collection. And despite what’s happened to any and all of them prior to Week 15, they’re all happy to still be in contention!
It beats the “fugly” alternative!