Separation season: Who's moving up/down in playoff race?
In the last week alone, two teams lost their franchise quarterbacks for the season, and one fired its offensive coordinator.
The fortunes of the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills might not have been fully determined by those events, but this is the point in the season when every game, every result, is consequential for teams that are clawing for playoff spots.
When the week started, 12 teams were within two games of each other in the AFC, and eight were within two games in the NFC.
By the end of Sunday afternoon, a handful of teams could continue to think about the playoffs and another few could start thinking about the offseason. Even in a season that has seen damaging quarterback attrition and only three teams with two or fewer losses (the Eagles and Chiefs, two of those three, play on Monday night), this is separation season. Here are the teams that started to separate themselves, for better or worse, on Sunday afternoon, pending the outcomes of Sunday night’s game between the Vikings and Broncos.
The ones that enhanced their spot:
- 2023 NFL season, Week 11: What We Learned from Sunday's games
- Jets HC Robert Saleh declines to name Week 12 starting QB after benching Zach Wilson in loss to Bills
- Browns set to sign veteran QB Joe Flacco to practice squad
- Geno Smith returns from elbow injury to nearly lead Seahawks to last-second win over Rams
- Chargers HC Brandon Staley defends defensive play-calling in wake of 23-20 loss to Packers: 'So you don't have to ask that again'
- Lions QB Jared Goff shrugs off boos, three INTs to lead comeback win over Bears
Deshaun Watson is done for the season and that might ultimately end what had looked like legitimate championship dreams. But the Browns have won with three different quarterbacks this season, a testament to their defensive prowess (this was their fourth game this season allowing fewer than 80 yards passing) and, on Sunday, to rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s late game-winning drive over the Steelers. If the Browns make the playoffs, Thompson-Robinson will have to do much more against elite postseason offenses, but they are the AFC’s fifth seed now and have a manageable schedule ahead. And their victory Sunday put them ahead of the Steelers (seventh seed) in the standings. Get used to what this game looked like for the Browns, because this is the formula they’ll need going forward.
It’s time to stop being surprised by the Texans, even though quarterback C.J. Stroud did not have his best day. Their victory over the Arizona Cardinals leap-frogged them over the Steelers, putting them into the AFC’s sixth seed and kept them just on the heels of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who beat the Titans Sunday, in the AFC South. The Texans beat the Jaguars earlier this season and that sets up an immensely important game next Sunday, when the Jaguars visit Houston. Stroud will have to be cleaner than the three interceptions he threw deep in Cardinals territory, but after Jacksonville, the Texans do not face an opponent that currently has a winning record.
The Bills have a very difficult schedule ahead — the Eagles are up next, and there are games against the Chiefs and Cowboys, too, before the season finale against the Dolphins — but the victory over the Jets Sunday was a must-win. It snapped a two-game losing streak, gave the offense some momentum under new playcaller Joe Brady, and moved them from the 10th seed in the AFC, where they began the week, up to the eighth. The Bills might not make it, but they at least kept their postseason hopes alive.
The ones that damaged their chances:
It has gotten late awfully early for the Chargers, whose loss to the Green Bay Packers dropped them all the way to the AFC’s 13th seed. Maybe we shouldn’t have thought they were in the mix after they lost at home to the Lions last week, but allowing Packers quarterback Jordan Love to have his best day as a pro is a further indictment of the defense. A team with this much talent — and a mostly healthy star quarterback — should not be this far out of the race at this point. The Chargers are playing themselves out of the playoff conversation and into difficult conversations about the future of the team.
They started the week as the NFC’s ninth seed, but losing to the Giants, who started third-string quarterback Tommy DeVito and scored more than 17 points for just the second time all season, dropped them down to the 12th seed and also raised questions about whether quarterback Sam Howell, who threw three interceptions, is really the future. The countdown for the Commanders is close to starting — not for the playoffs, but for an offseason that will see new ownership put its stamp on this franchise.
The Jets finally benched Zach Wilson, but the quarterback who hovers over this entire season might be watching his reason to rush back evaporate. Aaron Rodgers’ push to return to the field by Christmas Eve presupposes he could make a difference for the Jets. But after this loss, the Jets have dropped three in a row, and have the Miami Dolphins — and perhaps a quarterback controversy — on Friday. Did Tim Boyle do enough to earn the start? The Jets’ barely-alive relevance and Rodgers return may hinge on the answer. After the Dolphins, the Jets have the Falcons, Texans and Dolphins again before that fateful game against the Commanders. The Jets probably have to go at least 2-2 in the next month to give Rodgers a reason to rush back to the field. For now, they are the 14th seed and fading fast.
Baker Mayfield has been the best quarterback in the NFC South, but the Bucs’ loss to the 49ers dropped them from the eighth seed to the 11th in the conference. It’s unlikely anybody in the South is making the playoffs as a wild card anyway, so the Bucs’ best hope is to overtake the Falcons and Saints in the division.
That was an absolutely brutal loss to the Rams. The Seahawks dropped to 6-4, losing ground in the NFC West to the victorious 49ers. They dropped from the fifth seed in the NFC, where they started the week, to seventh. And their next four games are San Francisco on Thanksgiving, at Dallas, at San Francisco and Philadelphia. And worst of all, Geno Smith suffered an elbow injury, which could keep him out of the game on a short week.
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