With the turkey and stuffing about to be served, washed down with a hearty slice of pumpkin pie and pigskin on the television, suddenly each game in the NFL season becomes a little more meaningful.
Playoff berths are clinched after Thanksgiving, teams can come out of nowhere and make a postseason push after turkey day, or, collapse back into the realm of mediocrity.
With 11 of the NFL season kicked off by the Ravens outlasting the banged up Bengals, here's a look at one burning question for every team currently inside the playoff picture, who would make the postseason if it began today:
Kansas City Chiefs
Will Patrick Mahomes be able to carry this wide receiving corps through a playoff gauntlet?
This is easily the least talented, and productive, wide receiver corps that the Chiefs have fielded this late into a regular season. Through the Chiefs' first nine games of their latest Super Bowl title defense, rookie Rashee Rice is the only wide receiver who has produced at least 300 receiving yards this season, and is second on the team behind All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, with 32 catches for 378 yards. Somehow, Patrick Mahomes has guided Kansas City to a 7-2 start, while passing for 2,442 yards with 17 touchdowns to eight interceptions. But, what happens if a physical secondary is able to shut down the Chiefs' middling weapons on the perimeter? We might be about to find out ...
Will Jalen Hurts and Co. rediscover red-zone magic?
Only the Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys had a more efficient red-zone offense than the Eagles in 2022, while scoring touchdowns on 68 percent of trips inside the 20-yard line. Buoyed by Jalen Hurts' 11 red-zone rushing touchdowns, success inside the 20 largely fueled the Eagles' offense and Super Bowl run. But, this season, the Eagles rank just 12th in red-zone touchdown percentage. Capitalizing on points in the red zone could prove pivotal to the Eagles repeating as NFC Champions, or more.
Will Lamar Jackson's improvements from the pocket hold up in the playoffs?
One of the most fascinating storylines of this season has been Lamar Jackson's dramatic uptick in productivity from the pocket, especially in moments where he dynamic quarterback creates opportunities in the vertical passing game by his scrambling ability, rather than just taking off downfield and running the football. Jackson is currently averaging a career-high 7.9 yards per passing attempt and 217 passing yards per game. But, in four career playoff starts, Jackson averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt and 225 passing yards per game. If the Jackson we have seen through the first half of the Ravens' season is the one that takes the field in the postseason, Baltimore has a real chance at crashing the Super Bowl party and Jackson the opportunity to change the narrative.
Will a complementary pass-rusher to Aidan Hutchinson emerge?
Aidan Hutchinson remains a game-wrecker, ascending talent, and a potential All-Pro, in just his second season since being chosen No. 2 overall in the NFL Draft. However, as dominant as the Lions' defense has been, especially at the linebacker position, Detroit is still waiting for someone, anyone to emerge opposite Hutchinson as a second edge-rush presence in the race to the quarterback. While defensive tackle Alim McNeil's 4 sacks trail Hutchinson's by just half a sack, none of the Lions' defensive ends have more sacks than Charles Harris' 1.5. That could prove to be a problem when rushing the passer becomes imperative come playoff time.
Can the offensive line find its footing in time for the postseason?
The Jaguars' offensive line has offered little resemblance from the one that helped power a playoff run, and postseason victory over the Chargers, so far this season. Trevor Lawrence has already been sacked 24 times, three fewer than he was for the entirety of the 2022 campaign. Meanwhile, none of the Jaguars' running backs are averaging more than four yards per carry. The road to championships Championships is paved by dominance along both lines of scrimmage, and right now the Jaguars' offensive line just isn't playing up to that level.
San Francisco 49ers
Is Brock Purdy capable of an encore?
For a stretch this season, Brock Purdy looked like Mr. Irrelevant, or shall we say, how many expected Purdy to look from the start of his career. But, reinvigorated by the return of Deebo Samuel and stalwart tackle Trent Williams, Purdy has returned to form in recent weeks. Still, as San Francisco boasts one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the sport, the question becomes whether Purdy is capable of replicating his Cinderella playoff success prior to his carriage turning to a pumpkin in Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers' Super Bowl aspirations hinge on Purdy executing Kyle Shanahan's offense at a high level, again.
Will the defense be able to get enough stops, late in games, against quality opponents?
The Dolphins' struggles against opponents with a winning record have been well documented. Miami has lost in Buffalo, Philadelphia, and in Frankfurt, Germany, to the Kansas City Chiefs. But, in two of those games, Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins' explosive offense still managed over 20 points and averaged 309.6 yards of total offense in Miami's three losses. However, the Dolphins' defense allowed the Bills, Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively, to rack up 414, 355, and 267 yards of offense in those losses. That simply will not cut it in the postseason.
New Orleans Saints
Can any of New Orleans' quarterbacks get the most out of dynamic supporting cast?
Derek Carr is now injured, but even before getting hurt, was more of a liability undercutting what the Saints' offense had done so well in the past. But, the current NFC South-leading Saints are now handing their hopes of postseason success to ... Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. Not exactly a duo that inspires confidence.
Will menacing pass-rush and stingy secondary be enough?
It's hard for anyone who has watched the Steelers play this season come away feeling anything other than bewilderment that Mike Tomlin's team is 6-3, and very much within striking distance of the AFC North lead. But, Pittsburgh is winning in large part because rookie Joey Porter Jr. has turned into a lockdown cornerback, almost overnight, and the front seven has become one of the most menacing in the league. T.J. Watt has 10.5 sacks while Alex Highsmith boasts 4.5, and veteran Markus Golden has been a steadily contributor with four, in part-time duty. However, Kenny Pickett leads an offense that ranks 28th in the NFL. Can a Super Bowl be won with a dominant pass-rush alone? We may be about to find out.
Can Geno Smith deliver in the postseason?
Geno Smith has lived a charmed existence since arriving in the Emerald City. The Seahawks have a 16-13 record in 29 starts Smith has made since arriving in Seattle back in 2020, including an appearance in the NFC Playoffs last season, as a wild card. However, it remains to be seen if Smith is capable of guiding an offense capable of scoring on the Eagles' defense, or keeping pace with the 49ers, or taking down Dan Quinn's Cowboys defense in a postseason situation.
Will the offense hold up without Deshaun Watson?
Even at 6-3, with the AFC North Division lead within reach, the Cleveland Browns' season is on the brink. That's just the reality of facing a final eight games with rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson, P.J. Walker, or even veteran Joe Flacco behind center. Cleveland's defense went on the road and made an emphatic statement against the Ravens, and the Browns' running game has largely held serve. But, this is a quarterback-driven league and unless the Browns are able to get replacement-level quarterback play from any of their remaining options, it would seem unlikely that the defense and a ground-and-pound scheme will be enough in the gauntlet that is the AFC.
Can Dak Prescott exorcise ghosts of playoffs past?
Only seven quarterbacks have passed for more yards than Dak Prescott, so far this season, and the Cowboys' signal caller is tied for fifth in touchdown passes, with 17. If the Cowboys are looking for optimism that Prescott has turned a corner, the fact that he has only thrown six interceptions is encouraging. However, the measure of Dallas' success in 2023 is going to be what happens in the playoffs. Prescott has appeared in six playoff games, with the Cowboys only winning two of them. In the postseason, Prescott has an 11-to-5 touchdown-t0-interception ratio but Dallas has scored under 20 points in two of his last three playoff starts.
Will defense hold up against elite competition?
Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud is very much an Offensive Rookie of The Year frontrunner, and on the fringes of the MVP conversation. The No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft has been that impressive, especially in clutch situations, as illustrated by leading a pair of fourth-quarter comeback drives in consecutive weeks. But, even playing in what might be the worst division in football, DeMeco Ryans' defense is allowing 340 yards of total offense per game and the Texans' opponents are averaging 21.3 points per game. Ryans has done a masterful job of establishing a winning, hyper-competitive culture, in a short period of time. But, this defense hasn't quite looked ready for prime time. Will they be in the playoffs? Will they need to, with Stroud's continued ascent? We might get to find out.
Can Joshua Dobbs keep winning without competent ground game?
Joshua Dobbs has been a revelation for the Vikings, since his arrival following the NFL trade deadline. Dobbs' second-half heroics have harkened back to Minnesota's string of one-score victories that powered a playoff appearance last season. Only four teams have logged fewer than the Vikings' 857 rushing yards, and Minnesota's backs have struggled to stay healthy this season. Unless the Vikings can overtake the Lions, they'll have to hit the road if they make the playoffs. Can an offense without a competent running game win in elements in Philadelphia, San Francisco, or Seattle? It remains to be seen, but feels unlikely.
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