Race to Finish: Abundance of wild card teams makes NFL playoff race exciting

12/12/15 by Matthew S. Vandriak

So many teams, so few spots. That is the charge for a slew of teams on the bubble as it relates to the NFL playoffs. Most of the divisions seem locked up but Sunday's games have teams taking aim at staying in the crowded playoff picture with so many sub par and around .500 records.
Let's take a look at the games of the week:
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati Sunday at 1pm

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With a win, the Bengals will clinch the AFC North title. The Bengals also have the top record in the AFC at 10 and 2, tied with New England and Denver, but owning a better conference mark. A win for Cincinnati would go a long way towards home field in the playoffs as well. At 7 and 5, the Steelers are looking for a win to stay in the AFC playoff race. Cincinnati won the first meeting 16 to 10, intercepting Ben Roethlisberger three times in the win. The Bengals trailed 10 to 6 before scoring the last 10 points of the game in the final 3 minutes of regulation. The Steelers lost running back LeVeon Bell to a season ending injury in that previous meeting, which ramped up the bad blood between these two division rivals. Cincinnati boasts the NFL's top scoring defense, giving up an average of 16.3 points per game. Pittsburgh has won 8 of the past 11 meetings between these teams and 20 of the past 25 games played in Cincinnati.
Buffalo at Philadelphia Sunday at 1pm
The 5 and 7 Eagles remain in the hunt for the NFC East title. The 6 and 6 Bills are battling to stay in the AFC playoff race. But the story here is the return of former Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who was traded to the Bills in the offseason. While Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly has said he has great respect for McCoy, the bitterness from McCoy is evident. McCoy said this week he wouldn't shake Kelly's hand before or after the game. While McCoy, who led the NFL in rushing in 2013, has found success in Buffalo, his replacement in Philadelphia has not. DeMarco Murray, who led the NFL in rushing last season, has struggled. Those struggles have led to what looks like a rift developing between Murray and Kelly, with Murray reportedly going to team management and ownership about his role. McCoy will be facing a Philadelphia defense that ranks 27th in the NFL against the run. After being blown out in back to back losses to Tampa Bay and Detroit, the Eagles shocked New England last week with 3 scores coming from their defense and special teams. Philadelphia is tied for 2nd in the league in takeaways with 23. These teams last met in 2011, with Buffalo winning 31 to 24. However the Eagles won the last meeting in Philadelphia back in 2007.
Atlanta at Carolina Sunday at 1pm
Both of these teams started the season at 5 and 0. Since then, the Panthers are 7 and 0 and remain the only undefeated team in the NFL. Atlanta has gone 1 and 6 since, and are trying to remain in the NFC playoff chase. With a win, the Panthers will secure a 1st round bye in the playoffs. Atlanta needs a win to keep pace with Seattle for the final playoff spot, which the Seahawks hold with a 7 and 5 record. The Panthers lead the NFL in forced turnovers with 29, and are 3rd in the league in total defense. Carolina has won 5 of the past 6 meetings between these teams, including a 34 to 3 trouncing in their last meeting in Week 17 of last season. That win secured the NFC South title for the Panthers and kept the Falcons out of the playoffs. To prevent that from happening again, the Falcons will have to slow down the leading candidate for the league MVP in Carolina's Cam Newton. Newton has passed for nearly 2,800 yards and thrown 25 touchdowns, while rushing for 476 yards and 7 more TD's. Since 1970, 66 of the 72 teams to start 5 and 0 have made the playoffs and none have finished with a sub .500 record.
New England at Houston Sunday at 8:30pm
After starting the season 10 and 0, the Patriots have lost their past two games. The last being a stunning home loss to Philadelphia last week. After starting the season 2 and 5, Houston had won 4 in a row prior to last week's loss to Buffalo. While the Patriots have a firm lock on the AFC East race, the Texans are tied with Indianapolis for first place in the AFC South, but that loss to the Bills puts them on the outside looking in as far as the AFC wild card race goes. Injuries are the big story for these two teams. WR Julian Edelman remains out for the Patriots, while TE Rob Gronkowski is questionable with a knee injury sustained two weeks ago. Texans DE J.J. Watt broke his hand in practice this week, but said he'll be playing in this one and that the injury shouldn't set him back any. New England hasn't lost 3 games in a row since 2002. The Patriots have also won 5 of the 6 all time meetings between these teams.

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