Mathematically, the Raiders and 49ers are the only NFL teams to have been eliminated from the playoffs thus far in 2018. Realistically, more than a handful of others will soon join them in having to acknowledge that the calendar year isn't the only thing that's coming to an end.
At the quarter pole of the season, there's a sharp divide between franchises still firmly in the mix for January action and those operating on borrowed time. Yet the latter group might have more than just draft positioning on the mind.
Whether it's as a means for setting the right tone for next year or simply a last-ditch attempt to salvage what's left of this campaign, winning still matters to many outfits that will soon find themselves home on Sundays. And more than a few of them have the makeup and motivation to be bothersome for those looking ahead to the playoffs.
Contenders, beware: These four teams could play spoiler in the final weeks.
After enduring a seven-game losing streak that proved to be the tipping point for benching Blake Bortles, Jacksonville looked like a candidate to fold its tent given the mounting frustration of a disappointing follow-up to last year's run to the AFC Championship Game. But a shutout of the Colts for the first time in Andrew Luck's 82 career starts highlighted that the Jaguars still want to strut.
By resolving coverage busts and ramping up its pass rush against Indianapolis, the otherwise formidable defense demonstrated itself capable of recapturing last year's elite form. Getting running back Leonard Fournette back from his one-week suspension should also help new starting quarterback Cody Kessler, whose primary offensive directive appears to be avoiding the turnovers that so often plague Bortles.
Despite the disparity between the team's potential and production, Jacksonville matches up well with its remaining slate of playoff hopefuls, especially against the fading Redskins and Dolphins. And while Thursday's showdown against the rival Titans provides another chance to foil an AFC South foe, the Jaguars' best chance to shake up the postseason picture will be in the finale against the Texans — and they may be playing for home-field advantage in Week 17. Houston has won an NFL-best nine consecutive games but mustered just 272 yards against the Jags in Week 7.
Buoyed by a bevy of young players seemingly energized by organizational changes after Hue Jackson's midseason firing, Cleveland is now displaying a loose manner befitting of its core. And after the team tallied just one win in the previous two seasons, building on this year's 4-7-1 mark isn't something the Browns' talented newcomers appear to be taking lightly.
Last week's loss to the Texans might have proved humbling, but the defeat also could provide valuable lessons for Baker Mayfield down the stretch. As he struggled to crack Houston's deceptive coverages, the No. 1 pick threw three first-half interceptions and put his team in a substantial hole. But he persevered in the final 30 minutes, posting 351 yards and a touchdown in that span. If interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens can help him return to the consistent form he displayed in the previous three weeks, Mayfield can once again wake up "feeling dangerous."
In the next two weeks, the Browns can deliver a serious blow to the hopes of both the plummeting Panthers and the surging Broncos. But the real chance to play spoiler could come against the Ravens, who already fell to Cleveland in overtime earlier this year. Bumping Baltimore from the playoffs, as the Bengals did in last year's regular-season finale, is an opportunity Mayfield and Co. would undoubtedly relish.
New York Giants
Having already tripped up the Bears in overtime last Sunday, despite a series of late-game missteps, Pat Shurmur's crew shouldn't be taken lightly by contenders. The Giants have won three of their last four and are enjoying a welcome cultural shift after nearly two years of turbulence.
Even as the riddle of how to address a post-Eli Manning future at quarterback remains, Saquon Barkley has helped stabilize the offense. The apparent leader for offensive rookie of the year honors has racked up 100 yards from scrimmage in all but one game, serving as a centerpiece while creating opportunities for others.
New York is alive in the NFC East chase only by the slimmest of margins, but Shurmur has made it known that, above all, his focus is on reaching 8-8. Closing in on that accomplishment will require dispatching three teams (Redskins, Titans and Colts) trying to claw their way back into the playoff picture before a home date with the Cowboys in Week 17. Regardless of whether a .500 record is on the table by then, the Giants still might be a thorny matchup for Dak Prescott and Co.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A coach on the hot seat, oscillating starting quarterbacks and a repeatedly scorched defense are typical traits of a team poised to wilt down the stretch rather than make a stand. Yet as Dirk Koetter and Jameis Winston make their closing arguments ahead of their potential expulsion from Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers aren't going out quietly.
After a three-game suspension to start the season and a subsequent benching, Winston has found at least a degree of stability in his last three games, completing 72.6 percent of his passes while committing only one turnover. Limiting giveaways has been one of the biggest factors in back-to-back victories, as Tampa Bay's league-worst 23 interceptions have helped widen the schism between the offense's ability to rack up yards (ranking first league wide with 442.7 per game) and its scoring output (10th with 26.5 points per contest).
Replicating their season-opening stunner against the Saints will be difficult for the Buccaneers, but two other opportunities for disruption await against the Ravens and Cowboys. Neither group has the passing prowess to exploit Tampa Bay's sieve of a secondary, so upsets could be within reach if Winston can maintain his efficiency.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz
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