The NFL playoff picture is starting to materialize as we enter the final months of the 2022 season.
While there are some clear front-runners who have little to worry about down the stretch, there are plenty of teams hovering around .500 that cannot afford to suffer many losses and still make the postseason field.
Week 11 has some pivotal matchups that could make or break the playoff hopes of several franchises. These teams are on the cusp of breaking through, but a setback could put an end to those dreams quickly.
With that in mind, here are five fringe playoff contenders with the most on the line this coming week.
Atlanta Falcons (4-6)
Few expected the Atlanta Falcons to be in the playoff hunt at this late stage of the season. The team had sent longtime quarterback Matt Ryan packing after 14 years as its starter and appeared to be entering a full rebuild.
While Atlanta hasn’t been winning often or pretty, it has done enough at 4-6 to stay competitive in a wide-open NFC South race. The division is having a down year across the board, as even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—one of the Super Bowl favorites heading into 2022—are sitting at .500 heading into Week 11.
This is a division that is likely to have only a single representative in the postseason field, and the Falcons will have to navigate a tricky but winnable schedule over the next seven games to earn that right.
The first order of business will be ending a two-game losing skid. Dropping a tightly contested Week 9 battle to the Los Angeles Chargers was understandable, but the Falcons’ playoff aspirations took a major blow Thursday when they fell to the rival Carolina Panthers by a 25-15 margin.
Atlanta will get a chance to reverse its fortunes this coming week when the Chicago Bears come to town. While Chicago’s offense is showing plenty of life under a rapidly improving Justin Fields, the club is sitting at the bottom of the NFC North standings at 3-7 and is coming off a tough loss to the Detroit Lions.
With the Bears defense allowing opposing offenses to score an average of over 30 points over the last three weeks, Week 11 represents an ideal opportunity for the Atlanta offense—which hasn’t eclipsed the 17-point mark since Week 8—to right the ship.
Given the Falcons are set to face a slew of underwhelming foes down the stretch—including matchups with the Washington Commanders, Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints—a win this week could jump-start a rapid rise to the top of the NFC South standings.
Arizona Cardinals (4-6)
The NFC West has been one of the most disappointing divisions in football this season. Despite boasting three reigning playoff teams and the defending Super Bowl champions, it appears the division may only send one squad to the postseason in 2022.
While the Seattle Seahawks currently have an edge following their shocking 6-4 start, the San Francisco 49ers (5-4) and Arizona Cardinals (4-6) are still well in contention for the divisional crown. Even the Los Angeles Rams (3-6) aren’t out of it yet, but the recent ankle injury to superstar wideout Cooper Kupp may be the straw that breaks this star-crossed camel’s back.
Arizona moved ahead of the Rams on Sunday with a hard-fought victory in Los Angeles. In a game where both teams were forced to trot out their backup quarterbacks, Arizona came out on top by a 27-17 margin by making fewer mistakes than the current Lombardi Trophy holders. The victory allowed the Cardinals, who won for just the second time in the last six games, to keep their fleeting playoff hopes alive.
While the Cardinals aren’t out of the running yet, they could take a major leap toward elimination if they can’t top the 49ers in a must-win Monday Night Football matchup in Week 11.
Neither side will have a home-field advantage for this one, which is being hosted in Mexico City as part of the NFL’s International Series. The 49ers have been excellent against NFC West foes this year regardless of where they play, however, going a perfect 3-0 with a margin of victory of over 17 points in those contests.
The Cardinals finally beat a divisional foe for the first time in 2022 on Sunday. They will need to parlay that into a second consecutive win in the NFC West if they have serious aspirations about making it back to the postseason this year.
Green Bay Packers (4-6)
The Green Bay Packers were enduring one of the worst losing streaks in franchise history heading into Week 10. The team had lost five games in a row for the first time since 2008—the first year Aaron Rodgers became the starting quarterback in Green Bay—and appeared poised to push that streak to six with a tough Dallas Cowboys squad coming to town.
Not only did the Packers find a way to snap that streak, but they did so while potentially waking up an offensive juggernaut. After failing to breach the 30-point mark all season, Green Bay came away with a clutch 31-28 victory behind a breakout showing from rookie wideout Christian Watson.
Watson, the No. 34 overall pick, had been dealing with injuries and inconsistency over the first nine games of his professional career. He came into Sunday with only 10 catches for 88 yards with no receiving touchdowns (he did find the end zone on a 15-yard rush earlier in the year) but left the contest with an additional 107 yards and three scores on four receptions tacked onto his total.
If Watson can become the go-to wideout Green Bay has sorely lacked since the offseason departure of Davante Adams, the team has a real chance over these final two months to surge up the standings and into the playoffs.
While Green Bay’s defense still needs to get back on track—it has conceded 27 points or more in four of the last six games after allowing an average of just 17.3 points during the first month of 2022—the offense can carry this franchise if it continues playing at this level.
The Packers are now heading into a crucial Week 11 bout with the Tennessee Titans with some much-needed momentum. The Titans have been a tough out recently—losing just one of their last seven games—but struggle to score, having failed to eclipse the 20-point mark in any of their last four matchups.
If Green Bay can keep up its offensive output and draw one step closer to .500 in Week 11, the Packers will have a real chance at competing for a wild-card spot in the NFC thanks to a schedule that includes some winnable games against the Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions down the stretch.
Indianapolis Colts (4-5-1)
The Indianapolis Colts’ season appeared to be all but over last week. After canning head coach Frank Reich following a disappointing 3-5-1 start and going 0-2—including one of the ugliest losses in franchise history—with Sam Ehlinger under center, there was little reason to believe this club could still realistically compete in 2022.
That changed Sunday when Indianapolis knocked off the Las Vegas Raiders in interim head coach Jeff Saturday’s debut. With Matt Ryan back as the starter, the Colts showed life on both sides of the ball for the first time in weeks and picked up a 25-20 victory that brought them back into contention in the AFC South race.
While Indy still has plenty of work left to do to catch the reigning divisional champion Tennessee Titans, the team is within striking distance. That gap could further close if the Colts can become the first team to topple the Philadelphia Eagles this year during their upcoming Week 11 meeting.
Indianapolis does have the tools to eke out a win over this unblemished opponent, however. Reigning rushing champion Jonathan Taylor appears healthy for the first time in months and is coming off his best game since the season opener. Ryan looked sharp and avoided turnovers Sunday after leading the league in interceptions prior to his benching.
If the Colts defense can continue holding the opposition to 20 points or fewer—something it has done in three of the last four games—the team will have a chance in this seemingly lopsided affair.
A win against Philadelphia could serve as a springboard for a playoff run. While Indy’s schedule is rough—meetings with the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, Los Angeles Chargers and New York Giants are sandwiched between winnable Week 12 and 18 games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans—the team has the talent to successfully navigate this slate.
The Colts always should have been a contender this season. They just needed to reach their potential, and it appears they may finally be doing so with Saturday at the helm.
New England Patriots (5-4)
The New England Patriots went into their much-needed Week 10 bye sitting above .500 and decently positioned to make a run in the back half of the season.
While the Pats are currently on a strong pace, their schedule is about to get rough. The club comes out of the break with another rivalry matchup with the New York Jets, an opponent that will be hungry for revenge following its 22-17 loss at home to New England in Week 8.
A Patriots victory would allow them to leap the Jets in the AFC East standings, but they’ll need to get hot to catch the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, who are currently sitting at 7-3 and 6-3, respectively.
That won’t be easy with a trip to the Twin Cities to face the surging Minnesota Vikings looming. The Vikings are coming off a statement win over the Bills in Week 10 and are looking like a legitimate Super Bowl contender after an 8-1 start to the campaign.
While that may be one of the toughest challenges New England faces all year, there are few easy wins on the slate. The Athletic’s Austin Mock calculated that the Patriots had the NFL’s most difficult remaining schedule entering Week 10, noting their upcoming opponents would win over 54 percent of their games against league-average teams.
Because of this, the Patriots cannot afford to lose in Week 11. Sweeping the Jets is something the team surely needs to accomplish to have a chance at making the postseason.