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The Sports Daily
Pretenders, contenders in the NFL right now

The Pittsburgh Steelers kicked off Week 11 of the NFL season with a 40-17 win over the Titans on “Thursday Night Football,” proving that they’re a contender that is capable of making a Super Bowl run.

Pittsburgh has now rattled off five consecutive wins — three of which came against teams with a winning record — and appears to be rounding into form at the right time. With playoff talk beginning to heat up, we’ve identified some other teams that are looking to cement themselves as legitimate contenders as well, while also weeding out the pretenders in the process.

Here are 10 teams to watch in the coming weeks that appear to be either postseason contenders or pretenders.

Atlanta Falcons (Pretender)

At 5-4, sitting in third place in the ultra-competitive NFC South, Atlanta is currently the seventh seed in the conference, and is right in the mix as far as the playoff picture goes. The Falcons, however, still have yet to recover from giving up 31 unanswered points to the Patriots in a devastating loss in Super Bowl LI.

Faced with a challenging schedule in the second half of the regular season, the reigning NFC champions have an uphill battle to climb in order to qualify for the playoffs. A win on the road in Seattle on Monday night would help their case, but the Falcons would still have to find a way to manufacture wins against elite competition if they hope to return to the postseason, something they’ve failed to do for much of this season so far.

A late-season winning streak seems unlikely for the Falcons, given that games against the Seahawks, Vikings and Panthers, as well as two matchups with the Saints, stand between them and a wild-card berth. Furthermore, injuries to playmakers Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman have made things more difficult for Matt Ryan, who has had turnover issues this season, and already has thrown more interceptions than he did during the entire 2016 season.

New Orleans Saints (Contender)

Currently riding a seven-game winning streak, the Saints have been an offensive powerhouse this season, and have been as hot as any team in football since losing to the Patriots at home in Week 2. Drew Brees has a seemingly unstoppable trio of superstars to distribute the ball to in Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. New Orleans’ offense has been special so far, ranking in the top five in points per game, yards from scrimmage, passing yards and rushing yards.

In their last four contests, the Saints have dominated their opponents by fielding a balanced offense, averaging 24.6 points per game, while giving up an average of 9.8 points per game. Though they do have a tough remaining schedule, the Saints are 4-0 this year against teams with winning records since their 0-2 start, and they are 4-1 on the road overall — a recipe for success going forward.

Buffalo Bills (Pretender)

Benching quarterback Tyrod Taylor in favor of rookie Nathan Peterman is a sign of a desperate team whose playoff aspirations are disappearing before their very eyes. Currently sporting a 5-4 record, two games behind the (7-2) Patriots for the AFC East lead, the Bills currently hold the sixth seed in the AFC. The problem for them is that they still have seven games remaining, and have lost their last two matchups by a scoring margin of 13 and 37 points.

To make matters worse, of the five teams they’ve beaten this season, only the (5-4) Falcons have a winning record, and Buffalo’s schedule gets much tougher down the stretch. Currently 1-3 on the road this year, the Bills still have four more games left to play as visitors, including matchups in New England and Kansas City. If they can defeat the Chargers this Sunday, and go on to upset the Chiefs in Week 12, they’ll then have a chance to make up a game in the standings against the Patriots the following week. That seems unlikely, though, given how difficult of a three-game stretch it is.

The Bills, with a new coaching staff in place, can soon start looking forward to next season, which is evident in their decision to start Peterman over Taylor.

New England Patriots (Contender)

After a Super Bowl hangover appeared to factor into the Patriots starting 2-2 on the season, the defending champions are right back where we expected they would be at this point in their 2017 campaign. The team has won five consecutive games since its 2-2 start, and 40-year-old quarterback Tom Brady is playing at an MVP level.

The Patriots have overcome injuries suffered to several key players, and the early-season miscommunications on defense leading to big plays for their opponents seem to now be a thing of the past. New England’s impressive winning streak was on full display last Sunday when it dismantled Denver at Sports Authority Field — a venue Brady has struggled playing in over the years.

With a two-game lead in the division, and a soft remaining schedule that includes only one playoff team from last season, the stage is set for New England to make another Super Bowl run. The team is white-hot and finds itself right back in the AFC East driver’s seat once again, with no apparent challengers to stand in its way.

Oakland Raiders (Pretender)

Expectations were high for the Raiders heading into the 2017 season, as Oakland was on the heels of a 12-win campaign in which Derek Carr established himself as a legitimate franchise quarterback. Many analysts predicted the Raiders would win the AFC West before the season began, but with seven games to go, Oakland’s hopes of making the playoffs — even as a wild card –are dwindling fast.

Carr hasn’t been the same since suffering a back injury in a Week 4 loss to the Broncos, and to make matters worse, protection for the Raiders’ signal-caller has been spotty at best. Also not helping is the Raiders’ ineffective, 27th-ranked rushing offense. And on the other side of the ball, Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin are not applying as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks as they did last season.

With a 4-5 record, including a 1-2 mark against their divisional opponents, the Raiders are currently on the outside looking in for a playoff spot. And though there’s still enough time for a late-season rally, it will have to start on Monday night with a win over the Patriots in Mexico City. That will prove to be no easy task. Furthermore, even if Oakland manages to beat New England, road games against Kansas City and Philadelphia loom ominously on the back end of its schedule.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs — who hold a two-game lead in the division — have a much easier remaining schedule, and the division title is theirs to lose at this point in the season.

Kansas City Chiefs (Contender)

The Chiefs started the season with a 5-0 record and appeared to be in dominant form, but lost three of their last four games before heading into the bye week. A loss at home to the Steelers was followed by an improbable finish resulting in a loss at Oakland, but the Chiefs appeared to get back on track with a win against the Broncos. But they then suffered a drubbing at the hands of the Cowboys led by Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, and that left some analysts wondering about the Chiefs’ hold on the AFC West.

Despite suffering some injuries to key players, and enduring one of the league’s toughest schedules, the Chiefs have positioned themselves well for a division title. They currently hold a two-game lead over the Raiders, and with a 2-1 record against their divisional opponents, the worst appears to be behind them schedule-wise. Having already faced the Patriots, Steelers, Eagles, Cowboys and Redskins — going 3-2 in those contests — the remainder of their schedule is far less daunting. The seven teams that remain on Kansas City’s schedule have a combined winning percentage of .374, and only the Bills currently have a winning record.

Dallas Cowboys (Pretender)

The Cowboys had hopes of winning a division title and making a deep playoff run just one month ago. However, now sitting at 4-5, three games behind Philadelphia for the NFC East lead, Dallas is currently the tenth seed in the conference, and on the outside looking in.

It won’t be easy for the Cowboys going forward, either, as they’ll be forced to play without all-purpose running back Ezekiel Elliott for another five games, and will also be missing All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith and All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee in the near future, as they’re dealing with injuries. Furthermore, Dallas has one of the league’s toughest schedules down the stretch, which will make a late-season playoff run very difficult.

Elliott was averaging 149.5 all-purpose yards per game in the four contests he played in before finally being forced to serve his suspension. That type of production is impossible to replicate, as Dallas found out in its blowout loss to the Falcons last week. With an extremely-difficult schedule during the remainder of the season, beginning with the first of two games against the Eagles this Sunday. Barring an upset victory over their division rival this weekend, the Cowboys could be completely out of playoff contention by the time Elliott is set to return in Week 16.

Detroit Lions (Contender)

Currently sitting with a 5-4 record — two games behind Minnesota for the division lead with seven games remaining — Detroit holds the eighth seed in the NFC. But with a number of very winnable games remaining on their schedule, and a chance to make up a game in the standings against the (7-2) Vikings in Week 12, the Lions still control their own destiny.

The Vikings are currently faced with a difficult scheduling spot as well, as they are set to face the Rams at home this Sunday, and will then travel to Detroit for a game with huge divisional implications. If the Lions can take care of business against a scrappy Bears team this weekend, and defend their home turf in the game that follows, they could see themselves in the mix for the division lead in the near future.

As long as Matthew Stafford is under center, the Lions will have a shot to win — no matter their opponent. The Lions quarterback has been incredibly efficient with the football this season, tossing 17 touchdowns and five interceptions, with a 96.3 passer rating.

Washington Redskins (Pretender)

With the Eagles already closing in on the division title, the Redskins are currently playing for a wild-card berth. At 4-5, however, they’re two games behind the Seahawks, who currently hold the sixth seed in the NFC.

The Redskins are still in playoff contention, but they’ll need to turn things around quickly — beginning this week with a road win against the white-hot Saints — to save their season. And while their schedule becomes substantially easier after Week 11, they’ll likely need to win their remaining six games to be in the mix for a wild-card berth should they lose to the Saints.

Washington has suffered more injuries than most other teams in the league, and it’s really been taking a toll on the team’s defensive unit. The Redskins have lost four of their last six games, and have given up 134 points combined in those losses. Washington simply doesn’t have the weapons on offense to outscore its opposition, and if it wishes to remain in the playoff hunt, the defense will need to improve — starting this week against Drew Brees and one of the most potent offenses in the league.

Philadelphia Eagles (Contender)

At this stage of the season, it would be a shock if the Eagles aren’t playing in the NFC Championship game in January, as they appear to be a team of destiny. With seven games remaining, the Eagles have already eclipsed what they managed to do in their 2016 campaign, when they garnered only seven wins and finished in last place in the division. They were terrible on the road last year, winning only one game and losing seven. They’ve clearly fixed that issue, though, with a 3-1 record on the road so far this season. Philadelphia has served as a model for balance and consistency among the NFL’s teams, with its only loss coming in a Week 2 matchup against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, in a game they nearly won late.

The team is healthy and hot at the right time, and boasts an average margin of victory of over 20 points in their last three games. Philadelphia is coming off the bye week, and will head to Dallas for the first of two meetings between the division rivals on Sunday night, and it has a chance to begin pulling away from the rest of the teams in the division, as an Eagles win would give them a four-game lead over the second-place Cowboys.

Second-year quarterback Carson Wentz is currently listed as the odds-on favorite to win the NFL MVP award, and with good reason, as he’s been playing at an otherworldly level, tossing 23 touchdowns and sporting a 104.1 passer rating. The Eagles boast a balanced offense that keeps opposing defenses off balance and is extremely difficult to scheme against, and they also field one of the best defensive fronts in the league. They’re the team to beat in the NFC right now, and have the record to back it up.