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The Sports Daily > Vikings Digital Diaries
Pretenders, contenders in the NFL right now

Most NFL teams have played 10 games this season. That means the contenders are starting to emerge, and the pretenders are revealing themselves.

The contenders and pretenders through Week 11 of the 2016 season are listed below, including their remaining schedule.

All four pretenders have a chance to become contenders by Black Friday.

Contender: Raiders (8-2)

Panthers; Bills; at Chiefs; at Chargers; Colts; at Broncos

It should go without saying that an 8-2 team is a contender, but there are plenty of people out there born after 2000 who are very knowledgeable about football but have no concept of the Raiders as winners.

The Raiders not only are contenders to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, they’re contenders to do some damage in the playoffs.

Derek Carr entered the MVP discussion Monday night by throwing for 295 yards and three touchdowns against the league’s fourth-ranked passing defense, leading the Raiders to a 27-20 win over the Texans in Mexico City. Two of Carr’s touchdown passes came in the fourth quarter as Oakland overcame a 20-13 deficit.

It’s hard to see any regression in Carr’s third season. His interception Sunday was just his fourth of the season. He’s thrown an interception on just 1 percent of his passes and the Raiders have allowed just 11 sacks, the fewest in the league.

If the season ended after Week 11, the road to Super Bowl LI would go through the Black Hole because the Raiders would be the top seed in the AFC.

Pretender: Colts (5-5)

Steelers; at Jets; Texans; at Vikings; at Raiders; Jaguars

The Colts have won two in a row, but neither win proves much.

They beat the imploding Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 9 and held off the Titans 24-17 at home Sunday, allowing less than 20 points for the first time this year. They’ll be hard-pressed to keep the Steelers in the teens on Thursday night. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell could have a Thanksgiving feast on the Colts’ 30th-ranked defense.

That won’t be the Colts’ only problem. According to Pro Football Talk, Andrew Luck is in the concussion protocol because he wasn’t feeling right after Sunday’s game. There’s not a lot of time for him to be cleared. If he’s not, Scott Tolzien will start. Tolzien has thrown one pass since 2013.

This pretty much sums up the Colts’ situation Thursday:

If Tolzien gets his first career win Thursday night, the Colts would turn into contenders.

Contender: Dolphins (6-4)

49ers; at Ravens; Cardinals; at Jets; at Bills; Patriots

The Dolphins have won five straight for the first time since 2008, the last year they made the playoffs.

Their winning streak was about to get washed away in the rain Sunday in Los Angeles until Ryan Tannehill threw two touchdown passes in the final 4:02 to save the day. The Dolphins escaped with a 14-10 win, the kind of win that makes a team look like it could do something special.

Miami’s winning streak has coincided with the emergence of running back Jay Ajayi. His breakout game came in Week 6 when he ran for 204 yards in a 30-15 win over the Steelers. He ran for 214 the following week in a 28-25 win over the Bills. His yardage has gone down every game since then, but he hasn’t run for less than 4.16 yards per carry during the Dolphins’ streak. He provides this Florida team with the kind of ground game that could come in handy in New York next month.

On defense, the Dolphins are allowing opponents to convert just 32 percent of their third downs, best in the league.

The Dolphins are one game out of the last wild-card spot. The Chiefs and Broncos, both 7-3, play each other twice. So unless they tie twice once of those teams will lose at least one more game.

Pretender: Steelers (5-5)

at Colts; Giants; at Bengals; at Bills; at Bengals; Ravens; Browns

The Steelers snapped their four-game losing streak Sunday, but it was against the Browns.

Playing the Browns masked the Steelers’ weaknesses. They still need a legitimate No. 2 receiver to emerge so competent teams don’t double-cover Antonio Brown, who leads the team with 77 catches. The second-most productive wide receiver is Eli Rogers, who’s fourth on the team with 27 receptions.

The Steelers might have had eight sacks Sunday, but they entered the game with a league-low 13 in nine games against teams that all have won a game or two at some point this season.

Since 2013, the Steelers are 11-2 in December and January during the regular season. Beating the Browns doesn’t prove they’ll get hot this December. If they can take advantage of the Colts’ bad break and beat Scott Tolzien on Thursday night, they’ll be contenders.

Contender: Giants (7-3)

at Browns; at Steelers; Cowboys; Lions; at Eagles; at Redskins

There should be a bullpen at MetLife Stadium, because the Giants have won five in a row with some “saves” by the defense.

The Giants have allowed six fourth-quarter points, and no fourth-quarter touchdowns, in their last four games. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie secured the Giants’ 17-10 win over the Rams in London with a red-zone interception in the final minute. Landon Collins intercepted Jay Cutler at the Giants’ 21 with 1:19 left in Sunday’s 22-16 win. Andy Dalton was sacked on back-to-back plays to force a punt with three minutes left in the Giants’ 21-20 Week 10 win, and the Giants ran out the clock.

Although the Giants have just 18 sacks this season, they’re in the top five in touchdown passes allowed (nine), interceptions (10), passer rating allowed (76.1) and rushing yards allowed per attempt (3.6).

The Giants haven’t played a genuine road game since Week 5. They’ve had four home games wrapped around a trip to London and their bye. But Sunday’s game at Cleveland gives them a chance to ease their way back into a road-game environment. They’re two games behind the Cowboys in the NFC East. With a win at Dallas in their pocket, they could make the division race interesting if the Cowboys slip up and the Giants pull off the upset at MetLife in Week 14.

Pretender: Vikings (6-4)

at Lions; Cowboys; at Jaguars; Colts; at Packers; Bears

The Vikings are another team that snapped a four-game losing streak but remain a pretender unless it can win on Thanksgiving.

Minnesota beat the visiting Cardinals 30-24 Sunday, but that losing streak would have reached five if it weren’t for a 100-yard pick-six by Xavier Rhodes and a 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Cordarrelle Patterson. That’s not a sustainable scoring resource.

The Vikings also threw some wildcat at the Cardinals. On one wildcat play, Patterson lateraled to Sam Bradford and the quarterback threw to Adam Thielen. The play drew a pass interference penalty at the 2-yard line, and Matt Asiata took it in from there to give the Vikings a 13-10 lead. They didn’t trail after that.

The Vikings won’t be able to keep tricking teams. They rank dead last in total offense and rushing offense and 24th in passing offense.

If they win at Detroit Thursday, the Vikings will be a contender. If they beat the Cowboys a week from Thursday, they’ll really be a contender. Their last four games are all winnable, but they have to clear two big hurdles to get to that part of the schedule.

Contender: Falcons (6-4)

Cardinals; Chiefs; at Rams; 49ers; at Panthers; Saints

The Falcons had a bye in Week 11, but they’re not out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

Since their 4-1 start, the Falcons have lost three of their last five. The specter of last season’s collapse might be weighing on them. They started 6-1 and lost seven of their last nine.

That’s not likely to happen again, because Devonta Freeman won’t regress like he did last season. Freeman ran for more than 100 yards in four of the first seven games, but didn’t see the century mark after that and the Falcons’ swoon paralleled his decline.

Freeman’s had only one 100-yard game this season, but he’s averaging 4.6 yards per attempt compared to 4.0 yards per attempt last year. A big reason for that and another reason the NFC South-leading Falcons are for real is their offensive line. Thanks largely to the addition of free agent center Alex Mack, Pro Football Focus ranked the unit seventh in the league entering Week 11.

The Falcons also have a favorable schedule down the stretch, with just two road games. The Chiefs in Week 13 are the only team the Falcons face with a winning record. This should give the Falcons a clear path to the division title and at least one home playoff game.

Pretender: Lions (6-4)

Vikings; at Saints; Bears; at Giants; at Cowboys; Packers

It was All Three Phases Touchdown Week in the NFC North.

Like the Vikings, the Lions needed touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams to beat a team that’s not even in the “pretender” discussion.

Like the Vikings, the Lions can become a contender if they win Thursday afternoon’s NFC North showdown.

The Lions edged the Jaguars 26-19 Sunday. Andre Roberts put them on the board with a 55-yard punt return touchdown and Rafael Bush broke a 9-9 tie with a 39-yard pick-six in the third quarter.

The visiting Jaguars (2-8) pulled ahead 19-16, then the Lions’ offense finally produced a touchdown when tight end Eric Ebron ran it in from a yard out with 10 minutes left to give Detroit a 23-19 lead.

According to NFL.com the Lions are the only team in NFL history to have their first 10 games decided by seven points or less.

That, along with the fact that they’ve trailed in the fourth quarter in all 10 of their games this season, suggests the Lions are barely better than a .500 football team.