NFL playoff risers: Barnwell on six surprising teams, and what's next

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Thursday, October 17, 2019

Last week, I wrote about the six teams whose playoff chances have declined furthest since the start of the season. Three of those six teams lost again last Sunday, which hasn't helped the Falcons, Chargers and Rams from their free fall. Sean McVay's team had just over a 19% shot of making a return trip to the Super Bowl before the season. Now, the Rams have just under a 26% chance of solely making it back to the postseason.

Let's flip things and head in the opposite direction. I want to focus on the six teams whose playoff chances have improved the most since the regular season began, as measured by ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI). There's still a lot of football to go, but in a league in which we should expect four to six new playoff teams each season, the teams on this list represent several of the top candidates for new blood this coming January. For one final season, it starts and ends in the Bay Area:

Jump to a team:



San Francisco 49ers

Preseason playoff chances: 30.8%

Current playoff chances: 94.1%

Playoff chances improvement: +63.3%

The 49ers already have made themselves nearly surefire bets to make the playoffs. FPI thinks they can go even further. Before the season, the 49ers were just above 30% to make it to the postseason for the first time since 2013. Now, FPI gives the 49ers better odds of making it to the Super Bowl, as their 33.9% odds trail only the Patriots.

Even with the Seahawks at 5-1 and the Rams still lurking at 3-3, the 5-0 49ers have a 79.2% chance of winning the NFC West, owing to a combination of strength of schedule and quality of victories. The Seahawks have outscored teams by an average of just over 3 points per game and have the league's seventh-toughest schedule moving forward, per FPI. The 49ers have outscored their opponents by more than 16 points per game and have the league's 12th-easiest slate from here.

When I wrote in August that the 49ers were among the most likely teams in the league to improve, I pointed out a few things that were almost sure to improve. The most obvious -- and easiest to predict -- was that the 49ers would top their record-low total of two interceptions last season. It didn't take long; they took two Jameis Winston interceptions to the house for pick-sixes in the opener and have the league's second-highest interception rate at 4.6%. I wouldn't count on them intercepting passes this frequently as the season goes along, but they won't be going two months without a pick, either.

The interceptions have helped fuel a change in San Francisco's turnover margin. The Niners were a league-worst minus-25 last season, a figure that almost never repeats the following year. Through five games, they are at plus-two. There's even room for improvement there, given that they have recovered only seven of the 18 fumbles in their games, or just under 39%.

The 49ers also have been much healthier on defense after ranking 24th in Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost statistic a year ago. Though players have worked through injuries, the 49ers' 11 expected starters have missed a total of only five games so far, with three coming from oft-injured safety Jimmie Ward and two from cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. The offense hasn't been so lucky, as it has already lost both starting tackles in Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, running back Jerick McKinnonand wideouts Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd to significant injuries. For a team that has ranked 24th, 32nd and 26th in defensive AGL over the past three years, though, a healthy start is a pleasant surprise.

That defense, perhaps surprisingly, is what has been propelling this team to dominant victories. Few first-time coordinators change their scheme in the middle of their tenure, but after two disappointing years and adding personnel, Robert Saleh went away from the Seattle-style defenses he ran after coming over from the Jaguars and relied more on using his defensive ends in wide-nine techniques. He has asked his safeties to play both free and strong safety throughout the season and they've responded. Jaquiski Tartt has played at a Pro Bowl level. Ward stepped in to break up consecutive key passes against the Rams on third and fourth down last week. Kwon Alexander is the big name at linebacker, but Fred Warnerhas taken a step forward and looks like a 10-year veteran. The 49ers look great at every level.

After years of inconsistent returns from an expensively assembled defensive line, though, the 49ers finally look like a team to be reckoned with in the trenches. The win over the Rams had to feel like validation for an organization that has four first-round picks along the defensive line to go with newly acquired end Dee Ford. They beat up the Rams at the line of scrimmage, and it only got worse as the game went along.

The 49ers rank in the top 10 in both sack rate (9.6%, third) and pressure rate (30.3%, eighth). Along with the Patriots and Bills, they're one of three teams allowing opposing offenses to score less than 1 point per drive (0.98). No team is forcing more three-and-outs, nor is it close; the 49ers are at 48.8% and the No. 2 Bills are at 43.8%. Opposing offenses are just 1-of-24 at converting on third or fourth down against them over the past two weeks. This is a legitimately great defense.

On offense, things are still a work in progress. The 49ers have been the most run-heavy team in the league, even after accounting for their leads. On drives that started while each team had between a 20% and an 80% chance of winning, per ESPN's win expectancy model, teams have typically thrown the ball just over 58% of the time. The 49ers have instead thrown the ball just over 49% of the time in those situations, which is the third-highest run rate in the league. Only the Ravens and Colts have been more run-heavy in those situations.

While the stories about Jimmy Garoppolo looking awful in the preseason and throwing five consecutive interceptions in practice have faded, the former Patriots backup hasn't been a difference-maker yet this season. He is completing 69.9% of his passes, but coach Kyle Shanahan has made it relatively easy; according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Garoppolo's expected completion percentage given his throws is 68.5%, the second-highest expectation in the league behind Oakland's Derek Carr. In his return from a torn ACL, Garoppolo still looks unsteady under pressure; he ranks 12th in the league in passer rating without pressure, but he is just 28th when teams do get pressure.

One place the 49ers can actually still improve is in the red zone. This will shock Falcons fans who long for the Shanahan era, but his offenses have struggled mightily in the red zone. Last year's 49ers team scored only 4.21 points per red zone trip, which ranked 30th in the NFL. Teams typically improve on that number the following season, but after scoring only two touchdowns and turning the ball over once amid five trips inside the 20 against the Rams last week, the Niners are scoring 3.98 points per red zone possession, which ranks 29th.

The 49ers probably aren't going to continue outscoring teams by 16 points per game. Their defense will give up more than one third-down conversion every two weeks. Even if it settles, though, they have the sort of defense that can carry them through bad games by Garoppolo. It also wouldn't shock me if the passing game improved during the second half of the season once Staley and McGlinchey return from injuries, especially given that Garoppolo is throwing to one of the youngest receiving corps in the league.

After years in the wilderness, one of the league's proudest franchises is finally relevant again.

Buffalo Bills

Preseason playoff chances: 18.2%

Current playoff chances: 77.3%

Playoff chances improvement: +59.1%

The Bills are in about as good of a shape as any team with little shot of winning its division can be after six weeks. Although they lost to the Patriots in a 16-10 nail-biter, they are the only one-loss team in the AFC. Their wins have come against teams that are a combined 5-18, and three of those four victories were by seven points or fewer, but the Bills are also about to play the Dolphins at home. They probably will start 5-1, and since the league went to its current structure in 2002, teams that have started the season 5-1 have made the playoffs nearly 79% of the time.

If you look at the record I mentioned for vanquished Bills foes, you might expect Buffalo's schedule to get harder. FPI thinks otherwise. Buffalo has played the league's sixth-easiest slate so far and will face its second-easiest run of opponents over the remaining 11 games. It still has two games against the Dolphins, and home games against Denver, Washington and the Jets. It still has six home games to go, and one of the road games comes against the Steelers, who are already down to their third-string quarterback. The Bills won't win all of those games, but they have a friendlier path to 10 wins than any other team in the wild-card picture.

The Bills also have the sort of defense that will help them steal more competitive games too. They nearly took one from the Patriots, given that the margin of victory was a blocked punt the Pats returned for a touchdown. The Bills rank second in the league behind the Patriots in points allowed per drive (0.92), percentage of drives ending in a score (15%) and yards allowed per pass attempt (5.5).

The Patriots and 49ers have built their great defenses with dominant pass rushes, which have virtually no correlation between the first half of the season and the second, but the Bills rank 16th in sack rate and 13th in pressure rate. I still think these will end up as three of the best defenses in football, but it seems likely that New England and San Francisco will decline as their pass rush regresses toward the mean in the second half. If anything, the Bills might improve. Given how well this defense has performed since the start of 2018, it's not fading anytime soon.

Getting the offense to cooperate might be another story. The Bills rank 27th in offensive DVOA after six weeks, and while they're eighth in the running game, Josh Allen and the passing attack rank 29th. Allen is28th in Total QBR (36.8) and 30th in passer rating (75.2) in what was supposed to be a breakout season.

Judging his possible progress from week to week can be exhausting. When I wrote about Allen in Week 1, I noted that the second-year passer was mostly competent, albeit with several crushing mistakes that should have cost Buffalo the game. He did cost the Bills the game against the Patriots with a brutal three-interception performance before leaving because of a concussion, but the 2018 first-rounder then responded with a better start against Tennessee.

Allen's running is down, which is better for his long-term future and growth as a passer, but worse for his short-term effectiveness. He is averaging 31.6 rushing yards and 2.2 first downs as a runner per game this season, down from 52.6 yards and 3.4 first downs per game a year ago. Most of those runs have come on designed calls; he has only five first downs as a scrambler after racking up 25 in 12 games last season. As I mentioned last year, there wasn't any real history of a quarterback scrambling as effectively as Allen (or Mitchell Trubisky) over multiple seasons.

His completion percentage has spiked, but that's because he is throwing shorter passes; at 62.6%, the Wyoming product is right in line with his expected completion percentage of 62%. Allen hitting his expected completion percentage is good, of course, but the big step he needs to take is cutting down on his giveaways. He has seven interceptions and five fumbles in five games. The only quarterbacks with more than 12 combined interceptions and fumbles are Jameis Winston (15) and Baker Mayfield (14), and they've both started and completed six games. And while Bills fans will fairly pin the blame for some of Allen's interceptions on others, with the pick-six against the Jets as a clear example, some of his bad decisions have also been bailed out by dropped picks, including one by Marcus Mayethat would have cost the Bills a victory.

The offense has managed to get by through excelling in the red zone. With Allen's ability as a runner playing a key role, the Bills have scored 10 touchdowns in 14 trips to the red zone for a league-high touchdown rate of 71.4%. (The figure would be even higher if they hadn't gone into victory formation on the Tennessee 19-yard line in the fourth quarter after sealing the game with an Allen run for a first down.) That's the highest rate in football, and though they were 12th in the same category with an inferior offensive line last season, red zone performance at the highest level just isn't consistent from season to season.

The hope, of course, is that Allen gets better as he grows into the role and gains more rapport with a rebuilt receiving corps. He already has unearthed one surprising option in rookieDawson Knox, who might even keep his role in the starting lineup after Tyler Kroft returns from injury. If the defense stays healthy and continues at its current level, the Bills should have little trouble going 5-6, and that probably will get them into the playoffs. If Allen takes a sustained leap forward, the defense is good enough to immediately vault the Bills into 2018 Bears territory.

Houston Texans

Preseason playoff chances: 48.2%

Current playoff chances: 90.4%

Playoff chances improvement: +42.2%

The simplest explanation for why the Texans stand atop the AFC South and have a 76.4% chance of winning the division is at quarterback. Indianapolis unexpectedly had to replace a retiring Andrew Luck with Jacoby Brissett. Jacksonville lost Nick Foles to a broken collarbone after two possessions. The Titans just benched Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill in an attempt to spark the offense, which is a nice way of saying they don't know how to fix what's wrong.

The Texans are the only team in the division starting the same quarterback they expected to start all offseason.This offense is still seemingly prone to games in which it can't get going, often without any warning or precedent, but Deshaun Watsongives them a quarterback capable of beating anyone when he gets hot.

In Houston's 13-12 win over the Jags and its 16-10 loss to the Panthers, Watson might as well have not been there. He completed just under 60% of his passes, averaged 5.2 yards per attempt, and posted a passer rating of 73.3. About all he did in those games was score in two short-yardage opportunities as a runner, given that his total rushing production was seven carries for 17 yards.

Across Houston's four other games, though? Watson is the league MVP. With only a 58-yard Wil Lutz field goal keeping the Texans from going 4-0 in those games, Watson has completed more than 74% of his passes, averaged 9.5 yards per attempt, thrown 12 touchdown passes against three picks, and posted a passer rating of 123.3. Those numbers would be even better if it weren't for seven drops, four of which were on throws of 25 yards or more to Will Fuller or DeAndre Hopkins. A couple of those drives finished with touchdowns anyway, but Watson has actually been better in his big games than the numbers indicate.

I wrote about Watson and the rest of the offense earlier this week, so I might shift this toward what has happened on defense. It's naive to suggest that the Texans needed to trade Jadeveon Clowney to unlock Whitney Mercilus, but the former Illinois standout is having a career season in a contract year. Mercilus already has five sacks and four forced fumbles in six games, although his seven quarterback knockdowns suggest that the sack rate probably won't sustain itself as the season goes along. J.J. Watt continues to chug along in quarterbacks' nightmares, as the future Hall of Famer has four sacks, 14 knockdowns and three tackles for loss. The knockdown figure ties Watt for the league lead with ... his brother, T.J.

Concerns about the secondary after it was torched by the Saints in the opener have faded. The move to cut Aaron Colvin might go down as addition by subtraction, with rookie second-round pick Lonnie Johnson making his way into the lineup and holding his own. Johnson's completion percentage as the closest defender in coverage is just 56%, which is 11.5% below the mark the NFL's Next Gen Stats would have expected. Bradley Robyhas also impressed after a disappointing 2018 with the Broncos, although he'll miss the next several weeks because of a hamstring injury.

The good news for the Texans is that after beating the Chiefs, they don't have too many difficult games left on their schedule. They have only two games remaining against teams that rank in the top 10 in DVOA over the final 11 weeks of the year: a trip to Baltimore in Week 11 and a home game against the Patriots two weeks later. And over the next three weeks, they get three games against the Colts, Raiders and Jaguars. Wins in those games will matter in both the divisional and conference tiebreakers.

If Houston can get to its Week 10 bye at 6-3 -- with a 5-1 record in the AFC and a 2-1 record in the AFC South -- it should be all but able to punch its ticket for the postseason.

Green Bay Packers

Preseason playoff chances: 43.9%

Current playoff chances: 80.1%

Playoff chances improvement: +36.2%

My initial instinct was to write about how rare it is that the Packers have been equally propelled to the top of the NFC North by their offense and their defense, given that they rank eighth in both categories. As it turns out, this isn't anything new. Aaron Rodgers has been healthy or almost healthy for eight seasons as Green Bay's starter. In four of those years -- 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2015 -- the defense has either been about as good or better than the offense. Three of the other years showed a heavy offensive advantage, including the 15-1 season in 2011 and the most recent seasons in 2016 and 2017. (The offense was slightly better than the defense in 2012.)

I was wrong about the offensive bent about the Packers during the Rodgers era. Something else I was wrong about? The Smiths have turned around this pass rush overnight. If you had told me that Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith would combine for 13 sacks and 25 knockdowns in 2019, I wouldn't have been particularly surprised. The two edge rushers -- who aren't related -- have instead hit those numbers in six games, and I don't see anything from how the Packers have played suggesting the pass rush is suddenly about to fall off. Pass rushes on the whole are inconsistent over the course of a full season, but the Packers are ninth in sack rate and 12th in pressure rate despite blitzing just 23.1% of the time. (The league average is 26%.)

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has unsurprisingly been creative in how he uses his two new weapons. He has lined them both up as traditional edge rushers. They have ended up on the same side and twisted to create rush lanes. He has used one of the Smiths as an interior rusher to get first-round pick Rashan Gary onto the field. Wildly underrated interior lineman Kenny Clark has helped too; take a look at this sack of Dak Prescott, where Za'Darius Smith gets credit for the sack, but Clark helps create the pressure by pushing Zack Martin backward with his bull rush and taking away Prescott's lane to step up in the pocket. That's arguably the best guard in football Clark is manhandling!

The Packers also rank fifth in passer rating when they don't get pressure, which is a credit to how well the secondary has played. They missed standout rookie Darnell Savage during Monday's controversial win over the Lions, but one of the keys to their improvement is simply staying healthy. Kevin King has been banged up, but outside of Savage missing the game on Monday, Green Bay's five top defensive backs have been present for duty. For a team that was signing defensive backs off the street to play meaningful snaps at times last season, this is serious progress.

The offense has been more of a work in progress, although things seemed better on Monday, even without top receiverDavante Adams on the field. While the Packers were bailed out by at least one questionable call, the Lions also were lucky that two Packers receivers turned easy touchdowns into one drop and one interception. Total QBR has been underwhelmed by Rodgers' work in the offense this year, as his 51.2 mark places him 15th in the league, squeezed between Kyle Allen and Kirk Cousins.

If there were a next step for the offense to take, it would be growing more comfortable with play-action. Rodgers has a passer rating of 96.8 throwing off play-fakes, which is 26th in the league. Research suggests you don't actually need a successful running game to create success off play-action -- Patrick Mahomes is second in passer rating on play-action and his running game is 20th in DVOA -- but the Packers actually have one! Green Bay ranks fifth in rushing DVOA, and Aaron Jones is fourth in success rate.

The Packers already find themselves in great shape in the NFC North, as they're now 3-0 against their divisional brethren. Having already beaten the Broncos, Matt LaFleur's team now gets three consecutive games against the AFC West, highlighted by a road trip to face the Chiefs in Week 8. A game against the suddenly surging Panthers finishes things up before a Week 11 bye, but four of Green Bay's final six games afterward are on the road, including trips to face the 49ers, Vikings and Lions. The former could end up as very meaningful in the competition for a first-round bye. The latter two may end up deciding if the Packers get a home game (or a postseason berth) at all.

Baltimore Ravens

Preseason playoff chances: 45.9%

Current playoff chances: 71.5%

Playoff chances improvement: +25.6%

If you thought Lamar Jackson wasn't capable of running a viable NFL offense, well, you appear to be wrong. The former Heisman Trophy winner has taken huge strides in his second year as a starter. He is now completing just north of 65% of his passes, which is impressive for a quarterback whose average throw still travels 8.8 yards in the air, the seventh-longest average pass in the league. His completion percentage is right in line with his expected completion rate of 64.9%.

In addition, while other mobile quarterbacks from recent draft classes (such asJosh Allen and Mitchell Trubisky) haven't kept up their success or frequency as runners in 2019, Jackson continues to make a steady impact with his feet. The Louisville product has the league's highest rushing average (6.7 yards per carry) and first-down rate (34.8%) among players with a minimum of 10 carries per game. He has contributed 18.6 expected points with his feet, five points more than the second-placed quarterback, Deshaun Watson. Jackson also has fumbled only twice across 85 combined sacks and carries after fumbling 12 times in 163 opportunities a year ago.

The Jackson we saw in 2018 wasn't going to be sustainable in terms of rushing workload. He was on pace to carry the ball 272 times over a full 16-game season as a starter, which would be a huge workload for a modern running back, let alone a quarterback. He's now averaging just under 14 carries per game, which would still be a record pace for a modern quarterback. It's difficult to imagine a 212-pound quarterback getting tackled 14 times per game and getting up over and over again.

For a quarterback who runs as frequently as Jackson does, though, he has become a wizard at not getting hit. Take his 69 runs. Ten of them aren't actually running plays at all; they're kneel-downs, bad snaps and bad handoffs, all of which get credited as quarterback runs. Of the other 59 runs, Jackson was brought down by an opposing player only 32 times. He either dove forward, scored a touchdown standing up or ran out of bounds without going down on nearly 46% of his runs.

He is a master at getting out of bounds in perilous situations. About once per week, Jackson will seemingly be heading toward the sideline for a modest gain, come to a complete stop, let an oncoming train of a defender plow into the sideline without ever touching the quarterback, and then sneak forward for a couple of extra yards before going out of bounds. And if anyone ever tells you Jackson is sliding, well, they're not actually paying attention. While he did dive forward on a number of plays, I don't believe I saw even a single traditional quarterback slide from the second-year passer.

Jackson and this offense are good enough to make it to the postseason. Baltimore ranks fourth in offensive DVOA through six weeks, although I would suspect that figure to drop, given that the Ravens have played the easiest slate of opposing defenses in football. Even if that happens, the offense is clearly what is keeping this team in the race. For the first time since 2012, the Ravens actually look to be better by DVOA on offense than they do on defense.

That 2012 team got players like Ray Lewis back for a postseason run and won a Super Bowl. While Baltimore will get back cornerbackJimmy Smithand could hope to revitalize Marcus Peters' career, they're mostly going to need to win with the talent they currently have. After losing seven starters or otherwise meaningful contributors from this defense via free agency and preseason injuries, they are struggling to make up the difference with the replacements.

The Ravens' defense is synonymous with pressure, and it is still getting after the quarterback. The Ravens' 29.6% pressure rate is 10th in the league, but the problem is how much it takes to create that pressure. Don Martindale's defense is blitzing 44.7% of the time, which is the highest rate in football. When you look at how frequently each team gets pressure when blitzing, the Ravens come in 15th, just above league average at 37.6%.

When the defense does get pressure, things don't go always go as planned. Baltimore has the league's fourth-lowest sack rate after pressuring the opposing passer at 16.4%, with only the Jets, Falcons and Bengals converting their harassment into sacks less frequently. And because the two teams blitz so frequently, only the Buccaneers have had more unsuccessful blitzes this season than the Ravens. The average offense posts a passer rating of 112 in those situations; it's an easy way for a defense to get stretched and destroyed.

The Ravens have been closer to good than great this season, but at 4-2 and with a two-game lead on the rest of the AFC North, they're comfortably division favorites. They're already 2-1 in the North, although the next three weeks will be tough, as they travel to face the Seahawks and then have a home game against the still-undefeated Patriots coming after their bye. After a respite against the Bengals, the Ravens then get the Texans, Rams, 49ers and Bills before things quiet down over the final few weeks of the year.

Baltimore beat the Dolphins by 49 points, but their three other wins are by no more than six points. I'm not skeptical of Jackson, but I'm still questioning whether the defense can live up to lofty expectations. If it doesn't, the Ravens will leave the door cracked open for the Browns and even the Steelers in the division.

Oakland Raiders

Preseason playoff chances: 7.7%

Current playoff chances: 28.3%

Playoff chances improvement: +20.6%

The league is more fun when the Raiders are competitive. I'm not quite sure whether to believe in this team, given that it has been outscored by 20 points over five games and is really getting pushed up the charts by the collapse of the Chargers, but there's a logical, coherent plan here. If Jon Gruden can continue to develop the young players on his roster and some of them break out during the second half, the Raiders could surprise and sneak into the postseason.

On offense, Gruden knows exactly what he wants to do. He spent the past two years acquiring mammoth offensive linemen and then drafted Josh Jacobs in the first round to run behind them. It's telling that the Raiders were able to physically overpower one of the league's toughest defenses when they ran for 169 yards on 39 carries against the Bears in London. The Bears lost Akiem Hicks to a nasty elbow injury early in that contest, but Chicago was without Hicks or Roquan Smith altogether the prior week against the Vikings, and proceeded to stifle a wildly expensive Minnesota offense. Gruden's horses were able to run over the Bears, and they did so without star guard Gabe Jackson, who hasn't played this season after suffering a knee injury in August.

You might figure that this would lead to a passing game built off play-action and relying on that offensive line to hold up under pressure, but that hasn't been the case. Gruden has designed this offense to get the ball out of Derek Carr's hands. Quickly. Carr is averaging just 2.52 seconds before throwing the ball, which is the third-fastest rate in the NFL behind Jimmy Garoppolo and Andy Dalton. Unsurprisingly, the only quarterback throwing shorter passes than Carr is Teddy Bridgewater.

It's easy to imagine why the Raiders would have wanted to keep Antonio Brown, who would come in handy for his work after the catch. Despite the short throws, Carr is averaging only 4.9 yards after catch on his completions, which ranks 25th in the league. Carr could certainly use a more imposing receiving corps, and Tyrell Williams is struggling with plantar fasciitis, but the breakout of 6-foot-6 tight end Darren Waller has helped. The Raiders also just won a game against one of the league's best defenses in which Carr's top two receivers were Foster Moreau and Trevor Davis.

While Oakland was able to avert the Khalil Mack revenge game by getting the ball almost immediately out of Carr's hands, it still misses the star pass-rusher. While they rank sixth in rush defense DVOA and fifth in turning opposing rush attempts into tackles for loss, the Raiders are 26th in pass defense DVOA and 30th in Total QBR allowed. They're ahead of only the Falcons and Dolphins in the latter category.

They also rank 30th in pressure rate, and in what is probably not a coincidence, the only two teams that trail Paul Guenther's defense in pressure rate happen to be the very same Falcons and Dolphins. The Raiders have just 19 quarterback knockdowns through five games, and while Benson Mayowa has 4.5 sacks, his four knockdowns both pace the team and make it unlikely he'll keep this sack pace up going forward. Clelin Ferrell has played more than 66% of the defensive snaps through five weeks, but the surprise fourth overall pick has just one sack and two knockdowns to show for his efforts. The Raiders have a better sack rate and pressure rate with their nominal Mack replacement on the sideline than they do with Ferrell on the field. With Arden Key suffering a patellar strain against the Bears, Ferrell is only going to see more snaps.

I would suggest that the Raiders consider blitzing more, but that hasn't been a good idea, either. They have created pressures on just 15.1% of their dropbacks this season, the lowest rate in football. If anything, they have been lucky; opposing receivers have dropped 4.2% of their quarterbacks' passes, the fifth-highest rate in the league in advance of Week 7.

A young Oakland secondary has benefited from the arrival of Lamarcus Joyner at slot cornerback, although it would have been fun to see a full season from first-round pick Johnathan Abram, who went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in the opener. Both Joyner and Daryl Worley are going to be used in hybrid roles around the defense, although Joyner's history with the Rams suggests he's best left in one spot, which was then free safety. I'd like to see this secondary with a more functional pass rush in front of them.

While the Raiders are just a half-game behind the Chiefs in the AFC West, Kansas City already comfortably beat Oakland and claimed the temporary tiebreaker between the two. The Chiefs are understandably favorites to win the division, and unless Patrick Mahomes is forced off the field for multiple weeks, you probably don't need me to explain why.

The Raiders' chances of sneaking in as a wild-card team likely depend upon whether they can foster a vicious atmosphere at home in what will be their final season by the Bay. They have road games against the Packers and Texans over the next two weeks, but five of their next seven games afterward are at home. All of those matchups -- the Lions, Chargers, Bengals, Titans and Jaguars -- are theoretically winnable. If they win four of those five to get to seven wins, the Raiders would likely just need to win two of their six remaining road games to make it to the postseason at 9-7.

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