The N.F.L. likes to brag about the competitiveness across the league, how in every year since 2000 at least one team with a winning percentage of .500 or lower midway through its season has gone on to make the playoffs.
Seeing that the top 10 in the N.F.C. have winning records, if the streak continues this season it will likely be because of an A.F.C. team: Oakland (4-5), Baltimore (4-5) and Miami (4-4), which plays at Carolina on Monday night, remain very much alive.
In the event the N.F.L. decides to keep the current playoff format (sigh), six teams will nonetheless qualify from the A.F.C. Barring a collapse, New England, Pittsburgh and Kansas City are well positioned. As for the other three?
Here’s a look at the leading candidates:
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (6-3): By no means was Louis Riddick comparing Jacksonville’s quarterback, Blake Bortles, to Peyton Manning. But, he said, the Jaguars’ formula for success this season — run a lot, throw a little, lean on a ferocious defense — resembles that of the Denver Broncos during their Super Bowl season two years ago.
“Right now they’re more than right to take the ball out of his hands as much as possible,” Riddick, an ESPN analyst, said of Bortles in an interview last week.
Bortles’s fourth quarter against the Chargers — 7 of 20 passing with two dreadful interceptions — corroborated the wisdom of that strategy. But in spite of those interceptions, the Jaguars still won, and they won because of a stingy defense that could propel them to their first playoff berth since the 2007 season. They forced a fumble and a three-and-out immediately after those interceptions and then set up the winning field goal with an A.J. Bouye interception in overtime.
“All I know, we are the best two corners in the league,” cornerback Jalen Ramsey told reporters afterward. “What do you all expect?”
BALTIMORE RAVENS (4-5): If the Ravens’ defense (18 takeaways) and special teams played every snap, they might win the division. Alas, they do still have to line up under center. Baltimore must hope that quarterback Joe Flacco can summon his late-season wizardry of years past to resuscitate an offense that has averaged 4.4 yards per play, tied for worst in the N.F.L. Any boost could help the Ravens capitalize on a favorable schedule, which concludes with a trip to winless Cleveland and home games against Indianapolis and Cincinnati.
TENNESSEE TITANS (6-3): Despite scoring fewer total points than their opponents (205 to 213), the Titans are 6-3. With a few exceptions — Miami (-17) and Houston (-49) last season, Indianapolis (-30) in 2012 — teams with negative point differentials do not make the playoffs because teams with negative point differentials do not usually win a lot.
“It’s tough to have faith in the Titans,” said the former receiver Nate Burleson, now an analyst for NFL Network, in an interview last week. “They’ll give you one thing one week, like this is a great product and they’ve got weapons, and another week they just look like a shell of themselves.”
What bodes well for Tennessee, at least on offense, is the improved health of two crucial players: Marcus Mariota, who has seemed to regain his mobility after a hamstring injury, and the rookie receiver Corey Davis, who was targeted 10 times Sunday in his second game back after missing five with a strained hamstring.
BUFFALO BILLS (5-4): Buffalo’s promising start has been erased by two debacles — Jets/Saints 81, Bills 31 — and unless they fix their rampant defensive issues, they will spend an 18th straight playoffs on the outside. Across their last five games (three losses), the Bills have allowed an average of 28.4 points and 403 yards. With a run-heavy offense and a passing game that is more opportunistic than potent, Buffalo is not built to overcome weekly defensive implosions.
OAKLAND RAIDERS (4-5): Here’s an unbelievable statistic: Of the 288 passes thrown against the Raiders, none have been intercepted. They have yielded the highest completion rate, 71.2 percent, and a 110.5 rating to quarterbacks. In a pass-oriented league, Oakland’s potency on offense, highlighted by quarterback Derek Carr and receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, is negated by its ineffectiveness on defense. Among the quarterbacks Oakland must still face: Tom Brady, Alex Smith, Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott.
MIAMI DOLPHINS (4-4): The Dolphins, the lowest-scoring team in the N.F.L., are here more in deference to their record than for any tangible reason. But Jay Cutler just might provide one. He went from the Fox broadcast booth to the football field when the incumbent quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, hurt his knee. It has taken two months for Cutler to mesh with the team, and across his last two games he has thrown for five touchdowns against one interception with a 120.5 passer rating.