Not being in the playoffs stinks. You have no chance of winning a Super Bowl. You don’t have the opportunity to see your quarterback pull a Flacco and burn the whole NFL playoffs to the ground. You don’t get to root for helmet catches, game-sealing interceptions, or even blocked field goals. On the other hand, you don’t have to worry about losing to the Patriots because you threw an interception at the one-yard line instead of running the ball in with your star running back. So, at least there’s that.
But don’t worry about it. I’m here to help you find something to root for, no matter how far out of the playoff hunt your team is.
At the time of writing, the playoff picture is still a little bit open, especially in the hunt for the Wild Card spots. In order, the playoff teams in the NFC are: the Philadelphia Eagles (11-2), the Minnesota Vikings (10-3), the Los Angeles Rams (9-4), the New Orleans Saints (9-4), the Carolina Panthers (8-4), and the Atlanta Falcons (8-4). Their AFC counterparts: the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2), the New England Patriots (10-3), the Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4), the Kansas City Chiefs (7-6), the Tennessee Titans (8-5), and the Buffalo Bills (7-6). But, those teams are (currently) in the playoffs, so we’re not going to pay them any more attention.
Here, in alphabetical order, are the teams not in the playoffs. If you’re a fan of one of these teams I have some suggestions for what you should be rooting for with the rest of the season.
Arizona Cardinals: This season has become something of a lost season with the Cardinals not making much noise in the NFC West. It would be easy for Cardinals fans to look past the end of the season towards the draft and which QB the team will take (Baker Mayfield anyone?). But they shouldn’t. There are two things to cheer for as the Cardinals finish out the season: the return of Tyrann Mathieu to peak form and Larry Fitzgerald’s consistent greatness. Mathieu’s recovery from his 2016 ACL tear has been understandably slow, but he seems to have made it most of the way back to his 2015 Honey Badger best. He has 56 tackles, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, 7 passes defensed, 6 tackles for a loss, and 6 disrupted dropbacks. Mathieu’s return to form means a lot for this defense, providing a defensive anchor for the whole secondary. And it wouldn’t be a discussion about the Cardinals without a little bit of talk about Larry Fitzgerald. On Sunday he passed Randy Moss for third on the all-time receiving yardage list. There are only three constants in this world: death, taxes, and Larry Fitzgerald receptions. Arizona fans should rejoice in that.
Baltimore Ravens: After a heartbreaking 39-38 loss to the Steelers, the Baltimore Ravens fell out of playoff contention. They still have a chance to win out and secure a Wild Card slot in the AFC. However, with their defense springing a few leaks and Joe Flacco being, well, Joe Flacco, they’ve had to rely more and more on the run game. Luckily for their offense, the running game has worked well – they currently rank ninth in the NFL. A big part of that is their feature back, Alex Collins. He may not have been in the team’s plans in training camp, but in only 9 starts Collins has racked up 825 yards and 5 touchdowns. While this isn’t quite a Rudy story (Collins did play for Arkansas) he got called up from the training squad after Danny Woodhead injured his hamstring on the first drive of the season. Ever since getting his shot however, Collins has been a monster, averaging 5.1 yards per attempt. He’s an easy guy to root for and Ravens fans can feel confident with the ball in his hands.
Chicago Bears: If you’re a Bears fan, it’s been a rough season. Currently sitting at 3-9, the Bears are out of the playoffs and questions swirl around the coaching and management of the team. That makes it pretty hard to get very excited about Chicago football. So, if you’re a Bears fan there’s really only one guy to root for: Mitchell Trubisky. Drafted number two overall, Biscuit hasn’t had a stellar start to the season, but he flashes signs of the accuracy and running-ability that led the Bears to draft him. At some point he might even get to throw more than fifteen times a game. If you’re an optimist, his last game against the Bengals should provide plenty of hope. Not only did Biscuit get to throw it 32 times, but he completed 25 passes and posted a Quarterback Rating of 112.4. If you’re a pessimist, just remember the saga of Jared Goff: in his rookie season, Goff looked like he didn't belong in the league, much less like a future franchise quarterback. One year and one coaching change later, Goff looks like one of the best quarterbacks in the league on maybe the league’s best team. If Trubisky keeps plagying like he did against the Bengals down the stretch, maybe every Bears fan should become an optimist.
Cincinnati Bengals: If you’re a Bengals fan, you can be forgiven for wondering where rock bottom is. Coming off a loss against the Bears and with the NFL’s 32nd ranked offense, things look pretty grim for Cincinatti. However, they definitely aren’t out of it yet. While the Bears loss hurts, one bright spot was the performance of Giovani Bernard. He rushed for 62 yards on just 11 attempts while chipping in with 6 receptions for 68 yards. Both marks were comfortably the highest on the team. If the Bengals offense is going to be anything other than stagnant, they are going to need Bernard to produce at that level consistently. Of course, that’s going to require the offense to convert first downs and stay on the field long enough for Bernard to get more than 11 attempts. AJ Green (averaging 14.8 yards per reception, with 8 touchdowns on the season) might be the consensus best player on Cincinnati, but they need this kind of effort from guys like Bernard to share some of the load and keep opposing defenses on the field. With Bernard and Green leading the way, they might be able to make a late charge into the playoffs.
Cleveland Browns: This has been a tumultuous season for the Browns. With turmoil in both the front office and with ownership, and questions being asked of the coaching staff, it might seem like there’s nobody to root for on Cleveland. Josh Gordon’s return may turn out to be a welcome relief for the Browns’ moribund offense, but the number one guy to root for is Myles Garrett. The rookie Defensive End has 21 tackles and 5 sacks on the year, but those numbers don’t really capture how great he has been. Even when double or triple-teamed he manages to single-handedly disrupt opposing blocking schemes. Every offensive lineman in the league is thankful that nobody else on the Browns approaches his pass-rushing ability. If the Browns can get another pass rusher or two in the draft to keep enemy O-lines honest against Garrett, their defensive line will transform into a pack of Jurassic Park velociraptors: fast, deadly, and able to take down opposing quarterbacks at will.
Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys are clinging to life in the NFC playoff hunt. To make it, they'll need to win out as well as root for a very specific combination of teams to lose. Needless to say, it’s looking a bit grim. What’s not looking grim? DeMarcus Lawrence. He currently leads the league with 13.5 sacks and that number isn’t a fluke; Lawrence hustles on every play, relentlessly attacking the ball like a quarterback-tackling Terminator. Every week, no matter the opponent, Lawrence is the one setting the tempo on the defensive line. Even in a tough year for the Cowboys, that kind of effort shouldn't go unnoticed.
Denver Broncos: Remember at the beginning of the season, when Trevor Siemian was hanging 231 yards and four touchdowns on the Cowboys? Yeah, me neither. That feels like a different era at this point in the season. The thing to remember is that , even with their current struggles, this team is still loaded with talent. The defense has real difference-makers at every level, CJ Anderson should hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season, and the receivers still can make plays. Upgrade the quarterback position and this offense should make a leap, which might just be enough to take them back to the Super Bowl. The question is: where do you find that quarterback? The draft is one option, though the draft nerd consensus seems to be down on the upcoming quarterback prospects… and the Broncos do have important players on both sides of the ball about to become free agents, so you could argue that using draft picks on other positions makes more sense. My recommendation: root for the Giants to cut Eli Manning, so he can follow the path blazed by his older brother. Eli isn’t the best quarterback in the league but he’s still a massive upgrade over the options on the Broncos, and he’d bring leadership and experience to a team that desperately needs a direction and whose defense is still good enough to win the Super Bowl.
Detroit Lions: At this point, it might be tough for the stars to align and the Lions to make the playoffs, though it’s still technically possible. But with Stafford struggling with a throwing-hand injury, a hobbled offensive line, and key members of the defense out, Lions faithful could be forgiven for losing faith. Playoff dreams or no, one interesting player to root for is Kenny Golladay. He’s averaging 18.9 yards per reception, which leads the team over established stars Golden Tate and Marvin Jones Jr., and his unusual combination of size and speed make him a nightmare to cover. He’s only played in 8 games, but he has 18 catches for 340 yards, including several highlight reel plays. If he can develop into the reliable deep-threat option for Stafford that the Lions offense has been crying out for, then Detroit might actually make that late season playoff push. Even if they don’t make the playoffs, having a big-bodied sprinter who can beat opposing cornerbacks with strength and speed is never a bad thing to have.
Green Bay Packers: The return of Aaron Rodgers. If you’re a Packers fan you’re usually going to be rooting for Aaron Rodgers, but if he can make it back for the Carolina game and the Packers can run the table they’ll be able to sneak into the sixth seed in the playoffs. From there, anything is possible. Even if the Packers defense isn’t playing at their best, Rodgers tilts the field so much that every game feels winnable. It would be understandable if Rodgers comes back a little slowly after an injury to his throwing shoulder, but I wouldn’t bet against Rodgers in the playoffs. With Davante Adams playing like a Pro Bowl wide receiver and the running back combination of Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, Rodgers will be able to lean on other offensive playmakers while he gets his sea legs back.
Houston Texans: Since Deshaun Watson’s injury robbed us all of one of the season’s best storylines, the rest of the year for the Texans’ offense revolves around seeing which of their pieces can complement one of the league’s most exciting young players. On the other side of the ball, Jadeveon Clowney remains an absolute monster. He wrecks offenses, derails drives, and ruins runs singlehandedly. With 9 sacks, 46 combined tackles, and 2 forced fumbles, Clowney has more than made up for the loss of JJ Watt. If Watson and Watt come back and Clowney continues to play at this high of a level next year, then the AFC South will have a new contender.
Indianapolis Colts: With Luck’s health up in the air and questions swirling around the coaching staff’s future, all some Colts fans might be rooting for is to be put out of their misery. But there remain some reasons for optimism in Indianapolis, chief among them rookie Marlon Mack. While he’s behind Frank Gore in the depth chart, Marlon Mack has been studying up. In fact, Gore has sort of taken Mack under his wing and that mentoring shows in Mack’s improvement on runs in the inside. Mack’s top-end speed make him dangerous on every play; if he breaks into the second level of the defense he can blow by everyone. If he can continue to learn how to read the holes his offensive line presents him, Mack will become a truly devastating runner next year. Paired with Andrew Luck, Mack might herald a brighter future for Indianapolis sooner than most people think.
Los Angeles Chargers: If you’re a Chargers fan, what to root for is fairly easy: a continued Chiefs collapse. After starting the year 0-4, the Chargers are tied with the AFC West-leading Chiefs at 7-6, only outside of the playoffs right now due to tiebreakers. Better yet, they’ll get a chance to play the Chiefs and take control of the division on December 16th. Because the AFC West is still tight, the Chargers need to keep winning, and Keenan Allen needs to step up for that to happen. Somehow still underrated, he’s a big-bodied playmaker with quickness to spare and a crisp route-runner with a dizzying array of shake and hesitation moves to lose cornerbacks at the line. He has all the skills of a marquee receiver and if he keeps racking up 100 yard games and making himself a nightly touchdown threat, nobody in the AFC playoffs will want to square off against the Chargers.
Miami Dolphins: There’s no point in beating around the bush: it’s Kenny Stills. The Dolphins are not making the playoffs this year, and with inconsistent play at every position it’s not tough to see why they’ve struggled. One bright spot for Miami though has been Stills. His 751 yards and 6 touchdowns on the season are respectable, but it’s his ability to make circus catches and break big plays that make him such a handful for defenses... and such a delight to watch. Even though the Dolphins won’t make the playoffs, watching Stills work his magic is almost enough to wish they would.
New York Giants: Oh boy, this season has been a doozy. Between injuries, coaching changes, front office turmoil, and some poor play, the Giants are in freefall. With McAdoo’s firing, it’s not immediately apparent what shape the Giants will take for the rest of the season. Eli is back at starter. Since this might be his last season at the helm of the Giants’ offense, so if you're a New York fan, now’s the time to drink in the Eli experience. Enjoy every miraculous touchdown, confusing interception, and baffling decision while you still can. Otherwise, may as well read up on the 2017 draft prospects.
New York Jets: Let’s be honest with each other for a second: this Jets team was not supposed to be good. But instead of settling in as the dregs of the NFL, Josh McCown decided to have himself a career year, Matt Forte has been reliably solid, and Robby Anderson scores touchdowns at will. It’s honestly been sort of inspiring to see this team fearlessly sling the ball around with the unheralded talent they have on offense. If you had to root for anyone though, Robby Anderson has been the best storyline of the Jets’ season. An undrafted free agent, Anderson has racked up 848 yards, 7 touchdowns, and has averaged 16.3 yards per catch. He’s officially one of the most exciting players in the NFL to watch because it feels like something awesome is going to happen every time he touches the ball. At 5-7, the Jets still aren’t out of the playoffs and Anderson deserves a lot of credit for keeping them in the hunt.
Oakland Raiders: Part of a three-way race atop the AFC West, the Raiders need to root for the Chiefs to continue to free fall and for the Chargers to slip up. If those wishes come true, they’ll have a chance to take sole possession of the division if they finish strong. They have the guys to do it, too. Marshawn Lynch has been a beast lately, apparently rediscovering his Seattle Beastquake form, even as Amari Cooper has struggled with injury and Derek Carr has been inconsistent. But the real difference maker and the #1 guy to root for is Khalil Mack. With 8.5 sacks, 47 tackles and a forced fumble, Mack is one of the most disruptive players in the NFL and every week he makes opposing offensive linemen look worse than they are. If the Raiders do make the playoffs, rest assured that he’ll be a big reason why.
San Francisco 49ers: Ok, so most of this season was admittedly a bit of a slog… but recently, things are looking up. The trade for Jimmy Garoppolo means that instead of looking at top college prospects to see who the 49ers could draft at the QB position, instead you get to pour over Northern California’s most eligible bachelor’s (he’s so handsome) box stats. Sure, Reueben Foster’s play has been excellent – he did get not named Defensive Rookie of the Month for November for no reason – but the future of the franchise lies in how Garoppolo and coach Kyle Shanahan can maximize Garoppolo’s ability in the pocket and his quick release. Based on the game against Chicago and garbage time against the Seahawks, the future looks bright in The City.
Seattle Seahawks: So, let’s be honest: things are looking pretty grim for Seattle’s playoffs chances. After the game against Jacksonville, the only starter behind the defensive line is Earl Thomas. Finishing out the season with Earl Thomas and a big bushel of backups isn’t going to be an appetizing prospect for Seahawks fans. It turns out that a “next man up” mantra only works for a little bit when you go from Richard Sherman to Byron Maxwell. But the Seahawks aren’t out of it yet. They can still beat the Rams to take possession of the NFC West. If they can’t rely on their defense to do that, then they are going to have to rely on their offense… meaning mostly Russell Wilson. No player has to shoulder more of his team’s total offense. Not only has Wilson thrown for 3,527 yards (averaging 7.46 yards per throw) at a 61.9% completion percentage, but he also leads the Seahawks in rushing yards with 482. The Seahawks, in fact, have only one rushing touchdown scored by a running back all season (Wilson has three). If the Seahawks do make the playoffs for the sixth straight season, #3 will be the reason they do.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: This year has been a little rough. The NFC South has been a sort of unexpectedly difficult division, with three teams that have reasonable cases to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, if you’re a fan of the Bucs, Tampa is not one of those three. The rest of the season might be an exercise in saving face. If you’re looking for things liven up your Bucs fan life, Jameis Winston might be your savior. While he’s sort of fumble-prone (currently sitting in third with 10 fumbles on the season) Winston is also an aggressive thrower, averaging 11.2 yards downfield according to Pro Football Focus. That boom-or-bust style hasn’t worked out so far this year, but it will be interesting to see if he can come in and lead the Bucs closer to an 8-8 finish. Or, failing that, at least play spoiler to some of the other NFC South teams.
Washington Redskins: It's been an inconsistent year for the Redskins. Big wins over the Seahawks and Rams have been followed up with losses to the Cowboys and Ravens. While they’re still mathematically in the playoff hunt, it’s hard to see how Washington makes the postseason without somebody else totally melting down. So, the thing to root for with the Redskins is a fruitful resolution to the Kirk Cousins contract saga. If the Redskins franchise Cousins for a third year in a row, they would have to pay salary equivalent to 144 percent of the previous year’s salary. That means Washington would pony up more than $34 million in guaranteed money in 2018. That’s more than Matthew Stafford’s league-leading $26.5 million salary cap figure. Every year that Washington doesn’t make a decision one way or the other on Cousins eats more of their cap without bringing any long-term stability. With 22 touchdowns, a 65.9% completion percentage and 3,440 passing yards, it seems like Cousins has done enough to be the main guy on a team. Whether Washington thinks he’s done enough to be the main guy on their team is another question.