We’re now halfway through the NFL season, a point that many thought might never arrive because of COVID-19.  There have been positive coronavirus results seen, but nothing that has forced the league to call off the season completely – it just had to shift around a few games.

With Week 9 now almost in the books, minus today’s game between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets, a picture is beginning to emerge.  That picture shows who is most likely to appear in the playoffs and who needs to already begin thinking about how to make next season an improvement over the performance seen this year.

The AFC Playoff Picture Starts To Emerge

There are now 132 games that have already been played this season.  The NFL postseason is going to be altered this year to include 14 teams, as opposed to the usual 12, per the collective bargaining agreement negotiations from earlier this year, and this will also lead to changes in the value of the top-seeded teams in each conference.  There is still the possibility that more teams could be added, moving to 16 total, if COVID-19 causes any more disruptions.

As things stand right now, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a lock for the playoffs and have a very strong case for taking both the AFC North and the AFC.  They are 8-0 on the season, the only team to still have a perfect record, and continue to shine each time they take the field.  Things looked a little dicey as the Steelers took on the Dallas Cowboys this week, but they pulled off the win to stay ahead of the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs by half a game.

Speaking of the Chiefs, they should be expected to make a playoff appearance again this season, despite the fact that they have a difficult run of games coming after they get their Week 10 bye.  They seemed a little sluggish against the Carolina Panthers this weekend, so the bye will help them get some new energy before taking on the Las Vegas Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers the following two weeks.

There are several teams that are staying in the hunt for a Wild Card spot in the AFC playoffs.  The Baltimore Ravens, at 6-2, have the best shot right now, but will face the Steelers coming up at the end of November.  That game could determine whether it moves forward or will have to fight even harder as the season winds down ahead of the playoffs.

The Raiders, the Dolphins, the Cleveland Browns and the Indianapolis Colts all have 5-3 records, giving all of them access to a Wild Card berth.  However, the Raiders and the Denver Broncos, currently at 3-5, will meet next week, and this game could shift the wild-card race.

The NFC Playoff Lineup Is Dicey

The New Orleans Saints just wiped out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 38-3, and showed the league that they want to be the Super Bowl champions this year.  The stunning win was an exclamation point on a season that has been incredibly successful, and the New Orleans are now on top of the NFC South, as well as the division.  They’re 5-1 in the NFC, while the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers are 4-1 and 5-2, respectively.

If Seattle were to drop a game (or two), the Packers, who already beat the Saints this season, could move closer to threatening the Saints’ position.  The Seahawks won’t play either team, so it has no chance of bumping either team and can only rise to the top by playing solid ball for the rest of the season.

In the hunt for Wild Card participation, the Bucs are currently on top, even though most people would have never thought that they would need a wild card to make the playoffs.  However, they’re only a half-game behind the Saints, so there is definitely a chance to take the division of they play smarter.

The Cardinals come in close behind, followed by the LA Rams and the Chicago Bears.  The Rams are going to have a difficult time because of their upcoming schedule, which includes the Seahawks and the Bucs, and the Bears have a slightly easier time, facing the Minnesota Vikings, the Detroit Lions and the Houston Texans.  Winning those games could give them a nice boost.

Noticeably absent from these lists are teams like the New England Patriots, the San Francisco 49ers, the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers.  These are close to being aligned with the New York Jets, who have no chance of making a postseason appearance.  It will come down to how well they play over the next couple of weeks, and how other conference teams play, to decide if they see playoff action.