(ASSOCIATED PRESS) — Close games and unpredictable outcomes have been a staple this NFL season.
Thanksgiving Day was the latest example.
The league and the networks must love it, and fans stay entertained.
Going into Thursday, the 23 games decided by a winning score on the final play were the most such games through Week 11 in league history. Victories by Chicago and Las Vegas increased that total to 25.
So far, 39 games have been decided by a game-winning score in the final two minutes of regulation or in overtime.
Thrilling finishes are exciting for everyone except writers who have to rewrite their stories at the end of games.
There’s more parity now than anytime in recent years, and it’s a wide-open race to the Big Game.
Last week, three teams without a winning record beat a club that was in first place or tied for first. Since Week 9, that’s now happened 12 times.
Each team in both the AFC West and AFC North currently has a winning record. At least 10 teams have a legitimate shot to reach the Super Bowl. There’s only about seven that don’t have a real chance to make the playoffs.
Here’s a look at 10 clubs, in no particular order, who have the best chance to be in Los Angeles for Super Bowl 56.
DALLAS COWBOYS: Despite two straight losses, the Cowboys (7-4) have shown they have plenty of firepower — Dak Prescott leads the league’s No. 1 offense — and an improved defense. They were missing wide receiver Amari Cooper the past two games after he tested positive for COVID-19, and didn’t have wideout CeeDee Lamb in a 36-33 overtime loss to the Raiders because of a concussion. Dallas faces only one team that currently has a winning record over its last six games.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: If Aaron Rodgers is healthy, the Packers (8-3) should be playing in late January with an opportunity to extend their season to February. But Rodgers is nursing a fractured toe and the team is missing several key players because of injuries, including offensive linemen David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins and Josh Myers, linebacker Za’Darius Smith, cornerback Jaire Alexander and tight end Robert Tonyan. Green Bay has a tough matchup at home Sunday against the Rams. The Packers also still have to face the Ravens on the road and host the Browns and Vikings.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Tom Brady is having an MVP-type season at age 44 and the defending champion Buccaneers (7-3) are in control of the NFC South so they probably won’t have to take the wild-card route the way they did last season. The offense still isn’t clicking completely and a defense that has been ravaged by injuries isn’t playing like the one that shut down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in the Super Bowl last season. The Bucs have a tough road game Sunday at Indianapolis and host Buffalo next month before finishing with four games against teams that have losing records as of now. If they can secure the No. 1 seed, it would be a significant boost because they’re 5-0 at home.
ARIZONA CARDINALS: The NFC West-leading Cardinals (9-2) will be atop the conference standings when they return from their bye next week. They showed their depth by winning two of the past three games without their two most prolific offensive playmakers: quarterback Kyler Murray and wideout DeAndre Hopkins. Arizona has a balanced offense and the league’s fifth-ranked defense. Holding onto the top seed won’t be easy, with games at home against the Rams and Colts and a road trip to Dallas still ahead.
LOS ANGELES RAMS: The Rams (7-3) have been all-in to win now with acquisitions of several high-profile stars from Matthew Stafford before the season to Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. during the season. But following a 7-1 start, they lost to the Titans and 49ers before a bye. They’re underdogs Sunday at Lambeau Field and still have road games against the Cardinals, Ravens and Vikings. Still, even if they don’t win the NFC West, the Rams have the talent to follow the same path Tampa Bay took last year as a wild-card team.
BUFFALO BILLS: A fashionable pick to win it all before the season, the Bills (7-4) have been wildly inconsistent. They lost to lowly Jacksonville and were blown out at home by the Colts in the past three games before rebounding with a 31-6 win over the injury-depleted Saints on Thursday night. All seven wins have come by at least a 15-point margin. If Josh Allen plays down the stretch like the MVP candidate he was last season, the Bills and their top-ranked defense can make those preseason prognosticators look smart. The AFC East will come down to the two games against the Patriots in December. Buffalo also has a tough one at Tampa.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: After a one-year hiatus from the playoffs following Brady’s departure, Bill Belichick has the Patriots (7-4) back in a familiar position. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones has exceeded expectations and New England’s stingy defense keeps the team in games. The Patriots have four difficult games coming up, starting with Tennessee on Sunday. Their head-to-head games against the Bills will decide the division and they’ll need to finish first to have a chance to go deep in the postseason.
TENNESSEE TITANS: Before losing to the Texans, the Titans (8-3) had run off an impressive streak of six straight wins, including five in a row against teams that reached the playoffs in 2020. They’ll miss Derrick Henry even more as the season goes on, especially if Ryan Tannehill plays like the guy who tossed four picks against Houston. With a sweep over the Colts, the Titans are in excellent shape to win the AFC South.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: Despite a slew of injuries to several starters, the Ravens (7-3) lead the AFC North and have a run game led by Lamar Jackson that’s been a winning formula in December. The main concern for Baltimore is a usually strong defense has struggled this season.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Mahomes and the Chiefs (7-4) are back on track after a rough start. They’ve won four in a row and have shown a ton of improvement on defense. Kansas City doesn’t have an easy road to its third straight AFC title. The final six games are against opponents that are .500 or better entering Week 12.