Lawrence: Stretch Run Upon Us

With six of eight divisions still up for grabs, many NFL storylines remain unwritten. So buckle up, Amy Lawrence says, it's going to be a crazy couple of weeks

Amy Lawrence
December 12, 2018 - 6:47 pm

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Three weeks left in the NFL regular season--that's it! We're in the homestretch of what's been a resurgent year for the sport and the league. As a kicker, there's still so much we don't know about the playoff puzzle, from the byes to the bracket to home-field advantage to the favorites and the fresh blood. And with all the uncertainty, a handful of teams who harbored sky-high expectations now teeter on the brink of bitter disappointment. Heads will roll.

Only two of the eight division titles are secure. For the first time in franchise history, the Saints win the NFC South in consecutive seasons, though they remain locked in a fierce battle for the top seed. The Rams are West division champs for the second straight year, a feat that franchise hasn't celebrated since the late-’70s. The Bears defense made a resounding statement against LA to get back on track for their first trip to the playoffs since 2010. Hard to believe it's been that long for one of the league's original franchises, but January football at Soldier Field would be a fantastic way to ring in the new year. As the NFL's hottest team, the Cowboys haven't lost since the first week of November (5-1 with Amari Cooper). And with their four-game win streak, the Seahawks likely need just one more victory to earn a Wild Card berth.

Everything else is murky in the NFC. Only the four division leaders and Seattle currently own winning records. With Minnesota dropping three of its last four, a mere five teams out of 16 are above the Mendoza line! The Super Bowl champion Eagles are clinging to shreds of hope, but with Carson Wentz nursing a balky back plus a rash of other injuries, they could be the tenth team in the last 30 years to miss the postseason on the heels of hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy. After back-to-back campaigns with double-digit wins, the Falcons are on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2015, which raises a ton of questions in Atlanta. In the same division, the Panthers have bottomed out with a five-game losing skid. The NFC South is definitely a candidate for sweeping change in the next month.

In the AFC, four of the top six stumbled to begin the final month of the season. Pittsburgh's position atop the AFC North is precarious at best. If Baltimore had pulled off the overtime victory in Kansas City, it would be the Ravens on top of the division right now. Their future is riding on the outcome. They haven't made the postseason in the last three years, and they haven't ruled the North since 2012. Down the stretch, the Ravens will put their faith in rookie Lamar Jackson who will remain the starter despite Joe Flacco getting cleared from his hip injury. For the first time in more than a decade, a healthy Flacco will NOT top the QB depth chart. Talk about a seismic shift. He's under contract through 2021 for big bucks, but if they reach the postseason with a rookie under center, the offense could look a lot different next year. If they miss the playoffs again, Flacco AND Coach John Harbaugh may get a change of scenery.

The AFC gifted us fresh material last winter as the Jaguars, Titans, and Bills all returned to the postseason after extended droughts. In Buffalo's case, a miraculous turn of events on the final weekend put a beloved franchise with its passionate fan base into the playoffs for the first time this century. But the euphoria was short-lived. The Bills won't make it a repeat affair, nor will the Jaguars, who backpedaled from AFC Championship game to the South basement. The Titans are still alive, but the playoff bracket could feature more turnover this January. Like Tennessee and Baltimore, Indianapolis and Miami are sitting at 7-6. The Colts have been on the outside looking in since 2014 when they advanced to the conference title tilt in New England. The Dolphins' lone playoff appearance in the last decade was two winters ago, and they don't have a playoff victory to their credit since 2000!

The Chargers are morphing into one of the best stories of the year. They've been absent from the postseason since 2013 when they still belonged to San Diego, and they're still alive for the AFC West crown. But even if they can't overtake the Chiefs, they should be the top Wild Card. It's been too long since we've seen Philip Rivers on the grandest stage in football; he was a spring chicken of 32 the last time he threw a postseason pass, ha. And if you seek the improbable and incredible: the Cleveland Browns are still alive for their first playoff berth since 2002! After firing Hue Jackson and Todd Haley just before Halloween, they've ripped off three wins in four games. Similar to the Bills last season, they'll need all kinds of help to make it happen; but with no playoff success to their credit since before the rebirth of the franchise (1994), the Browns are an underdog worth cheering for right now.

The uncertainty, the parity, the annual surprises, the constant DRAMA--it's what we crave about the NFL week to week and year to year. We're down to the nitty-gritty with higher stakes, more pressure, and extra tension on the field and in our living rooms! Last season's playoff script will be tough to match with the Philadelphia Eagles rebounding from worst to first in the NFC East and surviving the loss of their star quarterback to knock off the Patriots for their first Super Bowl title in franchise history. With Nick Foles earning MVP honors, it was an unforgettable climax.

Three weeks to go, and we have our share of Cinderella stories in the making, including the Bears and Texans, who could both catapult from division basement to division title. All of our burning questions will be answered within days, so buckle up!

A well-traveled veteran of sports radio and television, Amy is the passionate host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program, After Hours with Amy Lawrence, from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Listeners can tune in from Canada and overseas, thanks to SiriusXM, cbssportsradio.com and the CBS Sports app. Amy has also handled basketball play-by-play and color duties for various radio and TV outlets over the past 15 years. Amy graduated from Messiah College with bachelor’s degrees in Communications & Accounting before earning her master’s in TV & Radio from Syracuse University. She is a native of Concord, NH.

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