Since 2010, it hasn’t been unusual at all to see a team with a .500 record through 12 games go on a run and make the playoffs. Occasionally, a sub-.500 team has been able to recover in the final quarter of the season and slip into the postseason. While this will typically be due to a weak division, as was the case with the 2019 Philadelphia Eagles (5-7 after 12 games) or the 2014 Carolina Panthers (3-8-1), other squads have pushed for a wild-card berth despite weak starts. The 2018 Eagles started 4-6 and the 2013 Chargers were 5-7; both recovered with winning streaks to snag the final spot.
Which teams could join that club in 2020? Two major factors lend promise to the idea. First, the addition of the seventh playoff spot will see two more teams join the postseason. With the way the landscape is shaping up this season, this change itself could let a late-blooming team into the playoffs. Additionally, the uncertainty of COVID-19 adds an element of unpredictability that could derail a franchise and thus open the door for another.
One thing that is certain: At least one current sub-.500 team will definitely make the postseason, since all four NFC East teams have losing records and one of them will actually get to host a playoff game.
Will there be any others? Aside from the NFC East “contenders,” here are the five most likely teams to make the playoffs despite currently possessing a losing record.
1. San Francisco 49ers (5-6, 4th in NFC West)
Remaining Schedule: vs. BUF, vs. WAS, at DAL, at ARI, vs. SEA
Despite sitting last in the NFC West and losing nearly every major contributor to injuries, San Francisco could still make a run. In the NFC, the final playoff seed is well and truly up for grabs. Currently, the Cardinals (6-5) occupy the seventh seed, but the Week 16 matchup with the 49ers could prove decisive. If San Francisco can take care of business with against Washington and Dallas before taking down Kyler Murray in the desert, they’d own the decisive tiebreaker and the pole position. Even if they don’t beat Buffalo and Seattle, the 49ers would be in decent position to squeak in at 8-8 with only a minimal amount of help.
2. Minnesota Vikings (5-6, 2nd in NFC North)
Remaining Schedule: vs. JAC, at TB, vs. CHI, at NO, at DET
While the 49ers would have to make a run with their backup QB, the Vikings offense features Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen, who have been getting hot down the stretch and stand to capitalize on any possible slip-up from the 49ers and Cardinals. With a winnable schedule littered with broken quarterbacks and fired management, the Vikings have already won four of five since their bye week and stand to pick up several more, even counting a tough matchup with Tampa Bay.
3. New England Patriots (5-6, 3rd in AFC East)
Remaining Schedule: at LAC, at LAR, at MIA, vs. BUF, vs. NYJ
The picture in the AFC is much cloudier. With Kansas City and Pittsburgh fighting over the No. 1 seed, a group of seven more teams above .500 look to jostle for the other five spots and the right to attempt an upset. With the tall task of needing to leapfrog at least three other squads to get into playoff position, the odds are slim — but the Patriots are best positioned to do it. If they have success on their West Coast road trip before taking care of business with three home games against AFC East rivals, they stand to capitalize on the fact that some teams ahead of them have tougher schedules (Baltimore) and have been playing inconsistent football (Las Vegas).
4. Houston Texans (4-7, 3rd in AFC South)
Remaining Schedule: vs. IND, at CHI, at IND, vs. CIN, vs. TEN
After starting the season 1-6 and losing their head coach and GM, Houston has exactly three things going for it. First, Deshaun Watson has all-world talent and is one of the very few QBs who could go on a James Harden-esque run and carry his team through the 5-0 stretch they would require. Second, the schedule breaks perfectly, with two games against their primary competition in the Colts and two winnable games against Chicago and Cincinnati before an always-tight divisional game against Tennessee. And depending on how things break, the Titans could rest their starters in that game. Finally, the Texans have won three of their last four and have lost just one game by 7-plus since Week 2. If they get some breaks on the field and some on others, the Texans have the ability and schedule to pull off their third consecutive postseason appearance.
5. Chicago Bears (5-6, 3rd in NFC North)
Remaining Schedule: vs. DET, vs. HOU, at MIN, at JAC, vs. GB
Again, few would stake anything of value on the Bears making the playoffs. With a back-and-forth QB situation and a 5-game losing streak, few nonbiased observers would even make that wager for fun. However, they have a better shot than easily believed. With the NFC’s open spot to take, the Bears are one of the stronger teams in line and, again, have the schedule to make it work. Their 5-1 start to the season proves they can beat bad teams and catch a good team by surprise. Now their schedule softens again after the brutal midseason stretch against teams with a combined 37-18 record. If the 49ers and Vikings can’t do better than 8-8, as discussed above, the Bears have the track record and winnable stretch to squeak in with a 4-1 finish.
While it may be remarkable to see the Bears, or any of these other teams, make the postseason despite being underwater so late in the season, the playoff expansion and pandemic create exactly the right situation for a team to sneak in and shock the world.