The path to the Super Bowl is wide open. Any team can win, and every team can be beaten. December has shown there will be no sure things next month.

For much of the season, the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints hovered above the rest of the NFC while the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots did the same in the AFC. Those four teams still hold the first-round byes, but all of them have shown vulnerabilities in the past month.

With one week left in the regular season, you don’t have to squint to see the playoff picture. Five spots are clinched in both conferences. In the AFC, the last wild card will be claimed by the winner of the Titans-Colts showdown Sunday night. The Steelers remain alive, but realistically only to win their division. Unless the Titans and Colts tie, the Steelers cannot make the playoffs without the Ravens losing to Cleveland, opening a path to the AFC North title.

In the NFC, the Vikings can slam the door on the Eagles by defeating the Bears at home. The Bears have clinched the division but will be motivated. If the Rams slip up against the 49ers, Chicago could steal the No. 2 seed – and a first-round bye – with a win. That should give the Eagles hope as they prepare for Washington.

Whichever teams claim the final spots, an excellent regular season will yield to a packed playoff field. Last season delivered a handful of motley outfits; the Bills, Titans and Jaguars comprised half of the AFC bracket. This year, especially if the Colts claim the AFC’s last available wild card, there will be no duds among the dozen teams left standing.

The 11-win Los Angeles Chargers entered this weekend as everybody’s stealth Super Bowl threat, and then Saturday night the Ravens beat them up on their home field. The Ravens have reinvented their offense around thrilling rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson while playing bullying, bruising defense. The formula makes them the official Team Nobody Wants To Play of 2018.

Then again, that might honor might belong to the Colts. Andrew Luck at his best is one of the great talents in the league, and he’s operating at pretty close to his best. Indianapolis shut out the Cowboys two weeks ago, and linebacker Darius Leonard is a top seed’s nightmare waiting to happen.

In the NFC, the Saints and Rams (or Bears) will have their hands full no matter which opponents make it to the second weekend. Nick Foles revved up his magic carpet again Sunday, leading the Eagles to a last-second field goal after they blew a 13-point fourth-quarter lead. And they’ll need a little luck to make it. The Seahawks do not, having dusted the Chiefs’ defense in a 38-31 statement Sunday night. Russell Wilson is going to make life miserable for any opponent.

All those challengers seem threatening largely because the season-long favorites have slipped. The Rams took care of business Sunday against the wretched Cardinals while giving Todd Gurley’s battered knee much-needed rest, but that came after two consecutive losses in which Jared Goff invoked unflattering flashes back to last January. The Saints have won three straight, but all three have had some degree of struggle.

The Patriots’ problems have been most acute among the league’s powers, but in typical New England fashion, a season of relative pain has left them holding a first-round bye with their chances of taking the No. 1 seed still flickering.

New England may have cast a new identity Sunday in a 24-12 win over Buffalo. The Patriots rushed 47 times for 273 yards, tied for the second-most attempts by one team this season, and tied for the most rushing yards. And it came against a top-10 rushing defense.

Under Tom Brady, the Patriots have been the primary catalyst in pushing NFL offenses toward the pass-happy place they occupy now. In a concession to the aging of Brady and several of his best receiving options, the Patriots may be becoming earthbound.

If they end up in the AFC final against the Chiefs, that would be a perfect strategy. Running would keep the ball from MVP front-runner Patrick Mahomes while also exploiting the Chiefs’ horrific tackling. Nobody tackles worse than the Chiefs. In their four losses, the Chiefs have averaged 37.5 points. No matter how well Mahomes plays or how many points their offense scores, the outcome will be unpredictable. In that way the Chiefs are emblematic of these playoffs. Anything could happen and it’s probably going to be wild.


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