The NFL’s regular season is now down to its final three weeks, and the pressure is on for teams still jockeying for position in the playoff race.
The Saints and Rams have already locked down their respective divisions, while the Chiefs have guaranteed themselves at least a wild-card berth. But the remaining nine spots in the postseason remain open, and none of the seeding in either conference has been solidified.
As the season wraps up, teams will try to solidify their playoff prospects while also working to resolve lingering questions or problem areas.
Here are some of the most pressing questions looming over the eight squads currently in line to win their divisions.
Chiefs – Can they stop an elite passer?: Until Sunday, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Chiefs involved their ability to win in an ugly game. They managed to do just that against Baltimore. Patrick Mahomes and the offense gutted it out against the NFL's top-ranked defense and shined when it mattered most. The Chiefs’ own defense made defining plays. But Kansas City still must prove it has an answer for the league's top tier of passers, as it has already been burned by the likes of Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Jared Goff. Mahomes had to engage in shootouts in those games and went 2-2 , falling to the latter two opponents. Can he count on the defense for a little more help in the postseason?
Patriots – Can they get it done on the road?: Home-field advantage historically has been extremely important to the Patriots. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are 19-3 together in home playoff games and 3-4 on the road. Securing the top seed seems rather unlikely now that the Patriots trail the Chiefs by two games, though Kansas City faces the Chargers and Seahawks in the next two weeks. But the Patriots — who close out the season with Pittsburgh, Buffalo and the Jets — have no margin for error and thus could face a more challenging journey for a return to the Super Bowl.
Texans – Can they hang with the elite?: Until their loss to the Colts on Sunday, the Texans were the NFL's hottest team and winners of nine consecutive games. But just two of those victories (vs. Washington and Miami) came against a team that had a winning record at the time. Dallas (now 8-5), Indianapolis and Tennessee (both 7-6) do own winning records now, and Houston has improved since it’s Week 1 loss to New England. They have a balanced offense led by a talented quarterback in Deshaun Watson, and they boast difference-makers on defense. But it’s still hard to say how they would match up in January with the other likely division winners.
Steelers – Can they close games?: After a slow start, they appeared to have hit their stride, winning six straight. But now they've lost three straight (at Denver, vs. Chargers, and at Oakland - yes, Oakland) with each of those defeats being sealed in the closing moments of play. Suddenly, this squad doesn’t look so formidable. Baltimore trails for the division lead by half a game. Can Ben Roethlisberger and Co. seal the deal?
Saints – Can they hold onto the top seed?: New Orleans gave the NFC’s No. 1 seed to the Rams with a Week 13 loss to the Cowboys. Los Angeles handed it right back to the Saints with Sunday's loss to the Bears. Now, after rebounding with a win over Tampa Bay, the Saints aim to hold onto home-field advantage. But they don’t have the easiest road ahead: two games against division rival Carolina sandwich a home contest against Pittsburgh. The Superdome is a tough place to play, and Drew Brees and Sean Payton are 5-0 there in the playoffs.
Rams – Can Gurley deliver against top defenses?: There’s no denying the potency of the Rams’ offense or the game-changing ability of their defense. But we’ve seen them fall short against the Saints and get overwhelmed by Chicago’s defense. Common thread in each of those defeats: limited production from Todd Gurley, who as their top offensive weapon averages 131.3 yards from scrimmage this season. The Saints held him to 79 total yards, while the Bears limited him to 58. Gurley also managed only 55 rushing yards against Kansas City, although Los Angeles won that quarterback-dominated offensive explosion. But establishing Gurley is key for the Rams, particularly because effectiveness in the run game would help slow a nasty pass-rush like Chicago’s. Sean McVay can scheme with the best of them, but he has acknowledged the need to remain disciplined and balanced in his play-calling to put Goff in better situations than he faced against Chicago. Gurley can help here.
Bears – Is their defense enough to carry them on a deep run?: Defense has carried the Bears, who are the surprise NFC North leaders. On Sunday, they held one of the most potent offenses in the league to a season-low six points, helping compensate for an unsightly 110-yard, three-interception outing by quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. But once they reach the playoffs, will that be enough? Can the Bears expect the same kind of effectiveness on the road? Trubisky has looked great at times this season, but on Sunday was coming off of a two-game absence after a shoulder injury. His offense ranks 21st in yards, but seventh in points. That just might be enough.
Cowboys – Just how good is this team?: Remember when people were calling for Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's heads because Dallas' ultra-conservative offense wasn't getting the job done? Remember when many scoffed at Jerry Jones for giving Oakland a first-round pick in a trade for wide receiver Amari Cooper? Five victories later, the Cowboys have charged to the NFC East lead and look like one of the best teams in their conference. They even pulled off a stunning 13-10 win over New Orleans. The question now is how good is this team? Was that win over the Saints a fluke? Could they beat them in the Superdome? Is a pass-rush that frequently pressured Brees dominant enough to also derail Goff, as Chicago did? Jones likely would declare this the best squad in the NFC. Is he crazy for thinking so?
Article first appeared in USAtoday.com