The NFL is in a six-game sprint to end the regular season, and no less than 24 teams are still in contention for the playoffs
That includes the 6-5 Raiders, who are in a virtual tie for the last wild-card spot in the AFC and still within striking distance of the 7-4 Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC West lead.
Here are some storylines to keep an eye on this week:
Don’t look now, but the 5-7 Dolphins have reeled off four straight wins and are beginning to show signs of legitimately heading in the right direction. Miami, which hosts the 4-7 Giants on Sunday, is still mathematically alive in the playoff race, although it remains a long shot.
Still, many good things are happening. For instance, second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has completed better than 80 percent of his passes over the last two weeks for 503 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. And over the last four weeks, rookie wide receiver Jaylen Waddle has 29 catches for 346 yards and a touchdown.
The Dolphins’ defense has surrendered just 11.5 points per game during the four-game win streak.
Bengals for real?
It seems like people were sleeping on the Bengals earlier this season, especially after they lost two straight games heading into their bye week. That might not be the case much longer, however, especially if the now 7-4 Bengals can make it three in a row on Sunday by beating the 6-5 Chargers.
This is a huge game for both teams with major playoff implications. The Bengals, playing at home, likely have the edge in what are expected to be cold and rainy conditions.
Running back Joe Mixon is finding his groove with 288 rushing yards over the last two games, and that presents all sorts of problems for a Chargers defense giving up a league-worst 145.3 rushing yards per game.
Patriots AFC’s best?
Much to the chagrin of the rest of the NFL, albeit to no one’s real surprise, Bill Belichick has the 8-4 Patriots back on top of the AFC East and within a half-game of the top spot in the conference. They can take a firm grip of the division with a win over the 7-4 Buffalo Bills on Monday night.
They are doing it behind Mac Jones, the rookie quarterback whose brilliance at Alabama was inexplicably chalked up to the talent around him rather than his obvious skill set. Belichick happily drafted Jones with the 15th overall pick last April.
If it all sounds so familiar, it should. Belichick always finds a way, usually by outsmarting everyone else and getting the most out of the talent he has on hand.
Broncos ground, pound
Just when everyone was writing off the Broncos, they rose up and beat the Chargers last week to thrust themselves back into the thick of things. Now the 6-5 Broncos have a chance to prove they are for real when they visit 7-4 Kansas City on Sunday.
The problem for the Broncos is Teddy Bridgewater’s painful shin injury. It cost him some time in the win over the Chargers, and word out of Denver is he’ll simply have to grit his teeth through the lingering pain.
The Broncos, though, have been getting it done with a defense that is surrendering just 17.8 points per game — the third-fewest in the NFL — and a run game that has produced 143 yards per game over the last three games.