Dark horses for NFL play-offs heading into Week 16

With just two games remaining of the regular season, the final play-off spots are set to go to the wire.

The final places for the NFL play-offs will be decided over Christmas with several sides on the outside ready to make a late surge.

The New York Giants will be the inspiration for many as the prime example of a wildcard side that caught fire heading into the postseason and won it all.

The Dallas Cowboys have a complicated route to grab an NFC wildcard spot, but remain capable of beating anybody should they squeeze in with a fresh Ezekiel Elliott back from suspension.

The Cowboys must beat Seattle and Philadelphia (without Carson Wentz) to finish at 10-6 and hope other results fall kindly. But with arguably the best back in the league, in Zeke, back to help thrive on their offensive line and open up the passing game, they will likely be the most feared side to squeeze in.

The Los Angeles Rams or the winner of the NFC South (currently the New Orleans Saints) would pose a formidable task, but with Zeke running the rock well, opponents are deprived of the ball and sacrifice the majority of the possession. While the play-offs are decided by game-changers and Dallas have a few on defence and special teams: David Irving and DeMarcus Lawrence can bring the heat with the rush, while Ryan Switzer is developing into a nice returner and took one to the house from 83 yards against Washington this month.

Should Dallas do the most Dallas thing and drop their Week 16 game to the battered and bruised Seahawks following the beat-down from the Rams, then Seattle may have a chance to seize on any slip-ups. But it is difficult to see how even Russell Wilson can overcome the litany of injuries and wafer thin offensive line that protects him.

The Detroit Lions have the inside track to profit from an NFC South casualty, ahead of the Cowboys, with the hopeless Cincinatti Bengals this weekend and a now Aaron Rodgers-less Packers side (now on IR) to round things off. It’s an attractive finish with the Falcons needing to win one of their divisional rivalries against the Panthers or Saints to hold on to the wildcard spot.

Matt Stafford is still in contention to pass for the most yards in the league (3,920 yards for 280 yards per game through 14 games) and sits sixth in pass accuracy and passer rating in an underrated season.

The Lions do not appear to be quite as frisky as a Dallas side if they squeeze in, but they are in the box seat to profit if one of the current incumbents let it slip.

Over in the AFC, there is bound to be a change as the Buffalo Bills currently have one of the wildcard spots, yet road trips to New England and Miami mean they face a daunting task to hold on to it.

The Bills might regret and be rightfully punished for their frankly absurd decision to go with Nathan Peterman as the starting quarterback over Tryod Taylor: throwing a record five interceptions in his first career start over the Los Angeles Chargers.

The Baltimore Ravens can feel comfortable about their prospects of making the play-offs with home games against the Colts and Bengals. Their defense is formidable with big-plays flashing across your screen routinely, which could be amplified in the play-offs when the pace slows and the temperatures dip in these tight affairs.

Just four turnovers last weekend against the Browns, taking them to a league-leading 33 takeaways and only the Jacksonville Jaguars can better their five defensive touchdowns, which often prove to definitively swing momentum in the postseason.

The Los Angeles Chargers blew it, probably, last week against the Chiefs and must now depend on a myriad of results to fall their way. They now need the Titans to lose out (against the Rams and Jaguars, plausible?) and the Bills to drop one.

Should they squeeze in they have all the pieces to not just throw a spanner in the works, but surge towards the Super Bowl and potentially win it.

They have a top class QB in Philip Rivers, an impressive pass-catching group and a defense that includes a ferocious pass-rushing combo and an elite cornerback in Casey Hayward.  

By Jack Rathborn

Jack Rathborn is a multilingual sports journalist featured at Mirror Sport, ESPN and others, you can follow him on Twitter at @JackRathborn.