The playoff hunt is well underway. Several teams are already locked into the postseason. Others are on the verge of punching their ticket. Before you know it, the race for the next Lombardi Trophy will be in full swing. But how did the top teams get to this point? The truth is there are many reasons: years of roster-building, weakened divisional foes, in-season adjustments. On the latter point, all of this year’s contenders have done some amount of tweaking to become more formidable.
With that in mind, here are some of the most important in-season moves each of the NFL‘s top 10 teams have made so far:
Move: Signing Linval Joseph
Howie Roseman did his best work in the offseason, upgrading basically every position of need to assemble one of the NFL’s most balanced lineups. But Joseph, signed in mid-November, plugged in as an instant run stuffer during Jordan Davis‘ absence, helping shore up an already loaded D-line. He offers Grade-A depth behind Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox going into the playoffs.
Move: Incorporating James Cook
Rather than force touches for trade acquisition Nyheim Hines, Buffalo has increasingly turned to the rookie running back as a change-of-pace complement to Josh Allen, and it’s paid off. On basically half as many carries as Devin Singletary, Dalvin’s brother has ripped off more 20-plus yard runs than everyone but Allen, giving added electricity to an already potent offense.
Move: Featuring Jerick McKinnon
Andy Reid has leaned on plenty of running back committees over the years, but their heavier usage of McKinnon, the shifty veteran reserve, has given Patrick Mahomes, maybe the MVP front-runner, a better safety valve out of the backfield. Four times since November, McKinnon has logged at least six catches, totaling 250+ scrimmage yards in Weeks 14-15 alone.
Move: Acquiring T.J. Hockenson
Kevin O’Connell’s squad was already moving the ball well before Hockenson arrived at the trade deadline, but the former Lions standout has made a seamless transition, catching at least five passes in five of his seven games in purple. His top-10 ability at the position has also opened plenty of lanes for Justin Jefferson, who’s legitimately vying for the first 2,000-yard receiving season.
Move: Giving Joe Burrow control
Wondering why Cincinnati has moved the ball regardless of wide receiver injuries, and despite a slow start to the year? According to NFL Media, Joe Burrow gained more control over audibles and play calls starting in Week 5. Since then, the Bengals have won six of seven, and Burrow is one of the MVP front-runners thanks to his effortless pinpoint dealing from the pocket.
Move: Acquiring Christian McCaffrey
When San Francisco mortgaged multiple picks for the ex-Panthers star at the deadline, it looked like a luxury move. Now, with two QBs on injured reserve and Deebo Samuel also banged up, it looks like a necessary gamble. McCaffrey has been exactly the multipurpose threat he was expected to be, and his dual-threat reliability is perfect for Kyle Shanahan’s run-heavy system.
Move: Feeding Tony Pollard
Ezekiel Elliott is technically still “headlining” Dallas’ backfield, but they’ve finally leaned into Pollard this year, and the speedy complementary back has rewarded them with more than 1,200 scrimmage yards in 14 games, all while averaging six yards per touch. If Dak Prescott can’t control the ball in crunch time down the stretch, at least they can put it in Pollard’s hands.
Move: Acquiring Roquan Smith
For Lamar Jackson’s sake, you wish their big splash would’ve come out wide. But adding Smith in a trade with the Bears truly brought a heartbeat to the Ravens’ now-stingy defense, which is giving up an average of just 18.8 points per game. The Pro Bowl linebacker has been a ball magnet in six games since his relocation, and his strength will come in handy in January.
Move: Promoting Fabian Moreau
Cap-strapped and content to let Brian Daboll maximize a transitioning roster, the Giants’ big adjustment isn’t a season-changer, but it helped bring unexpected stability in the secondary. With Adoree Jackson injured, Moreau stepped in from the practice squad as an adequate No. 1 corner on the outside, logging career marks in terms of opposing completion percentage.
Move: Signing Cameron Dicker
If the Chargers are good at anything, it’s playing especially dramatic close games. In that case, a clutch kicker is invaluable, and Dicker, an undrafted rookie signed in November, has been aces as their crunch-time go-to. Nearly perfect (25-26) on extra points and field goals with L.A., he’s also had three game-winning kicks on the year, including two with the Chargers in just over a month.