Now past the midway point in the 2012 NFL campaign, the playoff picture has begun to paint itself in both the AFC and NFC.
That picture does not include the Kansas City Chiefs.
The NFC seems to be far and away the stronger conference, with two of the three best teams in terms of record, as well as strong title contenders such as the 49ers and Packers.
The AFC has several title contenders in the Texans, Steelers, and Broncos, but is nowhere near as deep as the NFC. The NFC not only has the better teams at the top, but also has the better teams in the middle and bottom.
In the AFC, I can all but confirm which six teams will make the postseason, whereas in the NFC, there are only four teams that I can rule out.
Being the easier conference to forecast, I’ll begin with the AFC.
Far and away, the best team in the AFC is the Houston Texans. At 7-1 and undefeated in the conference, the AFC is theirs to lose. Arian Foster and Houston’s rushing attack is second to none, and their defense is among the league’s best.
From there, we skip the 6-2 Ravens, who without Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb aren’t a Super Bowl contender. The Ravens, try as they may, cannot score points to keep up with the elite offenses of the NFL. Without their two star defenders, their defense can’t stop opposing offenses on an elite level either. The Ravens may still get into the playoffs because of the weakness of their conference, but their run will end there, at best.
Next come the 5-3 teams: Pittsburgh, Denver, New England, and Indianapolis. The Steelers and Broncos are in. They have experienced quarterbacks that each wear rings, and one may add another this year.
Will the torch be passed on to the rookie this year?
The Patriots and Colts are much more confusing. These two teams play one another in two short weeks; a game that will tell us a lot about each. When Tom Brady battles Andrew Luck on the field in that week 11 game, my guess is that Brady will show the critics why he has won three Super Bowls. But maybe, just maybe, we will instead witness a passing of the torch from the 35-year-old Brady to the 23-year-young Luck.
In the end, Brady will be Brady: he’ll get his team into the playoffs.
Luck has been outstanding, and looking at their schedule, I see 9-7 at the worst.
In short, I like both teams to get in.
So we have the Texans, Steelers, Broncos, Patriots, and Colts all in, leaving one final wild card spot open.
Other than Baltimore, there are only three viable options for the sixth playoff team in the AFC: the Dolphins, Chargers, and Bengals.
In reality, none of these teams belong in the playoffs, and none of them would be in the playoffs in the NFC. But six teams will go, and in all likelihood it will be one of these four teams.
The longest shot of these four is the Cincinnati Bengals. Losers of their last four, the Bengals have lost their way, and still have games on the schedule against the Giants, Steelers, Ravens, and Chargers (key game). The only cupcake left is week 11 against Kansas City, and already in a hole at 3-5, I don’t see Cincy digging themselves out.
After starting the season 3-1, the Chargers have now fallen to 4-4, bringing about yet another round of criticism for head coach Norv Turner. Should the Chargers miss the playoffs this season, I can’t imagine San Diego will remain Turner’s home. QB Philip Rivers also finds himself at the end of the line. Rivers’ turnovers have plagued the Chargers, and will ultimately keep his team out of the postseason.
The final AFC playoff spot will be won by either the Miami Dolphins or the Baltimore Ravens, with the Ravens currently holding a two-game lead.
The Dolphins have a pronounced scheduling advantage, with games remaining against Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Buffalo twice. That said, they also play the playoff contending Patriots twice and must travel to the not-so-friendly confines of Candlestick Park to face the 49ers. I see the Dolphins finishing 9-7.
Even if that leaves them out of the playoffs, a 9-7 season from rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill is a huge success, and new head coach Joe Philbin deserves credit.
The Ravens, meanwhile have a much tougher schedule, with two contests against the Steelers, as well as games against the Giants and Broncos. Frankly, the Ravens will lose all four of these games. I see two wins against Oakland and Washington, but neither is guaranteed, especially Washington on the road. Although if Mike Shanahan talks his team into quitting, that could be an easy one. The Ravens’ last remaining games are against the Chargers and Bengals, two of the teams also fighting for this playoff spot.
I see a tough road to 9-7 for Baltimore, but they will get there.
Miami will finish 9-7, with a 3-3 divisional record.
Baltimore will finish 9-7, with a 3-3 divisional record.
The teams will not play each other head to head, so we go to tiebreaker number two: conference record.
Miami will finish 7-5, Baltimore 7-5.
Tiebreaker number three? Anyone?
Best winning percentage among common opponents; which between these two teams are Oakland, New England, Houston and Cincinnati.
Miami will finish playing these teams 2-3, with Baltimore finishing 3-2.
Finally, we have a winner.
Bottom line: Houston and Denver get first-round byes. Pittsburgh and New England also win their divisions. Indianapolis and Baltimore are the wild-cards.
On to the NFC, where things get possibly even more complicated.
Or maybe not; the division winners seem pretty clear. Atlanta wins the South (and gets a first-round bye), New York wins the East, San Francisco wins the West, and… the Chicago Bears will hold off the Green Bay Packers to win the North.
Despite not winning the division title, the Packers will still finish with at least 10 wins, putting them in the playoffs.
So with just one spot left to fill, what’s so confusing?
Well, with seven different teams vying for the final spot, things could get interesting.
Fear the Hamster
The long shots are the Eagles, Cowboys, Lions, Saints, and Buccaneers. The Eagles turn it over too much, the Cowboys can’t score points, the Lions play too hard a schedule, and the Saints can’t play defense. That leaves Tampa Bay, who has scored 35 or more points in four straight games. Doug “Muscle Hamster” Martin just ran for 251 yards and four TDs last week, and is making his bid at Offensive Rookie of the Year. While Tampa has been fun to watch, they don’t have enough to win the tough games they need to in order to make the playoffs.
That leaves Seattle and Minnesota as my two favorites for the final NFC playoff team. Both teams stand at 5-4 after their matchup last week, which Seattle won, giving them a half-game lead over Minnesota.
This gives Seattle a distinct advantage to grab the last playoff spot. Throw in the fact that the Vikings must face the Packers and Bears twice apiece, as well as the Texans in the season’s final stretch, and it seems the Vikes can be ruled out.
If Russell Wilson can lead his Seahawks to the playoffs, it would be a remarkable season, but can he? I’m not yet sold. I give the Seahawks the edge in the NFC, but there are many teams that could make a run.
None of these teams are more dangerous than the New Orleans Saints. The defense is lackluster at best, but is able to generate turnovers, and Drew Brees can put points on the board with the best. The Saints seems to be hitting their stride, but at 3-5 have they dug themselves too deep? Time will tell.
And don’t count the Muscle Hamster out.
Bottom line: Atlanta and Chicago get first-round byes. San Francisco and New York also win their divisions. Green Bay and Seattle get the wild-cards.
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