Matt Ryan's Falcons look like Super Bowl Contenders
The AFC used to be the powerhouse conference. Now it's the NFC that is dominating the league. There are far better teams atop the divisions in the NFC than the AFC.
Now that we are at the halfway point in the season it's time to look ahead and predict which teams will be around come January.
Here are my picks for division winners and wild card winners for each conference.
J.J. Watt Leads the Texans on Defense
The Houston Texans look like the team to beat in the AFC. With strong wins over Miami, Denver and Baltimore, Houston seems to finally have everything working for them. They average the second most points per game, 30.9, and are 6th in the league in rushing.
They have play makers on both sides of the ball, with J.J. Watt leading the way on defense and Arian Foster leading the charge on the offense. A healthy Matt Schaub will help them out come January.
Coming back from their bye week they now face Buffalo at home before heading to Chicago for a tough road test. They have only lost once so far, to the Packers, and don't look to lose many more. Ahead on the schedule is two division games against the Colts, a game against Jacksonville and one against the Titans.
The Monday Night Football game on December 10th at New England will be a good test to see how Houston plays in the cold weather. That being said, Houston will look to secure the top seed in the conference, making sure the road to New Orleans goes through Reliant Stadium.
Can Flacco Carry the Ravens to New Orleans?
The Ravens have never missed the playoffs under John Harbaugh. They have never made it past the AFC championship game though, losing to Pittsburgh in 2009 and New England in 2012. It's going to take the entire team for them to win the division again.
With injuries to Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb the defense will be at a disadvantage the rest of the way forward. But they still have Ray Rice on offense and other key play-makers to pick up the slack.
The remaining games on the schedule won't be easy. Key games include: two games against rival Pittsburgh, two home games against the Giants and Peyton Manning's Broncos, and a matchup against the dangerous RGIII and the Redskins at Washington.
I think they win enough games to capture the AFC North title, but I think they lose in the playoffs.
Brady Aims to Bring the Patriots Back to the Super Bowl
This was supposed to be the year when someone else took the title away from the Patriots. Instead, the Bills haven't looked as sharp as expected, the Jets have been a disaster and rookie Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins, while playing well recently, are no match for Tom Brady.
The offense is incredible. They are first in the NFL with average points per game, 32.8, first in yards per game, 440.8 and fifth in rushing yards per game, 149.6. The hurry up offense has tripped up defenses and this week's game in London showed how dominant this team can be. Gronk is an absolute monster and when the run game works, Brady has all the time in the world to pick apart defenses.
Looking ahead at their schedule, they still have to play the Jets on Thanksgiving on the road, which with Tebow makes things a little unpredictable, and also they will host Houston and San Francisco in back-to-back weeks. The Patriots will have no problem the rest of the way and should easily win the AFC East.
Will Peyton Play in a Third Super Bowl?
In Peyton Manning's first full year back, he's been dominant for Denver. The Broncos are averaging 292.9 passing yards per game, fourth in the league, and score 29.1 points per game, also fourth in the league.
Manning has done what everyone expected, elevating the play of those around him and turning his wide receivers into legitimate threats. Without much competition in the division, the Broncos will win this with ease.
The key game to look ahead to is the matchup against Baltimore on December 16th. They only have four home games remaining, so it'll be up to Manning to win tough road games and clinch the division title.
Big Ben is Looking to Return to the Super Bowl Again
As with the other playoff teams in the AFC, the common theme is quarterbacks. In order to win in the AFC you need to have a strong quarterback. Nine of the last 10 Super Bowls featured Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
Big Ben will do enough to lead this team to another playoff berth. Even with injuries to its' offensive line, the Steelers are just too good and know how to win come December. Without much other competition in the AFC, the Steelers will grab the 5th-seed and travel to Denver for another playoff battle.
Tough games are the two dates with Baltimore and a game in Dallas on December 16th.
The Steelers play the Giants in the Meadowlands next, so it will be an interesting and difficult road test for Mike Tomlin's boys.
The Colts Will Sneak into the Playoffs
A year after being the worst team in the NFL, the Colts will return to the playoffs, led by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who's having a career year.
Wayne, who decided to stay with the team in the offseason, has 54 receptions for 757 yards already. Aside from the game against the Jets, Wayne and the Colts have been good, beating Green Bay and Minnesota while also securing a crucial road win against division rival Tennessee.
The problem is going to be finding ways to win outside of Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts are 1-2 on the road and have 5 more games to go, including games at New England, Houston and Detroit. The Colts can easily win five more games, get to nine wins and sneak into the playoffs. If they beat Miami and Tennessee at home, Jacksonville and Kansas City on the road and win one of the games against either Buffalo, Detroit or Houston, the Colts can be looking at a playoff berth.
Yes it'll be hard, but there isn't much competition in the AFC. The Dolphins look like the next best team, and the Jets can always make a run in the second half, but right now, it looks like the Colts will be in the playoffs.
Can Matt Ryan Finally Win a Playoff Game?
Matt Ryan is the early MVP favorite, leading the Falcons who look unbeatable. While they don't put up the numbers that the 2007 Patriots or 2011 Packers did, Atlanta is clearly the best team in the division and will have zero problem securing an early playoff berth. In order to be the best though, Matt Ryan needs to elevate his play and become "elite."
The biggest question with Atlanta is whether they will finally win a playoff game. Matt Ryan is winless in the playoffs, even with two home games.
The Falcons will need to find a way to sustain their success deep into January. The NFC is much deeper and the Falcons will face difficult teams on the way to New Orleans. While I think Atlanta secures the top overall seed, I think they will see similar results, losing early in the playoffs.
Atlanta does not have any big wins aside from a blowout in San Diego. All games have been close and the Falcons have been vulnerable. Dates to circle are against the Cowboys and the Giants. The Giants knocked the Falcons out of the playoffs last year and the Cowboys are never an easy opponent.
Will the 49ers Run Their Way to New Orleans?
The 49ers have been arguably the best team all season. They are leading the league with 168.6 rush yards per game, and have strong road wins on their resume. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter are leading the way.
They won at Green Bay 30-22, at the Jets 34-0 and at Arizona 24-3, where Alex Smith played a near perfect game.
They haven't been perfect though, losing on the road to Minnesota and losing at home to the Giants.
This team dominates the run game and has a ferocious defense. When the team clicks as one they are hard to stop. The remaining schedule sets up nicely for the 49ers. Traveling to New England will be their toughest test, but look for the 49ers to keep winning, and ultimately secure home field for a second round playoff game.
Can Aaron Rodgers Get Ring #2?
The Packers have had one of the craziest seasons in the NFL. They've lost two tough games, losing a heartbreaking game in Seattle, and on the road to the Colts after a 21-3 lead.
The Packers have looked strong recently with a huge win over Houston 42-24, and are on a three game winning streak. Next up is home game against Arizona, who has looked awful as of late. If they win, they will go into their bye week with a 6-3 record.
After the bye week they have to travel to the Meadowlands for a game against the Giants, who knocked them out of the playoffs last year, and visit Chicago for a rematch with the Bears.
The Packers should win the majority of their games. Key word: should. This Packers team has not been as consistent as last year's team, but they are playing well and flying under the radar, as opposed to being the highlight reel team they were last year.
I think the division will come down to the game in Chicago on December 16th. The winner of this game will win the division, and I think the Packers will come out on top.
Eli and the Giants are Hungry for More
While I don't believe the Giants will end up with the conference's best record, they are still the best team in the NFL until another team wins the Super Bowl.
Eli refuses to lose. They won close games against Washington and Tampa Bay with Eli comebacks, and are also 4-0 in Dallas. Aside from difficult losses to Dallas and Philadelphia, the Giants have been the best. They score 29.2 points per game, third in the NFL, and put up 396.8 yards per game, fourth in the NFL.
The Giants are unlucky to have such a difficult schedule. They still have to play the Steelers, Packers and Eagles at home, and must play at Baltimore, Atlanta and Washington.
This team knows how to win in the clutch though. Look for another year like last year, with the Giants surging come January.
Chicago's Defense Can Carry Them All the Way
Chicago will make it to the playoffs because they flat out find ways to win. Ugly or not, the Bears win games, and good teams win tough games.
They still have to play Houston, San Francisco, Seattle and the Packers. The games do not get easier for the Bears, but with the way the defense is playing, Chicago will find a way to win 6 more games and make it to the playoffs. Their most important game will be on December 16th against the Packers at home.
Will there be Skittles in New Orleans? Probably not.
At 4-4 Seattle has looked mediocre at best. They should have lost against Green Bay, and they narrowly beat New England at home. That being said, they are 3-0 at home and 1-4 on the road, losing to division rivals Arizona, St. Louis, San Francisco and recently to Detroit.
Marshawn Lynch is the real deal and so is their defense. Seattle is no easy test for anyone, especially in Seattle.
The team is known for getting help from the 12th man and has proven to be successful at home. Next they return home for games against Minnesota and the Jets before the bye week. They have the potential to be 6-4 heading into the bye week before tough games on the road against Miami and Chicago.
At a potential 6-6, the Seahawks would then have three of their last four games at home against Arizona, San Francisco and St. Louis, and a road game in Toronto against Buffalo. If they can win three of those four, or possibly all four with a potential 49ers rest game, they will secure the last spot in the NFC playoffs.