Teams are finally putting some distance between one another in the NFL standings as we get closer to Thanksgiving.
With a number of divisional matchups in Week 11, several teams look poised to take control of their playoff probabilities this Sunday.
It was not so long ago that 11 teams were tied at 3-3, but as we get set to enter the business end of the NFL season, these teams will try to narrow the playoff picture this week.
Green Bay Packers
A slow start by the Packers has been overcome as they are 6-3 and travel to Detroit to face off against a Lions squad that has been unable to replicate their 2011 dominance.
Green Bay still trails a Chicago Bears team that has struggled in big games this season.
With Jay Cutler injured for the moment, the Packers will watch as the 49ers host the Bears on Monday night. Although both quarterbacks are hurt, reports at the moment indicate that Alex Smith is more likely to for the Niners than Cutler for the Bears.
I project losses for the Bears and Lions this week.
With Minnesota also inactive, Green Bay—then tied with Chicago—should have a strong toehold on the fifth seed in the NFC, gunning for the lead in the North.
New Orleans Saints
Don’t look now, but the Saints are right back in the playoff chase.
After starting the season 0-4, the Saints have won four of their last five games to be within striking distance of the eighth-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers and eventually a Wild Card berth.
The final Wild Card spot is currently held by the 6-4 Seattle Seahawks with the Vikings—also 6-4—on the outside looking in. Both are on a bye this week, allowing New Orleans to cut the distance between themselves and a playoff berth down to a single game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With Minnesota and Seattle both vulnerable this week, Tampa Bay is the only team in position to gain control of the sixth seed in the NFC.
Fortunately for them, they face a middle-of-the-road Carolina Panthers team coming off of a 36-14 loss to the Broncos a week ago.
The Panthers’ 16th-ranked rush defense will be charged with the task of going up against Rookie of the Year candidate, Doug Martin.
In Week 1 against the Panthers, Martin rushed for 95 yards on 24 carries—his third-most touches this year.
Since then, he has rushed for 135 yards against the Vikings and a record-breaking 251 yards and four touchdowns against the Raiders. He has 862 yards total on the season.
The Panthers have allowed an average 113 yards per game to rushers this season.
Still, my bold prediction this week is that Martin will exceed the 138 yards he needs to earn his first 1,000 yard rushing season.
Even if he doesn’t, Josh Freeman has been strong enough this month, completing 64 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions.
With the AFC North on the line, the Steelers and Ravens renew arguably the best rivalry in the NFL on Sunday.
A win for the Ravens puts Baltimore in the driver’s seat in the North, but Pittsburgh cannot afford the loss.
The Chargers, Dolphins, Bengals and Titans all have four wins this season. A win for 6-3 Pittsburgh would not only tie them with the Ravnes for the lead in the AFC North, but also put as much as a three-game gap between the Steelers and the next-best team.
If Pittsburgh loses, however, it would leave the door open for any one of these teams to bring themselves within a game of the sixth seed in the AFC.
Even with Polamalu out, the Steeler defense has been one of the best in the NFL, especially covering the pass. This gives Pittsburgh the edge over the Ravens and Ray Rice, who has seen his production diminished slightly this season.