Taking a Fresh Look at the NFL Playoff Picture Heading into Week 12
As we enter Week 12 of the 2012 NFL season, the playoff picture is shaping up to be, well, rather cloudy.
The Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans are in command of their respective conferences, but it won't be smooth sailing from here on out.
The wild-card races are absolutely bonkers, with at least five teams still undoubtedly alive in the AFC and NFC.
Let's take a look at the current standings and break everything down from top to bottom.
NFC Playoff Standings
1. Atlanta Falcons (9-1)
2. San Francisco 49ers (7-2-1)
3. Green Bay Packers (7-3)
4. New York Giants (6-4)
5. Chicago Bears (7-3)
6. Seattle Seahawks (6-4)
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers(6-4)
8. Minnesota Vikings (6-4)
9. New Orleans Saints (5-5)
10. Dallas Cowboys (5-5)
11. Washington Redskins (4-6)
Starting appropriately at the top, the Atlanta Falcons are what their record says they are—a 9-1 team with a two game lead on their closest challengers.
However, a loss to the Saints and an extremely sloppy victory over the Arizona Cardinals means they aren't riding an abundance of momentum into Tampa Bay for a clash with the Buccaneers, a game that, all of a sudden, appears to be an rather formidable test.
With three of the last five at home and a trip to Carolina in Week 14, the Falcons will be in the driver's seat to secure home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
Hot on their tails—pun intended—are the 49ers, a team that has a quarterback controversy on its hands after Colin Kaepernick lit up the Chicago Bears in prime time. Sad thing is, the tie with the Rams will, in all likelihood, doom San Fran when it comes to postseason positioning with wins being one of the first tie-breakers.
Anyone else think San Fran is more explosive with the youngster under center?
The Green Bay Packers are banged up, but that hasn't stopped them from winning five straight and six of the last seven.
Aaron Rodgers is at the top of his game, and the defense has become rather steady. The injury to Jay Culter may have afforded them what they needed to ultimately win another division title.
The New York Giants are reeling. After looking like one of the most balanced and complete teams in football during the 2012 season's first half, Eli Manning has had two straight dud performances, and the G-Men limped into the bye week 6-4.
If there's rust against Rodgers and Co. this week, we very well may be in for another year in which the NFC East crown goes down to the season finale.
The Cowboys are still in the wild-card hunt, but to me, have a better shot at winning the NFC East if the Giants continue to falter.
Without Cutler under center, the Bears are a totally different team. Nothing against Jason Campbell, but after seeing how abysmal Chicago's offense was against the 49ers, it showed how underrated Cutler's presence is for Lovie Smith's team.
If the concussion lingers, Chicago could be in for consecutive nightmarish ends to the season.
The Seattle Seahawks, riding the triumphant play of Russell Wilson and a stingy secondary, cling to the final postseason spot, but they have a long way to go before anything is secured.
A December 2 battle with the Bears in Chicago will have enormous playoff implications, but they do get the 49ers and Rams at home to end what has been a pleasantly surprising campaign.
Although the Vikings stand at 6-4, they lost to the Seahawks in Week 9 and Christian Ponder has struggled with consistency of late.
If I'm any of the teams in the playoffs but not currently leading a division, I'm keeping a close eye on the Bucs and Saints—both clubs are sizzling offensively. They'll meet in the Mercedes Benz Superdome in Week 15.
Parity is certainly alive and well in the NFC.
AFC Playoff Standings
1. Houston Texans (9-1)
2. Baltimore Ravens (8-2)
3. New England Patriots (7-3)
4. Denver Broncos (7-3)
5. Indianapolis Colts (6-4)
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4)
7. Cincinnati Bengals (5-5)
8. San Diego Chargers (4-6)
9. Tennessee Titans (4-6)
10. New York Jets (4-6)
11. Buffalo Bills (4-6)
Although they were tested by the one-win Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 11, the Houston Texans emerged victorious in overtime in one of the most wild, and Madden-set-on-rookie type games I've ever witnessed.
But, hey, good teams win those tight ones when they've experienced a letdown, right?
For now, let's go with that.
Houston's defense is tough, but it's not nearly as sound as it was a season ago, especially in the secondary. A showdown with Tom Brady's New England Patriots in Week 14 could be a nice little AFC Championship preview, and playing Andrew Luck's Indianapolis Colts in two of the final three weeks will undeniably be intriguing.
Also, despite being one of the game's most reliable runners, Arian Foster is only averaging 3.8 yards per carry. Matt Schaub has to step up.
Despite a regression from the game's most vaunted defense over the last decade, the Baltimore Ravens have weathered the storm of losing Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis and are in control of the AFC North.
As has typically been the case during Joe Flacco's career, they fall into concerning offensive funks from time to time, but they're a major player in the AFC.
The Pats are sitting safely in the No. 3 spot, three games up in the AFC East. Brady has been classic Brady all season, but the loss of Rob Gronkowski will have an effect on the league's most productive offense.
The secondary is ultra opportunistic, but if the turnovers cease to materialize down the stretch, they could suffer a few more defeats. The aforementioned game against the Texans and what should be a bruising battle against the 49ers instantly come to mind.
Then again, with Brady under center, anything's possible for New England.
With the way Peyton Manning has played over the last month and a half, the Denver Broncos need not worry about missing the postseason. But they need to keep their foot on the gas due to the San Diego Chargers' past late-season surges.
With Von Miller emerging as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, John Fox has an elite player on both offense and defense.
The Colts are stunningly in the No. 5 spot, a place analysts thought they wouldn't be until, at the very earliest, 2013.
Andrew Luck plays well beyond his years, but the defense is extremely shaky, both against the run and stopping the pass.
In an AFC wild-card race that will likely come down to the wire, two December games against the Texans could ultimately decide their fate.
The injury-ravaged Pittsburgh Steelers sit in the No. 6 position, crutches in hand. The club is now down to third-string signal-caller Charlie Batch, but it did sign Plaxico Burress and Brian Hoyer on Tuesday, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Two matchups against the Cleveland Browns should help their playoff aspirations, but Pat Shurmur's team isn't as vulnerable as it's been is past years.
The Cincinnati Bengals have climbed to within one game of the final wild card spot, and play in Pittsburgh in Week 16.
A quartet of 4-6 teams; the San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills are mathematically still in the race, and with the Colts tough schedule and the Steelers banged up, their chances are better than they would be most seasons.
Gang Green has the easiest remaining schedule of that group, then comes the Bills. Remember, though, the Titans beat the Bills, and Buffalo gets the Jets at home to end the year.
Craziness, I tell you, craziness.
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