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NFL Playoff Picture: Buying or Selling Each Current Projected Team as Contenders

Nick KostoraContributor IIINovember 21, 2012

NFL Playoff Picture: Buying or Selling Each Current Projected Team as Contenders

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    True contenders continue to emerge in the NFL's playoff picture, but pretenders are just as prevalent.

    Which current projected teams have a real shot at winning it all, and which are merely in the way?

    There is no black-and-white answer to the question, but things have certainly become more interesting after statement prime-time games in Week 12.

    Let's break down each current projected playoff team and buy or sell it as a Super Bowl contender. 

Atlanta Falcons (9-1)

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    The Atlanta Falcons have faltered in the last two weeks—first in a 31-27 loss to division rival New Orleans and then barely escaping against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 12.

    Matt Ryan threw five interceptions in the latter contest, but he and the offense will rebound just as they always do. The Falcons aerial attack is simply too explosive and has too many vertical threats to be contained for long.

    However, questions about the defense are justified and warranted. Atlanta is allowing over 130 rushing yards per week, ranking 26th in the league. Playoff battles notoriously turn into drag-out fights that require balance and smart clock management.

    The Falcons must improve at stuffing the run and forcing opposing offenses into three-and-out situations. Once they do, they will be unstoppable, but Atlanta is an elite team nonetheless.

     

    Buy or Sell?

    Buy: At 9-1, this should be an obvious buy. But the Falcons have holes that are suddenly being exposed. They are contenders, but calling them favorites would be an overstatement.

San Francisco 49ers (7-2-1)

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    The San Francisco 49ers are in a most peculiar position. Colin Kaepernick stepped in for the injured Alex Smith on Monday Night Football and both impressed and amazed.

    While it is unknown if a QB controversy will ensue, the fact remains that the 49ers have a roster primed for a playoff run. The offense can now diversify its playbook, expanding into the option game and more designed QB runs. 

    The defense is among the best in the NFL, ranking in the top six in both pass defense and rush defense. The NFC West division may have lost some of its early season luster, but San Francisco will undoubtedly contend for the Lombardi Trophy.

     

    Buy or Sell?

    Buy: The 49ers are a legitimate Super Bowl contender with all the pieces necessary to win it all.

Green Bay Packers (7-3)

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    The Green Bay Packers have won five straight games, scoring at least 24 points in each of those contests. When Aaron Rodgers and Co. get on a roll, this is a tough team to slow down. 

    Green Bay has a plethora of offensive weapons that can take over a game. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Jermicahel Finley have all stepped up in recent weeks and ensured that the Packers head toward the playoffs with the right type of momentum.

    There are some defensive question marks, particularly how good the secondary is. However, Green Bay has learned to excel at the "bend but don't break" defensive philosophy. Offenses are converting a meager 35.5 percent of third-down attempts, and the Packers have intercepted an impressive 12 passes through 10 games.

     

    Buy or Sell?

    Buy: Green Bay could use greater production out of Alex Green, James Starks and the rushing game. A reliable secondary would help too, but there is no denying that Rodgers and the offense have long since proved their validity.

    The Packers know how to get hot at the right time, and no team will be excited to see them once the postseason rolls around.

New York Giants (6-4)

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    The New York Giants have done this dance before: hanging around in the regular season, not playing outstanding football, but doing enough to get by as they eagerly await postseason play.

    At 6-4, that is the status quo for the Giants. New York may be coming off two straight losses, but to think it is on a slide that cannot be reversed would be foolish.

    The Giants have one of the best pass rushes in football and a QB in Eli Manning who can win any game in the fourth quarter. The NFC East race is certainly wide open, but the Giants are in the best position and have the best track record.

     

    Buy or Sell?

    Buy: Every year, New York raises questions about its offensive prowess and stumbles through the regular-season campaign. However, the Giants are the reigning Super Bowl Champions for a reason.

    This team knows how to win when it matters and cannot possibly be rattled in any situation thrown its way. Ahmad Bradshaw and the rushing game must improve, but New York is fully capable of another playoff run.

Chicago Bears (7-3)

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    The Chicago Bears are in a sort of free fall that can only be saved by the return of Jay Cutler. Losers of their last two games, the Bears were embarrassed on Monday Night Football in Week 12 by the 49ers.

    San Francisco asserted its own dominance, but also gave yet another reason to question Chicago. The Bears do have seven wins, but only one of those victories came against a team with a winning record (Indianapolis).

    Jason Campbell has shown he cannot properly lead this team in Cutler's absence, but all hope is not lost. Cutler will return from injury soon and reignite his spark with WR Brandon Marshall

     

    Buy or Sell?

    Sell: Chicago's three losses this season have come against three elite teams in the Packers, 49ers and Texans. How can the Bears be expected to succeed in the playoffs if they cannot beat top competition in the regular season?

Seattle Seahawks (6-4)

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    The Seattle Seahawks are currently on pace for the sixth seed in the NFC playoff picture and are a team that cannot be forgotten.

    San Francisco is certainly the cream of the crop of the NFC West division, but Seattle's record includes wins over formidable opponents in the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys.

    Seattle wins with stingy defense and a sound offensive attack that leans heavily on the ground game. Marshawn Lynch has already crossed the 1,000-yard mark this season, and his continued success is essential if Seattle hopes to compete with the NFC's best.

    The wild card here is rookie QB Russell Wilson. He has been solid and yet unspectacular. Seattle's passing offense ranks dead last in yards per game, but Wilson does have 15 TDs compared to just eight interceptions.

     

    Buy or Sell?

    Sell: Having a great rushing attack and elite defense is a solid blueprint for postseason success, but Seattle will need to turn to the passing game at some point as well. Is Wilson ready to carry this offense when Lynch gets most of the attention from opposing defenses?

    I am not sold on Seattle just yet.

Houston Texans (9-1)

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    What exactly should be made of the Houston Texans' 43-37 overtime escape over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 12? Did the Jaguars expose the Texans' weaknesses, or was Houston the victim of being unprepared for a trap game on the schedule?

    I lean toward the logic of the latter scenario, but for a team that is supposedly primed for a playoff run, not showing up for any given game is simply unacceptable. When the Texans are on, however, they are one of the most complete and dynamic teams in the NFL.

    Houston ranks in the top 10 in most major offensive and defensive categories, including second in rushing yards allowed per game. The Texans have scored at least 30 points on five different occasions this season while holding opponents to 14 points or fewer six different times.

     

    Buy or Sell?

    Buy: What is not to like about the team Houston has assembled? The offense is balanced and versatile. QB Matt Schaub and WR Andre Johnson are finding their rhythm at the right time, while RB Arian Foster has been a consistent presence in the backfield.

    Oh, and that J.J. Watt guy is pretty good on defense too...

Baltimore Ravens (8-2)

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    The Baltimore Ravens know how to stare adversity in the face and simply smile. Losing Ray Lewis to injury earlier this season was a devastating blow, but the Ravens have found ways to keep winning.

    Those wins do come with asterisks, though. as the passing game has been extremely inconsistent. Joe Flacco has thrown for over 300 yards three times and under 200 yards four times. Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron still does not seem to have figured out that Ray Rice should be the main cog in the offense. Rice has received 20 carries in a game only three times all season.

    The defense has also seen statistical drop-offs, but there are still enough playmakers on the unit to make Baltimore competitive in the playoffs. However, huge regular-season tests against the Steelers, Giants and Broncos remain.


    Buy or Sell?

    Sell: Baltimore has enough talent and skill to compete with anyone in the league, but the offense seems too inconsistent to win it all at this point. 

    Winning two of three against Pittsburgh, New York and Denver down the stretch will go a long way toward changing this 8-2 team to legitimate Super Bowl contender status.

New England Patriots (7-3)

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    The New England Patriots have won six of seven games, but a recent injury to tight end Rob Gronkowski throws a serious wrench in the team's Super Bowl pursuit.

    Gronkowski has 748 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, so his absence will be noticed. The good news for New England is that Brady and Belichick know how to make the most of whoever is on the field offensively.

    Brady is among the best quarterbacks in NFL history because he can elevate the play of those around him and make New England competitive. Outside of Brady and the always reliable aerial game, the Patriots have a running-back-by-committee situation that has worked with surprising efficiency, gaining an average of 143 yards per week.

    Questions arise, though, in the Patriots' 30th-ranked pass defense and ability to win close games. New England has dropped three out of five games this season decided by six points or less.

     

    Buy or Sell?

    Buy: New England has faltered in the Super Bowl in recent years, but the Patriots definitely know how to get to the big game. 

    The Gronkowski injury cannot be overlooked, but Aaron Hernandez's impending return has to soften the blow somewhat.

    The AFC East is a mess behind the Patriots, and with their pedigree and experience, they will be a tough draw for anyone in the playoffs. 

Denver Broncos (7-3)

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    Early season questions ran rampant about the Denver Broncos after they opened with a 2-3 record. However, after five straight wins, the Broncos look like an elite team with an almost unstoppable roll of momentum.

    Peyton Manning is an MVP candidate, and the offense has scored at least 30 points in seven different games this season. Long, methodical drives and quick-strike plays are commonplace for a Denver offense that relies heavily on Manning's ingenuity and accuracy.

    Losing Willis McGahee for six-to-eight weeks will harm an already struggling rushing game, but Manning is good enough to succeed without offensive balance. 

    The defense has been impressive as well, with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil combining for 21 sacks through 10 games.

     

    Buy or Sell?

    Buy: The Broncos are not a perfect team, but counting Manning out of a Super Bowl race is an ill-advised notion. This offense is clicking at the right time and displaying the type of chemistry not usually associated with a team in transition.

    The defensive unit is impressive, with a total of 35 sacks, 12 interceptions and 14 forced fumbles. What must also be noted is that, like the Bears, Denver's three losses came against elite opponents. The difference, though, is that the Broncos were still settling in during the early part of their schedule.

    If the Broncos struggle against the Ravens in Week 15, then there is serious cause for concern.

Indianapolis Colts (6-4)

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    There is no denying the impressive nature of the Indianapolis Colts' turnaround from 2011 to 2012. To go from the No. 1 overall pick to a likely playoff team is no small feat. Andrew Luck has been everything the Colts could have possibly hoped for and then some. 

    The rookie QB stands tall in the pocket, knows how to deliver accurate passes in the face of defensive pressure and has already become accustomed to leading fourth-quarter comebacks.

    However, the Colts are a team that is not quite ready to compete with the big boys. A Week 11 beat down at the hands of the New England Patriots showcased how far Indy still has to go. The future is bright for the Colts, and a 2012 wild-card berth will be great, but that's as far as Indianapolis can go. 

     

    Buy or Sell?

    Sell: Indianapolis lacks any sort of running game and is largely devoid of talent on defense. This rebuilding effort is ahead of schedule, but clear holes need to be filled before the Colts become true contenders.

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4)

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    Injuries can strike any NFL team at any time. That unfortunate truth is ringing true for the Pittsburgh Steelers just as postseason play is lurking around the corner.

    With QB Ben Roethlisberger out for an unknown period of time, the Steelers are in a terrible position. Byron Leftwich failed miserably in replacement of Roethlisberger on Sunday Night Football before getting hurt as well.

    Now, Pittsburgh turns to third-string QB Charlie Batch and has signed WR Plaxico Burress to fill a void in the receiving corps. These are desperate times in the Steel City, and no amount of resiliency can make up for all the talent missing from Pittsburgh's active roster.

     

    Buy or Sell?

    Sell: If Roethlisberger exceeds all expectations and returns 100 percent healthy in time for the postseason then Pittsburgh instantly becomes contenders.

    However, this is a team that has almost zero chance at a playoff home game and is missing key pieces in Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Antonio Brown and Jericho Cotchery. The road ahead is a tough one for the Steelers.

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