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NFL Playoff Picture: Stock Up, Stock Down for Every Contender

Jon DoveContributor IDecember 1, 2012

NFL Playoff Picture: Stock Up, Stock Down for Every Contender

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    The playoff picture is starting to take shape. At this point, the most intriguing battles are for playoff seeding. Teams like the New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears are all looking for a first-round bye.

    To have a better shot at making a run at the Super Bowl, it's important that each team is playing well down the stretch.

    Here's where the 15 teams in playoff contention stand entering Week 13.

Houston Texans: Stock Up

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    Record: 10-1

    Projected Record: 13-3 (No. 2 seed)

    The Houston Texans are the most balanced team in the NFL, and that's what makes them such a dangerous playoff team. This is a group that's capable of overcoming a poor performance by one of its stars. For example, if Arian Foster and the running game is struggling, Matt Schaub can pick up the slack through the air.

    Houston's stock is on the rise because it has shown resiliency in the past few weeks. The ability to overcome adversity and pull off a win is a huge advantage in the playoffs.

    This is a team that's on course for a strong run at the Super Bowl.

Baltimore Ravens: Stock Up

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    Record: 9-2

    Projected Record: 11-5 (No. 4 seed)

    The Baltimore Ravens' stock rating is as much about the struggles of the Pittsburgh Steelers as it is about their play. Ben Roethlisberger's injury has given the Ravens the opportunity to extend their lead in the AFC North and made it easier for them to win their two head-to-head battles with the Steelers, the second of which is Sunday in Baltimore.

    It's also worth noting that the Ravens' defense is starting to play much better. The return of Terrell Suggs and emergence of Paul Kruger has giving this unit its swagger back. No matter how much attention is paid to Joe Flacco and the offense, this team is still all about defense.

    Baltimore also got some good news this week when word spread that Ray Lewis is likely to make a return this season.

New England Patriots: Stock Up

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    Record: 8-3

    Projected Record: 13-3 (No. 1 seed)

    Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' offense is running on all cylinders. They've averaged more than 48 points per game in the past three weeks and have overshadowed the improvements on defense.

    Adding Aqib Talib has given New England more depth and talent in the secondary. Talib isn't the most reliable player, but with help from the veteran leadership on the Patriots, he has a chance to get his career back on track.

    These next three weeks will be a real test. The Patriots face the Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers. The game against the Texans could well determine who gets the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Denver Broncos: Stock Up

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    Record: 8-3

    Projected Record: 12-4 (No. 3 seed)

    The more time Peyton Manning has to get comfortable with his surroundings, the more success he'll find. Factor in that he's still recovering from his neck issues, and it's easy to say that time is the Denver Broncos' best friend. 

    Denver has quietly rattled off six straight wins and has a favorable schedule the rest of the way. There's no reason the Broncos can't beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs.

    That puts Denver squarely in the running for the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Indianapolis Colts: Stock Up

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    Record: 7-4

    Projected Record: 11-5 (No. 5 seed)

    Thanks to the addition of Andrew Luck, everybody knew that the Indianapolis Colts would improve their record from last year. However, that they're in line for a playoff berth is amazing. This is a team that's well- coached, plays inspired football and has a quarterback capable of winning games on his own.

    The possible return of head coach Chuck Pagano could be a spark to help this team finish the season on a strong note. Never underestimate the impact emotion can have on a football team.

    Indianapolis won't make much noise in the playoffs, but its future is bright. The Colts need to spend this offseason adding players on defense. Once that is improved, the Colts will be a consistent playoff contender.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Stock Down

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    Record: 6-5

    Projected Record: 8-8 (Out of playoffs)

    The injury to Ben Roethlisberger threatens the Pittsburgh Steelers' ability to earn a playoff berth. This team doesn't have the talent to overcome this type of loss. Charlie Batch might have a ton of experience, but he doesn't have the arm strength to succeed.

    Coupling the Roethlisberger injury with an inconsistent ground attack puts the Steelers in a big hole. Even when Roethlisberger returns to the lineup, it'll take a few weeks for him to get back into the rhythm. He's also the type of player who will take the field before he's fully healthy.

    Pittsburgh has tough divisional games against the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns remaining. None are easy wins, even with Roethlisberger fully healthy.

Cincinnati Bengals: Stock Up

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    Record: 6-5

    Projected Record: 10-6 (No. 6 seed)

    After a four-game losing streak, the Cincinnati Bengals responded with three straight wins. They're playing better now than at any point in the season. The biggest change has been the improvement on defense.

    The Bengals are allowing fewer than 10 points per game in that three-game stretch.

    Andy Dalton and the offense have also done a good job lately. They're protecting the football better and starting to find different playmakers. Mohamed Sanu has four touchdowns in the past three games. His development has the potential to open things up for A.J. Green.

    The recent injury to Ben Roethlisberger has opened the door for the Bengals to get back into the playoff race.

Atlanta Falcons: Stock Up

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    Record: 10-1

    Projected Record: 13-3 (No. 1 seed)

    The Atlanta Falcons took one step closer to the No. 1 seed in the NFC by notching a home win Thursday night against the New Orleans Saints. They also were able to basically end the Saints' hopes of making a late-season playoff push.

    This was a big win for the Falcons because the defense was able to gain some momentum from shutting down the high-powered Saints' offense. It's also nice to end a division rival's hope of earning a playoff berth.

    Atlanta's offense is more than capable of leading this team to the Super Bowl, but the defense will need to play an important role. Don't overlook the impact confidence plays in the game of football.

San Francisco 49ers: Stock Up

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    Record: 8-2-1

    Projected Record: 11-4-1 (No. 2 seed)

    Things have gotten interesting for the San Francisco 49ers, as a quarterback change this late in the season could cause some bumps in the road. Jim Harbaugh's decision to name Colin Kaepernick the starting quarterback brings more explosiveness to the offense, but it also increases the likelihood of a mistake.

    Kaepernick has proven he can move the offense. However, his lack of experience is something that could result in some problems. Inexperienced quarterbacks have a tendency to rush throws, misread the defense and make turnovers.

    We saw an example of this against the New Orleans Saints. Kaepernick mishandled the snap, rushed the throw and it resulted in an interception.

    This 49ers team is still winning games and has defeated two tough teams in the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints in the past two weeks. Those wins both came with Kaepernick in the starting lineup.

    So, it's tough to fault Harbaugh for his decision. However, there's more than a few ways it could backfire.

Chicago Bears: Stock Down

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    Record: 8-3

    Projected Record: 11-5 (No. 3 seed)

    The Chicago Bears are a tough team to deal with when Jay Cutler is healthy and in the lineup. His ability to extend the play and overcome the issues on the offensive line is what makes him a great fit in Chicago. This offense is even more explosive now with the presence of Brandon Marshall.

    However, the offensive line play figures to only get worse after the injuries suffered against the Minnesota Vikings. Cutler can move the offense, but he needs those around him to perform at a higher level.

    This includes Matt Forte, who hasn't played very well this season. The offensive line plays a role in his struggles, which is why the injuries are even more concerning.

    Chicago can still lean on its defense. However, it's unlikely the defense can continue scoring points and creating turnovers at such a high rate.

New York Giants: Stock Up

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    Record: 7-4

    Projected Record: 10-6 (No. 4 seed)

    The New York Giants' win against the Green Bay Packers was huge for three reasons. First, it helped them regain confidence for the stretch run. Second, it allowed them to gain more separation within the division.

    However, the biggest thing to take from that game is that Eli Manning looks to be back on track. New York needs Manning playing at a high level if it hopes to make another Super Bowl run.

    On the negative side, New York has tough games remaining against the Washington, New Orleans, Atlanta  and Baltimore.

Green Bay Packers: Stock Down

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    Record: 7-4

    Projected Record: 11-5 (No. 5 seed)

    The issues along the Green Bay Packers offensive line have the potential to keep this team from making a strong Super Bowl run. Even elite quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers need time to scan the field and set their feet.

    Green Bay's lack of a running game only further complicates the line issues. A solid ground game is one way to keep the defense from pinning its ears back and attacking the quarterback.

    These offensive line issues are not likely to improve, as the players out with injury are not expected back this season. Luckily, Mike McCarthy is a brilliant offensive mind and still has Rodgers under center.

    Look for Green Bay's offensive game plan to change a little over the next few weeks.

Seattle Seahawks: Stock Down

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    Record: 6-5

    Projected Record: 10-6 (Out of playoffs)

    The Seattle Seahawks are 1-5 on the road and have two road games remaining on their schedule. Those games are against the Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills. Seattle's schedule also features a home game against the San Francisco 49ers.

    So, it's possible that the Seahawks will drop three of their last five games. That would put them on the outside looking in on the playoff race.

    Last week's loss to the Miami Dolphins was a real setback. Allowing Miami to score 10 points in the final five minutes was devastating. If Seattle fails to reach the playoffs, the reasons will be because of its struggles on the road and this loss to the Dolphins.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Stock Up

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    Record: 6-5

    Projected Record: 8-8 (Out of playoffs)

    Last week's loss against the Atlanta Falcons was a tough pill to swallow. However, it showed that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can play with the NFL's elite teams. The Buccaneers are still in the playoff hunt because of their four-game winning streak before this loss.

    However, the struggles in the early part of the season will come back to haunt them. Still having to face the Falcons and New Orleans Saints on the road is also a problem. Earning a playoff berth will be tough.

    Still, this team can move forward feeling good about the makeup of its roster. This is a team with a bright future.

Washington Redskins: Stock Up

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    Record: 5-6

    Projected Record: 10-6 (No. 6 seed)

    The way Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins are playing, they have a great shot at earning a playoff berth. However, it's likely they'll need to run the table if they hope to reach that goal. The rest of the schedule features games against the New York Giants, Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Dallas.

    This isn't an easy road to the playoffs, but Griffin has shown that he has the talent to help his team compete with anyone in the league. His play-making ability and the tough running of Alfred Morris make the Redskins' offense a tough unit to stop.

    However, Washington's playoff hopes rely on the defense taking a step forward.

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