NFL Playoff Picture: Ranking Every Team on the Bubble
To rank every viable 2012 NFL playoffs bubble team, you have to include every team that still has a mathematical chance to get in.
That list also has to account for any division leader that hasn't already clinched a playoff berth, because teams have been known to fade down the stretch.
Coming into Week 13, any AFC team with four wins has the opportunity to run the table, which would bring its final record to 9-7. In theory, that might qualify for a playoff spot, but the chance of any of those teams winning all five games is highly unlikely.
Before we dismiss all the 4-7 teams: If any of them can go on a three-game winning streak, they will be at 7-7.
That was exactly the record that the New York Giants had in 2011 after Week 15 and we all know what they did from that point on.
Since the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans have already clinched a playoff berth, they will not be part of the presentation. Neither team is on the bubble. Then we can strike the six teams that have less than four wins: Jacksonville, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Carolina, Oakland and Cleveland.
That leaves us with 24 teams for this ranking exercise.
21-24) Bubble Teams About to Burst
There are technically four teams that are still alive but on the verge of watching their playoff bubble burst.
Due to the strength of the NFC this year, the bar to qualify for the playoffs has been set higher than normal. Nine wins probably won't be good enough to qualify for the postseason.
It's conceivable that a team with 10 wins won't qualify for the postseason, due to tiebreaker scenarios.
Using that logic, we can then dismiss four teams from the NFC that could sweep their remaining games and still come up short. Those four teams are the St. Louis Rams (4-6-1), Detroit Lions (4-7), Arizona Cardinals (4-7) and New Orleans Saints (5-7).
Detroit is the biggest disappointment of the four, since it made the playoffs in 2011 but wasn't able to ride that momentum into the 2012 season.
Arizona had the hot start, but with weak quarterback play and an even weaker offensive line it is no surprise that the Cardinals have lost their last seven games.
St. Louis is young, building and headed in the right direction. The Rams should be in position to win more games in 2013, as they keep stockpiling talent with their extra draft picks from their draft-day trade with the Redskins.
New Orleans has been through so much, due to the bounty-hunting ordeal and all of the related negative results of those proceedings.
According to a story on ESPN.com, it looks like head coach Sean Payton's contract is being addressed this week, so that is a positive development for the 2013 season. The Saints have to do a major overhaul of their NFL-worst defensive unit.
20) San Diego Chargers (4-7)
The San Diego Chargers allowed Ray Rice to convert a fourth-and-29 in the final two minutes of regulation play in their Week 12 game.
That one play knocked the wind out of the Chargers and their fans. You can stick the proverbial fork in the Chargers, because they are done. Finished for 2012.
While it is possible that San Diego could reach 9-7, this is the same team that has lost six of its last seven games. With so little momentum coming into December, that makes a sweep highly improbable.
The more likely scenario is that the Chargers will be swept instead. For what it is worth, they were swept in the month of October and won just one game in November.
"Playoffs? Playoffs?" Go ahead and repeat the Jim Mora quote but picture Norv Turner saying it instead.
19) New York Jets (4-7)
As bad as the San Diego Chargers have been, the New York Jets are only a tad better.
The Jets have lost six of their last eight games. At least they haven't been swept in any one month yet, as they won one game in October and one game in November.
The biggest culprit has been the offense. The Jets wanted to return to a more physical, running attack this year. But after 11 games, the Jets have had one game all year with one of their backs reaching 100 yards.
In addition, the wide receivers have only registered two 100-yard games for the season.
New York has scored 19 points or less in three of its last four games. The upcoming schedule is reasonably attractive, but the Jets still will have to find a way to generate more offense to take advantage of their final five opponents.
The Jets' final five games are hosting Arizona, at Jacksonville, at Tennessee, hosting San Diego and at Buffalo. If the Jets can win four of their final five games, they will conclude at .500, which is right where they finished in 2011.
That might be enough to save Rex Ryan's job, but probably not enough to bring back Fireman Ed.
18) Tennessee Titans (4-7)
Whatever outside chance that the Tennessee Titans had for playoff consideration was more than likely lost when they dropped their Week 12 game to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Titans need to sweep the rest of their games to reach 9-7, but they don't have very much momentum built up, having lost three of their last four games.
Jake Locker is now back at quarterback, and since it seems unlikely that the Titans will reach the postseason, at least he'll be able to gain valuable playing experience that will be crucial for their success in 2013.
The remaining schedule for Tennessee looks like this: Hosting Houston, at Indianapolis, at home against the Jets, at Green Bay and closing out the season at home against Jacksonville.
With three of the final five games coming against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, the Titans will probably end up with a record of 6-10.
17) Buffalo Bills (4-7)
The Buffalo Bills are another team that has failed to take advantage of opportunities to come up big in the fourth quarter, which would have resulted in them being in a much stronger playoff position than where they are now.
The 4-7 start has resulted in finger-pointing at Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chan Gailey. It is possible that either one or both might not be back in their same role in 2013 if the team doesn't put together a winning streak soon.
The Bills lost a one-point game to Tennessee that they were in control of late in the fourth quarter. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a killer interception in the red zone against New England that deprived the team of another potential win.
Red-zone issues have been extremely evident in losses to Houston and Indianapolis. The Bills appear to have the talent, but for whatever reason they just can't seem to put it all together.
DE Mario Williams is finally looking like everybody thought he would when he signed the huge $96 million deal. He sacked Andrew Luck three times last week, so if the Bills can count on him being a steady producer, that might be the difference in making a couple key plays.
One thing in the Bills favor is that they only have one road game left in the final five contests. They are home against Jacksonville, St. Louis, Seattle, then at Miami, closing out at home against the Jets.
The Seattle game is their contractual one regular-season game per year up in Toronto.
For any playoff shot at all, the Bills have to sweep the final five games, and hope that they get some help from the rest of the NFL.
16) Miami Dolphins (5-6)
The Miami Dolphins dropped their Thursday Night Football game to the Buffalo Bills, but they rebounded to defeat the Seattle Seahawks in Week 12. The victory snapped a three-game losing streak.
Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill hasn't put up big numbers this year. He only has one game out of 11 in which he passed for more than 300 yards, which was his 431-yard performance against Arizona in overtime. The running game has only had one game with a runner eclipsing 100-plus yards, (Reggie Bush rushed for 172 against the Oakland Raiders).
The Dolphins are letting their defense keep them in games, as only two opponents have been able to score more than 21 points against them this year. That puts less pressure on Tannehill to come up with a number of scoring drives.
At 5-6, if the Dolphins were to somehow sweep their last five, they would have an outstanding chance to make the postseason with a 10-6 record. If they win four of the last five, they still might qualify at 9-7. Here is the rundown of their remaining games: hosting New England, at San Francisco, home against Jacksonville, hosting Buffalo and closing out the year at New England.
With two games left with the Patriots and one game with the 49ers, Miami's chances don't look very promising right now.
15) Washington Redskins (5-6)
If the Washington Redskins (5-6) can win all the rest of their games, they still may not be guaranteed a playoff slot at 10-6.
So, their best chance to get in is to try to win the NFC East division title outright.
A Week 13 win over the Giants would make a statement that Washington needs to be taken seriously as a playoff contender. With a win, the Redskins would only be one game behind the Giants in the NFC East.
Between the impressive play of rookies Robert Griffin III and RB Alfred Morris, the Redskins offense is playing well enough to be considered a playoff-caliber offense (No. 7 overall). The defense still has room to improve (No. 28).
The final five games for Washington look like this: home against the Giants, hosting Baltimore, at Cleveland, at Philadelphia and at home against Dallas. Washington has won two straight games against NFC East opponents, but it will more than likely have to make it five straight wins to top the NFC East division.
14) Dallas Cowboys (5-6)
The Dallas Cowboys (5-6) received some good news this week when it was revealed that RB DeMarco Murray looks like he will play in Week 12.
If you recall in 2011, the Dallas offense took off when it inserted Murray into the starting running back role. The extent to which Murray can be a difference-maker in 2012 remains to be seen.
As we highlighted earlier with the Washington Redskins slide, the Cowboys' best shot at reaching the 2012 postseason would be to win the NFC East division. They are two games behind the New York Giants, with whom they split the season series.
So, the Cowboys have to keep piling up wins and hope that the Giants drop at least two remaining games.
The final five opponents for Dallas look like this: home against Philadelphia, at Cincinnati, hosting Pittsburgh, home against New Orleans and finally at Washington. There are some tough games in that stretch, so the Cowboys are facing an uphill battle to reach the playoffs.
It is almost time to "close that window" on Jerry Jones for the 2012 postseason.
13) Minnesota Vikings (6-5)
The Minnesota Vikings have been a good story in 2012, with a 6-5 record coming into December.
But their feelgood story hit a speed bump in November. The Vikings' last three losses came against teams with a winning record (Chicago, Tampa Bay and Seattle).
The bigger concern was that none of the three losses was very close, as they lost by a combined score of 94-47.
While Adrian Peterson has had an unbelievable season, Christian Ponder has not pulled his weight. Ponder is gaining valuable experience, but for the Vikings fans who were expecting him to take a major step forward this year, they have to be disappointed.
The Vikings have their work cut out for them if they want to reach the playoffs. They have Green Bay and Chicago in front of them in the NFC North division.
If both the Packers and Bears get in, that leaves Minnesota to fight it out with Tampa Bay and Seattle for the final playoff spot in the NFC.
As for the final five games, Minnesota will be at Green Bay, hosting Chicago, at St. Louis, at Houston and at home against Green Bay.
Acknowledging their recent poor run against teams with a winning record and seeing who is left on the schedule, it looks bleak for the Vikings playoff hopes.
12) Cincinnati Bengals (6-5)
The Cincinnati Bengals surprised everybody when rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green led the offense into the playoffs in 2011.
Can they possibly repeat with another playoff appearance in 2012?
Right now, the Bengals are 6-5 and are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the final playoff spot.
For the Bengals, it looks like everything will come to a head in the final two weeks of the season. In Week 16 they travel to Pittsburgh, which could amount to a "win and you're in" scenario. They close out the 2012 regular season at home against Baltimore, who could be fighting it out with Denver for home-field advantage.
Dalton and Green have already hooked up for 10 touchdowns this year, tied for the most in the NFL with the duo of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. The pair will need to step up in December to give the Bengals a realistic shot at making the playoffs in consecutive years.
The other three remaining games are at San Diego, hosting Dallas and at Philadelphia. The Bengals have a good chance to come into that Pittsburgh game at 9-5.
That should give them plenty of confidence to finish what they started.
11) Seattle Seahawks (6-5)
The Seattle Seahawks (6-5) are currently in a fight with the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the final playoff slot in the NFC.
They are also just one game ahead of the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, so the Seahawks need to take care of business in December.
Even if the Seahawks can qualify for the playoffs, you have to wonder how effective they will be. For starters, this is a team that has gone 1-5 so far on the road in 2012.
The Seahawks won't be hosting any games in the postseason, so that means they suddenly will need to prove that they can win on the road.
Seattle's 2012 season has to be considered a success overall. With the improved defense and a strong rookie class that has been contributing on both sides of the ball, the Seahawks figure to become a bigger threat in 2013.
For the rest of 2012, they figure to battle hard in the remaining five games and hope that a playoff appearance will be a positive learning experience for the near future.
Their final five games are: at Chicago, home to Arizona, at Buffalo (in Toronto) and then home for the final two games—San Francisco and St. Louis.
10) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5)
Head coach Greg Schiano has done a great job of turning around the fortunes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in just one short year.
To take a team that went 4-12 in 2011 and lost its final 10 games to a winning record is quite amazing. Schiano has to be heavily in consideration for NFL Coach of the Year.
Josh Freeman has enjoyed a dynamic season in 2012, throwing 21 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions. Add in newcomers WR Vincent Jackson, TE Dallas Clark and rookie RB Doug Martin, and the Buccaneers offense is now ranked 12th overall.
What does the playoff picture look like for Tampa Bay? Chicago and Green Bay both look like playoff teams, and with Atlanta running away with the NFC South, that only leaves the final Wild Card for Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers are going to be slugging it out with Seattle, Minnesota, Dallas and Washington for that final slot.
Their final five games on the schedule are: at Denver, hosting Philadelphia, at New Orleans, home against St. Louis and finish up the season at Atlanta. Those two road games at Denver and Atlanta could be critical for Tampa Bay.
The Bucs can only hope that Atlanta opts to rest a number of regulars in Week 17.
9) Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)
The Pittsburgh Steelers have done a masterful job of plugging in some of their roster depth when one of their frontline starters goes down over the years.
In 2012, that hasn't been the case, as Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch have tried to replace Ben Roethlisberger, but to no avail.
Now with a rematch up next with the Baltimore Ravens, Roethlisberger has been ruled out (via CBSSports.com). That means Batch will be starting under center again.
This is a huge game for the Steelers, so the entire team will need to step up their play to pull this one out.
If Pittsburgh drops the game, then it will be in danger of being passed over by Cincinnati and tied with Miami. The good news is that S Troy Polamalu looks like he can play this week, in an update from ESPN.com.
Should Pittsburgh make it to the postseason, you have to wonder what kind of condition it will be in. The Steelers have enjoyed a long run of success in the past decade, but this year just seems to be one to forget.
The final five games for Pittsburgh are: at Baltimore, home against San Diego, at Dallas and then two games at home against Cincinnati and Cleveland.
8) Indianapolis Colts (7-4)
The Indianapolis Colts (7-4) are a dangerous team right now. They have been rallying around their head coach Chuck Pagano, and when you have an entire team pulling the rope in the same direction, anything can happen.
When you have cheerleaders shaving their heads to support the coach, you realize the whole community is swept up with the momentum of the Colts franchise.
If they get into the playoffs, combining the veteran play of Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Reggie Wayne to go along with the impressive rookie QB Andrew Luck, the Colts could go on a surprise run.
You aren't really sure what you are going to get once they get in the playoffs, because they had such a large turnover of personnel from 2011. These aren't the same old Colts.
If the Colts win two of their last five, they have a very good chance to still get into the postseason, but their chances are even better if they can just win three of the last five.
Their remaining schedule is: at Detroit, Tennessee at home, at Houston, at Kansas City and at home against Houston.
In the event that Houston clinches home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, there is a good chance that they will be resting some key players in Week 17.
That might be all the Colts need to secure that final win.
7) Green Bay Packers (7-4)
The Green Bay Packers were rolling along with a five-game winning streak when they ran into the New York Giants in Week 12.
The Giants smoked Green Bay to the tune of 38-10, which sounded the alarm that all is not entirely well in Titletown.
The Giants defense roughed up Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense with five sacks, seven quarterback hits and four tackles for a loss. If these teams meet again in the postseason. The Packers have to hope that the game is at Lambeau, because when they faced the Giants on the road it was a disaster.
Green Bay still has a reasonable chance to win the NFC North. The Pack are only one game behind a Bears team currently dealing with a number of injuries.
The Packers aren't a picture of perfect health either, as they have a mounting number of injuries to key personnel on both sides of the ball.
If the Packers can get the majority of their star players healthy enough for the last two games, they can then enter the playoffs with greater confidence and cohesion. Their final five games are: Minnesota at home, hosting Detroit, at Chicago, home against Tennessee and wrapping up at Minnesota .
That Week 15 game with Chicago could very well determine the NFC North title. Which team will be healthier then?
6) New York Giants (7-4)
The New York Giants (7-4) are leading their division with a two-game cushion, but all of that could change if New York loses to the Washington Redskins in Week 13.
The Giants broke a two-game losing streak when they came up with an impressive 38-10 win over the Green Bay Packers.
That was a victory the Giants really needed. It helped to stop their slide and snap them out of their annual November funk. The trick now is to play at that level again against the Washington Redskins in Week 13.
Since the Redskins are such a fierce NFC East rival, the Giants shouldn't have any issues in getting up for this one.
Assuming that the Giants can beat Washington, they will make it very hard for the rest of the NFC East to catch them. A loss to Washington, of course, means that they could very likely be caught and passed over.
Needless to say, there is a lot riding on the Week 13 contest.
With the strong records of the Falcons and 49ers, the likely scenario is that the Giants will have to win at least one postseason game and possibly two on the road if they have any plans to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Since they won on the road all the way through the playoffs in 2011, they're experienced and ready to go down that route if they need to.
The final five game for the Giants are: at Washington, home against New Orleans, at Atlanta, at Baltimore and at home against Philadelphia.
There are at least three very tough games in the final five, which could wind up being make or break for the Giants' playoff hopes.
5) Chicago Bears (8-3)
The Chicago Bears (8-3) are sitting in first place and have an excellent chance to make the playoffs.
The team probably liked their chances even more coming into the Week 12 game with the Minnesota Vikings, when the Bears lost six starters to injuries.
If anything can cripple a football team quickly, it is a rash of injuries to your star players that diminishes the talent level of your team. In November, the Bears have seen players like Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman get injured, so you have to wonder how healthy they will be in January.
The offensive line especially has taken some major hits, and if the unit can't keep Cutler upright in the pocket, the Bears will have to rely even more on their defense to pull them through some close games.
Because Chicago only holds a one-game lead over Green Bay in the NFC North and a two-game lead over Minnesota, they don't have any room for a losing streak now.
Assuming that the injured starters from Week 12 come back, the biggest remaining issue is the offensive line. The Bears need to spend as much time as they can afford to try to fix the offensive line issues. Giving up 35 sacks in 11 games is far too many.
The final five games for Chicago looks like this: Seattle at home, at Minnesota, home with Green Bay, at Arizona and finally at Detroit.
That means that the Bears face every NFC North rival over the final five weeks and have to go on the road three more times.
1-4) Division Leaders That Look to Be Safe
With only five weeks left in the regular season, you would like to believe that any division leader with at least a 2.5-3-game lead would be safe for the postseason.
Sure, anything can happen, but the main reason that these teams have such a wide margin is that they are all really good, well-balanced teams. Major injuries would have to strike for these teams not to qualify for the postseason.
As we stated in the cover slide, Atlanta and Houston have already clinched a playoff spot.
We will group San Francisco, New England, Baltimore and Denver into this "teams that are safe" slide. A brief note on each team heading into the postseason:
No. 4—Baltimore: The Ravens (9-2) continue to find ways to win, even though their overall defense is a shell of what it used to be. Key injuries have created some depth issues, and teams are able to move the ball on the defense much easier than in prior years. The expected return of Ray Lewis would help, but the Ravens don't seem to be as strong as they were in 2011.
No. 3—Denver: Even though the Broncos (8-3) won the AFC West and picked up a playoff win against Pittsburgh in 2011, they look to be markedly better on both offense and defense this year. Credit goes to Peyton Manning and Von Miller for leading each unit respectively. The Broncos will be a dangerous team if they get to play a game or two at home in the playoffs. For that to happen they can't afford to lose any more games.
No. 2—New England: The Patriots (8-3) have to hope that Rob Gronkowski will be healthy and ready to go when the playoffs begin. He is such an important part of their offense( as noted earlier, he's tied with A.J. Green for most touchdown receptions in 2012 with 10).
Despite numerous injuries to key offensive players, the Patriots are able to reload from one week to the next and keep rolling along. The defense has improved since last year, and the rookie additions have helped out more than most people expected.
No. 1—San Francisco: The 49ers (8-2-1) have some controversy over who Jim Harbaugh should name as starting quarterback. Is this a good problem, or something that will be a major distraction that could divide the locker room?
The veteran players probably side with Alex Smith, while the younger players like the energy that Colin Kaepernick brings to the offense. The 49ers will be a scary team either way in the playoffs, thanks to their tremendous defense.
Since Kaepernick has led them to wins over Chicago and New Orleans, it would not be a surprise if he winds up starting the rest of the way.
Thanks for checking out the presentation.