NFL Playoff Predictions: Updated Look at the Top Teams Contending for Spots

Adam B. Weinberger@@Adam_WeinbergerCorrespondent IINovember 29, 2012

NFL Playoff Predictions: Updated Look at the Top Teams Contending for Spots

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    Only five weeks remain in the 2012 regular season and the playoff picture is beginning to see some clarity at the very top—although the same could not be said for some of the second-tier contenders. This trend is reflected in the newest installment of NFL playoff predictions.

    Who is the best player from the 2011 NFL draft? Who is the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year? Your choices are the same. Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt, and Von Miller— 2011 selections who rank No. 1, 2 and 3 in sacks in 2012—lead three of the league’s best defenses on three of the league’s best teams.

    But, as usual, quarterback play will truly determine the outcome down the stretch. Each of the 10 teams to be named in the coming slides simply cannot afford to have mediocre performances from their QBs.

    My playoff predictions from three weeks ago look surprisingly robust (all things considered). Let’s see if the same could be said about this week’s predictions by season’s end.  

AFC Wild Cards: Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts

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    What is the most telling example of Andrew Luck’s greatness? Nobody seems bothered by the fact that Peyton Manning has turned the Broncos into one of the NFL’s best teams.

    This might be ridiculous and hyperbolic for me to ask, but can we really say that Manning would have won more than seven games up to this point if he were still in Indianapolis?

    I expected Reggie Wayne to have a vintage, great season with a rookie quarterback leaning on him—and that is precisely what has happened. Wayne’s 1,105 yards already exceed his 2011 output, and he may very well top his career high of 1,510 from 2007. 

    But it has been Luck’s ability to turn the rest of Indianapolis’ receivers into a deep, dangerous group that has been most impressive. T.Y. Hilton and Donnie Avery have combined for an average of 118 yards per game over the last four weeks.

    The second wild-card spot will almost certainly go to an AFC North squad, and teams that enter December hot are usually the ones that go on to win tight playoff races.

    Cincinnati’s next four opponents—San Diego, Dallas, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—might be the four most puzzling teams in all of football. They could win all four. They could also lose all four.  

    The Bengals’ Week 17 matchup with Baltimore has the potential to mean everything for both (Cincinnati within game of playoffs, Baltimore looking for home-field advantage), either or neither (Cincinnati dead, Baltimore clinched).

AFC No. 4 Seed: Baltimore Ravens

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    I’ve been very pleased with Baltimore’s turnaround and ability to overcome injuries on the defensive side—the latter of which should come as a surprise to no one.

    Three weeks ago, I predicted that Baltimore would drop to the wild-card spot, but that was before Pittsburgh lost Ben Roethlisberger. Now, the Steelers look to be the ones with dwindling playoff chances.

    At the start of the month, I would have said Baltimore’s game with Pittsburgh was the toughest game left on its schedule. Now? It might be the easiest—hence the No. 4 seed. The Ravens go on the road to Washington, host the Broncos and Giants and wrap up the year in Cincinnati. 

AFC No. 3 Seed: Denver Broncos

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    Denver’s stellar defense continues to be one of the least discussed reasons for success of any part of any team in all of football.

    According to ESPN Stats and Information, Von Miller has 27 tackles on rushing plays this season, on which runners have averaged negative 0.3 yards per carry. Nobody with over 20 tackles has produced such success against the run.

    The most important reason for the Broncos' recent tear, though, is obviously Peyton Manning. With the exception of the Patriots, Giants, Packers, Falcons, Saints, Steelers and Redskins, every team in football must feel stupid for not pursuing Peyton more aggressively. 

AFC No. 2 Seed: New England Patriots

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    It was not an easy decision to give the first-round bye to New England, but ultimately my decision came down to what I have seen from the three division leaders (excluding Houston) over the past month and what lies ahead.

    New England’s offense has exhibited absolute, complete, utter domination over its last four games. The fact that the defense has been putting points on the board too makes the end-of-game point totals even more impressive. New England has averaged 47.5 (!) points per game since Week 8.

    Tom Brady has been remarkable, and much like the rest of the team, simply does not make mistakes. The Pats have committed just eight turnovers in 2012.

    Losing Rob Gronkowski hurts, but New England’s offense is deep with talent. Four other players average 25-plus receiving yards per game.

    The Patriots defense will give up yardage, but as long as they can get a few big plays of their own every game, it’s hard to imagine that any remaining opponent—with the exception of perhaps Houston—can hang with them on the scoreboard.

    Bill Belichick usually has a field day against inexperienced quarterbacks, and in the coming weeks he will get Ryan Tannehill twice, Colin Kaepernick and whoever starts for Jacksonville.

AFC No. 1 Seed: Houston Texans

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    After two tight wins over puzzlingly difficult opponents, Houston remains in good position to finish the regular season atop the conference. 

    The defense may have been the story through the first nine games, but it has been the Texans offense that has carried them over the past two weeks—despite the seeming best wishes of the defense to do the contrary.

    Over the last four games, Andre Johnson has caught 69 percent of his targets for 700 yards and, in typical Andre Johnson fashion, just one score. Arian Foster has accumulated 503 yards on the ground over the same stretch and, in typical Arian Foster fashion, scored six times.

    The Texans have three wins against teams currently over .500. Four of their remaining opponents have a winning record.

    For a team with just one loss and stars at virtually every position, there seem to be a few lingering doubts from those on the outside. Houston can and should eliminate these uncertainties. 

NFC Wild Cards: Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Three weeks ago I acknowledged that the NFC wild-card spots were very much up for grabs. The recent string of bizarre performances from basically every conference contender could make the indecision even more powerful.

    On the contrary, I think the past few weeks have been a vindication for the true contenders and proof of deficiency for everyone else.

    Detroit, St. Louis, Arizona and, yes, New Orleans have too much ground to cover with too little time to do it.

    Minnesota, despite the best efforts of Adrian Peterson, is far too limited offensively without Percy Harvin at full strength. Oh, and the Vikings still face Green Bay twice, Chicago and Houston.

    The Seahawks could conceivably grab a wild-card spot, but they are just 1-5 on the road and travel to Chicago this weekend. Even if Seattle wins in Buffalo in Week 15, it still must win every game at home, including a game over the 49ers, to reach 10 wins—assuming the Bears get the W on Sunday.

    So who’s left? The Redskins? They’re 5-6. Robert Griffin and Co. would likely need to win all their remaining games.

    Tampa Bay has looked great for over a month now. With “respectable” losses to New Orleans and Atlanta, the Bucs seem like a team ready to get the much-needed signature victory that every surprise contender must have to reach the postseason. Denver (Week 13 opponent), New Orleans (Week 15) and Atlanta (Week 17) should take notice.  

    On one hand, Chicago has Jay Cutler back. On the other, it appears as though a single snap to Jason Campbell could ruin everything. Green Bay has already defeated the Bears once. They also have Aaron Rodgers. Both teams have question marks heading into the final stretch of the season, but I think the Packers will have a better answer. 

NFC No. 4 Seed: New York Giants

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    Four-seed, wild-card, bye—what does it matter for the Giants?

    Hakeem Nicks is absolutely vital to New York’s success. I, along with countless others, have been saying this for weeks.

    And, from a psychological perspective, it must be true—Nicks has been extremely defensive with regards to his health and what impact that has on the team.

    CBS Sports recently reported that, when asked if he was concerned about his declined production, Nicks answered with, “No, man, because stats is for girls…I know I'm a great football player, and we're ready to make this run after the bye week.”

    Well, Nicks was right. The Giants smoked the Packers. Of course, that probably had something to do with the wide receiver’s role in the offense exceeding “hobbled decoy.” Nicks finished the game with 77 yards (his most since September 16) and a touchdown.  

NFC No. 3 Seed: Green Bay Packers

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    I’m going to look past the Sunday night bed-pooing and focus on Green Bay’s performance since Week 2.

    The Fail Mary erased a win over Seattle and they lost in Indianapolis by three—which doesn’t look too terrible any more.

    Green Bay has similar issues as Chicago. The Packers put most of their stock in one player and struggle to keep him upright.

    Yet, nobody seemed too concerned when they were winning, which they should return to doing, especially once Clay Matthews and Greg Jennings return. 

NFC No. 2 Seed: San Francisco 49ers

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    The Giants are too far back, the Bears and Packers are a bit too unstable and Atlanta is too far ahead. San Francisco gets the second seed by default, but it may be the best team in football as of November 29 at 12:32 a.m. ET.

    Defensively, the 49ers are sensational. Offensively, they are sufficient.

    The New York Jets made two consecutive championship games with less talent on both ends of the football, which is precisely why San Francisco should do the same. 

NFC No. 1 Seed: Atlanta Falcons

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    Much like Houston, the Falcons’ legitimacy has been under fire as of late.

    The 49ers are breathing down their necks, but I don’t see the Falcons losing two more games. They’ll probably need to lose three anyway, considering the predicament Colin Kaepernick will endure in Foxboro.

    Eight of Matt Ryan’s 13 picks have come in two games. If he can avoid such a performance for the duration, Atlanta should cruise to the top spot in the NFC.