The surging Carolina Panthers got the San Francisco 49ers' attention on Sunday.
How things can change in just one week.
From unexpected losses to stunning injuries, the NFL season is truly one of attrition.
Staying in contention can be difficult, remaining healthy is basically impossible, and both are essential for those looking to make a championship run.
Enclosed once again is a look at the current postseason matchups as they stand today. It’s safe to say that it was a very rough week for most of the defending division champions, especially in the NFC.
So when you hear those dreaded words “if the season ended today,” keep something very important in mind: It doesn’t!
Listed below are the top teams in each conference that are no worse than one game below .500 and are on the outside of the playoff race looking in. The number attached is their current seeding in their respective conference.
7. Miami Dolphins (4-4): While some thought Joe Philbin’s club could be a sleeper pick for the AFC East title, it is now going through a season of unrest. It will be interesting to see how the team responds on Monday night against the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Dolphins will play four of their final five games against divisional foes.
8. Tennessee Titans (4-5): With an opportunity on Sunday to move one game behind the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South, Mike Munchak’s club stubbed its toe at home against the previously winless Jacksonville Jaguars. The Titans host Andrew Luck and Co. on Thursday night, but Tennessee is a dismal 1-7 versus AFC South rivals dating back to the start of the 2012 season.
9. Cleveland Browns (4-5): When we last saw Rob Chudzinski’s team, it was busy ending an 11-game losing streak to the Baltimore Ravens. After their off week, they face the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers in consecutive weeks. The Browns also play three of their final four games on the road.
10. Baltimore Ravens (4-5): The defending Super Bowl champions were forced to play overtime on Sunday after being seconds away from victory in regulation, but they wound up beating the Cincinnati Bengals in the extra session after all. Although the Ravens are still one game under .500, they are now just one game behind the Bengals in the loss column in the AFC North.
11. San Diego Chargers (4-5): A few weeks ago, Mike McCoy’s team had won back-to-back games over the Colts and Jaguars, only giving up a total of 15 points and zero touchdowns in those two contests. In the two games since this time, losses to the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos saw the Bolts give up a combined 58 points. The erratic play that has epitomized the team.
7. Arizona Cardinals (5-4): The Cards returned from their off week and won the first leg of their three straight games versus AFC South squads with a 27-24 win over the Houston Texans. Arizona is one of the more opportunistic teams in the league but still has more giveaways (21) than takeaways (20) this season.
8. Chicago Bears (5-4): That 3-0 start has turned into four losses in six games for the Bears, who have had a habit in recent years of playing well early and then eventually fading. One thing that has been consistent this season are the struggles of the Chicago defense, which has already allowed 24 offensive touchdowns in 2013—one fewer than all of last season.
9. Green Bay Packers (5-4): In a seven-day span, Mike McCarthy’s team lost its star quarterback in Aaron Rodgers as well as a pair of home games. And now, the Packers find themselves chasing the Detroit Lions for the top spot in the NFC North. Scott Tolzien will be the team’s third starting quarterback in as many weeks when the Packers take on the New York Giants this Sunday.
10. Philadelphia Eagles (5-5): Quarterback Nick Foles only threw three touchdown passes in the Eagles' 27-13 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. The second-year pro has totaled 16 scores through the air without an interception this season. The Eagles' next three games are at home, and that’s bad news considering they’ve lost 10 straight in their own building.
Playoff Opponent: First-Round Bye
Being the NFL’s lone undefeated team has to be nice.
And no doubt the Kansas City Chiefs are savoring that feeling…at least for now.
The AFC West leaders are off this week and know they have quite the task ahead in their attempt to land the No. 1 seed in their conference.
Andy Reid’s team plays four of its final seven games on the road. The Chiefs also face five divisional foes in their final seven outings, including a pair of tilts with both the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers.
The Chiefs begin the final part of the schedule next Sunday night in Denver, and then they host the Chargers and Broncos the following two weeks.
That aforementioned triple-scoop should severely test the Chiefs’ streak of holding all of their opponents to 17 or fewer points this season as well as that spotless win-loss record.
Playoff Opponent: First-Round Bye
At this time a season ago, the New England Patriots sported a 6-3 record and were in first place in the AFC East.
Apparently, not much has changed, except for the fact that Bill Belichick’s team actually has one more win at this stage of 2013 than his club did in 2012.
The Patriots are not only coming off of a 55-31 thrashing of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9, but they get one extra day off following their Week 10 bye, as they travel to Carolina to face the Panthers a week from this Monday night.
All told, New England plays four of its final seven games away from home, but the game plan it is employing these days on offense is certainly portable.
And if the outing against the Steelers is even a very slight indication of where their offense may be headed, there are some very good times ahead for this team.
Playoff Opponent: vs. N.Y. Jets (5-4)
Don’t start printing those “Indianapolis Colts: 2013 AFC South Champions” T-shirts and hats just yet.
Stunningly, Chuck Pagano’s club was laid to waste at home on Sunday by the St. Louis Rams 38-8.
Fortunately for Pagano and Co., the second-place Tennessee Titans also fell at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars. By the way, it’s interesting to note that Gus Bradley’s last-place club was the only team in the AFC South to win in Week 10.
Back to the Colts and the Titans, who face each other this Thursday night in Nashville. A second-straight loss by Indianapolis could turn this division race into a dogfight. Of course, Tennessee will be without starting quarterback Jake Locker this week—and likely for the rest of the season, according to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.
Then again, after Sunday’s debacle, the Colts have enough to worry about on their own.
Playoff Opponent: vs. Denver Broncos (8-1)
Isn’t it funny how fast things can change in this league?
Four straight wins have been followed by two straight overtime losses for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Marvin Lewis’ team remains the front-runner in the AFC North, but both the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns are just one game behind in the loss column with identical 4-5 records.
The Bengals host the well-rested Browns this week, knowing they have already dropped one game to their intrastate rival this season.
It was another rough outing for Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton on Sunday, as he threw three interceptions for the second straight game. The third-year quarterback has committed seven turnovers in his last two games.
Simply put, a loss to Cleveland next Sunday means that you may not be reading about the Bengals too much longer, at least not in this part of the piece.
Playoff Opponent: at Cincinnati Bengals (6-4)
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning made the San Diego Chargers pay dearly on Sunday, throwing four touchdown passes in a 28-20 victory.
The Chargers also made sure Manning paid as well, leveling their share of hits on the Denver quarterback.
“I'm pretty sore,” said the Broncos signal-caller during the postgame news conference, via NFL.com. “They kind of got me twice in kind of that lower area. It felt better coming into the game after the bye week, but I'm pretty sore. I'm getting an MRI tomorrow so I'll know a little more then.”
The crucial stage of the season for the Broncos is staring the team in the face. Denver has a pair of prime-time tilts with the Kansas City Chiefs (home) and the New England Patriots (road) before heading to Arrowhead Stadium to face the Chiefs again.
Given the way the team is playing these days—allowing at least 19 points in every game—it needs Manning to be as effective as possible.
Playoff Opponent: at Indianapolis Colts (6-3)
When the New York Jets visit the Buffalo Bills this Sunday, will Rex Ryan’s team finally put an end to a pattern of play that has had the rhythm of a windshield wiper?
So this season’s track record tells you that that Gang Green will be black and blue when it’s all said and done versus the Bills.
Then again, if Buffalo’s defense doesn’t do a better job against the run this week, Ryan’s team could be two games above .500 by the end of next weekend, and six victories would equal New York’s total for all of 2012.
And when you can dominate the trenches like the Jets have this season, anything is indeed possible.
Playoff Opponent: First-Round Bye
For those concerned about the Seattle Seahawks’ play in recent weeks, all appears to be OK once again.
And while a 33-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome may not mean what it would have a year ago, it did avenge the playoff loss suffered by Pete Carroll’s team in January.
More significantly, it's worth noting that it was the team’s third consecutive road win and improved Seattle’s record away from home to 5-1 this season.
Since opening the 2012 campaign with five road losses in six tries, the Seahawks have played a total of 10 road games, including last season’s playoffs. Carroll’s club is 8-2 in those games, with losses to the Falcons last January and the Indianapolis Colts this season.
And the Seahawks have yet to have their bye week.
Considering they still haven’t lost at home this season (and play four of their final six games in the Pacific Northwest), the ‘Hawks could be setting themselves up for a record-breaking 2013.
Playoff Opponent: First-Round Bye
One week after a disappointing loss to the New York Jets, quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints flexed their muscles at home this week, which is standard fare for this club.
But even head coach Sean Payton had to be scratching his headset, in a good way, after his team rolled up an NFL-record 40 first downs along with 49 points and 625 total yards in a 49-17 Sunday night conquest of the visiting Dallas Cowboys.
The most important number to keep in mind is "one"—the number of games the Saints remain ahead of the red-hot Carolina Panthers in the NFC South. The two teams have yet to meet this season, and considering that the Atlanta Falcons (2-7) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-8) have combined for two wins this season, it’s a two-team race for the division crown.
And while capturing the NFC South for a third time in five years would be nice, grabbing a first-round bye would be even nicer.
Playoff Opponent: vs. San Francisco 49ers (6-3)
Don’t look now, but last season’s cellar-dweller in the NFC North is now alone in the division’s penthouse.
The Detroit Lions were 4-12 a year ago. They not only lost their final eight games of the season, but they were also 0-6 versus their divisional rivals.
On Sunday, the Lions completed a sweep of the Chicago Bears for the first time since 2007. Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw three touchdown passes in a 21-19 win, and Jim Schwartz’s team now owns a 3-1 mark within the division.
The Lions also own a one-game lead on the Bears and Green Bay Packers in the NFC North. And if quarterback health is a prerequisite for a title, Detroit has it over every other team in its division in spades.
But the game to keep an eye on is Thanksgiving Day when the Packers come to Detroit. However, whether Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is available for his team on that day is key.
More importantly, Schwartz’s Lions have emerged as a significant factor in the NFC playoff chase.
Playoff Opponent: vs. Carolina Panthers (6-3)
It’s never good when the opposing team can hang 40 on you—as in 40 first downs that is.
On Sunday night at the Superdome, the New Orleans Saints pummeled the Dallas Cowboys, 49-17, and in the process set a new NFL record for first downs in a game. And by the way, Sean Payton’s club also rolled up a full 625 total yards on Monte Kiffin’s defensive unit.
The Cowboys were also 0-of-9 on third down, and the Saints were 9-of-12. Dallas totaled 193 yards of total offense, and New Orleans amassed 242 yards rushing.
A loss is obviously a loss, but the absence of linebacker Sean Lee, who was injured during the game, proved to be devastating. Fortunately for Cowboys fans, Jason Garrett's club has an upcoming bye week to fix what ails it along with the extended opportunity to tend to who’s ailing.
And don’t look now, but the Cowboys are in a tie for first place in the NFC East with the improving Philadelphia Eagles.
Playoff Opponent: at Dallas Cowboys (5-5)
Let’s have some fun with the number "nine."
Nine games into the season, the Carolina Panthers have allowed a total of nine touchdowns.
On Sunday at San Francisco, Ron Rivera’s team allowed only nine points in a 10-9 victory over the “Niners.”
How about some other numbers? The Panthers sacked 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick six times, forced two turnovers on the afternoon and held Jim Harbaugh’s club to 151 yards of total offense.
The Panthers' remaining schedule not only includes a Monday night tilt with the New England Patriots next week, but they also have four divisional games in their final five outings, including a pair with the first-place New Orleans Saints.
So Carolina’s 1-3 start this year is but a memory. And if the team keeps playing outstanding defense, this cat could prove to have more than nine lives (or wins) by the end of 2013.
Playoff Opponent: at Detroit Lions (6-3)
When you're on, apparently, you're on. But when you're the San Francisco 49ers and you're off, well...
On Sunday, in one of the season’s better slugfests, Jim Harbaugh’s team came up short at home to the Carolina Panthers 10-9. The Niners were limited to 151 yards of total offense and failed to score a touchdown in the setback.
Give credit to the San Francisco defense, which obviously played well enough to win. But for the third time this season, the 49ers not only lost, but their offense was virtually nonexistent.
In six wins in 2013, San Francisco has totaled 208 points, scoring at least 31 points in each contest. In three losses, the Niners have managed a combined 19 points.
And that would not get it done against the Detroit Lions and Harbaugh’s old friend Jim Schwartz should the teams meet in the playoffs.