Being in the NFL playoff race going into Week 12 doesn't mean the same thing for every team.
On one side, it could mean you're the Broncos, Chiefs or Seahawks. It could mean your ticket to January football is all but guaranteed and the remaining six weeks of the season are all about where you place in the league's hierarchy. It could mean the top seed in the conference, as it likely will for two of those three squads, or it could merely mean playing a Wild Card contest. Either way, playoff spots are on lock.
On the other side is the less flattering "playoff contender." There are 13 teams with either five or six losses coming into this week, each of which has a realistic shot at playing a road or possibly even home playoff game if things break right.
If and when things break poorly, everything goes to hell, coaches get fired and you wind up drafting somewhere around No. 10—well beyond the reaches of the Jadeveon Clowneys, Marcus Mariotas and Teddy Bridgewaters of the world.
And then there's everyone in the middle. The Bengals of the world, teams whose quarterbacks' hair matches their jersey colors and who will get that wonderful deer-in-the-headlights look come Round 1.
The National Football League, everyone!
But, alas, with six weeks to go, there's still plenty of action remaining. Let's take a complete look at the 2013 NFL playoff picture heading into Week 12.
NFC Playoff Breakdown
|NFC WILD CARD||W||L|
Locks: NFC West (Seattle)
Likelies: NFC South (New Orleans)
Up in the Air: NFC East, NFC North
Wild, Wild Card: Seven teams within one game of No. 6 (including division leaders).
Figuring out the six playoff teams in the NFC essentially comes down to which teams come out of the NFC East and NFC North. While there are any number of scenarios that could play out over the next few weeks, it'd be a shock to see Carolina, New Orleans or San Francisco not make the playoffs.
The likeliest of those three to drop out is the 49ers, who have massive, nearly crippling problems on offense.
Colin Kaepernick has at times resembled a less accurate, more mobile Alex Smith in Jim Harbaugh's system this year. San Francisco has been forced to rely far too much on its defense. Again. Still, the 49ers' losses over the past two weeks have come by a combined four points over Super Bowl contenders.
They're going to be just fine.
As for the North and East, your guess is as good as mine. We can likely draw a red Sharpie line through the Redskins, who look closer to the brink of implosion than running the table like they did a year ago. The other three teams, however, all seem to have their own stake at the crown.
The Cowboys are, again, the division's most talented team if you only look at the top of their roster. Pro Bowlers past and present adorn the skill positions and parts of the defense, making for a high-priced outfit that falls apart once you get past the surface. Dallas' defense is a leaking, abhorrent mess that has allowed twice as many 400-yard passing games as any other team.
It's possible that Monte Kiffin can fix his leaky faucet, but it's becoming doubtful he'll do it on time.
The Giants and Eagles, meanwhile, are coming into their own.
Nick Foles has been a revelation in Chip Kelly's offense, which has also been pretty good other than the weeks when Matt Barkley was prominently involved. The Giants have won four straight in spite of quarterback Eli Manning while allowing fewer than 12 points per contest. Over the last two weeks, they've also gotten some inspired play out of Andre Brown, who could give them a rushing game they lacked when starting 0-6.
With Aaron Rodgers' injury making way for the Scott Tolzien era in Green Bay, the NFC North likely comes down to the Bears and Lions. Detroit has more talent on both sides of the ball—some of the best talent in football, actually—but can't ever seem to get out of its own way for one or two weeks at a time. Chicago's offense heavily features Josh McCown.
You can see there's a lot left to be decided here.
AFC Playoff Breakdown
|AFC WILD CARD||W||L|
Locks: AFC East (New England), AFC South (Indianapolis)
Likelies: AFC North (Cincinnati)
Up in the Air: AFC West
Wild, Wild Card: Eight teams within one game of No. 6 (not including division leaders).
You can pretty much lock the door and throw away the key on five of the AFC's six playoff spots. Andy Dalton seems determined to crash the orange and black bus into the river, but the defense—even without Leon Hall and Geno Atkins—doesn't seem ready to allow that to happen. Twenty-one defensive and special teams points from the Bengals against the Browns on Sunday pretty much proved that.
Keeping Cincinnati in the "likelies" section is 100 percent related to the Steelers or Ravens possibly coming up from behind as Dalton finally does Cincy in. The odds aren't very good at this point, but it's still a possibility.
The loser of the AFC West will get the No. 5 seed barring some weird second-half collapse. The Patriots are winning the AFC East for the umpteenth time in a row. AFC South teams not named the Colts have won seven games—the exact same amount as Indianapolis.
So, cool. Let's just wrap this puppy up and go home, shall we?
That would be perfectly fine if the No. 6 seed wasn't a jumbled morass of mediocrity. There are six 4-6 teams in the AFC coming into Week 12. Those teams sit behind the Jets and Dolphins, two 5-5 squads with innumerable problems.
The Jets are relying on Geno Smith to lead them to the promised land. Smith has thrown twice as many interceptions as touchdowns this season and has made Blaine Gabbert look competent.
While the second-rounder has shown some flashes of potential here and there, these Jets at best feel like almost carbon copies of the Mark Sanchez-led bunches from a few years back.
At worst, they're a nightmare that could fall apart at any moment.
Back at 4-6, one could probably talk oneself into any team coming up from behind and taking that No. 6 spot. The Steelers and Ravens are the most obvious choices. Pittsburgh already holds the tiebreaker advantage over Baltimore and the Jets with one game against the Ravens remaining, and it's won four of its past six contests.
Oakland and Tennessee—well frankly, I have no idea what they're doing at the dinner table. But I'm not sure I'd like to be your friend if you aren't rooting to possibly bet against Ryan Fitzpatrick or Terrelle Pryor (or Matt McGloin!) on Wild Card Weekend.
Super Bowl Odds Breakdown
|Updated Super Bowl Odds (Thru Week 12)|
|New Orleans Saints||13/2|
|New England Patriots||11/1|
|San Francisco 49ers||14/1|
|Kansas City Chiefs||18/1|
|Green Bay Packers||33/1|
|New York Giants||40/1|
|New York Jets||150/1|
|San Diego Chargers||200/1|
|St. Louis Rams||500/1|
Favorites: Denver (3-1), Seattle (11-4), New Orleans (13-2), New England (11-1)
The obvious choices. If you're the betting type, there really isn't all that much value to be had here. Using Football Outsiders' team DVOA rankings, the three teams with the best odds are three of the four best in football.
Seattle is the most well-rounded team. The Seahawks rank seventh offensively, second on defense and first in special teams. With Percy Harvin returning to the fold and Seattle looking likely to gain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, these might be the best odds at which you can purchase them.
Denver and New England will likely fluctuate based on how their game goes. If it's a close contest that goes down to the last minute, we're unlikely to see much movement. But if New England dominates at home or Denver on the road, things will change awwwwfully quick.
Oh, hi, New Orleans.
Coming on Strong: Carolina (11-1), Indianapolis (18-1)
That fourth team in the above-mentioned DVOA Top Four? Carolina.
The Panthers, like Seattle, are pretty well-rounded, with their worst DVOA rank (No. 15) coming on the less crucial special teams. They're also a benefactor of the NFL's longest winning streak at six games, besting New England and San Francisco in back-to-back weeks, and employing Cam Newton.
Things are looking up for Riverboat Ron and Co.
The Colts are just giant killers. They and the Bengals are in a dead heat for our worst seven-win team. Both can look like the worst team in football when things are going poorly. (If you lose 38-8 to Kellen Clemens, things are damn sure going poorly.)
Indy just can't be ruled out thanks to its impressive resume of victories. The Colts are the only team to beat Denver and Seattle and took down the 49ers at home. That three-win stretch is probably the most impressive of any team.
Plus, Andrew Luck has a horseshoe up his behind or something.
Sleepers: Detroit (33-1), Pittsburgh (75-1)
Am I drunk for putting the Steelers here? I might be drunk for putting the Steelers here. In fact, we might all be drunk.
But they're here, thanks to the thorough mediocrity of the AFC beyond our locked-in teams. There's no way an 0-4 Steelers team should be within a game of the playoff less than a half-season later. It's not fair. It's just not fair, signed someone who grew up around Steelers fans and got teased mercilessly for not being a Steelers fan.
We already covered why the Lions could win it all (oodles of good players). And why they can't (their football IQ level is about as low as their talent level is high). That being said, the Ravens proved last season you don't need to be great in the regular season to win it all—just get in.
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