32 teams in the NFL this season will be looking too make the final 12 AFC and NFC teams that comprise of the NFL playoffs. Two of those teams will earn a trip to Super Bowl XLIV, and only one will be able to call themselves "World Champions". In a way to track this race to the finish line I will be giving team by team playoff rankings each week and compare those rankings to the final playoff picture at the end of the 2009 season. Check to see where your team is every week and hopefully they'll be in the picture at the very end. For those whose teams will not be in the picture, I wish you an early Happy April.
This week's AFC number 1 seed and team that secures home field advantage is the 6-0 Indianapolis Colts. Peyton Manning and Co. weren't too convincing in there first two victories, barely escaping the Jaguars and Dolphins. Manning's connection with 2nd year player but newly emerged WR threat Pierre Garcon, proved to be the decider against the Dolphins as Peyton continued his 2nd straight 300-yd game. He fell short of tying the record of 6 games straight in St. Louis passing for 235 yds as the Rams suffered a 42-6 loss. Despite a new coach, no Marvin Harrison, and new additions on offense, the Colts are in position to win their 7th straight game on Sunday and start the season 7-0 for the fourth time in five years. With the Colts beginning a 3-game home stretch with the 49ers, Texans, Pats, and then traveling too Baltimore, you have to think there's a loss in there somewhere right? As long as the Colts have the x-factor in Peyton Manning they should give the 21st ranked pass defense of the 49ers a lot of trouble through the air and see Dallas Clark repeat the performance of Owen Daniels, leading to a big day. To add injury to insult, the 49ers O-line is also struggling which could lead too a terrible first start for Alex Smith. Look for Peyton and Co. to win their 7th game and give Jim Caldwell the first 7-0 start by a rookie head coach since 1970.
The Patriots clinch the AFC East this week with a 35-7 thumping of the Bucs in London and combined with their 59-0 thrashing of the Titans, have now scored 80 consecutive points without allowing any. This hasn't happened since the 92' Bills scored 86 over three games after defeating the 49ers, Colts, and Patriots. At 5-2 and after those back to back big wins it seems as if they coast into their bye week very comfortably but in week 9 will face an angry Dolphins team, who found a way to collapse again at home against a clearly resilient Saints team. With no surprise the Patriots have gotten a chance to get their potent offense back in stride against two very poor teams but the even better story is their defense. After losing five defensive starter's from last season in Teddy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, and Ellis Hobbs their ranked 6th in total defense as of now. Players such as Junior Seau and promising 2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year Jerod Mayo provide much welcomed leadership along side the remaining veteran core of the team. Not to mention the rising safety tandem of Brandon Meriweather and Brandon McGowan who should be considered one of the best if not the best defensive backfield's in the NFL by season's end. Rounding out the team's positives are of course future Hall of Famer's Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. After all, without these two in the picture, who would the Patriots be?
At 5-2 and looking very formidable I had a tough choice to choose a division winner for this week between the Steelers and Bengals. As impressive as a 45-10 win over Chicago was for Cincinnati, I still see them as a shaky 5-2 team. The win came against a Bears team that was shuffling around its defense due to injury's and, let's face it, the loss of Brian Urlacher might hurt for the rest of the season. Although the Bengals were without sack leader Antwan Odom they did cause 4 turnovers and put together an offense that with a healthy Carson Palmer could be considered one of the more deadly one's in the league. Even still I have a question mark on them because of the loss to Houston a week before, suspect tight end's, and whether they can continue the offensive outburst and solid defense with or without a healthy Antwan Odom, against the better teams. The Steelers got the nod from me after earning their 10th straight home victory since last season over a tougher opponent in the Vikings. The Steelers accounted for their first defensive scores of the season with two 4th quarter TD's. The key INT off of Chester Taylor decided the game. The defense gave them a needed boost in a game where the Vikings gave a solid effort towards the rush and usual reliable receivers were hard to target. Ben's success through the air fell on the shoulder's of an emerging clutch talent in rookie WR Mike Wallace who provided their only offensive score of the day. Considering the circumstances they were faced with, the Steelers showed me they could overcome their toughest defensive test yet and find ways to win. This doesn't look like a team with a Super Bowl "hangover".
The undefeated Denver Broncos are this week's division winner and go into a key matchup between a 3-3 Ravens team whose puzzled about their defense. The Ravens have fell to 19th in total defense, a far cry from finishing 2nd last season. Still the season is early and the Broncos will be on the road facing a team who has faced adversity before and is built to bounce back with vengeance in mind. Despite their shortcomings the Ravens have a very prideful defense which along with their offense showed resilience versus the Vikings when having too come from behind. Like Denver's the Ravens offense is rising and doesn't show many signs of slowing down. After a somewhat fluke win against the Bengals, wins against the Browns and Raiders, and obviously more impressive wins against the Cowboys, Patriots, and Chargers, this is a team that seemingly looks primed too compete for home field advantage by season's end. Credit also has to go to a rejuvenated defense led by coordinator Mike Nolan whose working wonders for the Broncos. Opponents left that present a challenge are the Ravens, Steelers, Chargers, Giants, Colts, and Eagles. Key x-factors as of late for the Broncos are speedy receiver & return threat Eddie Royal and current NFL sack leader Elvis Dumervil who has 10 sacks. Dumervil is the first player to reach 10 plus sacks in his team's first six games since Michael Strahan set the record in 2001 with 221/2. Meanwhile QB Kyle Orton has only thrown one pick and is 27-12 as a starter. He's averaging a higher passer rating than Tom Brady, Phillip Rivers, and Donovan Mcnabb. Coach Josh Mcdaniels has called him, "A quarterback ultimately gets judged by that and wins and losses." Broncos fans must be asking themselves, "who was Cutler again?" The Broncos have lost all three past meetings in Baltimore but this Sunday we will certainly see if Denver can pass possibly their toughest test ahead of them and improve a 6-0 start that matches their best start since 1998 when they went on to win Super Bowl 33.
The Bengals earn a Wild Card spot this week just falling short of the AFC North Division title too the Pittsburgh Steelers. As you can see from the picture, Benson seems pretty delighted about facing his old team. His team is one that looked great against Chicago and has Baltimore coming into their house after a Week 8 bye. The remaining teams they play after the Ravens are the Steelers, Raiders, Browns, Lions, Vikings, Chargers, Chiefs, and Jets. Seems like a fairly favorable schedule for the Bengals to compete for a real Wild Card spot in the AFC at the end of the season. This team will go as far as Carson Palmer and the rising 14th ranked offense can take them. The TE position is still a question but players like J.P. Foschi who put the Bengals up by three scores on Sunday with a TD shows promise and top Draft pick Chase Coffman from Missouri should be an outstanding player once he learns his blocking schemes. The Cincinnati Enquirer summed up the situation by saying, "Less than a week into training camp, Bengals tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes knew that this year was going to be a work in progress." As for the defense, they've showed stout performance's this year but being 20th overall definitely shows room for improvement. Their secondary is near the bottom of the league but their 5th ranked rush defense has played greatly. Question marks surround the Bengals but nonetheless they look like a team on the prowl and ready to strike.
The Texans win this spot over the Jets for me simply because of the caliber team they played versus the Jets' opponent. The Jets did post a 38-0 shutout on a offensively challenged Raiders team while the Texans won a closer 24-21 game against the 49ers who seemed to be legit for a while but are now losing their way as they dropped 2 games before this contest. The decider against the 49ers was a Eugen Wilson INT with 23 seconds left in the game. The Texans defense is ranked in the top 21 teams in their defensive categories and although they only allowed the 49ers, 50 yards in the first half for the first time in franchise history and went into the half leading 21-0, there's certainly room for them to get better. Even though they allowed the 49ers to come back, the presence of former 1st round pick Mario Williams was felt as he recorded a sack coming off of a shoulder injury. The defense stepped up when it had to. We all know what the offense is capable of and TE Owen Daniels showed us why he should be considered one of the top Tight Ends in the NFL. His 123 yard performance was his second highest total of his career. Steve Slaton solidified the rushing attack with a 18 for 60 yards and 1 TD day while quarterback Matt Schaub went 20/30, had 264 yards, and 1 TD. Things are clicking for the Texans offensively but can their defense be counted on down the stretch and against tougher opponents? With coach Gary Kubiak leading his team to 8-8 records in the past two season its believed that he's under a microscope this season and is expected too make the playoffs. Can the Texans finally turn around their luck? A lot of things will have to go well but don't be too surprised if they do.
Just like the sign in the picture says, the undefeated New Orleans Saints are so far looking like a team that should be Miami bound in February. They rallied from a 23-3 deficit in the second quarter against Miami to win the game 46-34. Once again Miami showed as they did against the Colts, that they can't dominate a better team. The Saints terrific effort showed how talented and balanced their team has become and only the great teams could have won in the fashion they did. The Saints have been known as a finesse team and not surprisingly put up 276 through the air on the Dolphins but the running game and defense has become a factor now as well. The Saints are third in the league in rushing which they can thank the production of their three-headed monster named Mike Bell, Pierre Thomas, and Reggie Bush. They compliment each others abilities as well as any successful backfield tandem should. The Saints have now run the ball 61 percent in the second half which is tops in the NFL. Shows you how committed Sean Payton is to the run this year and their ability too have a balanced attack whether their comfortably ahead or mounting a comeback. The defense had two scores from interceptions Sunday and added to their 13 INT's on the season are showing why they can be so opportunistic. Meanwhile the rush defense is ranked 8th and as a result the Saints are showing us a very balanced team. The question is as the Saints try to reach their second Conference Championship in three years, will we still be seeing such a balanced team in the colder months ahead? At least for now a "black & gold" Super Bowl looks pretty promising.
This choice might seem a bit funny considering that some think the Giants are the a more talented team but let's look at what they've done lately. The Giants only competition before their consecutive losses to the Saints and Cardinals was the Cowboys who handed them the game with turnovers and allowed Tynes too kick a game-winning field goal. Their loss on Sunday to the Cardinals shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise especially considering their secondary woes but more on the Giants later. The Philadelphia Eagles come into their matchup on Sunday with an impressive win over a confused Redskins team. Their schedule hasn't had them playing two tough teams in a row as of late like the Giants but their 7th ranked defense looked solid compared too a Giants number 1 ranked defense who is still suspect to me. Simply with their offense clicking as well the Eagles seem to be the better team and slight favorite over the Giants unless the Giants can fix their mistakes by addressing their offensive inconsistencies and issues in the secondary. The "Battle of the East" on Sunday could show us how far along these two teams are in the NFC as they share the spotlight among two cities whose fans may be overwhelmed with joy or sadness, on a day that will see a Phillies and Yankees World Series as well.
The Minnesota Vikings come into their week 8 matchup with the Green Bay Packers after what had to be a demoralizing 27-17 loss to the Steelers. Still they played hard and came out with what many thought was a solid "moral" victory even if some say those don't count in the NFL. They may not count but you couldn't have said the same thing last week in Minnesota when they allowed the Ravens back in the game to have a shot at winning after what ended up to be a kick which sailed wide left. In the fourth quarter, the Vikings allowed the Ravens 21 points, 222 yards, and nine first downs within only 4 minutes and 25 seconds. In the Steelers game the Vikings squandered two opportunities too take the lead by giving up two defensive scores. The point is, if it weren't for those mistakes they were right there in it till the end. As stifling as the Steelers rush defense was for the Vikings they still managed 89 yards on the ground and gained more passing yards than the Steelers as well as winning the time of possession battle. Yet again the Steelers adapted defensively and proved why they were the champions last year. After what some called a "fluke" 6-0 start, even in a loss the Vikings showed they can hang with the big boys and go into Green Bay Sunday with unfinished business on their minds.
The Arizona Cardinals soared to a three game winning Sunday night when they very convincingly beat the Giants 24-17 in what was being called a "statement" game for them all week. Granted the Giants did look out of sync on offense as they had four turnovers, three false starts, and two delay of game penalties. Three of those turnovers came on interceptions and the other was a fumble. Arizona's three offensive scores came from plays that consisted of a 13 and 1 yard run along with a 6 yard pass. The defense shined that night as they also got to Manning three times. The unit has even led Anquan Boldin to say,"We feel like we've got one of the best defenses in the league," "It's tough for teams to move the ball on them, let alone score on them." Besides this defense coming into its own, the rushing attack wasn't greatly impressive but came through when it counted and hopefully for the Cardinals will continue to improve as its currently last in the league. A team that has certainly mastered their pass attack could be scary with a better running game and a stingy defense to boot. For now, the sky seems to be clear for a Cardinal team who has passed their first real test in the NFC and travels back to Glendale, AZ to play a bewildered Carolina team on Sunday.
Now the Giants will not be included in this week's playoff picture because although I base my team's on what they've done from the beginning of the season, I concentrate more on their recent performances. As I've noted before, the Giants just didn't impress me this week and for now I see them as only a playoff "pretender." Sure the Giants could be a more talented team and they've played better competition but again what have they shown me lately? On the other hand the Dallas Cowboys definitely impressed me in their 37-21 win over the Falcons Sunday. Among Tony Romo's second straight game of 300 yards passing was the stellar play of Miles Austin, Demarcus Ware ending his four game streak of not recording a sack with two of his own and a forced fumble as well as the return of Patrick Crayton, who caught a TD pass and also returned a 73-yard punt for a TD. The touchdown pass he caught put the Cowboys comfortably ahead before the half and showed some of the nimbleness Romo still has. Coaches were preaching to him to be smarter with the football this year but his ability to elude defenders and find Crayton certainly paid off. Try telling Favre to be smarter with the football in his early years. Jokes aside, Favre and Romo have an uncanny way of playing like each other. Like Favre has shown us for so many years, there's always room for creative quarterback play, without the interceptions of course. Dallas defense finished with 4 sacks, 2 INT's, and 2 fumbles. Matt Ryan threw 142 passes without a sack and was only brought down twice before his meeting with the Cowboys. Along with the rising defense and like Romo was, a heralded undrafted free agent in Miles Austin, the Cowboys seem to be putting it all together. While its very early to tell, the Cowboy's toughest test's outside of their division could only be a week 10 meeting with the Packers on the road and a battle in the bayou with the Saints in week 15. As it usually is, the NFC east will surely be a three team race and I'm anxious to see where the Cowboys finish.
The Green Bay Packers come into week 8 to face the Vikings after a very lopsided 31-3 win over the Browns. The thrashing left only the Green Bay faithful chanting "Let's Go Pack" in a very empty Browns stadium by game's end. The Packers who had allowed 25 sacks this season, left Aaron Rogers untouched for the first time. Their toughest competition so far this season has been Cincinnati and Minnesota. The offensive line has apparently come together and with hopefully LT Chad Clifton coming back should show improvement against a Vikings defense that accounted for 8 sacks in their last meeting. DE Jared Allen should be most of the concern as he compiled 4 1/2 of his own, which were the most ever on Monday night. Coming off of two very big day's against Detroit and Cleveland, the Packers should be looking to get to Favre more and if possible cause more turnovers than they did that Monday night. The defense is 3rd in total and 5th in scoring. On another good note they also passed and ran the ball more than the Packers last time but lost the possession battle. If the Packers are to spoil Favre's homecoming on Sunday they will need to excel in those phases and pay particular attention to their offensive line which has been leaky in the past. With Tampa Bay next week and Dallas the next, a division win in Lambeau combined with what could be a field day in Tampa, could have the Pack riding high as they welcome the Cowboys to Green Bay in week 10.