As the first half of the NFL season flips over to the second, generally playoff races start to clarify.
Not necessarily what all six playoff spots per conference will end up being, but you usually start seeing the front runners start cropping up while other teams fall by the wayside.
The good teams begin winning the games they are supposed to win, while the under-talented overachievers have their shortcomings catch up with them. As of right now, Week 10 served to turn a number of playoff races on their ears instead and make things even more confusing. This is especially true in the NFC, where a 9-7 team may just have a shot at that 6th seed at this point. Here’s a look at how the games of this week affected the playoff outlook (omitting irrelevant games, a la the Lions/Vikings outcome).
Chicago Loses to San Francisco
This game served a dual purpose. While it left both teams with the same record (4-5), it served a punch in the gut to Chicago’s chances at the playoffs while bringing San Francisco back to the outskirts of the hunt.
Had the win gone the other way around, Chicago would have had just as good a chance as anybody in a crowded 5-4 pack and San Francisco would have been essentially eliminated at 3-6. I would be shocked if either of these two ends up with a wildcard; however, they are still close enough that some major faltering by certain teams and a big run by either will eke by.
Dolphins Defeat Buccaneers
While this one won’t be chalked up to upset like many of the games, it does allow Miami a glimpse of playoff hope. With one wildcard probably going to the Steelers, the AFC’s sixth seed will still need a 10-6 record to make it in. Miami has some confidence, having caused problems in their division (win or lose) and quarterback Chad Henne is developing well.
Had it gone the other way around Miami would essentially be eliminated (given the second half schedule with two powerhouses and several resurgent teams the necessary 6-2 run would take a miracle; they could easily end the season as one of the most competitive sub-.500 teams ever). Tampa winning would have done nothing but help them with some 2010 optimism.
Jaguars Top Jets
This was an either/or game for both. The Jets are now very much outsiders in the AFC wildcard race, behind five teams (assuming Ravens win tonight) and with all the early momentum a distant memory. Needing a win to stay relevant, they fell short. Jacksonville, on the other hand, has overcome the Week Five horror (losing to Seattle 41-0 to drop to 2-3) to put themselves back on the playoff radar. With their present schedule, Week 13 against Houston could very easily determine the sixth seed in the AFC.
Had it gone the other way you could essentially just flip the initial statement as the record and momentum would have flipped that way. It would probably serve to take both out of the race, however, since the Jets have a much tougher schedule then Jacksonville, facing the Bengals, Patriots, Panthers, Colts, and Falcons. Just two losses would be asking a lot from that batch.
Bengals Defeat Steelers
This is one of the few games that served to shape the playoff outlook instead of muddy it up. With what amounts to a two-game lead over the Steelers (holding the tiebreaker), Cinci is in the driver’s seat for the division, playing only two teams with winning records the rest of the way. The Steelers have a relatively modest schedule as well, and picking up a game on Cinci is quite possible; but it will be tough to gain two on the Bengals at this point. Instead they look to be a very scary wildcard.
Had it gone the other way, the Steelers would have had a one-game advantage. It would have essentially kept the race much tighter since the Steelers have both Ravens games remaining and a split would give Cincinnati the tie-breaker.
Titans Defeat Bills
This one is borderline relevant, and impacts the offseason more than the playoff race. That being said, technically the Titans now have a vague outside look at the playoffs with three games of momentum and a revitalized feel. The reality is they still aren’t quite good enough to run the table (especially with a potent schedule that includes the Colts, Chargers, Texans, Cardinals, and even the Dolphins). The Buffalo game being the start of a 6-2 second half run is great for optimism towards 2010, but 9-7 still falls short.
Had it gone the other way: The Titans still have a chance at some good feelings going into the offseason, but don’t even have the luxury of a fool’s hope at the playoffs. Buffalo goes from playing for their jobs the rest of this season to holding out some faint playoff hope at 4-5. More importantly it takes a little momentum away from the Titans, which might make them a touch easier for teams like the Chargers and Texans whose playoff hopes could easily hinge on single wins and losses.
Redskins Defeat Broncos
Another shocker. The Broncos looked to halt a skid that could be attributed to running into the monster that is the AFC North, making their two losses a simple blip on the radar and keeping San Diego at arm’s length for the divisional crown. This was the perfect opponent to get back on track against a 2-6 team bordering on a fanbase mutiny. The Broncos are now tied with San Diego at 6-3, and will need a great showing next Sunday when they go head to head with the Chargers (who have the opposite momentum of a four game winning streak).
Had it gone the other way, Denver would still have a fight with San Diego, but could afford to drop next week and still be safe in the divisional race. As well as have a stranglehold on a wildcard seed should they lose. Now the Broncos (with games against the Chargers, Colts, Eagles, and Giants) face the very real possibility of another second half flop.
Panthers Top Falcons
This one goes along with the Denver and Green Bay games to have the biggest impact on mixing up the playoff race. The Falcons were 5-3, and a very solid bet to snag one of the wildcard berths, being trapped behind the undefeated Saints. Instead they have slipped in amongst a large pack of teams, all within one game of .500, and are suffering a momentum lapse with three losses in four games. The Panthers, in the meantime, have clawed their way back to the playoff race with victories against the Cardinals and Falcons, sandwiching a no-shame loss to the Saints. With a very strong final stretch, the Panthers will need to make the most of the three winnable games coming up.
Had it gone the other way, the Falcons, at 6-3, would have been in a tremendous position to grab one of the two wildcard berths with the best record among non division leaders in the NFC. They would also be carrying a two game winning streak to shake off the back to back losses they suffered just prior. The Panthers would have been basically out of the hunt and looking to play spoiler instead of fighting for their lives.
Chargers Top Eagles
The Chargers have now rode the momentum of four consecutive wins to a tie with Denver at 6-3, just in time for a head to head matchup next week that could easily decide the division. Provided Denver makes a rebound and can hold on to the division, San Diego is also the frontrunner for the last wildcard berth. The Eagles loss does not sting as much as it could have, thanks to the Giants bye and Cowboys loss, but like most of the NFC outcomes, it creates a crowded grouping within a game of .500.
Had it gone the other way, San Diego would be facing a lot of pressure to keep pace with Denver (despite the Bronco’s losing streak) going into the head-to-head matchup. They would also be hovering with the cluster of sixth-seed hopefuls rather than a notch ahead. The Eagles would have moved into a tie with Dallas at 6-3, looking at a solid hold on a playoff spot.
Saints Win Against Rams
The result on paper, Saints win and Rams lose, does nothing to alter anyone’s ideas going into the playoffs. The questions raised come from how a team from the bottom half-dozen of the league could keep pace and make it a game with the powerhouse Saints. This was supposed to be a blowout, not a five point game. With chinks showing in the armor, New Orleans needs to stay on its toes to maintain. The division is not a concern; neither is gaining a first round bye. But home field for the NFC championship game is. The Vikes have a little bit of an easier schedule, and are gaining momentum while New Orleans is faltering a little.
Had it gone the other way, the home-field momentum clearly would have shifted towards cold country, and the Saints would have stared at a likely drop to third in most people’s power rankings. Beyond that, and a little embarrassment, it had no real effect on who makes the playoffs.
Green Bay Downs Dallas
The Packers looked like they were about to fall off a cliff after letting Tampa Bay scratch out its first win. Dallas seemed to be a team with a powerhouse run for the playoffs, holding a commanding divisional lead. Now they have returned to scuffling for the division. Green Bay has not merely awakened their playoff chances; the Atlanta/Chicago/Philly outcomes put them in a good position as the only 5-4 team building off a win.
Had it gone the other way, calls for Mike McCarthy’s head would have grown to a roar while Green Bay's playoff chances would have dulled with the declining momentum. They would have only been a game back of the front runners, but lacking the confidence to make a run. Dallas would have been in control of the NFC East with a two game lead going down to the wire.
Patriots Fall to Colts
This one serves as more of a playoff definer than having any effect on the actual race. The Colts can take away momentum and confidence after topping the Pats. New England’s gathering momentum riding what would have been a four game winning streak would have put them into many arguments for best in the AFC and given them a great chance at that first round bye. As it stands, the Colts and Bengals (and arguably the Steelers) look to be the better teams.
Cardinals Defeat Seahawks
This one only gets brief mention as it quashes any hopes the victorious 49ers might have had about making a divisional run and carving up the faint playoff chances Seattle held onto.
In the NFC I will stand by my guesses of the Eagles and Falcons for the wildcard, albeit much less confidently. I don’t know that Dallas will hold onto the division, nor that the Packers, Giants, or even a 4-5 team, will edge in.
In the AFC I feel safer hanging onto most of my choices. San Diego will regain their division crown, the Steelers will hold the fifth seed, and the Texans will grab the sixth. Either way, the next two weeks will be especially telling; any team grabbing back to back wins will begin to separate from the pack, and any that drop both will fall by the wayside. At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone but Indy and N’awlins went 1-1 to keep the whole thing murky.