Up in the Air: NFC East, AFC North Highlight Undecided Playoff Picture
It's funny how little the first six games can mean in a talent-driven league like the NFL.
After six contests, the San Diego Chargers were a massively disappointing 2-3 while the Denver Broncos were the toast of the division at 5-0, the frustration of a painful-to-watch offseason nothing more than a memory.
Yet here we are, 10 games into the season, and the script has been flipped. The Chargers are first in the division and the Broncos and what was once a league-leading defense have fallen apart.
While some teams that started strong have continued their bright start to the season, many others have what could at best be described as a tenuous hold on their divisions, if they haven't lost it altogether.
By my count there are four teams that I would consider locks to win their divisions by virtue of schedule or talent (Minnesota, New Orleans, the Colts, and Arizona), with New England fast approaching such status with their dismantling of the Jets on Sunday.
Beyond that, there are several very compelling division races still in the balance, as well as the Wild Card.
Let's look at each race and break down each team's chances of making the playoffs.
The Bengals, despite sweeping both the Ravens and Steelers, are anything but convincing, going 3-2 in their last five games including a rather meek loss to the Raiders on Sunday.
The Steelers, however, have been uncharacteristically unable to finish off opponents on a consistent basis while the Ravens seem to be waiting for everyone else to collapse.
I'm not a big proponent of the impact of a single player, but it's pretty clear that the Steelers miss Troy Polamalu desperately. That or they just need to teach Jeff Reed how to tackle someone.
Ben Roethlisberger has been better than expected, though, looking likely to crush his career high in yards for a season even while being sacked at a pretty alarming rate.
On defense, the Steelers just seem unable to make the plays they need to win close games. They're still strong against the run and boast one of the deepest (when healthy) rosters of defensive talent in the league, but they've lost four games by a combined 15 points and aren't exactly blowing teams out in their wins.
Still, while their schedule doesn't include any impossibly tough games, a trip to Miami, a home-and-home with Baltimore, and Green Bay at home will decide their fate.
In fact it's those Baltimore games that could truly tip the balance in the division. Baltimore has scored 28 touchdowns, more than the Bengals and Steelers, and boast a higher net score than both teams on the year.
But, while their offense has been good, it's their defense that has kept them at .500 and nearly won them a tight game against the Colts yesterday.
Ed Reed looked more like his ball-hawking self with an interception and, while Ray Lewis missed what looked like a sure tackle on Joseph Addai on the Ravens' goal line, there seemed to be more of that swagger that has been missing this season.
While they started slowly, the Ravens have allowed just 41 points total in the four games since the bye, though they're just 2-2 in those games.
In reality, this is a division that's just waiting for somebody to take hold down the stretch. The Bengals are the front-runners after sweeping both the Steelers and Ravens, giving them the inside track, but they have a tough final four games, taking on the Chargers, Vikings, Jets, and Chiefs.
To my eyes, the Bengals would have to do something pretty horrendous to lose their way out of a division title, but with two talented squads behind them and a pretty embarrassing loss to the Raiders to chew on this week, Cincinnati isn't looking like a lock just yet.
Either way, they're in the playoffs. With a 5-0 division record and the Steelers and Ravens having to face each other twice still, it's unlikely that the Bengals will get passed by both squads.
So, about calling Kyle Orton "clinical" a few weeks back...can I get a do-over?
Since starting 6-0, Orton has been about as clinical as swine flu. (Topical humor! I provide it all.)
He hasn't had more than 229 yards passing since Week Five and while he's still not killing the Broncos with mistakes (the three interceptions in the Pittsburgh game not withstanding), he's not making the plays that characterized Denver's early season winning streak.
There's plenty of head-scratching going on over the sudden collapse of the Broncos, but when the team is 25th in points per game, 19th in passing offense, and just 16th in rushing offense, not to mention allowing 117 points in four games against the Redskins, Chargers, Ravens, and Steelers, it's safe to say things aren't turning around anytime soon.
The Broncos don't have an impossible run down the stretch, but with games against the Giants, at the Colts, and at Philadelphia left to play, don't expect any Lazarus jokes this season.
The Chargers, on the other hand, have put together a respectable five-game winning streak and, since losing to the Broncos back on Oct. 19, have looked increasingly competent each week.
The real issue with the Chargers is their inconsistency. They're still the talented squad that had writers gushing about their chances for 2009, but they've yet to look like a group that is bringing their talent to bear the way the Saints and Colts have this season.
Other than during last week's "baby surprise" game, LaDainian Tomlinson looks like his old self about once every fifth carry. I didn't do too well in health class back in school, but I'm pretty sure that there aren't any more little LTs on the way to boost the Chargers' anemic rushing attack.
(Seriously, though, congratulations Tomlinsons on the addition to your family.)
The Chargers and Broncos are passing each other at a crossroads after opposite starts to the season and should be a lesson that it doesn't take long for everything you know about a season to come crashing down around you.
It's probably fair to assume that the Broncos are cooked as far as the division goes, but their strong start to the season will at least give them a fighting chance at a wild-card berth.
More on that well, um, now.
AFC Wild Card
There are three teams sitting at 6-4 right now—with two more at 5-5 and Houston at 5-4—all of whom have an outside shot at the two wild-card spots.
The three 6-4 teams are the previously discussed Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos along with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are 4-1 in their last five games.
The Jaguars are perhaps the most interesting prospect here because they're not on many people's radars as a playoff team.
Considering this is a team that was shutout by the Seahawks 41-0 not too long ago, that's not exactly surprising.
The Jaguars are like the bizarro Steelers, winning four of their last five games by a combined score of 11 points. Considering those wins were over the Jets, Chiefs, Rams, and Bills, that's not a ringing endorsement of their playoff candidacy.
Yet, the Jaguars have a winnable, albeit tough, game in San Francisco next Sunday followed by three straight at home against Indy, Miami, and Houston. They're a coolly efficient team that can rely on a strong running game, a halfway decent defensive line, and an occasionally superb performance from David Garrard.
I'm not predicting they're going to run the table, and they could very well lose all their remaining home games, but the only game Jacksonville has lost in Jacksonville all season was against the Cardinals in the second week, and none of their next four opponents have looked exactly dominant lately.
The 5-5 teams are also an intriguing group. Miami is back to .500 and still a tough out with their varied attacking options, though with Ronnie Brown, Chad Pennington, and Will Allen all on IR now, you have to wonder if the injuries are just too much for this season to amount to much.
Baltimore is also at 5-5, as discussed above, and obviously their wild-card potential relies on how the division shakes out. Baltimore's two games against Pittsburgh will be pretty epic showdowns and, should either team sweep the series, it'll go a long way toward securing a wild-card spot through eliminating the other.
With Ben Roethlisberger taking a pretty nasty knock to the head in Pittsburgh's overtime loss, their first matchup next weekend is going to be something to see.
Overall, I'd wager that whichever team wins the Baltimore-Pittsburgh mini-series will grab one of the wild-card playoff spots while the other is still up for grabs. I won't hazard a guess, but I'd look out for Denver down the stretch.
The NFC East is about as close as it gets right now, unless you're a Redskins fan.
The Redskins are officially in "spoiler" mode now with games against each of their division rivals, New Orleans, and San Diego still to go.
They could go and ruin just about everyone else in the division's playoff hopes, end the Saints' perfect season, and hand the AFC West to Denver (if the Broncos keep it close) with a Week 17 matchup against the Chargers.
For an encore they could go knock over some little kids' sandcastles, star in an Eastern Motors commercial explaining how there's no Santa Claus, and then call your sister fat.
Needless to say, I think this is why Dan Snyder was put on this earth.
Overall, I just don't know which way this division is going to swing, to be honest. The Cowboys eked out probably the least-convincing victory I've ever seen in my time watching the NFL to go 7-3 and take the division lead, but nothing is secure just yet.
Philadelphia has probably the easiest schedule left, the Giants are giving up way more points than their performances would dictate, but the Dallas Cowboys are, in the words of one Teddy KGB: "heechnging around."
It's just too tough to call.
Like the Baltimore-Pittsburgh matchup in the AFC, it's going to come down to how they fare in their final head-to-head matchups, in my opinion. They're all good teams when they play at their best, but there's just no telling which team will show up each Sunday.
The Eagles continue to baffle me, however. They consistently look like a team incapable of generating any sort of momentum.
They get big stops then they give the ball back.
They get a quick-strike touchdown from DeSean Jackson and then their defense suddenly can't stop anybody.
Scientists will study game tapes of the 2009 Eagles because the laws of momentum simply do not apply to them.
Again, they were lucky Jay Cutler was doing his best Rex Grossman impression because he missed three sure touchdown passes that would've put the Eagles to bed long before they would have ever had a chance to win.
This is also really the only division that's up for grabs in the NFC, barring some pretty epic collapses by the Cardinals, Saints, and Vikings, but the East has more than enough drama to make up for the other divisions.
And, there's always the Wild Card.
NFC Wild Card
One of the NFC East teams should manage three or four of their last six and take one of these spots, but the door remains open for the Packers (6-4) or Falcons (5-5) to grab that second spot.
The Packers still get shots at Detroit, Arizona, Seattle, and Chicago so they have a somewhat easier route to the Wild Card than any of the NFC East teams who all have to play each other once more.
The Falcons are my dark horse candidates to pull into the playoffs, though. They've had some tough injuries to overcome the last three weeks, but Matt Ryan looks more and more like he has a career in this whole tackle football thing, especially in his fourth-quarter touchdown drive against the Giants yesterday, twice converting long third downs.
You can pin that on the Giants if you like, but I like Matt Ryan's ability to win close games.
With two division games against Tampa Bay, a matchup against the Saints at home, and games against Philly, Buffalo, and the Jets left on the docket, the Falcons still have a shot at putting together four or five wins to close out the season and get into the postseason.
Obviously, these are the toughest races to call because, with six games left and so many teams hovering around 6-4 and 5-5, there's still everything to play for.
Got a team you think is primed for a big run over the final weeks of the season? Shout it out in the comments below.
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