The NFL playoff picture was not set, but felt as though it was starting to solidify after last week. Teams that had a chance to run away with a division stumbled, teams that seemed the safest wild-card bets have slipped a peg, and teams that were out of the picture two weeks ago have new life.
Originally it was assumed a team would need a 10-6 record in the current climate to grab a wild-card berth; too many teams were performing well (and too many winless and one-win teams were giving up freebies).
This not only helped shape the favorites, but took some slow-starting teams out of most people’s playoff pictures. Conventional logic will give the frontrunners the spots, but nothing is certain in the wild world of the NFL (and I might add on a bit of a tangent, that this is a good part of why it has surpassed baseball as the top dog of U.S. sports).
So, without further ado, let’s look at how some of these games tweaked the playoff race:
Eagles Defeat Bears
This one effectively takes the Bears out of playoff contention. With confidence in the team slipping they would need a major turnaround.
The Eagles maintained pace, staying a game behind Dallas, while holding onto a three-way tie with the Giants and Packers for the Wild Card.
Prediction : A more favorable schedule allows the Eagles to overtake the division, while Dallas gets in as the three or four seed (TBD based on the Kurt Warner injury).
Patriots Get Revenge Against Jets
While last week pretty much took the Jets out of the playoff race, this was the killing blow. Now they are looking for 8-8 (puts the Favre ’08 tailspin into perspective).
The Patriots maintained distance on a suddenly-closing Miami team and caught Cincinnati in a three-way tie for the second seed and its accompanying first-round bye.
Prediction : Pats, facing one of the toughest remaining schedules, grab the No. 4 seed.
Packers Top 49ers
The season’s 3-1 start and last week's big win over Chicago couldn't stand up against a 1-5 stretch, leaving the 49ers essentially out the playoff race.
The Packers have now resurrected a season that looked dead in the water after a loss to the bottom-dwelling Buccaneers put them at 4-4. Riding back-to-back wins, they now sit alongside the Eagles and Giants, tied for the lead in the wild-card race.
Prediction : I like the Patriots. They have a tough remaining schedule, and will share a 10-6 record with the Giants, who edge them out in the tie-breaking procedures.
Jaguars Defeat Bills
Buffalo no longer had playoff aspirations, not even the "ghost of a chance" variety. With a sudden octane boost from a few bottom-dwellers, the Bills could suddenly achieve top-five draft pick status.
Jacksonville, meanwhile, has overcome a 3-4 start—including a loss to the previously winless Titans—and strung together three wins in a row to step into a tie for the wild-card lead (and playing behind anyone but the Colts would be stepping into the divisional race at this point).
I did not see the pieces in place for this, but Jacksonville has positioned themselves for a great run.
Prediction : Winner of the Week 13 game against Houston grabs the No. 6 seed
Dolphins Victorious Over Panthers
The battle of AFC/NFC clones. An 0-3 start dissolved any real margin for error, but Carolina was in the midst of making a run, with a 4-2 record (including a hard-fought match against the Saints) raising some eyebrows.
With a brutal ending to the season (Pats, Vikes, Giants, Saints), this team’s faint hopes are gone.
Miami runs the same tale of an 0-3 start, perked up by a 4-2 ensuing record. As the victor of this game however, and finally reaching .500, they remain alive in the playoff hunt despite injuries to Pennington (given both QBs records, one could argue the injury has helped) and Ronny Brown.
Prediction : The Dolphins sans Ronny Brown make a good go of it, but fall a game or two short of the Wild Card.
Baltimore Falls to Indianapolis
While the game had little bearing on Indi (up by two games for the No. 1 seed, and three for the division), Baltimore was facing a match of some importance.
A win, and their 6-4 resultant record, would have moved them into a tie with the Steelers, Broncos, and Jags for the wild-card spot and garnered some much needed confidence. Now at 5-5 they go head-to-head with the defending champs next week to decide if they remain in the hunt or have fallen too far back.
Prediction : It really comes down to both head-to-heads against the Steelers, but I say Pitt takes the edge and the Ravens take an extra month of offseason.
Giants Defeat Falcons
Another game with dual-implications. The Falcons were my choice for the No. 6 seed through Sunday morning. Now, they sit behind three other teams, with two more looming a game behind them. Originally one of the preseason darlings, Atlanta is now in danger of missing the whole show.
The Giants however, have used the Falcons to stave off a seemingly sinking ship. Now 6-4, they have kept pace with the Eagles and Packers, and like Philly, remain a game behind Dallas in a close playoff race.
Prediction : The NFC East is the toughest division to predict, but I say Philly edges out Dallas who takes a Wild Card, with the Giants falling just short. I will still keep some faith in the Falcons, whose season hinges on a Week 13 match with those Eagles.
Cowboys Beat Redskins
The Cowboys needed a win to keep their thin division lead over the Eagles and Giants, who have finally started to right their respective ships. Winning 7-6 over the Redskins does not speak well to the team’s overall quality at the moment, however, and four of their six remaining opponents presently combine for a 29-11 record.
The armor has shown cracks after a four-game winning streak.
Prediction : NFC East comes down to the Week 17 head-to-head with Philly. This time the Eagles take the game and the division, pushing Dallas down to a Wild Card.
New Orleans Topples Tampa Bay
Like the Dallas game, more could be drawn from the box score than the simple win-loss result.
The Saints, undefeated as they were, looked quite beatable the last few weeks. At 10-0, a loss won't affect playoff seeding much, but it was something for their future playoff opponents to take hold of. Now, the Saints have reasserted themselves and look like the powerhouse of the early season.
Prediction : A first-round bye with either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, which will be up to some very convoluted tie-breaking procedures (I am guessing both will have undefeated divisional records and no head-to-head matches).
Vikings Defeat Seahawks
With the Packers suddenly rejuvenated, wins mean more than keeping pace with the Saints, as a loss puts them only two games ahead of Green Bay (though three if we figure tie-breaker). Weeks 13-15 will determine the Vikes' momentum for the playoffs.
Prediction : See Saints vs. Bucs
Chargers Flatten Broncos
The Broncos were a team looking for footing after a 6-3 start. Instead, they have slipped back in the division, and with injury (and other) concerns mounting, will need a strong push just to make the playoffs.
They face three teams with winning records, as well as matches against the Raiders and Chiefs (twice) that seem a little tougher all of a sudden.
San Diego had been a team the last few years that had done enough, but suffered from a lack of "statement" wins. Now, riding a five-game winning streak, they have placed three of those in a row.
They have a one-game lead over Denver and a slightly easier remaining schedule, with all the momentum in the world.
Prediction : San Diego takes the No. 3 seed while Denver, fighting schedule and injuries, ends at 8-8.
Cardinals Win Against Rams
A win-lose game for the Cards, who basically sealed the division, but the injury to Warner could have a big impact on the playoff seeding.
Prediction : The "tooth-and-nail" fight in the NFC East will be enough to give Arizona the No. 3 seed.
Bengals Lose to Raiders
In a big, confusing game of the week, Cincinnati missed a prime chance to lock up the division for good. They also awarded the Chargers and Patriots an opportunity to fight for a No. 2 seed that had been theirs to lose.
The rest of their season depends on whether this was a speedbump or not.
Prediction : With the Pats facing a tough remaining schedule, Week 15 against San Diego is for a first-round bye, with the physicality of Cinci giving them the edge.
Chiefs Shock Steelers
Big confusing game of the week (pt. 2). Who would have predicted the dregs of the AFC taking both games against the tops of the AFC North?
The Steelers had a great opportunity to tighten the divisional race, and now need to battle for a No. 5 seed that I had initially considered them a lock for. A mounting injury toll means Pitt will suddenly need to work for their playoff berth, and hope injury concerns are not still lingering at that point.
Prediction : They maintain well enough to hang onto the No. 5 seed, but look a lot more beatable come playoff time.
Titans Edge Texans
In the case of Tennessee, it is probably too little too late, as six losses put them in a deep hole that requires a 10-game winning streak with games against the Colts, Chargers, Cardinals, and Dolphins remaining.
Houston, with much more on the line, dropped behind the Jags and Steelers in the wild-card race. It now appears that Week 13's head-to-head with Jacksonville will be a big-time playoff determinant.
Prediction : Tennessee pulls off a few more upsets, but ends up at 8-8 with optimism for next year and "bupkis" for this one. Houston will win head-to-head with Jacksonville, and in doing so, grabs that No. 6 seed.