Whether it is favorites for division winners, or simply who will likely make the playoffs at all, the season’s three-quarter mark of twelve games elapsed has seen some clarity begin to take shape.
Certain candidates essentially dropped from the race while others stepped up to add some foundation to formerly creaky positions. Here’s how the games stacked up:
Cardinals Crush Vikings—Thirteen points is a bit scant to call crushing, but it was most definitely a statement that a simple down-to-the-wire game would not have made.
The only real impact on the playoff race itself pertains to seeding, not actually winning a division or making the wildcard, as both teams have virtually locked up their respective divisions. Minnesota is now highly unlikely to have a shot at grabbing the No. 1 seed away from the Saints, falling two games behind New Orleans.
The Cardinals, still two behind the Vikings for that second bye, suddenly legitimized a claim to the playoffs while many still consider them a wildcard team benefiting from a weak division. Below two yards a carry for Peterson and Favre nearly doubling his interception total (granted from just three to five) was impressive for the Cardinals, a streaky team that is dangerous when firing on all cylinders.
Outlook—The Vikings should still take the second seed, and as long as Warner doesn’t miss any more games the Cardinals should wrestle the third seed away from the near logjam in the NFC East.
Seahawks Edge Out 49ers—The Seahawks were fighting for nothing but pride (and maybe to prove they were a step ahead of the worst half dozen teams). The 49ers were already on the ropes, likely needing to win out. They aren’t mathematically eliminated, but in all practicality are out.
Outlook—After that 3-1 start, San Francisco is 2-6 the rest of the way. Forget playoffs, .500 would be the best they can practically expect.
Giants Defeat Cowboys—This really muddles up the playoff picture. A win would have kept Dallas in charge of the NFC East albeit with Philly hot on their heels. It would have also put the Giants' playoff hopes in serious trouble.
Now with some tough matchups and that December talk resurfacing, Dallas players could have to start fighting for their jobs. Conversely, the Giants may have just saved their own.
Outlook—Dallas should have enough firepower to hang onto a playoff berth, but with a tough final four games they will need the Eagles to drop their Giants or Broncos matchup to get the division. Ultimately Dallas gets the sixth seed and Philly the Fourth. Giants put enough together to fall a game short of the playoffs.
Chargers Beat Browns—San Diego maintains its slight advantage for the second seed over Cincinnati (by tie breaker), while staying a game ahead of Denver. With the Broncos shaping up the last two weeks and a tough four game schedule remaining, San Diego has no room to take a breath.
Outlook—San Diego hangs onto the Division but grabs the third seed.
Saints Defeat Redskins—The only real impact (aside from the 16-0 quest) would be the two-game edge over Minnesota, meaning New Orleans should have home field through the playoffs.
Eagles Shoot Down Falcons—This battle of the birds put one in a great position, (catching Dallas at 8-4 in the NFC East), and the other to the limit (6-6 fourth in line for the two wildcard berths). Atlanta’s high preseason hopes seem to have unraveled by a few key losses at just the wrong times.
Meanwhile, the Eagles look to legitimize themselves not just as a playoff candidate, but one that can make noise once there.
Outlook—Falcons have too much to overcome; they end at 9-7 (only because of a soft final three games), while the Eagles go 11-5 and edge Dallas by a game for the NFC East crown.
Jaguars Defeat the Texans—Very similar to the Eagles/Falcons game. One team put themselves in a great playoff position, while the other probably just knocked themselves out of the race.
The Jaguars now hold a one game advantage over the Steelers (at minimum the tie-breaker over the Ravens depending on tonight’s result), and after a setback against San Francisco, have now gone 4-1 in the last five games.
Houston meanwhile could drop below their accustomed 8-8 and have probably seen the last of Coach Gary Kubiak.
Outlook—With a very difficult three games coming up, they will likely need to go 2-1 against the Colts/Dolphins/Patriots to hang onto a wildcard. The Texans need a lot of teams to do a lot of losing to have any chance. It won’t happen.
Jags ultimately come down to tie-breaking procedure to take the sixth seed.
Bengals Scratch Up the Lions—With their own division-mates stumbling, this was to keep pace with San Diego for the second seed. They reach 9-3 while watching Benson return to form.
Outlook—Division’s a lock, second seed determined by a tough head-to-head in San Diego. Bengals edge Chargers for the first round bye.
Bears Beat Rams—Chicago remains in mathematically, but last week essentially finished their playoff hopes.
Colts Top Titans—Tennessee’s unexpected charge up the rankings was finally halted by the brick wall that is the Indianapolis Colts. They needed to win out to make the playoffs. Now they need the Ravens, Steelers, and Jaguars to all suffer letdowns for any chance.
Outlook—They’ve salvaged their pride, but the Titans were a game too late in starting the run to actually make the playoffs. Indianapolis has the No. 1 seed locked and the only question is, do they fight for 16-0 or take the last two games off to rest?
Raiders Shock Steelers—Last week the Steelers were a good team losing a few tight games, suffering some injury problems, and looking to make a run for the playoffs. Now they’ve dropped games to the Chiefs and Raiders in a four game streak that puts them behind three teams (even if the Ravens lose, they presently hold the tie-breaker), and will need more than a little help to stay alive.
Outlook—They halt their skid against the Browns, but go 1-2 the rest of the way for an 8-8 finish.
Broncos Wallop Chiefs—After the growing optimism surrounding an upset over Pittsburgh, the Chiefs have now dropped two division games 87-26.
The Broncos now have a two-game winning streak to build momentum with, and keep pace with the San Diego Chargers.
Outlook—Playing the Colts and Eagles, the Broncos stay a game behind San Diego to grab the No. 5 seed.
Dolphins Pound Patriots—Dolphin fans have to be excited about Chad Henne in 2010.
As far as 2009 they still have unexpected life going to 6-6 alongside Pittsburgh and behind the Jaguars and Broncos. Losing their two most important players to season-ending injuries, the Dolphins have a hard, but winnable, schedule (all four teams right on either side of .500). Some faltering ahead of them could secure a playoff berth.
The Patriots have now placed themselves in the position of No. 4 seed, two games behind San Diego and Cincinnati. Even more scary is that the Dolphins and Jets are only one game back.
Outlook—The Patriots go 3-1 to stave off division challengers, but grab the fourth seed. The Dolphins make a good run, but too many pieces are missing and they come up just short.
Jets Defeat Bills - The Jets, like the Dolphins, were basically eliminated with last week’s outcomes (despite a win). Sill, the New England Patriot’s struggles breathe some waning life into their chances. Ending the season against the Colts and Bengals does them no favors however.
Outlook—A desperate Falcons team gives them a three game losing streak and a 7-9 record to end the year.
Watch the evolution of the playoff race: