Think You Know This Year's NFL Playoffs? Think Again

Paul PreibisiusAnalyst IDecember 21, 2009

The NFL regular season has two weeks remaining, but as it turns out, we know far less about what will happen than we did when there were three weeks left.  Before week 15, the NFL’s focus was on three elite teams seeming head and shoulders above the rest.

New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Minnesota were a combined 37-2 and looking nearly indestructible.  Cincinnati was looking to earn the second seed in the AFC and its associated first round bye.  Dallas was a December joke who was growing worried about just making the playoffs.  The Packers were a monster on a roll with five consecutive wins.  Denver was a wild card lock and Miami and New York were looking to upend New England in the AFC East.

An array of odds-bucking results have now given a shake to the playoff outlook with a mere two games left to play.  Who is favored?  What will the playoff seeding be?  Who hold the wild card berths?  With a few exceptions (primarily the last wild card slots) most of these results seemed settled.  Now all that may just need to be rethought.

Minnesota had appeared an uncontested lock for the NFC’s second seed.  Aside from a single game speed bump against a wildly inconsistent Cardinals team, the Vikings were looking every bit the force that either undefeated team was.  They have now dropped two out of three games recently and the first bits of tension have surfaced.

Brett Favre refused to be pulled when Brad Childress tried to yank the forty-year old quarterback with Carolina wreaking havoc in the Vikings’ backfield and following a Packer defeat that secured the division for Minnesota.   Favre has not had nearly the downturn of his injury-hampered 2008 season, but appears human now after posting insane numbers across the first eleven games. 

More concerning than Favre’s humanity is that of Adrian Peterson.  Considered an early possibility for MVP, Peterson has only a single hundred-yard game in his last eight.  Over the last three games, he has 151 yards on 51 carries for 2.96 yards per carry.  The Vikings are picking a bad time to appear fallible and no longer are a guaranteed pick for the NFC Championship.  With a single game lead over Philadelphia, they are no longer a lock for even that first round bye.

New Orleans, the other piece of the NFC’s championship picks, is also coming back in line with the rest of the league.  They had appeared primed for an upset for several weeks, needing overtime to defeat Washington and taking an injury-depleted Falcons team by only three points.  Regardless of cracks in the armor, the team was still undefeated.  They had proven they could emerge victorious even without playing at their peak.

Dallas changed that while reversing many notions about their own team in the same breath.  The Cowboys were reeling after back to back losses that resulted in Philadelphia overtaking them for the NFC East division lead.  Talk of the Cowboys' annual late-season decline was at full volume with a difficult remaining schedule and the possibility of dropping out of even a wild card.

Instead, the Cowboys showed life by mounting an early lead (something others had done against New Orleans) and hanging on long enough to win (something no one else had been able to accomplish) 24-17. 

One win does not negate the fact that Dallas is still a game behind Philadelphia with precious few opportunities left to catch them.  It also does not spell doom for a Saints team that is going to take home field advantage through the entire playoffs.  But it may just be the spark Dallas needs to shake the playoff structure, even as a wild card.

In the AFC, Indianapolis still looks beatable while stubbornly refusing to actually lose.  They are 14-0 but have had to overcome fourth quarter deficits in seven of those 14 games.  They have not dominated any team (winning by two touchdowns or more) since a week seven match-up against the cellar-dwelling St. Louis Rams.

Just behind Indianapolis, the San Diego Chargers are now looking to enter into the top three or four teams in the league.  They hold the same record as Minnesota (11-3) but are riding nine consecutive wins en route to that record.  In those games they have defeated all three playoff contenders from the NFC East (including last week’s victory over the New Orleans topping Dallas Cowboys), pounded Denver (32-3) to overtake them for the AFC West division lead, and now succeeded in defeating an emotionally charged Bengals team in a match for the second seed.

San Diego is not as well-rounded on paper as Minnesota, with a weaker pass rush and running game, but they are playing better as a collective unit and continuing to win.  If they have not edged ahead of the Vikings, they must at least now be considered on par.

Cincinnati meanwhile has dropped three of the past five games and are having difficulty establishing consistency on offense.  Carson Palmer followed up a poor game against Minnesota (94 total yards passing) with a solid one against San Diego (314 yards passing with two touchdowns and an interception).  Unfortunately, Palmer’s only 300 yard game this season was paired with a mediocre performance by workhorse Cedric Benson (53 yards at 3.5 per carry).

Cincinnati now holds the same record as New England (9-5) and faces a Jets team in week 17 that may be fighting for its playoff life in that game.  Because of tie-breaking procedure (strength of victory) the Patriots hold the third overall seed now and will do so if both teams win out.  The Bengals team that had looked to be making its way into that elite discussion alongside the “big three” has now become the last divisional seed in the AFC.

The Patriots, meanwhile, are still a question mark.  They have risen to the third seed due more to Cincinnati’s failings than their own success.  They are 2-2 in the last four games, with their two victories coming against Buffalo and Carolina (and their combined 11-17 record) by an average of eight points.

New England has a history of postseason-proven clutch quarterback in Tom Brady.  They also have the worst defense they have fielded in the Tom Brady era and concerns over a less harmonious locker room.  They face a Jaguars team still fighting for the playoffs next week, followed by a disappointing but still tough Houston Texans team.  Should they drop either, the Patriots could easily slip back into the fourth seed.

So what does this mean for the playoffs?  Of the top six teams (as per's power rankings), only two came away with victories in week fifteen.  Indianapolis changed nothing in overtaking Jacksonville in the fourth quarter, but Minnesota and New Orleans both took uncharacteristic turns.  San Diego now emerges from dark horse to genuine contender while Cincinnati and Green Bay lost momentum.  Wild card candidates Dallas and Baltimore appear as potentially dangerous as any divisional seed, while Denver and Jacksonville may both miss the playoffs. 

Just as the NFL postseason picture appeared to be settling, this weekend’s games prove why this football has overtaken baseball as America’s sport.  Nothing is ever certain, and any team can beat any other on any given Sunday (or Thursday, Saturday, or Monday).  The regular season is over in two weeks and the playoffs are just around the corner, yet we know less now than ever before.  That competition will make this postseason a great watch.