NFL: Breaking Down the Playoff Races with 5 Weeks Left

Sammy MakkiAnalyst INovember 29, 2010

NFL: Breaking Down the Playoff Races with 5 Weeks Left

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    Week 12 of the NFL season is over with the exception of the Monday night game between the Cardinals and 49ers. That leaves only five weeks in the regular season, and another wild finish is coming up.

    No teams are running away with divisions, and a lot of teams can still get in as Wild Card participants.

    The three teams who entered the week at 8-2 all won to stay atop the NFL standings, but what happened to some other contenders?

    Did any teams improve their playoff chances? Which teams lost an opportunity this week?

    Here's a breakdown of the NFL playoff race as the season winds down.

AFC East Leader: New York Jets (9-2, First Seed)

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    The Jets currently own the first seed in the AFC, as they hold a division tiebreaker against the Patriots.

    The Jets defeated the Bengals on Thanksgiving by putting together an impressive second half powered by two Brad Smith touchdowns.

    That improved the Jets to 9-2, and right now everything is going their way. Whether it's turnovers, field goals or late comebacks, everything the Jets do ends in a win.

    They'll have their biggest test of the season coming up next Monday night, Week 13 at the Patriots. Tom Brady and company have won 25 straight home games, but the Jets have gone 5-0 on the road this season, so something has to give.

    The Jets are looking to sweep the season series and propel themselves to a comfortable lead in the AFC East.

    Jets record: 9-2

    Conference record: 7-1

    Key remaining games: at NE, at PIT

AFC North Leader: Baltimore Ravens (8-3, Second Seed)

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    The Ravens got their eighth win on Sunday, beating a surprising Buccaneers team at home to stay atop their division.

    Quarterback Joe Flacco had a great game, completing 25 of his 35 passes for nearly 300 yards and two touchdowns.

    Ray Rice, as expected, had a good day rushing the ball, logging 85 yards on the ground, and the Ravens held off a late Buccaneers touchdown to win by seven.

    The Ravens have a win in Pittsburgh already—that's why they are in first place—and will host the Steelers on Sunday night in a huge game. The Jets, Patriots, Ravens and Steelers are the best teams in the AFC, and this game will be a fight for playoff seeding.

    The Ravens are undefeated at home, but are only 3-3 on the road and want to avoid playing on the road in Wild Card weekend, so look for the Ravens to treat this game like it's the playoffs.

    Ravens record: 8-3

    Conference record: 6-2

    Key remaining game: vs. PIT

AFC West Leader: Kansas City Chiefs (7-4, Third Seed)

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    The Chiefs have stuck around in the AFC West, and after thinking they'd easily win a once-weak division, they now have competition.

    The Chargers are on their annual second-half run, but at least the Chiefs took care of business on Sunday. They handled the then-first place Seattle Seahawks, 42-24, helped out by a monster game from running back Jamaal Charles.

    Charles ran for 173 yards against a terrible Seahawks defense, and Dwayne Bowe went for 170 receiving yards as the Chiefs tore Seattle apart. It's Kansas City's second straight win as it holds a one-game lead over the charging Chargers in the West.

    The Chiefs should win another game this week at home—where they're undefeated—against a terrible Broncos team. The Broncos are 31st in the league against the run, so pick Jamaal Charles for your fantasy team next week.

    Chiefs record: 7-4

    Conference record: 4-4

    Key remaining game: at SD 

AFC South Leader: Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5, Fourth Seed)

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    The Jaguars should send the Chargers an early Christmas gift. They were bailed out in a huge way on Sunday, probably having their season saved.

    The Chargers beat the Colts, allowing the Jaguars to maintain first place when a Colts win would've hurt Jacksonville in many ways. The Jaguars beat the Colts at home earlier this season, and that's why they're in first with an identical 6-5 record.

    On Sunday, they lost to the Giants at the Meadowlands. It was a tough defeat as they led Eli Manning and company, 17-6, at halftime.

    The Giants got a field goal in the third to cut the deficit to 17-9 and tied the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion in the fourth. The Giants would win the game, 24-20. 

    The Jaguars now travel to Tennessee, trying to avoid slipping to .500 and perhaps out of the race. They have a losing record on the road, and they lost at home to Tennessee by 27 this season.

    This game can also get the Titans back in the AFC South race.

    Jaguars record: 6-5

    Conference record: 5-3

    Key remaining games: at TEN, at IND, at HOU

AFC Wild Card Teams: Fifth and Sixth Seeds

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    The two teams in the AFC currently holding on to Wild Card spots at the fifth and sixth seeds are the Patriots (9-2) and Steelers (8-3).

    These are two of the best teams in the conference and are only seeded so low because they aren't division leaders. If this held, it would be the strongest Wild Card tandem in NFL history based on winning percentage.

    The Patriots have a good shot at winning the AFC East, as they can take first place with a win over the Jets next Monday night.

    They beat the Lions on Thanksgiving and did it after a furious attempt by host Detroit. Eventually the Patriots avoided the upset to hold up their end of the division lead.

    Meanwhile, the Steelers are in a tougher situation in trying to win their division. They already lost at home to the Ravens and must beat them in Baltimore this Sunday night to have any chance at hosting a playoff game.

    They barely beat the awful Bills as they went to overtime and should've lost had it not been for a dropped touchdown in the end zone by Steve Johnson. They won, though, to keep pace with the Ravens entering this week's matchup.

    The winners of the Steelers-Ravens game and Jets-Patriots game will probably win their divisions.

    Patriots record: 9-2

    Conference record: 7-2

    Key remaining game: vs. NYJ

    Steelers record: 8-3

    Conference record: 6-2

    Key remaining games: at BAL, vs. NYJ

AFC Teams Still in the Hunt

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    There are some teams in the AFC that wouldn't make the playoffs if the season ended today but still could get there. One of those teams is a huge one.

    Believe it or not, the Colts would not be in the playoffs if it ended today, but thankfully for them, there are still five weeks left.

    Peyton Manning suffered an embarrassing loss on national television at home on Sunday night, getting blown out by the Chargers, 36-14. He threw four interceptions, and that more than overtook his 31 completions, 285 yards passing and two touchdowns.

    The game was at home to boot.

    So now, the Colts are at 6-5 and trying to get past the Jaguars. They won't get in as a Wild Card unless one of the big four collapses, as they trail the Steelers by two games for the final seed.

    Their easier route would be to knock off the Jaguars, and they'll have that chance at home in Week 15.

    The team that beat them on Sunday night is in the same position. The Chargers are 6-5 and had to win to keep up with the Chiefs in the West. Just like the Colts, San Diego must win its division behind its big quarterback.

    Mike Tolbert ran for 103 yards to help the Chargers crush the Colts in Indianapolis. The Chargers will host the Chiefs in Week 14 and currently trail them by one game.

    For the record, the Dolphins are also 6-5 but really don't have a shot. They trail in the Wild Card by two games and in their division by three games.

    Colts record: 6-5

    Conference record: 4-4

    Key remaining games: at TEN, vs. JAX, vs. TEN

    Chargers record: 6-5

    Conference record: 5-3

    Key remaining games: vs. OAK, vs. KC

NFC South Leader: Atlanta Falcons (9-2, First Seed)

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    The Falcons squeaked out a good win against the Packers in a highly anticipated battle to keep the first seed in the NFC. Along with the Jets and Patriots, the Falcons are tied for the best record in the NFL at 9-2.

    Matt Ryan had a great game, continuing his home dominance. He's now 19-1 in his career at the Georgia Dome, as he completed all but four passes on Sunday. His QB rating was just under 108.

    Michael Turner helped Ryan carry Atlanta to victory, running for 110 yards.

    The Falcons fought off every Packers comeback attempt. Green Bay scored in the exact same way every time Atlanta scored. They tied the game at 3-3, 10-10 and 17-17 before the Falcons' Matt Bryant ended the game with a 47-yard field goal.

    Atlanta has a big game this week at the Buccaneers, who'll be fighting for their playoff lives. The Falcons have the same road record as Tampa Bay's home record (3-2), and they already beat Tampa Bay at home.

    The Falcons won't miss the playoffs, but will the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC go through them? That's what's at stake in these final five weeks.

    Falcons record: 9-2

    Conference record: 6-1

    Key remaining games: at TB, vs. NO

NFC North Leader: Chicago Bears (8-3, Second Seed)

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    The only thing you ever hear is that the Bears are the most overrated team in football. You hear that they're a fluke.

    The people saying those things are clueless.

    The Bears are the second seed right now at 8-3 and legitimized themselves by beating Mike Vick and the first-place Eagles on Sunday.

    Matt Forte did his thing by rushing for 117 yards, and the Bears fought off a furious Eagles rally to win 31-26.

    They led 31-13 entering the fourth quarter but got outscored 13-0 by the Eagles, who kicked two field goals and scored a touchdown. It wasn't enough, though, as Vick's huge passing numbers went for naught.

    The Bears took sole possession of first place over the Packers, who lost, and they have a tough remaining schedule. Not this coming week, as they face the Lions, but after that some good teams are on the schedule.

    The Bears finish the season in Green Bay in what could be a winner-take-all battle. The Bears have a win over the Packers at home this season.

    Bears record: 8-3

    Conference record: 6-3

    Key remaining game: at GB

NFC East Leader: Philadelphia Eagles (7-4, Third Seed)

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    The Eagles not only lost to the Bears, but also lost their second seed to the Bears as they fell to 7-4.

    Mike Vick had a pretty good game, throwing for 333 yards and rushing for 44, but when he put up most of the big numbers, time was running out.

    The Eagles trailed by 18 after three quarters and got 13 back in the fourth, as Vick couldn't pull off another late-game miracle.

    This was going to be a strong test for Philadelphia, and for three-quarters of the game they failed. Vick finally threw his first interception of the season just when the Eagles were primed to take a lead heading into halftime.

    They trailed 14-13, and instead of taking the lead, they allowed the Bears to score a touchdown to go up 21-13.

    Now the Eagles will have a short week's rest before facing the Texans at home on Thursday night. With the Giants winning to match the Eagles in the NFC East, Philadelphia must win to not fall behind before the Giants take on the Redskins on Sunday.

    The Texans snapped a four-game losing streak by blanking the Titans, 20-0, at home.

    The Eagles still own the tiebreaker over the Giants by beating them last week and will face them at the Meadowlands in Week 15. Other than that game, the Eagles have a fairly easy schedule.

    Eagles record: 7-4

    Conference record: 5-3

    Key remaining game: at NYG

NFC West Leader: St. Louis Rams (5-6, Fourth Seed)

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    Is this some kind of joke? Isn't there a rule in the NFL that a division winner with a losing record is disqualified from going to the playoffs? Well, maybe not. That's because it's probably never happened before.

    As a fan of the St. Louis Rams or even the Seattle Seahawks, who are in a virtual first-place tie, how are you feeling right now? You've witnessed your team lose more games than it's won, yet you're in first place. It's just disgraceful, but it counts.

    So here we are in the NFC West. The Rams own the tiebreaker over the Seahawks, as they beat them at home this season.

    The Rams were actually 4-6 before beating the Broncos in a high-scoring affair behind Sam Bradford's wonderful game. He threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns, and Danario Alexander caught four passes for 95 yards, helping the Rams get past Kyle Orton's fine game.

    The Rams will head to Arizona on Sunday in a game that may mean a lot. If the Cardinals beat the 49ers tonight, they would only trail the Rams by one game at 4-7 and would be at home, where they are .500 on the season.

    The Rams have a tough remaining schedule, as they finish the season with a huge game at the Seahawks in another potential winner-take-all game.

    The Seahawks should win their game on Sunday against the 1-10 Panthers at home. They may finish 7-9, but they could still be NFC West champions.

    Rams record: 5-6

    Conference record: 3-5

    Key remaining games: at ARZ, at NO, at SEA

NFC Wild Card Teams: Fifth and Sixth Seeds

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    The two Wild Card teams in the NFC right now are the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints and New York Giants.

    A little note before we move on: The 8-3 Saints would have to travel to the 5-6 Rams on Wild Card weekend if the playoffs started today. Now, that's plain wrong.

    Moving on, the Saints are in second place in the NFC South behind the Falcons and lost to them at home in overtime this season. Therefore, they'll have a huge game against them in Atlanta in Week 16.

    They played on Thanksgiving at the Cowboys and won after blowing a huge lead. They led 17-0 before allowing Jon Kitna and the stumbling 'Boys to take a 27-23 lead with under six minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

    Drew Brees had a monster game, throwing for over 350 yards, and Marques Colston helped out with 105 receiving yards.

    It was a huge win for the Saints in their quest to win consecutive titles, staying within a game of first place. They're also fighting off the Buccaneers right below them for a Wild Card spot.

    After two easy games, albeit one against "first-place" St. Louis, the Saints have three tough ones. It won't be easy, but the Saints are playing much better than when they were off to a slow start, having now won four straight games.

    The other Wild Card team at the moment would be the Giants. It looked like they were on their way to another second-half collapse before coming back to beat the Jaguars at home.

    That improved Big Blue to 7-4, and they're in a virtual tie for first place with the Eagles. They lost to them in Philadelphia last week and will face them at home in Week 15.

    There will be plenty of competition for the Giants in the Wild Card race, as the Buccaneers and Packers are right behind them at 7-4 as well.

    Saints record: 8-3

    Conference record: 7-2

    Key remaining games: at ATL, vs. TB

    Giants record: 7-4

    Conference record: 5-2

    Key remaining games: vs. PHI, at GB

NFC Teams Still in the Hunt

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    There are two teams in the NFC that wouldn't make the playoffs if they started today, but still have a shot. They are the 7-4 Green Bay Packers and 7-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Right now, the Buccaneers hold an advantage over the Packers based on conference record, but that'll even out.

    With the Buccaneers' loss to the Ravens on Sunday, there's basically no way they can win the NFC South. They trail the Falcons and Saints, having also lost to both of those teams. It'll be easier for them to overtake the Giants for the final Wild Card spot, and right now they trail them based on records against common opponents.

    The Buccaneers tried their best to knock off the first-place Ravens on the road, but it just didn't work out. They scored a touchdown with three minutes left to cut a 14-point deficit to seven, but that's as close as they'd get.

    Josh Freeman didn't have a strong game for Tampa Bay, as he only went 17-of-37 passing, and no rusher or receiver went for over 55 yards.

    The Buccaneers will have to find a way to stay in the race on Sunday by facing the Falcons at home, where if they win, they'd close within a game with the Saints in between.

    The Packers, on the other hand, lost a tough game in Atlanta. They kept tying the score, but eventually the Falcons won on a game-winning field goal, 20-17, dropping the Packers to 7-4.

    The Packers trail the Bears in their division by one game, and they lost to them in Chicago this season. They have big games to finish the season against the Giants, with whom they are tied in the Wild Card race, and the Bears, both at home.

    Buccaneers record: 7-4

    Conference record: 5-2

    Key remaining games: vs. ATL, at NO

    Packers record: 7-4

    Conference record: 5-3

    Key remaining games: vs. NYG, vs. CHI