NFL Playoff Predictions: Who's in? Who's Out?

Eric FelkeyAnalyst IDecember 1, 2010

NFL Playoff Predictions: Who's In? Who's Out?

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    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    The NFL Playoffs will commence in just 38 short days.

    Predicting which teams will be the final 12 standing varies on a week-to-week basis.

    The AFC picture is relatively clear. But there are still a few teams on the outside looking in that have a chance to make some noise in December.

    Particularly in the AFC South, where two teams are tied for first at 6-5 and the other two trail by just one game.

    But in the NFC, things are a lot murkier. Philadelphia, New York, Green Bay and Tampa Bay are all 7-4, but only two will likely make the postseason.

    It's conceivable that a 10-win team could miss the playoffs while a seven-win team from the NFC West wins their division.

    As of Dec. 1 only one team has been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention: the Carolina Panthers.

    The Lions, Bills, and Bengals cannot win their respective divisions. But theoretically, they have an outside chance of winning out and getting a wild card spot.

    For purposes of this slide show, we're assuming that there won't be an extraordinary number of ties and bad losses down the stretch by the league's top teams. So apologies to Lions, Bills, Bengals, Broncos, Cowboys, Cardinals and Browns fans, but you guys will be excluded from this list.

    Let's take a look at the other 24 teams in the league. Check out their remaining schedule, and see if they'll be playing football come Jan. 8.

Minnesota Vikings (4-7, Third in NFC North)

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    With seven losses, the Vikings have a very slim chance of sneaking into the postseason.

    With New Orleans at 8-3 and Philadelphia, New York and Tampa Bay at 7-4, they can pretty much kiss a wild-card spot goodbye—they'll have to win the division.

    They've already lost to Chicago once. So if they drop the Dec. 20 meeting vs. the Bears, they will be eliminated from the race.

    And since they lost both match-ups with Green Bay, they can't finish in a tie with them, either.

    The Vikes would have to win out and have Green Bay and Chicago win no more than one of their final five games.

    It's not impossible...but not at all likely.

    Prediction: Out of Playoffs

San Francisco 49ers (4-7, Third in NFC West)

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    Since moving Troy Smith to starter, the Niners have gone 3-1 and shown signs of life for the first time this season.

    Granted, those three wins were against Denver, St. Louis and Arizona (who have a combined 11 wins). But two of those are division wins, propelling San Fran to a 2-1 division record.

    They play everyone in the division one more time, giving them a chance to gain ground. Unfortunately for them, their two other games are at Green Bay and at San Diego.

    A 7-9 record, with a 5-1 mark in the division, may be good enough to win the NFC West. But losing Frank Gore for the season is ultimately too much for them to overcome.

    Prediction: Out of Playoffs

Oakland Raiders (5-6, Third in AFC West)

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    Two weeks ago, Oakland was atop the AFC West standings.

    But consecutive losses to Pittsburgh and Miami dropped the Raiders to third in the division. Now they face a daunting schedule in December.

    They have the league's fifth-best pass defense, but will be facing some tough aerial assaults in San Diego, Denver and Indianapolis in the next four weeks.

    This week's game at San Diego will determine Oakland's chances. A win, and they're tied with the Chargers (and would own the tiebreaker) and still play the division-leading Chiefs one more time.

    A loss, and they could potentially be three games out of first with four games to play.

    The Raiders' competitive streak and feisty nature have been a pleasant surprise this year. But it won't be enough to get them in the playoffs.

    Prediction: Out of Playoffs

Tennessee Titans (5-6, T-Third in AFC South)

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    The Titans are reeling, having dropped their last four and scoring only 14.5 points per game in those contests.

    Vince Young and Kerry Collins were both out last game, forcing Rusty Smith into the start. The results weren't pretty: Tennessee was shut out by one of the worst defenses in the league.

    Collins may be back this week, and it couldn't come soon enough. The Titans have consecutive home games against Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Houston (all division opponents).

    The Titans have the firepower to get back in the race...but do they have the heart?

    Prediction: Out of Playoffs

Houston Texans (5-6, T-Third In AFC South)

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Like Tennessee, the Texans are 5-6 and just one game out of first in the AFC South.

    But they don't have as many divisional games remaining. With a 2-2 record in the division, it'll be more difficult to climb back in the race.

    The next two games will determine Houston's season: at Philadelphia and vs. Baltimore. They basically need to win both and beat Tennessee and Jacksonville to give themselves a realistic chance.

    They've just given away too many games so far this season. The losses to the Jaguars and Jets were heartbreakers, and dropping four in a row after a 4-2 start is just too much to overcome.

    They seem destined for another 8-8 season.

    Prediction: Out of Playoffs

Washington Redskins (5-6, Third in NFC East)

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    The erratic Redskins have been all over the place this year.

    They currently trail the Giants and Eagles by two games in the division.

    Washington has yet to play New York this season. If they swept the Giants, they'd have a chance of getting back in the division race.

    But they just haven't shown enough consistency this year to make you believe that they could go on the road and win this week, then come home and beat Tampa Bay.

    Prediction: Out of Playoffs

Seattle Seahawks (5-6, T-First in NFC West)

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Like the aforementioned Redskins, Seattle has had an up-and-down 2010 season.

    But thanks to a weak division, they find themselves tied for first place and still have a very good chance of making the playoffs.

    They started the season well at home, winning their first three games. But the Seahawks have fallen apart since, losing 41-7 to the Giants (in their defense, Charlie Whitehurst started at QB) and 42-24 to the Chiefs.

    Matt Hasselbeck has thrown for nearly 1,000 yards in his last three games and appears to have shaken off the effects of a wrist injury. The Seahawks host Carolina and St. Louis still and go on the road to face Tampa Bay and San Francisco.

    The last game of the regular season (vs. the Rams) could decide the division. But even though Hasselbeck is playing well, I just don't trust inconsistent teams...even in one of the weakest divisions in NFL history.

    Prediction: Out of Playoffs

St. Louis Rams (5-6, T-First in NFC West)

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    Other than a Week 1 loss to Arizona and a 38-point thrashing at the hands of Detroit, St. Louis doesn't really have any bad losses.

    They lost by 17 to Atlanta, but the Falcons are a clearly superior team. The other three losses came by a total of six points.

    Sam Bradford is really starting to hit his stride. More importantly, he's not making mistakes—just one interception in his last six games.

    And their defense, while statistically average, has been stopping the run and can really get after opposing QBs.

    They just won their first road game of the season at Denver and will likely have to win two of their final three (Arizona, New Orleans, Seattle). But hey, someone has to win this division.

    Prediction: Wins NFC West, No. 4 seed

Miami Dolphins (6-5, Third in AFC East)

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Chad Henne's return is definitely a good sign for the Dolphins.

    If Tyler Thigpen were the starter for the rest of the season, they might not even be included on this list.

    Dropping back-to-back home games in September to New York and New England really set the tone for this season. The Dolphins are a decent team and could compete in some other divisions...but not this one.

    They still have to travel to New York and New England and trail each by three games. The other wild-card spot looks like a toss-up between Baltimore and Pittsburgh...and Miami lost to both of those teams as well.

    Every game they've lost this season was to a first-place team. Unfortunately for them, they had to win a few of those to get into the postseason.

    Prediction: Out of Playoffs

Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5, T-First in AFC South)

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    It might not seem like it, but Jacksonville should be considered legitimate contenders to win the AFC South because they can run the ball well, they've already beaten Indianapolis once and the other two teams have serious issues.

    They have two winnable home games that would put them at eight wins. The question is, how many wins will it take to win the division?

    If you look at Indy's remaining schedule, there's a solid chance that they go 4-1. That means the Jags would have to win two games on the road at Tennessee, Indianapolis and Houston.

    Just seems like too tall of an order, especially for a defense that gives up a lot of yards.

    Prediction: Out of Playoffs

Indianapolis Colts (6-5, T-First in AFC South)

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    The Colts have quietly dropped three of their last four.

    The lone win in that stretch was a six-point squeaker against the lowly Bengals.

    With injuries to Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Gary Brackett and Bob Sanders (just to name a few), Indy has struggled to find a rhythm. Peyton appears to be forcing things—he's thrown seven interceptions in the last two games.

    At the same time, the three losses in the last month came to Philadelphia, New England and San Diego—no shame in that. If they can get Addai, Collie and Brackett back for the final three or four games, it definitely improves their chances to win the division.

    Plus I can't go against the "never bet against Peyton Manning" mantra. He'll at least find away to get this team to the playoffs.

    Prediction: Wins AFC South, No. 4 Seed

San Diego Chargers (6-5, Second in AFC West)

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    I still can't get over the fact that this team was 2-5.

    Seriously, how is that possible?

    But as they typically do late in the season, the Chargers have turned things around, winning four in a row. They could move into first place with a win over the Chiefs next weekend.

    The defense is outstanding, Phillip Rivers is on pace to nearly break Dan Marino's single season passing yards record, and they're a team that gets better late in the regular season.

    They haven't lost a game in December since 2005.

    Instincts may say don't trust Norv Turner. But you can't argue with their past success and how they're playing now.

    The Chargers are in prime position to sweep their remaining schedule and head into the postseason on a nine-game winning streak.

    Prediction: Wins AFC West, No. 3 Seed

Kansas City Chiefs (7-4, First in AFC West)

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    The Chiefs sit atop the AFC West heading into two critical divisional games in the upcoming weeks: vs. Denver and at San Diego.

    The Broncos thrashed the Chiefs in their last meeting, putting up 49 points behind the arm of Kyle Orton. The Chiefs have a great chance to create separation between themselves and the Chargers if they win next week.

    But San Diego is playing at such at high level that they'll be extremely difficult to beat at home.

    They do have a favorable schedule after that, however. They travel to St. Louis, then host Tennessee and Oakland.

    However, it's the bad losses that scare me with Kansas City. Dropping the back-to-back games in Oakland and Denver early this season really hurt—they need all the separation they can get right now.

    If San Diego does win out, can the Chiefs put together enough wins to catch the loser of New England/New York or Pittsburgh/Baltimore?

    They'd have to win out against the Broncos, Rams, Titans and Raiders—definitely possible, but a lot to ask of a young team.

    They seem like a solid 10-win team that should make the playoffs, but don't.

    Prediction: Out of Playoffs

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-4, Third in NFC South)

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    Larry French/Getty Images

    Tampa's having a great season, but they haven't done anything out of the ordinary.

    They've beaten the teams they should beat (Cleveland, Carolina, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Arizona, Carolina, San Francisco) and lost to the teams that are simply better (Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Atlanta, Baltimore).

    The good news for them coming down the stretch is they have three more winnable games: at Washington, vs. Detroit, vs. Seattle.

    The bad news is they have two games they probably won't win: vs. Atlanta and at New Orleans.

    So is 10 wins and a 2-4 division record enough to sneak into the playoffs? They have to hope that whoever doesn't win the NFC East (Philly/New York) and Green Bay don't reach that plateau either...and I think one of those teams will.

    Prediction: Out of Playoffs

New York Giants (7-4, T-First in NFC East)

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    After winning five in a row, the Giants really hurt themselves with consecutive division losses to Dallas and Philadelphia before rallying to beat Jacksonville last weekend.

    While the defensive line has been strong, they've given up nearly 32 points per game in their three division meetings.

    I like the way they match up against Washington. But three of their final five games are on the road.

    And it's difficult to tell which New York team will show up.

    Minnesota and Washington both look like winnable road games. But they each have the talent to knock off the Giants.

    Add in games against Philadelphia and Green Bay, and the Giants probably have to win all three division games to make the playoffs...and I don't think it's going to happen.

    Prediction: Out of Playoffs

Philadelphia Eagles (7-4, T-First in NFC East)

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    After losing their first two home games to start the season, the Eagles have ripped off consecutive wins over Atlanta, Indianapolis and New York at Lincoln Financial—three really good teams.

    They still have Houston, Minnesota and Dallas at home, so you have to believe all three of those games are must wins. Especially considering the competition for NFC playoff spots.

    Fortunately for Philly, none of those teams have shown anything that would make you suggest they could contain Mike Vick.

    That leaves road games at Dallas and New York. As long as Philly can split those two, they'd be at 11 with a 4-2 mark in the division.

    That would be good enough to top the Giants and earn a spot in the postseason.

    Prediction: Wins NFC East, No. 3 Seed

Green Bay Packers (7-4, Second in NFC North)

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    Even though injuries have hurt the Packers on both sides of the ball, their four losses were all decided by three points.

    Three of those defeats came on the road and two were in overtime.

    Green Bay has been in every game they've played this year. Aaron Rodgers is starting to develop a rhythm, completing 75 percent of his passes in the last three games for 934 yards and nine total touchdowns.

    They should win their next two against San Francisco and Detroit to get up to nine wins. After traveling to New England, they have two games that will have serious playoff implications: vs. New York and vs. Chicago.

    Winning one of those final three would get them to 10 wins.

    A lot of tiebreakers would be involved. But even if they can't get to No. 11, they'll still get the final wild-card berth in the NFC.

    Prediction: Wins Wild Card, No. 6 Seed

Chicago Bears (8-3, First in NFC North)

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The Bears are in first place.

    But they don't have much margin for error with games against the Patriots, Vikings, Jets and Packers still on schedule.

    After back-to-back losses to Seattle and Washington, the defense has gotten back on track and has been arguably the best unit in the NFL.

    That will keep them close in all of their remaining games. Chicago will go on the road on the last game of the regular season and beat the Packers to clinch the division.

    Prediction: Wins NFC North, No. 2 seed

New Orleans Saints (8-3, Second in NFC South)

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    Malcolm Jenkins' strip of Roy Williams could turn out to be a season-saving play for the Saints.

    If they had lost, they'd drop to 7-4, two games out of first place. And all of a sudden, they'd be in a dogfight with Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Philadelphia and New York for a wild-card spot.

    But the Saints got what they needed and should roll through the next two games against Cincinnati and St. Louis. That will set up a tough three-game stretch to close the season at Baltimore, at Atlanta and vs. Tampa Bay.

    Even if they drop both road games to the Ravens and Falcons, 11 wins is definitely enough for a wild-card spot. They could push Atlanta for the division title, but it just feels like it's the Falcons' year.

    Besides, winning the first wild card means they get to play the NFC West champ in the first round. And Drew Brees is licking his chops for that one.

    Prediction: Wins Wild Card, No. 5 Seed

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3, T-First in AFC North)

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    This week's Steelers-Ravens showdown in Baltimore will likely decide who walks away with the AFC North title and who has to go on the road in the first round as a wild card.

    Both teams still play the Browns and Bengals at home and face fairly-equal difficult non-division opponents as well. Baltimore takes on New Orleans at home, while Pittsburgh hosts the Jets.

    The main difference is the fifth game, where Baltimore travels to Houston and Pittsburgh hosts Carolina. Still, if the Ravens win this week, they'll essentially have a two-game lead in the division since they beat Pittsburgh already this season.

    So it's take your pick this weekend—who ya got? I'm going with Pittsburgh.

    No real reason other than instinct.

    Prediction: Wins AFC North, No. 2 seed

Baltimore Ravens (8-3, T-First in AFC North)

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    We just ran everything you need to know about the Ravens in the previous slide.

    But if I'm wrong and they knock off the Steelers at home on Sunday night, the division and path to a potential No. 1 seed is theirs for the taking.

    Prediction: Wins Wild Card, No. 5 Seed

Atlanta Falcons (9-2, First in NFC South)

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Atlanta's only two losses this year have come at the hands of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

    They've reeled off five straight since the Oct. 17 loss to the Eagles and are now sitting atop the NFC standings.

    They've still got Carolina on tap twice. Even though they have three consecutive road games coming up, the teams they face (Tampa Bay, Carolina, Seattle) have done nothing to suggest they can beat a team of Atlanta's caliber.

    With the division likely being decided in the Dec. 27 match-up with New Orleans, the edge goes to the Falcons since it's at home. They've already defeated the defending Super Bowl champs this season.

    Prediction: Wins NFC South, No. 1 Seed

New York Jets (9-2, T-First in AFC East)

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    Like Pittsburgh-Baltimore, this week's New York-New England game will have the winner on the fast track to a first-round bye.

    The loser will likely have to go on the road in the first round as a wild card.

    Initially, I had the Jets winning the Monday night game. But I think Bill Belichick will have a great game plan in store for Mark Sanchez and the Jets offense.

    Since New York has to travel to Pittsburgh still, I like the Patriots to take the division...assuming they pull off the win this week, of course.

    And if they don't, then the Jets will probably walk away with the No. 1 seed. Anything can happen in the AFC.

    Prediction: Wins Wild Card, No. 6 Seed

New England Patriots (9-2, T-First in AFC East)

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    Tom Brady is clicking on all cylinders.

    The 20-point loss to Cleveland a few weeks back may have been exactly what the Pats needed.

    They have plenty of holes on both sides of the ball. But they get big plays when they need to and their bend-but-don't-break defense has been getting the job done.

    It's eerily reminiscent of the earlier Patriots teams that made the Super Bowl.

    Prediction: Wins AFC East, No. 1 Seed