The NFL playoff picture is starting to shape up. Sure, there's the muddled NFC West and the surprisingly inconsistent AFC South to settle, but there's several teams that have all but mathematically earned their way into a postseason berth.
However, that's where the similarities end with some of these teams. There are some NFL teams that will be happy just to make it to the playoffs and will promptly play like they shouldn't have been there at all. There are some teams that talk the talk but won't be able to walk the walk when the games get a little more serious.
And then there are some teams that have an excellent chance of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February.
I'll only be looking at four teams from each conference, teams that have excellent chances at making the playoffs.
New York Jets
Watching the Patriots march at will up and down the field against the Jets on Monday night, I couldn't help but remember the second half of last year's AFC Championship Game. The upstart Jets were hanging with the Colts until Peyton Manning systemically carved up the highly touted Jets defense.
So what's changed in a year?
Not much. If anything, things are a little worse even though this year's version of Gang Green will end up with a better record. In 2009, the Jets defense had six games in which it held its opponent to single digits. They've done it just once this year. They are giving up nearly a yard more per play.
Offensively their rushing average is the same as last year, but they can't seem to grind it out as well as last year's team could with Thomas Jones. Mark Sanchez is 14 points higher in his quarterback rating, but that still makes him a fairly pedestrian 77. They've beaten just one team that would make the playoffs right now, and that victory came back in September.
Rex Ryan still has time to convince us that his team will be more than playoff fodder with games against Pittsburgh and Chicago remaining, but Gang Green isn't looking like a team capable of a deep playoff run right now.
I almost put the Pittsburgh Steelers here as well. They are basically the same team. Punishing defense. Pounding run game. Clutch quarter...wait. No, sorry, that last one is where they are different.
Fourth quarter. Your team needs a score. It's fourth down. Do you trust Joe Flacco?
You hesitated, didn't you? So did I. Two plays stick out in the game the Ravens should have won but found a way to lose. First, the Ben Roethlisberger incompletion. Sure, he scares the hell out of me that he'll spin out of a tackle and throw a ball up for grabs, but Roethlisberger can buy time and still deliver a usually solid throw.
Flacco? Well, on the fourth down with their last chance to keep the game alive, Flacco grounds one into the ground. There was pressure, but Flacco just looks rushed on big throws. The Ravens are just 2-3 in games against teams currently in the playoffs and the two wins came against a Charlie Batch-led Steeler team and a Jets team doing everything to give the game away (and the Ravens still managed just 10 points).
The defense is still solid, but as has been the case for a decade now, they can't win the game alone. I don't trust Flacco to close out three straight playoff victories, especially since the Ravens are going to have to most likely do it on the road.
New England Patriots
It's starting to feel like another Patriots Super Bowl trip again. Since their inexplicable thumping at the hands of the Browns, the Patriots have managed to score at least 31 points in four consecutive games, three of which were against potential playoff teams.
The jettisoning of Randy Moss was clearly addition by subtraction. Since Moss' departure, the Patriots offense has looked much more consistent. Tom Brady isn't forced to fixate on just a few receivers, but now has the luxury of spreading the ball around to a group of underrated receivers. The Patriots have five players with at least 25 receptions, and seven different players have a receiving touchdown.
The defense may not be Bill Belichick-esque, but it's done enough to give the Patriots a nearly 10-point scoring differential.
All this, and the Patriots are most likely going to spend their playoff games in front of the home crowd.
The collective groan of the AFC may be heard again if Belichick and Brady are once again Super Bowl-bound.
Kansas City Chiefs
It's not that I don't like the Steelers' chances, but they don't match up well to the Patriots. The Chiefs may be very similar to the Steelers, but their superior rushing attack might be enough to propel them to a surprise appearance in Dallas.
With the Steelers still facing some quality teams to round out the season, the Chiefs have a legitimate shot at earning a first-round bye. Assuming the Arrowhead crowd pushes them to an AFC Championship Game in New England, who'd be better to match wits with Belichick than his former coordinators during their Super Bowl runs at the first part of the century.
And it's not like the upstart Chiefs are without talent. Matt Cassel has been very effective, playing within the system and allowing the Chiefs' impressive rushing attack set the tone. Defensively the Chiefs are prone to giving up points from time to time, but they may only have to stiffen up once in the playoffs considering the lack of high-scoring AFC playoff teams.
With a home playoff game and perhaps a first-round bye, there's no reason the Chiefs couldn't make it to Dallas and beat any NFC representative. That said...
There's something about this Bears team that reminds me of 2006. Yes, they made the Super Bowl in 2006 and then it all fell apart at the hands of turnover-prone Rex Grossman.
Now, luckily for Bears' faithful, Jay Cutler is no Rex Grossman, but has Cutler grown enough to win three consecutive playoff games?
And which Bears team would show up for the playoffs? The one that got beat by the lowly Redskins and Seahawks in consecutive weeks or the one that solved the riddle that is Michael Vick?
Of all the pretenders, the Bears have the greatest potential to change my mind. With three stout games remaining against the Patriots, Jets and Packers, the Bears can go a long way into proving this ain't 2006 anymore. Still, I'd like to see the Bears go 2-1 in those games to convince me enough that offensive coordinator Mike Martz has really turned Cutler into a winner.
I hate going against the Eagles. Regardless of how you feel about Michael Vick's past, the Eagles have been nothing short of breathtaking on offense this year. LeSean McCoy is an extremely versatile back, and Vick has a deep group of receivers at his disposal. Throw in Vick's running ability and it's a team that's tough to game play for.
But they can be stopped, as evidenced in the Bears' loss. Then there's the question of Vick's durability. The hits against him will just increase in intensity in the postseason. Kevin Kolb is a good quarterback, but the dynamic of the offense just isn't the same with him.
Then there's the matter of the defense, currently 20th in points allowed. If just one team finds a way to slow the Eagles offense down, the defense may not be able to keep them in the game.
Winning the division will help, which means the Eagles will need to beat the Giants in New York next week. Do that, and they may become a contender. Until then, let's at least enjoy the season that Vick's given us.
As much as I would like to believe in the Eagles, I want to find reasons to not believe in the Falcons.
But I can't.
They are in the top seven in offensive and defensive scoring. Matt Ryan has emerged into a very efficient player. He's one away for equally his touchdown total from last year, but has cut his interception number in half. Roddy White has turned into a Larry Fitzgerald-like game-changer.
Defensively they can give up yardage, but they play in an opportunistic system that has them currently fourth in takeaway differential. More than half the time, the Falcons have held their opponents to under 20 points. In reality, they are much like the Saints defense from last year. That worked out well for them.
Put this all together with the fact that the Falcons have four winnable games remaining and could easily end up with the top seed in the NFC. Considering Ryan has just one home loss in his career, the Falcons are in good shape to reach their second Super Bowl in history and possibly win the championship.
New Orleans Saints
It's hard to think of a defending Super Bowl champ as having a quietly good season, but that's exactly what the Saints have done. After an ugly home loss to the Browns put them at 4-3, a lot of people wrote off the Saints as having a Super Bowl slump. Five wins later, the Saints are looking playoff-bound at 9-3.
The Saints' wins haven't been pretty. Close calls to Dallas and Cincinnati shouldn't inspire anyone to think the Saints are prime for a playoff run, but this is exactly what the Saints did last year. Drew Brees is looking like the Super Bowl MVP again, and the defense is starting to create opportunities with multiple forced turnovers in four of the last five games.
The Saints remaining schedule isn't easy with road games at Baltimore and Atlanta, but the Saints will make the playoffs and there's no way you can count them out should they make it.
And should Brees find a way to win a second championship, the endless best quarterback in the NFL debate will get a little more crowded.