NFL Playoff Scenarios: Projecting Seeds, Matchups for the 2011 Playoffs
NFL playoff scenarios are becoming more and more concrete. Three weeks still separate us from the start of the postseason, but as time winds down, what were once foggy guesses have morphed into likely projections.
There’s plenty left on the table for many teams, and not just those scratching and crawling to get in. Even those who have been assured of a playoff seed are spending the final two weeks of the regular season jockeying for ultimate positioning.
So, what will things look like come season’s end?
NFC No. 1 Seed: Atlanta Falcons
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Strengths: The Falcons certainly aren’t flashy, but they’ve gotten the job done all season. And they don’t beat themselves. Matt Ryan has flourished from heralded draft pick to legitimate MVP candidate in his third season, and he’s as good as anybody in the conference at managing a game and avoiding mistakes, throwing nearly three touchdowns for every interception. Add in running back Michael Turner and receiver Roddy White, and Atlanta has an offensive trio that rivals any in the NFL.
Weaknesses: Defense, particularly against the pass. Atlanta ranks just 25th in the league, allowing an average of 233 yards through the air. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Falcons are equally ineffective at getting to opposing quarterbacks, ranking 24th with only 25 sacks prior to Sunday’s game against Seattle.
Remaining Schedule: New Orleans, Carolina
Reasoning: Atlanta clinched a playoff berth with its win in Seattle, and could capture the NFC South and home-field advantage in one fell swoop at home against New Orleans next week. The Falcons, winners of eight straight, seem to have it on cruise control, but a slip-up could leave the door for a No. 1 seed open for Philadelphia, the last team to beat Atlanta.
NFC No. 2 Seed: Philadelphia Eagles
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Strengths: No secret here. He is but one of a seemingly endless supply of super-athletic playmakers on that offense, but Michael Vick is the unanimous MVP of this team. In fact, if Andy Reid had decided to stick with Kevin Kolb, would we even be discussing the Eagles as not only the winners of the NFC East but a possible top seed in the conference? In a word, no.
Weaknesses: After watching the Eagles engineer that fourth-quarter comeback in New York Sunday, I’m not sure if there are any glaring ones. If anything, opposing defenses have shown that the Eagles’ offense can be stymied by forcing Vick to roll to his right, where he looks much less comfortable and fluid. Another concern may be whether back LeSean McCoy, who is already 30 carries over his career-high, will be able continue to hold up as a running threat behind Vick.
Remaining Schedule: Minnesota, Dallas
Reasoning: The Eagles are a solid No. 2 seed, though the top spot is still in the cards. Of course, a collapse could potentially hand the division back to the Giants, but a lot of things would have to go haywire for Philadelphia to lose two straight at home to end the season.
NFC No. 3 Seed: Chicago Bears
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Strengths: Well, the league’s second-ranked defense against the run is a good start. Beyond that, the Bears are third in points allowed, eighth in total defense, and 10th in interceptions. The result is an experienced and gifted unit that will be tough to score on in January, when conditions that are less than ideal tend to make offenses very one-dimensional.
Weaknesses: Well, the league’s 30th-ranked offense is a good start. The Bears thought they had struck gold when they got Mike Martz to run the offense, but the line can’t block anybody, and the synergy expected between Martz and Jay Cutler hasn’t really materialized. When he has hasn’t been on his butt, Cutler has made a habit of throwing drive-killing picks and ranks only 16th in passer rating.
Remaining Schedule: at Minnesota (12/21), New York Jets, at Green Bay
Reasoning: The way Chicago has managed to win nine games is something of a smoke-and-mirrors trick. The offense is dreadful, but the defense is capable of winning games by its lonesome. It’s not a widespread blueprint, but it works for the Bears, who will gladly grind games out in January, particularly if it means playing at frigid Soldier Field.
NFC No. 4 Seed: St. Louis Rams
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Strengths: It’s amazing what a franchise-caliber quarterback can do for a team. At this time a season ago, the Rams were languishing along with Keith Null under center, well on their way to a 1-15 record and the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
But things could not have worked out any better. Sam Bradford has injected life into the fan base and the entire organization, and his play, which has belied his youth, is the single-most reason St. Louis is on the brink of the clinching its first postseason berth since 2004.
Weaknesses: There are plenty, and although the Rams have done a respectable job of concealing them all season long, the competition that awaits in the playoffs won’t be so accommodating. In addition to a defensive line that can’t sustain consistent pressure, injuries have decimated an already weak secondary, and better offenses in the league have exposed each of these flaws.
The Rams have also been done in by a lack of playmakers at receiver, putting undue pressure on Bradford and Steven Jackson.
Remaining Schedule: San Francisco, at Seattle
Reasoning: As a Rams fan, I will be the first one to admit that the Rams probably don’t deserve to make the playoffs, at least not at a higher seeding than, say, New Orleans. The way things look now, either Kansas City or San Diego — two teams who will finish with better records than the Rams — will miss the playoffs while St. Louis takes full advantage of the NFL’s unfair seeding policy.
Nevertheless, if the Rams hold on to win the NFC West, whether it’s at 7-9 or 8-8, they’re in. And the manner in which they got to the playoffs won’t diminish the turnaround staged by Steve Spagnuolo and his staff.
NFC No. 5 Seed: New Orleans Saints
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Strengths: As was the case during their Super Bowl season, the Saints have been winning with offense. Drew Brees is third in the NFL in both passing yards and touchdowns, and the return of Reggie Bush has given the unit an element it so apparently lacked during the team’s midseason swoon.
When the Saints are on, there’s not a defense in the league that can hold them under 30.
Weaknesses: The defense has dramatically improved against the pass from a year ago, ascending from 26th in the NFL to third, but there are still question marks about its ability to hold up against the run. The Saints allow nearly 120 rushing yards per game, and a smallish front seven is not going to get any bigger between now and the first round of the playoffs.
Remaining Schedule: at Atlanta, Tampa Bay
Reasoning: New Orleans surrendered its right to an NFC South title with a loss in Baltimore on Sunday, which means the Saints will probably end up playing on the road against an opponent with a lesser record. The popular pick would be the Rams, a scenario in which the Saints would face a team they’ve already beaten this season and do so without having to worry about the adverse effects of the cold weather.
NFC No. 6 Seed: New York Giants
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Strengths: Sunday’s meltdown against the Eagles notwithstanding, the Giants may be the NFC’s most complete team.
New York ranks no worse than 12th in the NFL in any of the four major statistical categories (pass/rush offense, pass/rush defense), so it’s difficult to pick out any one thing as a strength. That’s a compliment to Tom Coughlin and his staff, who you know will have this team ready for the playoffs, whether it’s at The Meadowlands or on the road, where the Giants have won four games by an average of 20.5 points this season.
Weaknesses: The issue has been consistency. Yes, the Giants are still a strong 9-5, but there have been some suspect losses along the way.
After getting bounced in Week 2 by a Colts team that was at full strength, New York was thoroughly whipped by a bad Tennessee team. Then, it was a two-score loss at home to Dallas, which at the time was still reeling from having lost seven of its first eight games. The latest debacle was Sunday, which doesn’t need any more discussion.
Remaining Schedule: at Green Bay, at Washington
Reasoning: At this stage, Green Bay and Tampa Bay are right in line behind New York for the No. 6 seed, making next week’s game between the Giants and Packers of huge importance. My guess is that the Giants pick themselves off the deck and sneak in ahead of Green Bay, but if they don’t, it may be a long winter of wondering what could have been.
NFC Teams Left On The Outside Looking In
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The Bucs may have sealed their playoff fate with an overtime loss at home to the Lions on Sunday. The final wild card spot is still a possibility, but Tampa Bay would need some help in addition to securing wins at Seattle and at home against New Orleans.
If you can find me a more schizophrenic team in the NFL than the Seahawks, please speak up. Like the Rams, Seattle has been maddeningly inconsistent, but since they play in the NFC West, dreams of postseason football could turn into reality. A playoff berth could be at stake when the Seahawks and Rams square off in Seattle on the season’s final Sunday.
With the status of Aaron Rodgers up in the air, Green Bay’s season is figuratively done, though Matt Flynn played a terrific 59 minutes against New England. With no Rodgers, I don’t like the Packers’ chances next week against the Giants in a game crawling with wild card implications, even at Lambeau.
AFC No. 1 Seed: New England Patriots
Strengths: They don’t lose at Gillette Stadium, which is where they figure to stay throughout the AFC playoffs. The Pats are a perfect 7-0 at home and have beaten opponents by an average of 13 points, but they’re nearly as prolific away from home, winning five of seven on the road.
Weaknesses: There’s not too much to dislike. Despite heavy losses to free agency, trades, and the natural deterioration of any great dynasty, they continue to plug along. That said, the absence of Randy Moss leaves the passing game without a proven and consistent deep threat, and the defense has been sporadic at best, allowing more than 375 yards per game.
Remaining Schedule: at Buffalo, Miami
Reasoning: With Sunday’s win over Green Bay, the Patriots have officially run away and hidden from the rest of the AFC field. Once again, the conference’s road to the Super Bowl will run through New England.
AFC No. 2 Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers
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Strengths: The defense is as salty as any in the league, and with a relentless ability to create havoc for opposing quarterbacks and stop the run, the Steelers are tailored for postseason play. And never discount the calm brought to the offense by Ben Roethlisberger, who always seems to give his team a chance to win despite not always looking pretty doing it.
Weaknesses: Pittsburgh cracks the top 10 in the league in rushing yards, but the yards-per-carry average of 4.2 leaves something to be desired. Running back Rashard Mendenhall is the team’s leading rusher with 1,073 yards, but he has gained 100 or more in only four games. He, along with the offensive line, will need to be more consistent, so as to alleviate the dependence on a passing game that is ranked 18th in the NFL.
Remaining Schedule: Carolina, at Cleveland
Reasoning: Sunday’s loss at home to the Jets hurts, but it’s not the end of the world. Despite being tied with the Ravens, the Steelers would get the nod if the playoffs began today by virtue of a significantly better record within the AFC North. Two weeks from now, not much will change and the Steelers will receive a first-round bye while the Ravens will open the playoffs on the road.
AFC No. 3 Seed: San Diego Chargers
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Strengths: There are many on this team, which is why I choose them to overtake Kansas City for the AFC West title. Statistically speaking, San Diego is one of the best teams in the NFL, ranking first in total defense and second in total offense.
MVP candidate Philip Rivers is the undisputed leader of the offense, while defensive end Shaun Phillips is the standout performer on a defense that has amassed a league-leading 44 sacks.
Weaknesses: You never quite know which Chargers teams will show up. It could be the one that waffled through much of September and October, or it could be the team that has since caught fire.
If San Diego lags behind in any one area, it’s the rushing offense, where the void left by LaDainian Tomlinson has been apparent. Mike Tolbert has been adequate at times, but 342 of his 737 yards this season have all come in the last five games.
Remaining Schedule: at Cincinnati, at Denver
Reasoning: Call it a hunch that the Chargers steal a spot over the Chiefs, who currently lead the division by a full game. My guess is Kansas City stumbles against either the Titans or Raiders, while the San Diego takes care of the Bengals and Broncos to ride yet another wave of momentum from December into January.
AFC No. 4 Seed: Jacksonville Jaguars
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Strengths: Only two other teams pound the ball between the tackles better than the Jaguars, whose rushing attack is led by Maurice Jones-Drew and his 1,278 yards, which are second-best in the NFL behind only Houston’s Arian Foster.
And when Jones-Drew has success, the Jaguars usually do as well. Of the seven games in which he has run for 100 yards or more, Jacksonville has won six.
Weaknesses: Pass defense. Jacksonville has allowed 26 touchdown passes this season and 12 completions of 40-plus yards. That’s no recipe for success, especially considering how often the Jaguars turn the ball over to opponents’ passing games.
Despite the Jaguars’ ball-control offense, which eats up more than 31 minutes of clock per game, the team ranks dead last in the league with a -12 turnover margin.
Remaining Schedule: Washington, at Houston
Reasoning: If the Jaguars can limit the turnovers for their remaining two games, I think they get in as AFC South champs ahead of Indianapolis, which at the moment holds a tiebreaker based on winning percentage against common opponents.
From there, who knows? If Jones-Drew can keep the other team’s offense — and Jacksonville’s secondary — off the field, the Jags have a chance to notch a postseason win at home in the first round.
AFC No. 5 Seed: Baltimore Ravens
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Strengths: They’re aging, but Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and the guys can still bring it on defense. More specifically, the Ravens excel against the run, allowing only 93 yards per game and five rushing touchdowns all season.
When the defense is on, like they usually tend to be, they form a scary duo with quarterback Joe Flacco, who has thrown for more than 300 yards once this season but is fantastic at limiting mistakes that put undue pressure on the defense.
Weaknesses: I said they were aging, which might partially explain why some leaks have sprung against the pass. The Ravens have been burned for 47 pass plays covering 20 yards or more, 10th-most in the league. That would seemingly go hand-in-hand with the team’s 27 sacks, which are tied for 18th.
Remaining Schedule: at Cleveland, Cincinnati
Reasoning: When the Ravens are on, they’re awfully tough to beat. That was evident in games against the Jets, Steelers, Buccaneers and, most recently, the Saints.
Like Pittsburgh, Baltimore has a makeup conducive to success in the postseason: They play good defense and make fewer mistakes than the other team on offense. Unlike the Steelers, however, the Ravens will have to prove their playoff mettle on the road.
AFC No. 6 Seed: New York Jets
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Strengths: Like all good teams, the Jets run the ball well and prevent other teams from doing so, ranking in the top 10 in both categories. A rejuvenated LaDainian Tomlinson leads the team in rushing when many thought his role would be to simply spell Shonn Greene.
Together, the two provide a one-two punch that should be fresh come playoff time for the Jets, who have run for at least 100 yards in every game this season.
Weaknesses: That would have to begin and end with Mark Sanchez. Not to pick on the poor guy, but he’s still learning as a quarterback, and when he’s bad, he’s bad. Luckily for New York, he’s had more games like the one Sunday against Pittsburgh (19-of-29, 170) than the two messes against New England and Miami, when he completed 34 of 77 passes and threw four picks.
Remaining Schedule: at Chicago, Buffalo
Reasoning: The Jets face another tough road test next week at Chicago, but they do so with a two-game cushion in the wild card chase. Unfortunately, with New England winning against Green Bay, New York’s shot of winning the AFC East has all but ended. That leaves the Jets to distinguish whether it’s better to play as a No. 5 or No. 6 seed on the road in the opening round.
AFC Teams Left On The Outside Looking In
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The Chiefs have been impressive in defying the odds this season, leading the league in rushing and holding off streaking San Diego this late in the season. And, really, the chances of them winning two home games against Tennessee and Oakland to close out the season are good.
But Tennessee and Oakland both run the ball well enough to keep Matt Cassel and the offense off the field, which will open some room to expose Kansas City’s 19th-ranked pass defense.
Ultimately, too many injuries for the Colts. Not enough healthy receivers for Peyton Manning, who has gotten zero help from a running game that ranks dead-last in the league. It’s amazing the team is 8-6 and somehow in first in the AFC South. Still, whatever magic remains runs out, with the Colts losing each of the last two to miss the postseason for the first time since 2001.