How Will the 2008 Playoff Race Unfold?

Eric QuackenbushSenior Analyst INovember 19, 2008

It's almost that time of year—the most exciting part of the NFL season. The NFL regular season is almost three-quarters complete, the season running at full tilt, with the playoffs just around the corner.

Around this time of year, a few teams really begin to stand out, leaving a few teams with close records as question marks, or "in the hunt." Sometimes it gets to a point where myself, as a fan, am left scratching my head when the teams with identical records are in consideration.

It gets nerve wracking when your team has semi-control over its destiny, by having to win against certain teams, but then their fate lies in the incapable hands of a less than .500 team, who just so happens to be playing against a four loss or better team.

On the NFC side, it is a very tight race. There are a lot of teams at or over .500—four are at .500, with Philadelphia being at .550 after an overtime tie with the Bengals on Sunday. And out of 12 teams in the NFC, only four are below .500 with no chance at the playoffs this year.

So three-quarters of the NFC are potential playoff contenders, whereas more than half of the AFC is ineligible as of right now; making my case that the NFC is a stronger conference this year than in years of recent past.

So this week I will try my hand at how this year's playoffs lineup could pan out.

In the NFC, I predict the New York Giants will have a first-round bye with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Many argue about their strength of schedule. I feel it has been more to the Giants' advantage. However, if not for the injury-plagued teams they have played against until recently, their record could look a little less exemplary.

The Giants defense is playing four solid quarters of football every game, they have been very dominant at slowing or stopping their opponents running game, and they play the pass defense very aggressively.

The offense is slamming the football down their opponents throats with their aggressive running attack—Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, Ahmad Bradshaw, and occasionally utilizing the services of Reuben Droughns.

Then if the Giants running game is not enough to worry about, anyone opposing the Giants has to worry about Eli Manning throwing the ball to Plaxico Burress, Steve Smith, or tight end Kevin Boss.

The next team with the first-round bye and their first-round game on their own field will be the Arizona Cardinals.

I can see Arizona winning four of their last six games—at Philadelphia, against St. Louis, against Seattle, and since the Vikings are the team visiting the Cardinals, I'll give Arizona the edge in that game also.

Since the Cardinals don't seem to be able to win games over all when traveling to the East Coast, I give New England the edge in that matchup, and I feel the Giants can, and probably will take down the Cards this Sunday.

The Panthers and Packers are seemingly the stronger candidates in their respective divisions to finish out stronger, however Carolina is amongst stiff competition with Atlanta and Tampa Bay hot on their heels.

I feel very strongly that the Falcons and Tampa Bay could fill the two wild-card slots which would send three teams from the NFC South to the playoffs, thus proving that the NFC South as a whole, is the stronger division in the NFC this season.

On the AFC side of the fence, the competition for a playoff spot is not as tight as it has been in recent years past, and this year it seems to be more definitive as to who moves on and who packs it in until next year.

As it stands right now, there are three teams who would already take the first, second, and third slots—Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New York Jets.

Tennessee, with a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs hasn't missed a beat the whole season thus far, since losing Vince Young to injury in week one, and with Kerry Collins as starting quarterback, he brings a sense of direction to his teammates.

He has done a terrific job at being a game manager, however, the fact that he is a well-rounded player—starting quarterback with the Panthers, Giants, Raiders, and now Titans coupled with the fact that he made a Super Bowl appearance in 2001 with the Giants against the Ravens, and went deep into the playoffs with the Panthers—also makes him a veteran with post season successes and experience.

The Steelers will probably get the No. 2 playoff seed, giving them a first-round bye and home-field advantage over whichever team wins the wild-card round.

Pittsburgh has overcome a some injuries that could have taken their postseason hopes away, but they managed to play through their injuries and have maintained a winning record, while also leading their division with an unblemished record.

The New York Jets seem to be on a roll in the AFC East, and are finding ways to win some close games.

Brett Favre looks to have settled into his role on a new team, and it's almost as if he has been with the Jets since he was drafted.

This Jets team just gives me an overall feeling that while they are playing to win, they are also having a lot of fun, and why not? Who wouldn't want Brett (Favre) on their team?

The Denver Broncos, who play in a surprisingly weak AFC West division, should take the third or fourth seed.

The Broncos run defense has looked anemic all season. Coming off a win in Atlanta last Sunday, it seems like maybe the Broncos have discovered a cure to their weaker link.

I think we will see the Colts and Ravens as the two AFC wild-card teams.

Peyton Manning has done a really good job coming off the surgeries for his knee he underwent in the offseason. Joseph Addai is back and healthy, Jeff Saturday is doing well, and this Colts team has improved on a weekly basis. They could go deep into the playoffs.

The Ravens are looking like a solid team both offensively and on defense.

First year rookie Joe Flacco has been doing things in Baltimore comparable to what Matt Ryan has been doing during his rookie campaign in Atlanta.

Now sit back, relax, grab some chips, and something refreshing to drink while we watch how this final quarter of the season unfolds.