Entering the seventh week of the NFL season, we are getting a picture of the 2011 NFL hierarchy. The New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers seem destined to capture the top seeds in the AFC and NFC, but where do the rest of the teams stand?
There are some steady old hands making a run, as well as as some new faces ready to compete for the Lombardi Trophy. Follow along and find out who will win their division, who will take the wild card and who to take seriously as a contender come playoff time.
AFC East Champ, No. 1 Seed
The New England Patriots are again storming through the regular season. The team is recommitting to the rush after letting Tom Brady chase the record books for a few weeks. The run game is, in turn, slowing opposing quarterback’s assaults on the Patriots’ pass defense, though it is still dead last in the league.
New England only has two games left that look like a serious threat for a loss: at Pittsburgh and at the New York Jets. Do I like New England to finish 12-4 with a first-round bye? Yes. Do I like them to win a playoff game? It depends on the matchup, but probably not. That defense has too many holes for a true Super Bowl contender for my liking.
AFC North Champ, No. 2 Seed
Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has restored the Baltimore Ravens defense to its quarterback-sacking, smack-talking best. The offense has picked up its game a bit as well, ranking in the top half in both passing and rushing.
The Ravens have three big-time games left: at the Pittsburgh Steelers, verse the surprising San Francisco 49ers and at the San Diego Chargers. The Cincinnati Bengals have yet to prove themselves against one of the AFC North’s big boys, but those two games could prove to be a big challenge as well.
The potential Achilles heel to the Ravens once they get to the playoffs? As usual, it is Joe Flacco. Five games into the season, Flacco is having the worst year of his career. His completion percentage is hovering around 50, and he has as many turnovers as touchdowns. This was supposed to be the year Flacco put it all together, but thus far it has been anything but.
AFC West Champ, No. 3 Seed
After a one-year hiatus, the San Diego Chargers will be back in the playoffs. They avoided the slow start that has plagued them through the years and are playing well on both sides of the ball.
Phillip Rivers gives the team a chance to win against any opponent, and it looks like Antonio Gates will be back on the field soon. The biggest games left on the Chargers’ schedule are against the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers.
AFC South Champ, No. 4 Seed
The Houston Texans don’t have to worry about Peyton Manning and they miss the playoffs again? Yep. The loss of Mario Williams takes away the top playmaker from a defense that was only slightly above average anyway. We don’t know when Andre Johnson will be back, and Arian Foster has been in and out of the lineup all season.
Just too many questions compared to the steady Tennessee Titans. Chris Johnson has yet to break out, and it seems it will only be a matter of time before he does. The defense is solid, and as long as the team keeps Matt Hasselbeck healthy, they have a proven leader and playoff veteran.
Wild Card, No. 5 Seed
A fresh breeze has blown through Pittsburgh to turn the season around. Max Starks has come off the street to solidify the left tackle spot, and the offensive line is allowing the Steelers’ offense to once again take advantage of their playmakers.
Troy Polamalu is flying around the field (and should be good to go Sunday after experiencing some concussion-like symptoms) making plays, and LaMarr Woodley has been a monster the last two weeks. The rush defense has shut down Pro Bowlers in Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew and is creeping up the rankings to join its top-ranked (surprise!) pass defense.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have certainly looked more like the defending AFC Champions the past two weeks, but are they really back? We will find out in Week 8 and Week 9 when they face the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers must play both games well and can do no worse than a split to prove they are still Super Bowl contenders.
Wild Card, No. 6 Seed
Tough call here between the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets. I cannot discount the Jets just because of their three-game losing streak. The team experienced two such streaks in 2009 and dropped three of four towards the home stretch last season, but they still made the AFC Championship Game both years.
I love the Raiders’ running game. They should be able to rely on it while Carson Palmer gets integrated in the offense against the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos. But what happens next?
Asking a quarterback to come off the couch and perform at a playoff level is tough for anyone—even a former Pro Bowler. The Raiders defense has not exactly been a strength either, as it ranks in the bottom half of the league against the run and the pass. Until we see how Palmer performs in the Silver and Black, I have to stick with the proven commodity.
NFC North Champ, No. 1 Seed
The Green Bay Packers are the best defending Super Bowl champions since the 1998 Denver Broncos. They have Aaron Rodgers playing the best football of any quarterback in the NFL. He has a slew of playmaking receivers to throw to and two solid running backs to fall back on. The defense has room for improvement, but it is solid from defensive tackle to safety. Their 31st-ranked pass defense probably has more to do with the huge leads they are jumping out to than any falloff from the secondary.
Could the Packers run the table? Possibly. Their biggest threats are two matchups against the Detroit Lions and Week 9 against the San Diego Chargers. I see a 14-2 season and the NFC’s top seed headed their way.
NFC South Champs, No. 2 Seed
The blemishes on the New Orleans Saints’ record are two close losses to two pretty good football teams. Drew Brees is having another MVP-caliber season, and Darren Sproles has been an upgrade over Reggie Bush as the featured scat back.
I would like to see the team utilize Mark Ingram a little more. He seems to have the style of a runner who gets stronger as the game goes on, but his season-high for carries sits at 17. Slowing the game down would help their defense, which has been average while playing at the Saints’ frenetic pace.
In spite of their loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you have to love the Saints to win the NFC South. Is anyone not rooting for an NFC Championship shootout featuring Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers?
NFC West Champ, No. 3 Seed
Mike Singletary may never get another head coaching gig, and he has Jim Harbaugh to thank for it. With virtually the same roster, Harbaugh has turned around the historic franchise. He may have saved the career of quarterback Alex Smith in the process.
In the win-now era of the NFL, it is surprising Smith has even stuck around this long to have a career to be saved. Under Harbaugh’s tutelage, Smith’s quarterback rating is 21 points higher than his career average. Frank Gore is rounding into form in a big way, and the offense is finally catching up to the defense.
With a new Alex Smith at the helm, the 49ers could be a force in the NFC playoffs.
NFC East Champs, No. 4 Seed
This is a pick by default. The New York Giants have played decent football, but have the most brutal schedule in the entire NFL facing them in the second half of the season. For a team making a habit out of late-season collapses, that does not inspire confidence.
The Philadelphia Eagles have one win in five weeks. They are not dead yet, but they still have a lot to prove after their win over the Washington Redskins. Speaking of your 2011 NFC Champs (at least if you listen to Tim Hightower), the Redskins are going through a midseason quarterback switch—almost never a good thing.
So, that leaves us with the Dallas Cowboys. On the one hand, Dallas is 11 points from being 5-0. On the other, they are five points form being 0-5. They have more stability than the Redskins, have played better than the Eagles and have a much easier schedule than the Giants. They have to win the gimmes (St. Louis, Miami, Arizona) and will have to play well in the division. I like the Cowboys defense and more good days than bad from Tony Romo to give them the NFC East crown.
Wild Card, No. 5 Seed
For the second year in a row, two teams from the NFC North may be playing for the right to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. Even with the Detroit Lions’ first loss on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, you would be hard-pressed to find two teams more dangerous than the Lions and Green Bay Packers.
The Lions are stacked with playmakers. Matthew Stafford is a bona fide franchise quarterback. Calvin Johnson is the best receiver in the league, and Jahvid Best is a threat to score any time he touches the ball. Ndamakong Suh is the most feared defensive lineman in the game, and the defense feeds off his energy. Look out for the Lions in the NFC playoffs.
Wild card, No. 6 Seed
What’s not to like about this young Tampa Bay Buccaneers team? Raheem Morris is a fiery youg coach, and they have a quarterback in Josh Freeman that just wins games. LeGarrette Blount is a freak at running back, and they have a solid defense.
The Bucs bounced back from their embarrassing loss to the San Francisco 49ers by defeating the New Orleans Saints and throwing caution to the wind in the NFC.
I liked this team entering the season, but was not sure if they could survive a division featuring the Saints and Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons have spent the season spinning their tires, and I think that opens the door just enough for the Bucs to take the wild card.
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