NFL 2011 Playoffs: Surprise Divison Winners at the End of the Regular Season
As we near the mid-point in the 2011 NFL Season, the league has seen quite a shake-up and teams that were expected to entertain their best seasons haven't done enough to win. On the other hand, there have been teams that came into this season expected to be not much more than be a doormat but have played strong football.
With that, it seems fitting to take a look at which team in each division has a chance to surprise fans with a division crown, or at least a Wild-Card berth. Some teams may have a big mountain to climb but have a chance to do so and other teams are sitting in a division where there is no clear favorite. The interesting thing is, some of these divisions have primarily been dominated in recent years by the same teams. The times seem to be changing.
Let's break this down and see what we think.
AFC East: Buffalo Bills
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2011 Record: 4 - 2
The Buffalo Bills have stumbled a bit but overall, the team has shown a largely improved football operation compared to recent years. After blowing Kansas City out in Week 1, the Bills had two strong come-from-behind wins against Oakland and New England.
Since the upset against the Patriots in Week 3, the Bills have gone 1 - 2 but that isn't as telling as it should be considering they lost their two games by 3 points each. They remain No. 2 in the AFC East behind New England and are coming off a bye week. With that, they have a chance to get the ball rolling again against a weakening Washington Redskins team at home. With a weapon in Fred Jackson (who has recorded 100+ yards in all but 1 game so far), Buffalo will still have the offensive firepower to win, as long as their defense remains stout.
Some may argue the Jets should be here after a comeback win against San Diego but in reality, it probably wouldn't be as surprising if the Jets win the East than if the Bills do. Regardless of who wins the division, the Bills should be in the mix at the end of the season.
AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals
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2011 Record: 4 - 2
It's hard to believe but the AFC North doesn't appear to be well in Pittsburgh's hands as it has in seasons past. After Baltimore's performance against a rookie-led Jacksonville Jaguars team on Monday night, even they aren't ready to take the keys to their division either.
The team that looks to be the biggest surprise in this division at the end of Week 17 is the Cincinnati Bengals. Led by the shockingly-good tandem of rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, it appears that Cincinnati hasn't had any trouble forgetting about Carson Palmer's banter and Chad Ochocinco's antics.
The best news is that Cedric Benson, who was facing a possible 3-game suspension, has been only charged one game. It should be manageable without their power back against Seattle this week. Sporting one of the best defenses in the league, the Bengals should have a great chance to shut down Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Cleveland does have a 3 - 3 record but they don't appear to have nearly enough to compete in the North this season. Unless they drastically improve their 23rd ranked offense, the Browns will continue to struggle this season.
AFC South: Tennessee Titans
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2011 Record: 3 - 3
It was expected that Houston would have the best chance to take the AFC South when it was rumored that Peyton Manning would miss a large part, if not all, of the 2011 season. So far, the Texans haven't outright established themselves as the next big thing in the AFC but after Sunday's rout of the Titans in Tennessee, they seem to have firmly planted themselves as #1 in the division.
It's the only division in the AFC right now that appears to have a clear #1 which makes it difficult to determine if any of the other 3 have a shot at surprising. Indianapolis has pretty much accepted the fact that they are one of the top-dogs in the "Suck for Luck" campaign and Jacksonville, even after a shocking upset of Baltimore, doesn't have the consistency to challenge Houston. That could change, however, this weekend when the Jaguars visit Houston.
That leaves the Tennessee Titans, who didn't seem to have any answer for the Texans offensive attack, to be the team to upset Houston in the race for the AFC South. It doesn't help when your defense gives up 100+ yards a piece to Arian Foster and Ben Tate, including another 119 receiving yards to Foster.
It isn't going to be easy but the Titans do have the talent to win the division. Fortunately (if you can look at it that way), Chris Johnson has so far under-performed that he has nowhere to go but up. If he can find a way to play at the Pro-Bowl level that he can, the Titans could turn the ship around but they can't afford to give up 41 points again.
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs
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2011 Record: 3 - 3
After 2 weeks in the NFL, the Chiefs appeared to be on pace for a first-to-worst finish in the AFC West this year but suddenly, it seems that there may be life left in the tank. It could be said that injuries ruined any hopes for the Raiders to win on Sunday after Darren McFadden left with a foot injury but Kansas City's performance can't be taken away from them.
Without Jason Campbell, the Raiders will struggle as Carson Palmer learns the new offense and finds rhythm with his new receivers. Although one game is too soon to judge, Oakland needs McFadden to come back after the bye week strong because they can't rely solely on the passing game regardless of whether Boller or Palmer starts.
Even with Tebow-mania in Denver, this seems to be a prime opportunity for Kansas City. Denver shouldn't be expecting Tebow to suddenly turn the franchise around, at least this season. Now the Chiefs should be focusing on the challenge that the San Diego Chargers presenting for Week 8.
San Diego lost to a relatively unstable New York Jets team on Sunday and now they visit Arrowhead Stadium on Monday night where they lost last season in Week 1, on Monday night. If the Chiefs can continue to improve as they have been, they should find themselves in the #1 spot in the AFC West after Week 8.
NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles
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2011 Record: 2 - 4
Is it crazy to think that the Philadelphia Eagles have turned the corner in 2011? Probably, but it appears to be that the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys are the two favorites to be fighting for the NFC East crown. As these two teams should steal the headlines for the remainder of the season, the Eagles have seemingly imploded since being anointed the "dream-team" in the off-season after high-caliber acquisitions of Nnamdi Asomugha and other talent.
Washington appeared to have suddenly become the team to beat in the East but has lost to both Philly and Carolina the past two weeks, including swapping Rex Grossman for John Beck. After a bye week to re-calibrate, the Eagles may be on the verge of doing what they were expected to, win. They may have lost at home to the Giants in Week 3 but the Eagles could find a way to expose their weaknesses with the big-play ability of LeSean McCoy.
Dallas is still a tough team to play against, even with an slowed Tony Romo, but the Philadelphia Eagles have had a bye week to fix what has been ailing them. The win against Washington should help their momentum. The Cowboys are still going to be a tough test after drubbing St. Louis 34 to 7 but the Eagles are much better team than the Rams regardless. If Philadelphia sends Dallas home with a loss, the Eagles will have found their footing.
NFC North: Detroit Lions
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2011 Record: 5 - 2
They may be on a 2-game slide but it seems like it may still be too early for Lions fans to start worrying. Matt Stafford's injury has been announced as day-to-day and he should find himself in the lineup against Denver this Sunday. If there's a better game for Detroit to get back-on-track than against Denver, it's hard to find. Tim Tebow may have lit a fire under the fan-base in Colorado but he still hasn't shown enough to warrant starting and he has a big test against the Lions defense.
The Detroit Lions should still have the best chance in the NFC North to challenge Green Bay's dominance so far this season. The loss to Atlanta hurts but it's hard to imagine the Lions losing 3-straight games and a win this weekend should give them their momentum back. They don't see Green Bay for the first time until Thanksgiving Day but for the first time in years, that game may mean more than just to Lions fans; it could be for controlling interest in the division.
The Packers are the last undefeated team in the NFL as of right now and appear to be rolling. While Chicago has been inconsistent this season and Minnesota now starting Christian Ponder, the Lions are in the best position to upset Green Bay. This may not come as a surprise to some but if the Lions stifle the Packers high-powered attack, they'll end up one of the very few teams that can.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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2011 Record: 4 - 3
The NFC South has once again proven to be one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL as no team has taken a solid grasp on the #1 spot. After the Saints beat the Colts 62 to 7 on Sunday night, most will argue that New Orleans is clearly the best team in the division but that really isn't the case. Keep in mind, Tampa Bay has beaten both Atlanta and New Orleans so far this season even if they seem to struggle outside their division.
Lucky for them, they have a bye this week before facing New Orleans for second time in 4 weeks which will give them the best chance to solidify a shot at the playoffs. The only thing the Buccaneers need to do is find a way to win non-divisional match-ups more consistently. It won't be easy but Tampa Bay is looking at their first NFC South championship since 2007.
The Atlanta Falcons can't be counted out after beating the Detroit Lions this past Sunday but they need to go into this week's bye without losing their momentum after 2-straight wins. The good thing for them is they face the weak Indianapolis Colts in Week 9 before facing New Orleans for the first time in Week 10.
Carolina is definitely the feel-good story so far this season with Cam Newton silencing every critic who ever said he couldn't compete at the NFL level. However, he alone isn't going to be able to carry the Panthers to wins so there's no reason to expect them to contend this season.
This season has proven that the best way to win the NFC South is consistency. If Tampa Bay can find a way to win consistently from here until the end of the season, they should have the best chance to surprise the NFC South.
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks
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2011 Record: 2 - 4
It seems that the most surprising things about the NFC West is how impressive the San Francisco 49ers are playing right now. Even more than that, how well Alex Smith is playing right now. It's apparent how much of an impact Jim Harbaugh has had on the organization. The fact that traditionally the West is usually the weakest division in the entire NFL doesn't seem to be changing much because beyond San Fran, there really isn't another team that has the talent to compete.
If there had to be one team to possibly surprise, it's between Seattle and Arizona but honestly, for this to happen, either team would need a sudden, super-swoon to even have a hope of overtaking the 49ers. Even if either team did, they would need San Fran to hit a wall and right now, it doesn't appear that they plan on slowing down anytime soon.
St. Louis should already be planning for next season now that the only way they'd be able to entertain even a sniff of the playoffs, they'd need to win 10-straight games probably. Between Arizona and Seattle, it's a hard choice to make because neither team has been exceptional. However, Seattle gets the nod because of their impressive road win against the New York Giants. They were unable to carry that momentum through the bye week against Cleveland but if Seattle could find that sweet spot again, who knows.
Of course, the Seahawks are going to need a handful of things to go right, including a San Francisco collapse, to see themselves in the playoffs, let alone a division championship. The NFL continues to prove every year that anything can happen, just look at what the 'Hawks did last season.