After Week 8, some things in the NFL that have unfolded have been expected, but many have been unexpected. Nobody would have guessed that the Buffalo Bills would sit atop of the AFC East, or that the Cincinnati Bengals would be hanging tough in their division with Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
However, the NFL is full of surprises, and for the final half of the season, there will sure to be some more. After looking individually at each team's schedule, here are my predictions for how each division will shake out by Week 17 of the NFL season.
By Week 16, the two teams left in the NFC East that will still be contending will be the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys, two teams that had a surprisingly uncompetitive meeting on Sunday night. Despite this fact, however, both teams will find themselves fighting for the division title at the end of the season.
Although the Giants currently lead the division, they face a brutal schedule down the stretch, facing off against New England, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Green Bay and Dallas twice. They are also a team that has historically been weaker by the end of the season, despite a strong start.
After a solid 3-1 start, the Redskins have shown their true colors, losing three games in a row, and facing a similarly difficult schedule, having to face the Patriots, Jets, Giants, 49ers, Cowboys and Eagles in their final games.
This leaves the Eagles and the Cowboys, who both have fairly soft schedules down the stretch, and despite the atrocious 1-4 start, the Eagles will use the last two wins as momentum to build on, and will go 7-2 on the rest of their season to finish at a 10-6 record.
The Cowboys, unfortunately, will lose again to Philadelphia on Week 16, which will prove to be the difference as they finish with a 9-7 record. Because there will be stronger wild-card teams, they will not qualify for the playoffs.
NFC East Standings:
Philadelphia Eagles: 10-6
Dallas Cowboys: 9-7
New York Giants: 8-8
Washington Redskins: 4-12
Starting off at 7-0, the Packers are proving their dominance in the NFL this year, being the only remaining undefeated team in the NFL. The Lions, however, have proven to be a force, and if they were in any other division, they might have gotten my vote as the division champs. However, because they are in the same division as the Packers, they will not win the NFC North. However, they will finish second, and will qualify for a wild-card spot.
The Bears have had both good and bad games, and their record will reflect this. Standing at 4-3, they will continue to be in the hunt for the playoffs throughout the season, but a 9-7 record won't be enough to get a wild-card spot. The Bears will have a solid season, but will be edged out of the playoffs.
The Vikings have started at 2-6, and are virtually out of it at this point. I believe that they will win some games, but will finish at the bottom of the division once again.
NFC North Standings:
Green Bay Packers: 14-2
Detroit Lions: 10-6
Chicago Bears: 9-7
Minnesota Vikings: 5-11
After a humiliating loss to the Rams, the New Orleans Saints will bounce back much like the New England Patriots did after losing to Cleveland last year. The Saints certainly have tough competition ahead in playing the Falcons, Bucs, Giants and Lions, but I believe that they are better than all four of those teams. Their only loss for the rest of the regular season will go to the Atlanta Falcons near the end of the year.
The Falcons haven't played exactly up to expectations, but have won two in a row, and own a 4-3 record. They are a talented team that will have another strong year, although they won't be getting the No. 1 seed in the NFC this year. The Falcons will finish second in the NFC South, and will qualify for a wild-card spot with a 10-6 record.
Last year, the Buccaneers had a very soft schedule, and this year, they have a much more challenging slate of games. While they have proven that they are a talented team that can play up against some of the NFL's best, I think they are still a team that needs improving, and as a result, will fail to make the playoffs once again this year.
Nobody expected the Panthers to be contenders this year, and while they have been playing better than expected, they will not be making a run for the division this year, as they play in the tough NFC South. Not to mention the fact that they are still clearly rebuilding from a disastrous 2010 campaign.
NFC South Standings:
New Orleans Saints: 12-4
Atlanta Falcons: 10-6
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 8-8
Carolina Panthers: 5-11
Nobody saw the 6-1 49ers coming, but they are definitely playing like one of the best in the NFC this year. Jim Harbaugh has certainly turned this team around, and they are without a doubt going to make an easy run to the playoffs this year, especially considering the fact that they play in the worst division in football.
None of the other NFC West teams will give the 49ers much of a run, although I do feel that the 1-6 St. Louis Rams will win a few games in the second half of the season. They have a very soft schedule, and in my opinion, are more talented than their 1-6 record may indicate. If they can avoid the stupid mistakes they've made in the first half of the season, they may win some games.
The Seattle Seahawks are certainly in a rebuilding mode, and this year, they will find out the hard way that Tarvaris Jackson is certainly not the answer, nor is Charlie Whitehurst. The Arizona Cardinals may be wondering if Kevin Kolb is the answer, after a horrible start to the season doesn't get much better, as they finish last in the division once again.
NFC West Standings:
San Francisco 49ers: 11-5
St. Louis Rams: 5-11
Seattle Seahawks: 5-11
Arizona Cardinals: 4-12
The New England Patriots are coming off a tough loss to the Steelers, but are still one of the top three teams in the AFC, and certainly the best team in their division. I think that despite their loss to the Steelers, they will bounce back easily, winning most of their games for the rest of the year, with the exception of dropping one to the Jets along the way.
The Bills and the Jets will be left fighting for a wild-card spot. While the Bills are currently leading the division, they face a tough road ahead as they have to face the Jets twice, the Patriots at home, as well as the Cowboys and Chargers. However, the Bills will still be contenders, throughout the year, and may even squeak out a wild-card spot.
The odd team out in this division are the Miami Dolphins, who will be one of the top three candidates in the "Suck for Luck" campaign by the end of the year. However, they will win too many times to get the coveted prize of the Stanford quarterback.
AFC East Standings:
New England Patriots: 13-3
Buffalo Bills: 10-6
New York Jets: 10-6
Miami Dolphins: 2-14
At the beginning of the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were accused of being old and beat up, especially after getting pounded by Baltimore in the season opener. However, they have since bounced back, holding the division lead with a 6-2 record. Down the stretch, the Steelers have a fairly easy schedule, playing against both division inferiors Cincinnati and Cleveland twice, as well as Kansas City and St. Louis. The Steelers will walk away from the AFC North as champions once again, leaving the frustrated Baltimore Ravens at second once again.
The Ravens at one point looked like the best team in the AFC, but have since had some struggles, losing to the Jaguars, Titans, and nearly losing to the Cardinals before coming back and winning the game. However, I do believe that the Ravens are a very talented team, and will finish the season with a 12-4 record, a record that should give them the division in most circumstances, but given the tough division they play in, they will just miss out.
The Bengals are a lot better than people expected, but they are still going to struggle in the second half of the year. They still have to face Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice, as well as other difficult opponents in Tennessee and Houston. The Bengals will stumble a bit as they close out the season, but will still finish the season with a respectable 8-8 record.
The Browns, despite their improvements, will finish last in the AFC North. Although they have some solid players, and an improving front office, they are in a tough division while still in a rebuilding mode.
AFC North Standings:
Pittsburgh Steelers: 13-3
Baltimore Ravens: 12-4
Cincinnati Bengals: 8-8
Cleveland Browns: 5-11
In past years, the Texans were always seen as the team that had a lot of potential, but would always be overshadowed by Peyton Manning and the Colts. This year, with Peyton Manning gone, it is the Texans' time to shine, and so far, they are taking advantage of the opportunity, as they are currently leading the division.
The Titans are a team that caught many off guard, but with Matt Hasselbeck playing well, they have proven that they can contend in the division, as well. The Titans will have a very good year this year, but unfortunately, will be one game shy from winning the division title, and because of the strong AFC conference, will miss out on the playoffs.
The Jaguars and the Colts both look like their season is just about over, with the Jaguars possibly regretting the decision to cut David Garrard, and the Colts realizing just how important their quarterback really is. The Jaguars will win a few games by the end of the year, but the Colts will only win one, and as a result, will win the Andrew Luck sweepstakes, that is, if they choose to accept it.
AFC South Standings:
Houston Texans: 11-5
Tennessee Titans: 10-6
Jacksonville Jaguars: 4-12
Indianapolis Colts: 1-15
The Chargers are notorious for their early season slump and their late season surge. This year, they are at 4-3 after a disastrous loss to the Chiefs, and face a very tough challenge ahead next week when they play the Packers. However, I do feel that they have the talent, and the easy schedule, to make yet another late season run to finish the season at 11-5.
The Chiefs and the Raiders will be in contention all season long, but they will both stumble at the end of the year, as Carson Palmer will prove that he still needs some time to grow into the new offense, and the Chiefs will prove to be too banged up to make a legitimate run.
The Broncos, on the other hand, will have another difficult year, as this is a team that has some more rebuilding to do, whether or not they have a legitimate NFL quarterback or not.
AFC West Standings:
San Diego Chargers: 11-5
Oakland Raiders: 8-8
Kansas City Chiefs: 7-9
Denver Broncos: 4-12