As Week 9 comes to a close and Week 10 appears on the horizon, the time to check the potential playoff scenarios is well in swing.
If I were to tell you in the preseason that the Cincinnati Bengals would be the best team in the AFC this late into the year, would you believe me? What about a San Francisco 49ers team that’s exceeded expectations by miles? And how about the fact the Indianapolis Colts are 0-9 and have no chance to contend for a Super Bowl?
The National Football League has a funny way of stirring up entertainment.
These standings are current as of Tuesday, Nov. 8. Nearly every team has served its bye week, but there are still two weeks of byes remaining. Accordingly, some teams have played more games than others, so the records may not match in total games.
Tiebreakers are also used in this current scenario (head-to-head wins, conference victories, division record, etc.).
So what if the NFL playoffs were to start tomorrow? What would Wild Card weekend look like and who would be enjoying January from the golf course?
Here’s where the playoffs stand at this very moment:
Yes, the Bengals with a rookie quarterback aren’t just the best team in the AFC North but in the entire AFC as well.
Not to take anything away from the solid start of Andy Dalton and that stingy Bengals defense, but there are some smoke and mirrors behind this 6-2 record.
The opponents Cincinnati has faced in its first eight weeks have a 16-33 record combined (Browns, Bengals, Jaguars, Colts and Seahawks included). Of those 16 wins, seven are held by the 49ers, that barely edged the Bengals in Week 3 by a 13-8 score.
Cincinnati’s defense is ranked in the top five league-wide in points, total yards and rushing yards allowed. The Bengals also have the 10th best pass defense in the NFL.
The Bengals have yet to be really tested true AFC North style. Cincy still has to play the Steelers and Ravens twice each. The Bengals hosts Pittsburgh in Week 10 and travel to Baltimore in Week 11.
If the Bengals can split those series 2-2, they will be hard to leap in the division. Should Cincinnati really win the North, they need to perform in crunch time the next two weeks.
With the absence of Peyton Manning for the Colts, this seems destined to be the year for the Texans to wear the AFC South crown.
The most surprising fact behind Houston’s fast start is that the team’s defense is outperforming the offense. Houston may have a top ten offense in multiple categories, including the second-best rushing attack, but the defense is ranked in the top four in total yards, rushing yards, passing yards and points allowed.
The addition of former Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips has made an obvious impact on one of the worst defenses from 2010. Even without Mario Williams for the rest of the year, Houston is excelling in forcing a pass rush and takeaways (+7).
Things look well in hand for the Texans in the division. Other than the Tennessee Titans, who have a problem running the football, no one seems to be within shouting distance of leapfrogging Houston. The South should be theirs.
Sad that the Patriots are behind the Bengals and Texans in conference rankings, but it’s true.
The once seemingly invincible Patriots have issues galore on the defensive side of the pigskin. New England is dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (314 yards/game). What’s funny is that the Pats also have the league’s best passing attack (326 yards/game).
Giving up basically as many yards as you gain is much like a scenario where you’re in a boat with a leak. You can bail water out all you want, but if the water goes out just as much comes in, then no real progress is being made.
Takeaways are also an issue for New England. They have turned the ball over the exact amount of times they’re taking it away.
The offense for the Patriots is a top five caliber attack any week, regardless the opponent. But if the defense can’t force more pressure, takeaways and limit yards, it will be hard to win the Super Bowl when every game is a Western-style shoot out.
The one Achilles’ heel for the Chargers over the last handful of seasons has been getting off to a slow start.
In 2010, San Diego started 2-3 and needed an 11-0 finish to the season to make it to the playoffs.
The 2009 Chargers stumbled out of the gate with a mark of 3-5. A four-game winning streak ended the season and got San Diego to the postseason.
Yet another example: 2008 featured a 5-5 San Diego start and a six-game win streak to end the campaign. Again, the Bolts barely made the playoffs.
Here the 2011 Chargers sit with a 4-4 record to begin the year.
Picking up on a trend?
Left on the schedule for the Bolts are three divisional games (two with the Raiders and one with the Broncos). There are also games against the Bears, Lions, Bills and Ravens remaining on the docket.
It’s as simple as this for Philip Rivers and company: the time to start winning games is now.
A turnover ratio of minus-8 doesn’t make things easy, either. Rivers has 14 interceptions against only 11 touchdowns.
No surprise the Ravens are a playoff team as of right now. Other than a couple of letdown games against the Tennessee Titans and that disaster Monday Night Football contest in Jacksonville, Baltimore has looked reliable and relentless.
The defense has been the backbone to the team’s success, as to be expected. Overall, the Ravens have the second-toughest defense to score and pick up yards against. The Ravens are allowing fewer than 193 yards passing and 87 yards rushing a week.
The one flaw for the Ravens has been the turnovers. Baltimore is not taking away the football as often as it would like.
Offensively, the Ravens have enjoyed a nice increase in the passing department. Quarterback Joe Flacco and WR Anquan Boldin have connected 41 times for 627 yards and two scores already.
Boldin has proven to be the safety net for Flacco this season and he’s being used in such a role when the game’s on the line.
A very soft second-half schedule seems to make the Ravens a shoo-in for a playoff berth.
The team that held the title of “Best in the AFC” just a week ago now finds itself as the No. 6 seed: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The reason for the fall is much more dramatic in seeding than it really was in the division. A Ravens head-to-head win against the Steelers and Bengals victory Week 9 dropped the Steelers to third in the AFC North.
Pittsburgh’s offense was slow out of the gate this season, scoring just seven touchdowns in its first four games. Rashard Mendenhall had a tough time churning out yards, and Ben Roethlisberger was missing targets left and right.
Since Week 5 however, the Steelers have dropped 20 points or more four of their next five games, including two 30-plus point contests. Roethlisberger has taken the offense on his shoulders and aired out some very nice games in that span.
Not much needs to be said of Pittsburgh’s defense. It is what it’s supposed to be: a top five defense in all major categories.
The lone red flag for the Steelers is the turnover ratio. Pittsburgh has untraditionally turned the ball over 11 more times than it’s taken it away. That needs to change if a Super Bowl run is imminent.
I dare you to find a chink in the armor of the defending Super Bowl champions.
Nothing in the stat sheets imply the Packers aren’t going to be right there when this season ends, looking to play in Super Bowl XLVI.
The league’s highest scoring offense has blown most of its opponents out of the water. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has the passing game looking unstoppable. Rodgers and his 2,619 yards, 24 touchdowns, three interceptions and 129.1 passer rating seem a lock for the MVP.
The only statistic that may be misleading is the passing yards allowed per week (400 yards/game, 30th in NFL). Logic would imply this: when playing the Packers and you’re getting beaten early and quickly, what other choice do you have but to pass and pass often?
All the talk surrounding Green Bay for the rest of the season will revolve around the team’s undefeated record. Can this team be beaten? Yes, the Chargers came back within a score last weekend and nearly forced overtime.
The Packers have the Vikings, Buccaneers, Lions, Giants, Raiders, Chiefs, Bears and Lions again left on the schedule. There are plenty of trap games inside that schedule.
Is it more important to lock up the No. 1 seed and home field so you can rest your starters or chase the infamous 19-0 record?
One of the teams who seemed destined to be the most negatively affected by the NFL lockout was the 49ers.
A brand new coaching staff ushered in the Jim Harbaugh era. And boy, has Harbaugh turned things around for San Francisco.
If not for a 27-24 loss against the Cowboys in Week 2, we’re talking about an 8-0 49ers squad.
How is the team winning when San Fran is 26th in total yardage and 30th in passing yards?
The running game, sixth best in the NFL, is averaging nearly 140 yards weekly. Frank Gore has broken out for a tremendous first half.
On 159 carries, Gore has 782 yards and five touchdowns. Remember, Gore had only 148 rushing yards in the first three weeks combined.
The other key ingredient has been the total opposite: the run defense. Nobody in the NFL is tougher to run against than San Francisco. The 49ers are holding opposing running backs to 71 yards a game, best in the NFL.
It sure seems as if the 49ers are a playoff lock at this point. It’s hard to imagine that the Seahawks (2-6), Cardinals (2-6) or Rams (1-7) could mathematically jump San Fran.
When the 49ers get to the playoffs, however, what will they do? Are they a one-and-out with a lack of experience? Or is this a team that could actually contend for the Lombardi Trophy?
The New York Giants, the NFC’s current No. 3 seed, are much like the AFC’s No. 3 seed, the New England Patriots.
Both feature offenses that live and die with the passing game. Both neglect the run except in the red zone. Both give up just as many yards as they pick up themselves.
Kudos to quarterback Eli Manning for how he’s taking charge of this team and keeping consistency even with injuries in his backfield and at receiver. Manning has done a great job managing with the bumps and bruises of his playmakers.
The Giants are benefactors of a bad division this season. The NFC East has laid an egg for the most part. The “dream team” Eagles have failed to take flight, the Redskins are playing with a head coach who can’t decide on a running back or quarterback and the Cowboys...well, they just disappoint like they’re paid to do it.
If New York can survive the next four weeks, the division should be theirs. Weeks 10-13 feature games at San Francisco, vs. the Eagles, at the Saints and vs. the Packers. All four of those teams are capable of putting up some serious points.
Should the Giants make it out 2-2 or better, the playoffs will be an almost certainty.
The beauty of the NFL is evident in cases such as this. The high and mighty Saints are currently the worst division leader in the NFC.
The easier half of the schedule is over for the Saints. The second-half run will feature some huge games that will ultimately help shape the NFC playoff race.
New Orleans gets the arch rival Atlanta Falcons in Georgia this weekend before their bye week, followed by home games against the Lions and Giants. The New Orleans-Atlanta rematch will take place in Week 16 at the SuperDome.
The motor driving the Saints is franchise quarterback Drew Brees. With Brees at the helm this season, New Orleans is the second highest scoring team with the second highest passing and total yards averages.
How far the Saints climb in the playoff picture will come down to one simple factor: winning divisional games. The Saints have already split with the Buccaneers and barely edged the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.
New Orleans has to do damage against the Dirty Birds and one more time vs. the Panthers, and the South is theirs.
Take care of your own business and good things will happen.
Here’s where things stand with the Motor City Kitties. If they can find a way to beat the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field this upcoming Sunday, they have basically punched a Wild Card spot, assuming they don’t lose out.
The Lions got off to a red hot 5-0 start including two NFC North wins. Detroit then dropped two home games against NFC playoff contenders (49ers and Falcons). The ship was righted in Week 8 when the Lions demolished Tim Tebow and the Broncos in Denver before hitting their bye.
Detroit has had two weeks to prepare for this huge game against Chicago. A win would give them the tiebreaker against the Bears, which would be essential for their success.
There are still some very tough games remaining on the schedule for the Lions. Detroit still has to face the Saints, Chargers and Green Bay twice.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford and his 10th-ranked passing game have to be crisp and accurate to keep the Lions moving downfield. A lack of a running game could hurt the Lions down the road, but only time will tell.
Again, one win this weekend and this team seems bound for Wild Card weekend.
The final Wild Card team to emerge from the NFC right now would be the Chicago Bears, fresh off an impressive NFC road win Monday night against the Eagles.
Which Bears team will be around for the rest of the season? Will we see the pass-happy Bears who throw 50 times a week, neglect the run and give up huge plays in the secondary, or will we see the balanced Bears offense and the matching defense that contains home runs?
It's incredible how things change in just the span of four weeks.
Since the Monday night loss at Detroit in Week 5, the Bears have racked up three consecutive victories using a revamped play-calling belief.
Dating back to the Sunday night home game against the Minnesota Vikings, the London game against the Buccaneers and Monday night’s game in Philadelphia, the Bears have passed nearly as often as they have run.
Defensively, the Bears need to continue doing what they’re been doing as of late. Chicago is well known for its Cover 2 shells. The Bears are causing turnovers and confusion because they’re sticking with the Cover 2 but also rotating into some Cover 3 and single high safety looks.
Another big plus for the Bears right now is they have head-to-head wins against many of the fellow Wild Card pursuers: the Falcons, Bucs and Eagles. That could prove to be critical if tiebreakers are needed.
Put all these pieces together and stick with the game plan, and the Bears will be in fair shape with a few more wins here and there.
Brett Lyons is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official interview materials.
Follow Brett Lyons on Twitter @BrettLyons670.