Halfway through the season, the mess at the top of some divisions is trying to be sorted out. Unexpected teams are leading in a few cases and, despite playing surprisingly well, it's still hard to imagine these franchises getting to the playoffs.
Many will want to dismiss the listed franchises because of previous opinions on each team before the season started or because of ugly losses. Remaining schedules for each team as well as each team's style play a part in determining who will be left in the cold of January football.
There are more obvious teams to pick for the list, but I'm going "against the grain." I'll be part of the minority, but remaining schedules are one factor in deciding who makes the list.
Great things were expected from the Atlanta Falcons from most and many may be remorse, feeling they have no choice but to put New Orleans first in the division heading on the playoff course.
Enough of that. Atlanta has played one less game, but the Falcons have the same amount of losses as the Saints. The two play against one another this weekend and in Week 16 in New Orleans.
A head-to-head win this weekend in Atlanta would give the Falcons the NFC South lead and the more favorable schedule will lift Matt Ryan to the playoffs as the division winner for the second straight year.
Don't worry, Saints fans. New Orleans will beat Detroit in Week 13 to get a wild-card spot over the Lions.
And as for Tampa Bay, the loss of Gerald McCoy and the addition of Albert Haynesworth will result in Atlanta running all over Rahim Morris' defense Week 17 in the Georgia Dome—even if the Bucs find a way to get in gear for the first time all season.
Oakland now has the AFC West lead after Hue Jackson's Raiders beat the Chargers in San Diego. The two teams meet again in Oakland Week 17 and that game could very well decide which team makes the playoffs seeing how the AFC Wild Card situation is sticky.
Carson Palmer has shown improvement in each appearance while young receivers on the roster keep stepping up like Denarious Moore last night.
Oakland has the best quarterback for the rest of the season in the entire division with a defense that's good against the pass. Kansas City is a tougher matchup for the Raiders than the Chargers, but Todd Haley and Matt Cassel won't win enough to stay in serious competition for the division because of Kansas City's inconsistency .
If the playoffs started today, a phrase everyone hates for good reason, three NFC North teams would make the playoffs. The Lions are a game ahead of the Bears, but it's more likely Detroit falls out of the playoff picture by season's end.
After Chicago and Detroit meet next week, the Bears face decent but unspectacular teams with the exception of Green Bay Week 16. Minnesota, Kansas City, Denver, Oakland and Seattle are winnable games. Winning four would put Chicago at nine wins while the Bears would need to get a game against Green Bay or Detroit.
As for Detroit, Jim Schwartz's unit has the Packers on the schedule twice in addition to the Saints in the Superdome. Chicago didn't allow a sack for the first time in 30 games against a good Eagles pass-rush. Expect Mike Martz to use similar tactics of the Week 9 Monday Night Football game in the next meeting with Schwartz's defense.
Chicago's balanced offense suits Mike Martz's side of the ball well when the weather gets colder. The defense is starting to force more turnovers as well as getting better at stopping the run.
If Cincinnati wins two of those three while getting one win against Pittsburgh or Baltimore, Mike Brown's youth group will be at 10 wins. The number should be good enough to get Cincinnati in the playoffs as a wild card.
Expect three AFC North teams to play into January, but if two AFC East teams make it, the Steelers will be left out because Cincinnati will split the season series while already being a game ahead of Pittsburgh. Sorry for not predicting an AFC East winner, but anyone's guess on that is as good as mine.
Cincinnati is fourth defensively in points per game, one spot ahead of Pittsburgh, and the team has a better rotation of pass-rushers up front—especially with a banged up LaMarr Woodley. The Bengals are just three sacks behind the Steelers and they've played one less game.