NFL Power Rankings Week 11: Projecting the Entire NFL Playoff Picture
Every day means one day closer to the end of the NFL season, which is a scary and sad thing to think about.
But that also means we're drawing ever nearer to the playoffs, and after 10 weeks of regular-season action, the picture is slowly but surely becoming clearer.
At 6-3, the New York Giants lead the NFC East and appear at first glance to have the best chance of winning it outright. However, one look at their remaining schedule proves that it's anything but an easy path to the postseason for the division's most consistent team.
In their remaining seven games, the Giants take on the Dallas Cowboys twice, the undefeated Green Bay Packers, travel to New Orleans to face the Saints and have the New York Jets on the schedule for Week 16.
None of these teams are a cakewalk and with the Cowboys having an overall easier path to the postseason than New York, it will be the two games the divisional rivals have yet to play against one another that will determine the division's outcome.
Despite the difficult schedule, I see the Giants besting the Cowboys and grabbing the No. 1 spot in the NFC East. However, the Cowboys have more than a good chance of reaching the playoffs as a wild-card entrant.
Only the most epic of collapses could keep the Green Bay Packers out of the postseason and that's not going to happen. The Packers will probably win the NFC North and grab the No. 1 overall seed in the conference to boot.
While both the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions are seriously talented teams that have both made cases for themselves to be playoff contenders, only one of them will likely play football in January as a wild-card team.
The Lions have two meetings with the Packers ahead of them, along with games against the New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders. The Bears also see the Raiders, in Week 12, and have a single contest against the Packers in their future.
Based on strength of schedule alone, I see the Bears and not the Lions reaching the playoffs this year.
The NFC South is currently led by the New Orleans Saints, but the Atlanta Falcons and even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are threatening to overtake them.
However, the Saints have amassed quite a resume of playoff appearances and know what it takes to remain dominant through the all-important months of November and December.
Atlanta's remaining schedule is a tour through the NFC and AFC South divisions, while the Saints have a tougher path to the postseason, with the New York Giants and Detroit Lions back-to-back in Weeks 12 and 13.
I see the Saints winning the division; if either the Bears or the Cowboys fall short of a wild-card berth, then that honor will fall to the Falcons.
This is clearly the easiest division to predict now that 10 weeks of the season are behind us.
The San Francisco 49ers are 8-1, leading what is otherwise the worst division in the league. They've all but clinched their playoff spot already, and there's little chance any of their fellow NFC West teams will see the postseason this year.
The New England Patriots, at 7-3, are the top team in the AFC East and, with six below-.500 teams ahead of them, seem to have the divisional title locked.
That is, if the team can remain dominant. They've been shaky on defense (though appeared improved in their convincing Week 10 win over the New York Jets) and quarterback Tom Brady isn't invincible.
But if there's one thing the Patriots know how to do, it's reach the playoffs. With that easy schedule ahead of them (the easiest in the NFL for the final six weeks of the season), New England will clinch the AFC East title and skate into the postseason.
The Jets and Buffalo Bills, both at 5-4, have a chance to enter the postseason as wild-card entrants, but one look at the Bills' youth and inexperience makes it appear more likely that the Jets would make it to the playoffs should the AFC East field a wild-card team.
The AFC North is the NFL's most hotly-contested division at the moment, with the 7-3 Pittsburgh Steelers having a tenuous hold over the No. 1 spot over the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals, both 6-3.
Even more confusing is the way the three teams' wins and losses are distributed. The Steelers have lost twice to the Ravens, but the Ravens just fell to the Seattle Seahawks, a team Pittsburgh already defeated, 24-0.
Pittsburgh dropped its game against the Houston Texans, who the Ravens beat in Week 6, but defeated the Tennessee Titans, who defeated the Ravens.
And at the same time, the Bengals have yet to beat one of the league's best teams, aside from their Week 4 besting of the Bills.
All of this makes for one confused playoff picture.
The Steelers just beat the Bengals in their first meeting of the season, but have another one ahead. The Ravens face Cincinnati themselves for the first time this coming Sunday, and both the Ravens and the Steelers have yet to take on the lowly Cleveland Browns.
So what does it all mean? Well, both the Ravens and the Steelers have the 49ers ahead, with Pittsburgh facing them in Week 15 and the Baltimore in Week 12.
The outcomes of these two games will ultimately determine which of these two teams make the playoffs as a divisional winner and which as a wild card. Either way, both the Ravens and the Steelers should be playing football into the new year.
Earlier in the season, it seemed that the Tennessee Titans would be in a tight race with the Houston Texans for ultimate control of an up-for-grabs AFC South.
Now, through 10 weeks, it looks like the division is Houston's to lose, with the Texans having a two-game regular-season and divisional-record lead over Tennessee.
The Texans, on the bye in Week 11, have a far easier slate of opponents than the Titans for the remainder of the season.
While that fact alone won't secure the Texans the divisional title, in combination with their well-balanced style of play it means they'll reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Three of the AFC West's four teams have a 4-5 record, while the Oakland Raiders sit precariously at the top of an ever-changing division with a 5-4 record.
Identity crises plague all four teams.
The San Diego Chargers aren't living up to their immense potential, instead taking on the personality of uncharismatic head coach Norv Turner.
The Raiders seem to have all the necessary weapons to march into the postseason, but quarterback Carson Palmer is still a major question mark.
The Denver Broncos keep managing wins in spite of themselves, most recently defeating the Kansas City Chiefs, though quarterback Tim Tebow completed only two passes.
And those Chiefs keep showing flashes of competency, but then shoot themselves in the foot, turning a four-game win streak in a two straight losses, and now quarterback Matt Cassel has an injured throwing hand.
The Chiefs' inconsistencies—and a very difficult schedule ahead of them—will keep the team out of the playoffs this year. The Broncos have a similarly tough time ahead, which doesn't bode well for Tebow's chances to eke out wins without having to pass the ball.
That leaves just the Chargers and Raiders as possibilities to win the AFC West. Neither have an easy path to the postseason, but one team will have to make it.
Based on the team's ferocity and desire, in concert with their considerable depth of talent, I see the Raiders fighting their way to an AFC West title, while the Chargers will struggle to see the postseason as a wild-card entrant.
NFL Power Rankings, Week 11*
1. Green Bay Packers
2. San Francisco 49ers
3. Houston Texans
4. New Orleans Saints
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
6. New England Patriots
7. Cincinnati Bengals
8. Baltimore Ravens
9. Chicago Bears
10. Dallas Cowboys
11. New York Jets
12. Detroit Lions
13. New York Giants
14. Buffalo Bills
15. Oakland Raiders
16. Atlanta Falcons
17. Tennessee Titans
18. San Diego Chargers
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
20. Miami Dolphins
21. Kansas City Chiefs
22. Seattle Seahawks
23. Jacksonville Jaguars
24. Denver Broncos
25. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Minnesota Vikings
27. Arizona Cardinals
28. Cleveland Browns
29. St. Louis Rams
30. Carolina Panthers
31. Washington Redskins
32. Indianapolis Colts
*Subject to change pending outcome of Monday night's Packers-Vikings contest.
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