Updated NFL Playoff Predictions
There's still plenty of time to decide the playoff picture with six weeks of NFL action still on the slate, but with Green Bay moving to 10-0 and the Colts finally eliminated from contention even in the AFC South, the Polaroid is ready for shaking.
Even the divisional races are starting to take shape, with Dallas surging back behind New York in the NFC East and San Francisco well ahead in the NFC West. Houston seems to have a hold on the AFC South, and the AFC North is looking more like a two-team race again with the Bengals dropping back-to-back divisional games.
But with the AFC West almost single-handedly muddying the Wild Card situation in that conference, and the NFC North doing the same on their side, there's some wiggle room for more than a few teams who may have been written off earlier in the year.
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4. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings have shown signs of life with rookie Christian Ponder under center, and although he's made his share of mistakes, he's also providing big plays from the quarterback position, something not seen in Minnesota since 2009. They won't sniff the postseason this year, but they could very well be the Lions of 2012. Maybe 2013.
3. Chicago Bears
If I'm betting on one non-Green-Bay AFC North team to make the playoffs, it's the Bears. Unlike the Lions, Chicago relies on their defense and possesses an offense good enough to capitalize on their defense's play. They also have Devin Hester, who routinely gives them the best field position possible. The schedule, which still includes Denver, Kansas City, Seattle and Minnesota, couldn't be much better.
2. Detroit Lions
The Lions still look like a playoff team with their 7-3 record, but they don't always feel like a playoff team. In the past five weeks, they've been beaten by San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago, pausing only to drop 45-plus on the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, the NFL's two worst teams from a season ago. They still have an edge over the Bears due to a better divisional record, but that could change after a visit from the Packers next week.
DIVISION WINNER: Green Bay Packers
The Packers reached 10-0 for the first time since 1962, when they won the NFL Championship Game, with their win over the stubborn Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Aaron Rodgers is from another world where they don't allow incompletions, and the defense is more opportunistic than their stat sheet would suggest. They're the NFL's team to beat, and they're easily the class of a pretty classy division. The No. 1 seed is theirs for the taking.
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4. Washington Redskins
What do you call it when a team goes back to Rex Grossman as their starting quarterback? Seriously, what's that called? Has it ever happened before? All jokes aside, the wheels are falling off this team in a hurry, and injuries and a lack of an offensive identity will continue to keep a pretty decent defense from winning many games. The playoffs are at least a quarterback, a running back, a few receivers, a cornerback and an offensive line away, and that could take a few seasons.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
It'd be a nice double-redemption story if Michael Vick somehow came back from injury and led the Eagles on a winning streak that culminated in a Wild Card berth or even a division title, but it's just not likely. Lost in the finger-pointing and repetitive injuries to Vick is the fact that this team just isn't very good. The defense still can't handle good running games, and the offensive line is a mixed bag of mediocre veterans and inexperienced rookies.
2. New York Giants
The Giants were on a serious roll before losses to the 49ers and Eagles, winning three straight and six-of-seven before getting Harbaugh-ed in San Francisco. They even beat the New England Patriots. Of course, that win over the Patriots is New York's only victory over a team with a winning record, and the schedule is seriously backloaded. The way the slate sets up, the Giants could be trending down just as the Cowboys hit a serious groove.
DIVISION WINNER: Dallas Cowboys
Don't look now, but the Cowboys have won three in a row, and they get two tune-up games (Miami, @Arizona) before hosting the New York Giants in Week 14. By that time, the Giants, who face the Saints and Packers over the next two weeks, could be sitting in second place in the NFC East. Tony Romo has tossed eight touchdown passes since his last interception, and DeMarco Murray has given this offense some balance. If the defense can continue to improve, the division is theirs.
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4. Carolina Panthers
The playoffs aren't in Carolina's immediate future, but there's at least hope accompanying the end of this season. Cam Newton has been a verified maniac at quarterback, using a monstrous arm and sneaky agility to keep the Panthers in nearly every game they've lost this season. This team still has work to do on both sides of the ball, but they won't sit quietly in the NFC South cellar for long.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No one said it would be easy, but beating Green Bay on the road today could have done a lot to prolong Tampa's stay on life support in the playoff race. Instead, the Bucs are 4-6 with two divisional road games and a visit from Dallas still left on the slate. The good news is that this team is young, but they'll have to wait until at least 2012 to make their postseason debut.
2. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons dropped their home chance to beat the Saints when Mike Smith made a Playstation decision from his own 29. That hasn't completely ended their hopes of a division title, but it's a lot less probable now that they'll likely have to beat New Orleans in New Orleans to clinch it. Thankfully, the schedule provides only one more outdoor game for Matt Ryan, meaning a Wild Card berth is not out of the question.
DIVISION WINNER: New Orleans Saints
Outside of today's semi-scare with Tampa Bay, no team in the league has even come close to beating Green Bay the way New Orleans did in the opener. Measuring one team's greatness based on a loss to a great team is a risky strategy, but when the Saints are on, they're almost unbeatable. They haven't lost at home all season, which is where they'll get to play the New York Giants, Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers. They'll save Tennessee and Minnesota for the road, on their way to at least a Wild Card Round home game.
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4. St. Louis Rams
The Rams were so close a season ago after making the right call with rookie sensation quarterback Sam Bradford. Then their offensive coordinator took another job and they had no time to teach Josh McDaniels' new offense to their new star. Injuries and a scattered, unfocused defense nearly kept the Rams from winning a game, but this season was supposed to be a step forward, not a collapse. They're further from the postseason than they appeared in 2010.
3. Arizona Cardinals
Maybe all that money will make Kevin Kolb a good quarterback in 2012. For now, he's an injured player who might have actually needed some time away from the field to learn this offense before heading back out and attempting to drive it. The defense is a perpetually underachieving unit, and the offensive line hasn't been addressed since Clinton was in office. Major changes might be on the horizon, but either way, there won't be any playoff appearances from the Cards any time soon.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Does it really matter who finishes second in this division? The Seahawks were able to escape to the playoffs with a losing record a season ago, but San Francisco's made that an impossible scenario this time. Until Seattle is able to find a legitimate starting quarterback, they'll fail to capitalize on what has otherwise been a nice job by coach Pete Carroll.
DIVISION WINNER: San Francisco 49ers
It doesn't matter if Harbaugh is the nicest guy in the world or the NFL's equivalent of the "jackass" guy from Happy Gilmore, he's winning. The Niners may very well be the league's second-best team, and with the second-best record, it's hard to deny San Francisco those claims. This division is as watered-down as it gets, but the 49ers are winning games, and they'll be making their first appearance in the playoffs since 2002. How far they make it remains to be seen, but a first-round bye should help their cause.
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4. Cleveland Browns
This time a season ago, we thought the Browns might have found an offensive identity with Colt McCoy under center and Peyton Hillis in the backfield. However, Hillis has been dealing with wicked strep throat and a serious lack of zeroes in his paycheck, and McCoy is still wondering why anyone thought he was an NFL starter in the first place. The defense has good young talent, and the offense is closer than it looks, but the playoffs are obviously a few years away.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
There's no reason to pile on the Bengals after their second straight loss. No one really believed they were in Baltimore or Pittsburgh's class when their records were all so similar a couple of weeks ago, so there's no point to rubbing it in now. This team is stingy, and they have only four losses, making them a legitimate playoff threat at the moment. But with games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Houston still on the slate, the AFC might run out of Wild Card slots.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers had their chances against Baltimore in Week 9, but a second loss to the Ravens was unavoidable, and their shot at winning the AFC North may have disappeared after Joe Flacco's late TD pass. There's only one team with a winning record left on their schedule, but this group is starting to show their age, and they're running out of ways to bail themselves out. If the postseason is in their future, it'll be as a Wild Card team.
DIVISION WINNER: Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have been as schizophrenic as any team in the league this season, but as the Week 11 dust settles, they're still sitting atop the vaunted AFC North, undefeated in divisional play, owning two wins over the Steelers and one over the Bengals. If the offense and defense ever both show up, they'll have a real shot at making a deep playoff run. For now, they're at least looking at a first-round bye.
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4. Miami Dolphins
Don't look now, but this might be the division's second-best team by the time the season ends, even if the records won't reflect it. Miami has been in nearly every game they've played this season, and although they won't be getting anywhere near the playoffs themselves, they'll happily play the role of spoiler for the rest of the AFC East. If they get the right quarterback in the draft, they could have a Lions-esque season in 2012.
3. Buffalo Bills
We've seen this from the Bills before. They're no stranger to fast starts and faster declines. Ryan Fitzpatrick appears to have signed his extension just in time, and with only five wins, there's still a strong chance Buffalo could be in a position to nab one of the 2012 draft's top passers. April's a long way off, but these are the kinds of things you have time to think about when you don't have to worry about inconvenient playoff games.
2. New York Jets
Like always, by default. The Jets, who have been to two straight AFC Championship Games, never seem to be that good or that bad, and they never cause much of a reaction when they limp into the playoffs thanks to rested starters around the league. They aren't in yet, and there's work to be done, but it just wouldn't be the postseason without New York around for no one to notice.
DIVISION WINNER: New England Patriots
It's hard to believe, but there was a time this season when both the Jets and the Bills were considered contenders in this division. The Patriots, after stomping the Jets and watching the Bills fall apart, have reclaimed their status as the class of the AFC East, and they're starting to look like a safe bet for a first-round bye. Tom Brady is still Tom Brady, and Wes Welker is still Wes Welker, but the defense is finally starting to show up, making a Super Bowl run a real possibility.
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4. Indianapolis Colts
Peyton Manning should win the MVP award even if he doesn't play a snap this season. The Colts have proven him more than worthy of being named the league's best player with their unbelievable ineptitude. They're the NFL's worst team by a safe distance, but they're also fortunately just one quarterback away from returning to the playoffs in 2012.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags are toast. Losing to the Browns was the final straw, and there's just not enough direction on this team to right the ship. Jacksonville needs a fresh start, and while that may or may not involve relocating, it will definitely involve patience. Blaine Gabbert deserves more time under center, but until he gets some weapons on the outside and a defense with a functioning secondary, it might not matter how slowly he develops.
2. Tennessee Titans
The Titans pretended to be a playoff-caliber team for a while, but Chris Johnson finally put his foot down. With Kenny Britt sidelined and no ground game to turn to, Tennessee has slowly but surely broken down. They're not far from contending for this division, but close doesn't win you any trophies in the NFL. If Jake Locker proves to be the answer at quarterback and Johnson decides to play next year, the Titans could push Indianapolis and Houston.
DIVISION WINNER: Houston Texans
It's a bittersweet season for the Texans. The division was finally theirs for the taking, and then they lost Mario Williams and Andre Johnson. But still, a devastating ground game and insanely improved defense picked up the slack... Until Matt Schaub was lost for the season. That last blow should prove to be too much to overcome once the playoffs start, but it shouldn't keep the Texans from at least making their first appearance. And who knows, maybe Matt Leinart really is a good quarterback...
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4. Kansas City Chiefs
Todd Haley's going to need a much better beard to get this team to the postseason. Matt Cassel is likely out for the season, joining Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry, and the rest of this team just isn't that good. Tamba Hali and Dwayne Bowe aren't enough to win a division, even one as weak as the AFC West. A new coaching staff and a new quarterback are likely sights in Kansas City in 2012.
3. San Diego Chargers
Philip Rivers' bad season is no longer just a slow start, and it's becoming apparent just how vital his consistency has been to this offense over the years. The defense lacks playmakers up front, and with Rivers struggling to close games on offense, teams are finding ways to beat San Diego late. The Chargers have now lost five in a row, and although the next three are winnable, the closing stretch of Baltimore, at Detroit, at Oakland should be enough to keep them out of the playoffs.
2. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders have found new life with Carson Palmer at quarterback and Michael Bush in the backfield. Since the bye week, Palmer and Oakland are 2-1, with two straight road wins and a rushing offense that can't be stopped. However, there's no feeling of certainty surrounding any of the Raiders' games, and they have a tough road ahead with Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago and San Diego all crammed into the late-season schedule.
DIVISION WINNER: Denver Broncos
Why not? This division, although not as weak as the NFC West, does contain the league's largest pool of mediocrity, and it's one of the only truly open divisions in the NFL. Denver's 4-1 since Tim Tebow took over, and while it hasn't been pretty offensively, they've been stout on defense and smart on both sides of the ball. A trip to San Diego and back-to-back home games against the Bears and Patriots will be tough tests, but if the Jets defense couldn't figure out how to stop this offense, how will San Diego's? Or New England's?
NFC Wild Card
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4. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons certainly looked like a much-improved team at times in their win over the Titans, but they lack consistency, and their passing defense is a major problem. The schedule is as easy as they could hope for over the final six weeks, but they dug too deep a hole to start the season, and they may not get in at 10-6, which would still represent a strong finish to the season.
3. Detroit Lions
The Lions have certainly flashed a few weaknesses since their 5-0 start, going just 2-3 since that time, but they've got the offensive talent to score on anyone, and getting Jahvid Best back will only help their cause. Still, this defense has dropped drastically since the season began, and at some point that should spell the difference between a shootout win and a shootout loss one too many times.
WILD CARD TEAM: New York Giants
The Giants, like most Wild Card teams, haven't been able to really hit their stride this season, though they've come close at times. Still, their Super recipe in 2007 involved a strong defensive line and a heady Eli Manning, and right now they have both. That could be enough to get them through a murderer's row to close the year.
WILD CARD TEAM: Chicago Bears
The Bears are peaking at a pretty good time, and they've got the schedule to keep the momentum rolling. Beating Detroit the way they did built a lot of confidence, and outside of a late-season trip to Green Bay, they should be favored from here on out. That'll be enough to clinch a Wild Card berth.
AFC Wild Card
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4. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals, even after dropping two straight, still own the second-best record of any team on this slide at 6-4. However, the schedule was deceivingly kind early and still requires Cincinnati to play Pittsburgh and Baltimore again in addition to Houston. Make no mistake, the Bengals will be in the mix until the end, but they're relying on one too many rookies in the toughest division in the NFL.
3. Oakland Raiders
Beating the Jets definitely helps, but there's something about this team that just doesn't feel right. Carson Palmer is getting better, and I can only imagine the pain this ground game will inflict when Darren McFadden returns, but again, remaining games against Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit and San Diego should prove too much to overcome.
WILD CARD TEAM: New York Jets
I don't know how, but the Jets will make the playoffs. We've seen the same script in two straight seasons, and I'm not betting against it this time. Two straight losses have hurt, but the Giants are the only team with a winning record standing between the Jets and a 6-0 finish.
WILD CARD TEAM: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers may be slowing, but they're definitely nowhere near done. Two losses to the Baltimore Ravens still haven't kept the Steelers from getting to seven wins through 11 weeks, and they'll be a tougher out than some of the division winners. If they ever find a consistent ground game or offensive line group, they could make a lot of postseason noise.
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Wild Card Round
(6) New York Giants @ (3) New Orleans Saints
This game represents a rematch of a Week 12 contest that, like this one, will be played in New Orleans. That should provide enough of an edge for the Saints passing game against a secondary that has already overcome too much this season.
(5) Chicago Bears @ (4) Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys get home-field advantage here, but it's not enough against a Bears defense that completely shuts down Dallas' rushing attack and forces Tony Romo into his first interceptions since Week 8.
(6) New York Jets @ (3) Houston Texans
Once again, the Jets sneak into the playoffs and are immediately greeted with a prime matchup. Without Matt Schaub, the Texans are unable to find enough offensive balance, and the Jets focus on slowing Arian Foster and Ben Tate.
(5) Pittsburgh Steelers @ (4) Denver Broncos
In Pittsburgh, it'd be a slam dunk, but in Denver, there's something going on that not even James Harrison can explain. The Steelers keep it close and take a late lead before a familiar story unfolds with Denver winning. Improbably, of course.
(5) Chicago Bears @ (1) Green Bay Packers
It's a divisional three-match in Green Bay, and Jay Cutler actually plays the entire game this time. In fact, he plays the entire thing so well that the Packers lose only their second game of the season, putting the Bears back in the NFC Championship game.
(3) New Orleans Saints @ (2) San Francisco 49ers
There's no denying the Saints are better at home, and that fact keeps this one closer than it should be. Jim Harbaugh's magic finally runs out at the hands of Drew Brees, setting up another Big Easy NFC Championship Game.
(6) New York Jets @ (1) New England Patriots
The Jets get their wish with another shot at the Patriots, AFC Championship Game appearance hanging in the balance and all. However, it doesn't go so well this time, and this Pats-Jets game resembles the Week 9 meeting in an easy New England win.
(4) Denver Broncos @ (2) Baltimore Ravens
With Mile High miles away, the magic finally runs out for Denver and their impossible run to the second round. The Ravens are too sound on defense and offer too much Ray Rice in a solid win that gives them a shot at the Patriots with the Super Bowl on the line.
NFC Championship Game
(5) Chicago Bears @ (3) New Orleans Saints
The Saints, after a brief hiatus for a trip to San Francisco, return to their home field and it's tremendous advantages, where they again host a Bears team they dismantled 30-13 in Week 2. This one's closer, but it's still all Saints when Marion Barber is held out of the endzone on fourth down with seconds remaning.
AFC Championship Game
(2) Baltimore Ravens @ (1) New England Patriots
Neither team seems to want this one at first, with turnovers coming on both sides in a touchdown-less first half. However, Ray Rice takes over in the second half, scoring once and setting up three field goals as Baltimore sacks Tom Brady five times in a defensive win.
New Orleans Saints vs. Baltimore Ravens
The Saints use their experience to take an early lead on the eager Ravens, who turn it over twice in the first quarter before sustaining a long scoring drive at the end of the first half. The Saints come out hot again in the third quarter, opening up a two-score lead before Joe Flacco slowly works his way back, throwing a last second TD pass that makes it a one-point game. John Harbaugh, however, decides to go for two, which results in a tipped ball interception, sealing a second Super Bowl win for Drew Brees and the Saints.