NFL Contenders and Pretenders of Week 12
As week 12 of the 2011 NFL season draws to a close, let's look at a few teams who are on the playoff bubble and determine whether or not they are contenders or pretenders for the playoffs.
Many of these teams have similar records, but the teams that have favorable remaining schedules and/or are playing lights out football at this point in the year will be my contenders, while those that have tough remaining schedules and/or have been underachieving lately will be my pretenders.
Contender: Denver Broncos
Harry How/Getty Images
The Broncos are now a game back against the Oakland Raiders, and they arguably have a more favorable schedule down the stretch.
The only game that Denver won't have a decent chance to win is against the Patriots, while the Raiders face a hot Dolphins team as well as Green Bay and Detroit in consecutive weeks. If the Raiders go 1-2 and the Broncos go 2-1 over the next three games, the two teams would be tied going into their last two games.
Things don't look too bad for Denver right now, all things considered. Tim Tebow and the Broncos seem to just keep winning, so I wouldn't be all that surprised to see them in the playoffs at the end of the year.
Pretender: Buffalo Bills
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
With today's loss to the New York Jets, a very promising start to the 2011 season has come back down to earth for the Buffalo Bills.
The Bills have lost four straight after starting 5-2, and now they must win out to have any tangible shot at the playoffs. That doesn't look like a very good chance with the Titans, Chargers, Dolphins, Broncos and Patriots filling out the remainder of their schedule.
If the Bills lose even one more game, they basically have no chance at the postseason. Things don't look good with Fred Jackson headed to the IR.
Contender: Tennessee Titans
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
The Tennessee Titans are sitting at 6-5 after beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today and are still two games back in the division, but there are a few things that are keeping their playoff hopes alive.
Despite the Houston Texans improving to 8-3 with a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, second-string quarterback Matt Leinart got injured and gave way to fifth round rookie TJ Yates. The Texans still have a nice lead over the Titans, but if Yates doesn't have success in two tough games against the Falcons and the Bengals, things could get interesting.
Even better for the Titans, they are finally starting to get production from star running back Chris Johnson, who ripped through the Bucs for 190 yards on 23 carries today.
If the offense keeps clicking and the Texans give the Titans a little help with some losses down a tough stretch of schedule with a rookie quarterback, Tennessee could still conceivably win the division.
Pretender: Philadelphia Eagles
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
The Philadelphia Eagles could still technically win their division if they won out and both the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants collapsed down the stretch, but unless that happens, the Eagles' playoff hopes are dashed.
The Eagles started off well against the Patriots today, going up 10-0, but then Tom Brady got going and the Patriots built a 38-13 lead before ultimately prevailing 38-20.
Vince Young is doing okay in the absence of Michael Vick, but the defense continues to struggle and it would be a big surprise if they won more than seven games this season.
Contender: Atlanta Falcons
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Atlanta Falcons beat the Minnesota Vikings in less-than-impressive fashion today, but their record improved to 7-4 and they kept themselves in the thick of the playoff race.
Matt Ryan had an incredible day as he so often does in the Georgia Dome, completing 27 of 34 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns.
This offense is running on all cylinders at this point in the season, and the Falcons have a pretty favorable schedule down the stretch. If they win and lose the games they are supposed to, they would end up with a 10-6 or 11-5 record, but if they knock off the New Orleans Saints like they nearly did last time, they could win out and finish 12-4.
With the way Atlanta is playing right now, that's not completely out of the question. The only thing they have to be careful about is letting teams back into games, like they did with the Titans and Vikings in back-to-back weeks.
Pretender: San Diego Chargers
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
This pick is another fairly obvious one. At 4-7, the Chargers could also technically still win their division, but it would require a meltdown by the Oakland Raiders and the Denver Broncos. Between Carson Palmer and Tim Tebow, I doubt that will happen.
On top of meltdowns by the Raiders and Broncos, the Chargers would also have to win out, which means wins over teams like the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions as well as the Raiders at the end of the year.
Philip Rivers continues to play poorly and miscues continue to doom this team. It's hard not to imagine a coaching change taking place in San Diego this year.
Contender: Cincinnati Bengals
John Grieshop/Getty Images
The Cincinnati Bengals are another team that I've gone back and forth with, but despite their relatively tough remaining schedule, I'm calling them a contender because of the play of Andy Dalton and AJ Green.
Dalton and Green continue to hook up like two veterans, and their offense is looking better with the return of Cedric Benson at running back.
If they can somehow beat either the Ravens or the Steelers just once, and if their good defense can neutralize a crippled Houston Texans attack, the rest of their schedule is navigable.
An 11-5 record would likely get them into the playoffs. Could the AFC North have three teams in the playoffs? With the only other legitimate challengers being the Jets, Titans and Broncos, it's very possible.
Pretender: New York Jets
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
I was on the fence about the New York Jets, who are currently 6-5 after beating the Buffalo Bills 28-24 today, but I'm officially labeling them pretenders.
It's hard to count out Rex Ryan, and quarterback Mark Sanchez threw four touchdown passes today, but I just don't think the Jets are consistent enough to win four of their last five games, which is a must for them to even have a chance.
The Jets play the Redskins, Chiefs, Eagles, Giants and Dolphins to close out the season, and although that doesn't seem like too tough a stretch, it may be more difficult than it seems.
The Redskins finally ended their freefall with a 23-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks today, the Chiefs are a Jekyll-and-Hyde team that could show up and win (or lose) any game at any time, the Eagles have a great running game that could give New York some trouble, the Giants are still fighting to stay in the playoff hunt and the Dolphins have been playing some very good football lately.
It's hard to imagine the Jets winning all but one of those games, and even if they do finish 10-6, there's still a chance a team like the Bengals steals their wild-card spot. I can't get behind the Jets right now.