Thanksgiving weekend provided plenty of clarification and standings-shifting from the NFL, with the wild-card picture starting to come into focus.
The Broncos picked up yet another late win, beating the Chargers in overtime behind a miraculous quarterback and an underrated and hellacious defense. Green Bay stayed undefeated, and Indianapolis stayed winless.
The Bears proved that losing Jay Cutler is worse than gaining Carson Palmer, while the Texans hobbled their way to victory behind TJ Yates. The Falcons, Jets, Titans and Bengals all kept playoff hopes alive, but with only 12 invitations to hand out, the NFL playoffs will have to disappoint
The season definitely doesn't end today (you're welcome, Jets), but just in case you're wondering what would happen if it did, here's an updated look at the NFL playoffs.
4. Minnesota Vikings
There's some fight in this team, and they're managing to look younger than they actually are right now, for better or worse. The Vikings have some energy again with Christian Ponder under center, but they're at least a season away from competing in this division. Still, with some smart additions to both lines, this team could be the "Detroit Lions" of 2012. They just have to cut out the stupid mistakes.
3. Detroit Lions
The Lions are as schizophrenic as any team in the league, although it's no coincidence that all four of their losses have come against teams with winning records. That's bad news for a team that still has to play New Orleans, Oakland and Green Bay. If they can rein in a few of their stars and play with some consistency, there's a chance, but they're fading at the moment.
2. Chicago Bears
It appears that losing Jay Cutler might be too much for this defense to overcome. Carson Palmer threw for over 300 yards, and although the Bears ran the ball well, Caleb Hanie's three interceptions derailed the offense. The schedule lightens up considerably down the stretch with Kansas City, Seattle and Minnesota still to come, though games at Green Bay and at Denver could decide Chicago's postseason fate.
DIVISION WINNER: Green Bay Packers
This one's an even easier call this week after watching Green Bay dismantle a frustrated and ineffective Detroit team. The Packers are being mentioned as possible 16-0 candidates, but with the way their division is stumbling, they definitely won't have to run the table. Either way, they're still strong favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Aaron Rodgers is going to win more than one.
4. Washington Redskins
The 'Skins aren't as bad as their record will likely indicate at the end of the year, and they really seem to be a quarterback away from competing in their division. They won't sniff the playoffs this season, but the defense is underrated, and they could probably conjure a decent running game if there was any threat of completing a downfield pass. Next April should be huge for this franchise.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
I'm still betting on Philadelphia's talent over Washington's quarterback carousel. Neither of these teams is good enough to make the playoffs, but the Eagles have a shot at getting eight wins, and they get Washington at home after already knocking off the Redskins in D.C. It's not what Eagles fans hoped for during the preseason, but it'll have to do until the coaching situation is sorted out.
2. New York Giants
The Giants looked like the easy call in the East after the Eagles began to tumble while New York picked up six out of seven games. However, two weeks can change a lot about a team's outlook, and after dropping back-to-back contests against San Francisco and Philadelphia, the Giants are suddenly nearing must win mode on the road at New Orleans. The playoffs aren't out of the question, but with the Saints, Packers, Jets and Cowboys (twice) still on the schedule, it doesn't look good.
DIVISION WINNER: Dallas Cowboys
It seemed far fetched a few weeks ago, but the Cowboys are starting to look like clear-cut favorites in the NFC East. There are still two games remaining against the Giants, but tilts with the Cardinals, Buccaneers and Eagles soften the late-season blow. No one in the division is as hot as Dallas, winners of four straight, and if Tony Romo can continue to make smart decisions late in the game, the crown is theirs to lose.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This team is trending the wrong way at the wrong time, and there's not much standing between the Bucs and a total meltdown to end the season. With no rushing defense, games against Carolina, Houston and Atlanta will likely be too much to handle, and Dallas is simply a much better team. If the Panthers can continue to run the ball like they did today, they'll take over Tampa's role as the NFC South No. 3.
3. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers finally showed up on defense, which is an admittedly easier task against the Colts this season. Still, after giving up 79 points in two weeks, holding Indy to just 19 had to feel good. Two chances remain to beat Tampa and solidify their position as the division's third-best team, but games against Houston, New Orleans and Atlanta won't help.
2. Atlanta Falcons
This is the Falcons team we expected to see all season. Tough, physical running from the backfield and smart, efficient throws from Matt Ryan. Atlanta has quietly won five of their past six games, and they're looking more and more like a cinch Wild Card pick. They'll get a chance to even the score with the Saints in New Orleans, with only quarterback-less Houston, Carolina, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay remaining otherwise. That soft finish should get the Falcons to the postseason.
DIVISION WINNER: New Orleans Saints
The Falcons have come on strong in recent weeks, but this is the Saints' division to lose. New Orleans already stole one from Atlanta in the Georgia Dome, and beating the Saints at home just doesn't happen. Darren Sproles has given the offense a 2009 quality, and although the defense has been subpar, Drew Brees is playing well enough to guide them through a tough stretch that includes the Giants, Lions and Titans.
4. St. Louis Rams
This was supposed to be a major stepping-stone season for the Rams, but various injuries and a shortened offseason seem to have hit St. Louis the hardest. Sam Bradford has taken a few steps back with a short-handed offensive line in front of him, and the defense hasn't attempted to stop anyone all season. The playoffs seemed so close a season ago, but this team is still much too thin.
3. Arizona Cardinals
At least they're better than the Rams. When Beanie Wells shows up, he's a great running back, but this week's 228-yard performance marked only the second time all season that he's gone over 100, and it's hard to get the ground game going when your defense ranks 27th in the league. As always, the skill-position talent is there, but the lines are weak and the pass rush is nonexistent. The playoffs are pipe dream for now.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Seattle's closing slate is only slightly easier than Arizona's, but given that the 'Hawks own a win over the Cardinals, they get the edge. Pete Carroll is doing a great job considering he severely handicapped himself with his quarterback selections. That has to change in April, but until then, the Seahawks won't be able to win this division. With San Francisco awakening, losing records just won't cut it in the NFC West anymore.
DIVISION WINNER: San Francisco 49ers
For the first time in weeks, Jim Harbaugh didn't get a chance to skip to midfield. Big brother John and the city of Baltimore handed San Francisco their second loss of the season, but the Niners were in it all the way and proved that they'll be a tough out in the postseason. There's virtually no chance of missing out on a division title with only a visit from Pittsburgh breaking up a soft closing string of St. Louis, Arizona, Seattle, St. Louis.
4. Cleveland Browns
They're getting there, but the rushing defense has to improve, and the lack of any offensive firepower has cost this team more than a few games. Colt McCoy hasn't made the strides many expected him to make in his second season, but a strong ground game behind him would work wonders, as would a better right side of the offensive line. Either way, this division is too tough for a team still lacking any serious playmakers.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have been one of the real surprise teams in 2011, but their magic seems to be running out as the schedule transitions from laughable to menacing. Games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Houston still loom, but a winning record is within reach, which is no small step for the NFL's fourth-worst team a season ago.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers seem to play to the level of their competition nearly every time out, which kind of puts a damper on the fact that there are two remaining games against Cleveland and one against St. Louis. Still, the Steelers should find plenty of wins to clinch a wild-card berth, especially if they can get the ground game going. This defense isn't what it used to be, but they're still a few notches above Cincinnati.
DIVISION WINNER: Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens had their mettle tested by a visit from the 49ers, but even without Ray Lewis, their defense did an amazing job of slowing San Francisco. Their two wins over the Steelers are an even bigger step toward the playoffs, however, and with only one team with more than four wins left on the schedule, a trip to the postseason and first-round bye are almost foregone conclusions.
4. Miami Dolphins
Miami's decision to lose their first seven games, then win three in a row to muddy their chances of landing Andrew Luck was an odd one, but it's always tough to criticize a team for winning, right? Sure, Dallas ended the streak, but at least Miami is now only the worst team in their division, not the entire NFL. A quarterback is still sorely needed, despite Matt Moore's recent play, but the defense is legitimate.
3. Buffalo Bills
The 5-2 start is a distant memory now, and the Bills have dropped four in a row, including three AFC East games, to fall to 5-6. The playoffs looked like a smart bet after a win over New England, but it's clear that this team is a long way from competing in a division as strong as this one. The Bills may live to regret their decision to extend Ryan Fitzpatrick, especially if they again draft early enough to snag a franchise passer.
2. New York Jets
Once again, the Jets found a way to win a game that could have gone either way on multiple occasions. New York took advantage of Buffalo's swirling season to get back into the win column at 6-5. Like the Patriots, the Jets get a soft slate to close the year, with remaining games against the Dolphins, Eagles, Chiefs and Redskins. If they can find a way to beat the Giants, they could once again sneak into the playoffs.
DIVISION WINNER: New England Patriots
This is another easy call, with Buffalo completely swooning and the Jets having already dug too big a hole. The Patriots could certainly use a sounder defense, but the remaining schedule makes that a moot point. Denver is the only team left on the slate with a winning record, with the Pats getting Indianapolis, Washington, Miami and Buffalo as well. Their postseason stay may not last long, but at this rate, it won't start until the divisional round anyway.
4. Indianapolis Colts
They kept things closer against Carolina than most expected, but another loss is still another loss, and the Colts are now 0-11 and hurtling toward the No. 1 pick in next April's draft. The defense is awful again up front and in the secondary, and the offense was clearly all a product of Peyton Manning's imagination. There's always next year...if Manning returns.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
It's amazing that Jacksonville can be this bad and still not finish at the bottom of their division. The Jags benched rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert today, and although he'll apparently remain the starter, their lack of production from the quarterback position is killing them. The rest of this team is far from good enough to carry the load without help from the passing game. They might not make the playoffs again in Jacksonville.
2. Tennessee Titans
If the Titans had gotten this kind of production from Chris Johnson all season, they might be in a position to capitalize on Houston's misfortune. Instead, their win over the Tampa Bay Bucs simply pushed their record to 6-5, still well behind the 8-3 Texans who walloped Tennessee 41-7 in their first meeting. The playoffs are still technically possible, though a trip to Buffalo and a visit from New Orleans might be too much to overcome with a road game at Houston still looming in Week 17.
DIVISION WINNER: Houston Texans
At least Matt Leinart didn't throw any interceptions. As unfortunate as his left shoulder injury was, it's still a very real problem for the Texans. The ground game is great, and the defense is among the league's best, but you need more than rookie TJ Yates under center to win in the playoffs. Luckily, that prerequisite does not exist when it comes to winning such a lackluster division. Houston may be one-and-done, but it looks like their first playoff berth ever is only a few weeks away.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs seem to scrap in every game, and that's admirable from a team starting Tyler Palko at quarterback and Jackie Battle at running back. However, it's nowhere near enough to make the playoffs, even in the wacky, watered-down AFC West. Next year could see the Chiefs return to respectability, but it'll take a new identity and sustained health on offense. Whether that happens under Todd Haley remains to be seen.
3. San Diego Chargers
We all know it's coming. The Chargers will suddenly turn into the league's best team in December, though this year their spike will come much too late. Losing to Denver basically ended San Diego's season, and they'll only be playing spoiler from here on out. Norv Turner's time may have run out, and it's starting to look like the window has for a Chargers Super Bowl has closed.
2. Denver Broncos
The Broncos did it again. Honestly. They kept it close against the Chargers and found a way to win at the end. Tim Tebow will receive loads of credit, and he definitely deserves some, but this defense is quickly turning into one of the league's best. That's an amazing feat considering where they were just last season. They're not turning the ball over, they're running it very well, and they're playing amazing defense. That's a long-standing recipe for playoff success.
DIVISION WINNER: Oakland Raiders
Traveling to Green Bay and hosting Detroit won't be easy, but the Raiders are starting to look like a team that can split those contests, and that only leaves Miami, Kansas City and San Diego. It's not a light slate, but Oakland controls their destiny in the AFC West, and Carson Palmer gets better every game. Imagine how good they could be when Darren McFadden returns.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
In any other division, the Bengals would likely be able to secure a wild-card spot, but with four losses already and games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore still remaining, this young team looks to be a year or two away from postseason play. Still, they're definitely moving in the right direction, and at 7-4, there's always a chance.
3. New York Jets
The Jets definitely have a puncher's chance of making the playoffs, and if we're supposed to see history repeat itself, then maybe they'll once again back into the playoffs. However, their loss to Denver could turn out to be the difference in clinching the last wild-card slot. They're not dead yet by any means, but for now, they're on the outside looking in.
WILD CARD TEAM: Denver Broncos
Doubt them all you want, and laugh at the idea of a college-esque option game guiding a team to the playoffs, but Denver is finding a way to win every weekend. They're now 6-5 following a 5-1 run after switching to Tim Tebow under center, and the defense is playing lights out. With Jay Cutler out in Chicago, the New England game looks like the only tough test left.
WILD CARD TEAM: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are still a playoff team, even if their age is starting to show on both sides of the ball. The offensive line has been suspect all season, and the defense doesn't close games like the Steelers of old, but they have a very favorable closing stretch, and they should be able to easily finish with a playoff-clinching record.
4. New York Giants
That loss to Philadelphia really stings. It would have been much nicer to head to New Orleans at 7-3, especially with two games remaining against, gasp, division-leading Dallas. If that weren't enough, there's still a visit from Green Bay and a tilt against the Jets, as well. The Giants are a playoff-quality team, but they're schedule will prevent a postseason berth.
3. Chicago Bears
The Bears are close, and their defense is solid enough to win behind a strong, ball-control ground game. Of course, that's not Mike Martz's style, and his style may not breed enough offense to get by road trips to Denver and Green Bay. Their playoff hopes are far from dead, but they're wilting, and with no Jay Cutler to pilot the offense, they're a safer bet to lose a game or two that they shouldn't down the stretch.
WILD CARD TEAM: Detroit Lions
It comes down to the Lions or the Bears, and with Caleb Hanie at quarterback in Chicago, the slight edge has to go to Detroit. Sure, the Lions are disorganized and chaotic, but they have a healthy quarterback, Jahvid Best returning at some point and a defense that has played well when they're not busy losing their minds. Both teams have strong opponents remaining, but Detroit gets to handle theirs with their starting quarterback intact.
WILD CARD TEAM: Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons are playing well right now, though they're far from perfect. Close wins over Tennessee and Minnesota were nice, but the Vikings pushed hard at the end, and Houston and New Orleans are still on the schedule. Still, with Matt Schaub out, the Falcons should at least split those games, making an 11-win season a very real possibility.
Wild Card Round
(6) Detroit Lions at (3) New Orleans Saints
The Lions travel down to New Orleans for the second time, but the results are the same with the Saints winning an offensive game by taking over in the fourth quarter.
(5) Atlanta Falcons at (4) Dallas Cowboys
The Falcons aren't the same team on the road, but they tend to fare well when their trips are to indoor destinations. Tony Romo still can't get a second playoff victory as Atlanta wins going away.
(6) Denver Broncos at (3) Houston Texans
The Texans found a way into the playoffs without a quarterback by riding their defense and ground game, but that ends at home in the franchise's first playoff game. Houston goes up early, Denver keeps it close, Tebow starts to...eh, you know the drill.
(5) Pittsburgh Steelers at (4) Oakland Raiders
The Steelers face the Raiders in a physical game that features big plays down the field and massive hits on both passers. However, in the end, the Raiders ground game finds just enough room to move on to the divisional round.
(3) New Orleans Saints at (2) San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers get out to an early lead, and the Saints offense seems out of rhythm early, but the second half starts with an onside kick by New Orleans and a quick score from Darren Sproles. Brees leads a late-game field-goal drive to win it.
(5) Atlanta Falcons at (1) Green Bay Packers
Matt Ryan gets his outdoor playoff game against the team they hosted a season ago, and the results are nothing shocking. Aaron Rodgers in on point all game in a quick win for the Packers.
(6) Denver Broncos at (1) New England Patriots
For the teams' second meeting, the setting is New England, and Tom Brady solves the Broncos defense in the second half. Tim Tebow comes up just short as Matt Prater's 56-yard attempt sails wide right, sealing a two-point New England win.
(4) Oakland Raiders at (2) Baltimore Ravens
The Raiders finally find a brick wall they can' run through, watching as their ground game is stoned by Baltimore's defense. Joe Flacco makes just enough happen through the air to open up a porous Oakland rushing defense for Ray Rice.
NFC Championship Game
(3) New Orleans Saints at (1) Green Bay Packers
The Saints once again travel to Green Bay, but it's colder this time, and that severely affects the offensive production on both sides. Green Bay slowly pulls away all game, kneeling on their final drive to secure a two-touchdown win.
AFC Championship Game
(2) Baltimore Ravens at (1) New England Patriots
The Patriots are punched right up the middle by Baltimore's defense, leading to a few first-half turnovers. The Ravens don't capitalize entirely, but they do enough to extend a six-point halftime lead into a six-point win over New England.
Super Bowl XLVI
Green Bay Packers vs. Baltimore Ravens
Green Bay comes out hot in Indianapolis, taking an early two-touchdown lead before Ray Rice busts a long scoring run in the second quarter. The Packers head into halftime with a 21-10 lead, but that disappears quickly after a Joe Flacco-Torrey Smith hookup in the third. Baltimore ties it at 24 in the fourth quarter before Flacco is forced to watch from the sidelines as Aaron Rodgers hits Jordy Nelson for the game-winning TD.