Updated NFL Playoff Predictions
Division leaders are being swapped with wild card contenders, and also-rans are nearing the time when elimination is imminent.
The Broncos, after a 1-4 start, are now 7-5 and sitting atop the AFC West. The Dolphins have relished the role of spoiler, dominating the once sure-thing Oakland Raiders.
Even the Houston Texans are shaping the playoff race, winning two straight with TJ Yates and hurting Atlanta's chances in the process.
The Packers stayed perfect in a close call against the Giants, who are somehow still not out of the NFC East race, despite losing four in a row.
They can thank the Dallas Cowboys, who have only beaten one team with a winning record and managed to fall to the Arizona Cardinals in overtime.
There's uncertainty and skepticism surrounding every division leader in the AFC and a laundry list of teams dying for a shot at the Packers in the NFC.
Let's break it down by division and see who really has a shot at extending their season.
4. Minnesota Vikings
They haven't quit, and that's a testament to coach Leslie Frazier, as well as rookie quarterback Christian Ponder, who looks like the next big thing under center in Minnesota.
Adrian Peterson could be shelved for the year, and the schedule doesn't provide much opportunity for a third win, but this team is much better than their record, and they're closer to redemption than it seems.
3. Chicago Bears
Well, at least they're not as bad as the Vikings. Of course, that's something Chicago might not be able to say for long if they think Donovan McNabb can solve their problems.
Jay Cutler's injury has left a Peyton Manning-like void on this team, but the Bears have the defense to save their season if they can keep from turning the ball over against Denver, Seattle and Minnesota.
2. Detroit Lions
Remember when there was some concern over whether the Lions would be able to hold off Chicago for a wild card spot?
That's no longer the case with the Bears tasting some of the bitter "your-quarterback-is-out-for-the-season-probably" medicine Detroit's been forced to swallow the past two years.
After the trip to New Orleans, the schedule eases considerably, before a season finale at Green Bay.
DIVISION WINNER: Green Bay Packers
Big surprise. Once again, the Packers were tested on paper but never really seemed to be too far from a W on the field. This is the NFL's best team, though in the past three weeks, we've seen teams start to inch closer.
An undefeated regular season is definitely possible, and Aaron Rodgers is on fire, but it's hard not to get the feeling that a loss would at least allow this team to relax a little.
Either way, they're as likely to repeat as any Super Bowl champ in recent memory.
4. Washington Redskins
The Redskins are awful, but they're at least trying. They haven't given up on the season, but the playoffs are definitely out of the question.
Trouble under center will continue to hold this team back until the position is genuinely addressed through the draft, though the defense has a nice core and was able to buoy the franchise through a few games. They're a few years away, at least.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
Big changes seem to be on the horizon for Philadelphia after their supposedly Super season went south in a hurry.
Michael Vick has major strides to make to get this team back to playoff contention, and the offensive line has to play better against the pass rush.
The talent is there on paper, but this is the most disorganized, misguided team in the league.
2. Dallas Cowboys
That didn't last long.
Dallas looked like the odds-on favorite to win the division last week, but after taking another look at their schedule, the fact that they've beaten only one team with a winning record sticks out like a sore thumb.
Losing to Arizona only ripped a larger hole in a paper-tiger team. At least this one can't be entirely blamed on Tony Romo, who has thrown 11 touchdowns against only two picks in his past five games.
DIVISION WINNER: New York Giants
The Giants dropped their fourth straight, losing in the final seconds to the Green Bay Packers, but that's a lot more impressive than letting Arizona sneak away with a win.
With two games remaining against Dallas, it seems smarter to bet on Eli Manning and New York's defensive line than Tony Romo and Dallas' offensive line.
The Giants have done well "backing into the playoffs" before, and although the schedule is daunting from here on out, I think they can still fend off the Cowboys.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What happened to Josh Freeman? Either the third-year passer bought into his own hype, or last season was a complete fluke.
Freeman tossed 25 touchdowns against only six picks in 2010 before slumping to 12 TDs and 16 INTs through 13 weeks this year.
The Bucs don't have enough experience or talent at other spots to make up for Freeman's poor play, and the defensive line has become one of the league's worst.
3. Carolina Panthers
What a difference a quarterback makes.
Cameron Newton broke yet another NFL record in Sunday's win over the Buccaneers with his 13th rushing touchdown of the season, finishing with three on the ground and one through the air.
If the Panthers are diligent about surrounding him with talent, this team could be competing for a division title within the next two years. For now, a much-improved record will have to do.
2. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons looked like a sure-thing playoff team, at least as a Wild Card, until running into a Houston defense that might very well be the league's best.
When you can't beat TJ Yates minus Andre Johnson on the road, how do you expect to beat Drew Brees in New Orleans?
At this point, after picking up a fifth loss, that's what it will take for Atlanta to win the division. And that's only possible with some help from the Saints' other opponents.
DIVISION WINNER: New Orleans Saints
Easy call here. The Saints crushed the New York Giants at home last week, where they've been unbeatable this season.
That's good news considering their final two games will be played in New Orleans.
Trips to Tennessee and Minnesota come first, but even dropping both of those wouldn't surrender the division with the Falcons still slated to visit the Superdome.
The Saints are the NFC's best chance to unseat the Packers.
4. St. Louis Rams
If the coaching staff is expunged after this season, learning a third offense in three years could be detrimental to Sam Bradford's development.
Just look what learning two systems in two seasons has done to the once-promising rookie.
All is certainly not lost for Bradford, or the Rams, but this season has been a huge tumble backward when it was supposed to be a step toward the playoffs. They're really bad.
3. Arizona Cardinals
At least they're not as bad as the St. Louis Rams. Sunday's win over the Dallas Cowboys was Arizona's fourth in their past five games, moving them to 5-7 overall and into a tie for second place with the Seahawks.
The signing of Kevin Kolb hasn't produced the results the Cards were hoping for, and the season doesn't appear to be headed for anything resembling success, but six or seven wins aren't out of the question.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Too little, too late for the Seahawks, but they've proven down the stretch to be a stingy team that can beat anyone at anytime.
Winners of three of their past four, their playoff hopes are still technically alive, though it's highly unlikely.
Still, they've been great on defense recently, and they've gotten more out of Marshawn Lynch and Tarvaris Jackson than anyone could have imagined. This could be an exciting division race next season.
DIVISION WINNER: San Francisco 49ers
The Niners clinched the division Sunday, beating the Rams 26-0 in a game that saw Frank Gore set the franchise record for rushing yards.
San Fran didn't do anything exciting in the game, but it was efficient and ultra-defensive, much like the rest of their season.
At 10-2, they have the NFC's second-best record, and with a very manageable schedule remaining, it's likely they'll turn that record into a first-round bye and a No. 2 seed.
4. Cleveland Browns
The Browns never really got going this season, and all of the problems that plagued the team in 2010 seem to have reemerged with new energy and additional issues.
Peyton Hillis isn't happy. Or any good. Colt McCoy seems happy enough, but he hasn't been great, either.
The defense needs teeth for its pass rush, and the offense needs playmakers on the perimeter. Otherwise, there's no chance of reaching the postseason in this division.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Things started well for the Bengals, but after a 6-2 start, they've dropped three of four games and now sit at 7-5 with their wild card chances fading fast.
Part of that might have something to do with only two of their first eight opponents owning winning records, but it's also tough to win a playoff spot in this division when your two best offensive players are rookies.
The Bengals are a good team, and they're not out of it yet, but they look to be a season away from really competing in the North.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are quietly playing great football right now, though they may find it harder to hide after Sunday's 35-7 win over Cincinnati.
Still, they've looked more vulnerable than ever this season, thanks to narrow wins over Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Kansas City and a pair of losses to the Baltimore Ravens.
The division title isn't out of reach, but considering a trip to San Francisco remains for Pittsburgh, Baltimore certainly has the edge.
DIVISION WINNER: Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens already beat Pittsburgh twice and San Francisco once, giving them one of the NFL's most impressive resumes.
However, they've also dropped games to the Seahawks, Titans and Jaguars, which proves that they're far from perfect.
Still, getting ahead of Pittsburgh early will likely spell the difference between a division title and a wild card berth, and with Baltimore earning the better end of that deal, they could be primed for another deep run into the postseason.
4. Buffalo Bills
Hard to believe after the way the Bills and Dolphins started their seasons, but the Dolphins are twice the team that Buffalo is right now, and with Fred Jackson and Kyle Williams done for the year, that won't be changing anytime before 2012.
This team is clearly making strides in the right direction, but they need key pieces on both lines, and it's tough not to think they might regret giving Ryan Fitzpatrick such a big contract.
3. Miami Dolphins
Tony Sparano is out after this season in all likelihood, but he's not coaching like a lame duck. The Dolphins have won four of their past five, pausing only to drop a last-second, one-point game to the Dallas Cowboys.
They won't sniff the playoffs this year at 4-8, but they're proving that this team might be just a quarterback away from contending again.
2. New York Jets
The Jets were down again, this time trailing by three to the Washington Redskins in the fourth quarter, but Mark Sanchez and the New York offense found a way to get it going, racking up 21 points in the final stanza to pull away and win 34-19.
That's the way their seasons tend to go, too. They'll look like playoff afterthoughts for as long as possible before surging and finding a way to crash the postseason.
DIVISION WINNER: New England Patriots
The Patriots picked up win No. 9 Sunday, notching their fourth in a row, but they way they did it has to be alarming for New England fans.
The Colts, down 31-3 heading into the fourth quarter, scored 21 unanswered to finish just one TD away from sending it to overtime.
A win is still a win, and with only Washington, Denver, Miami and Buffalo remaining, the Pats will easily make the playoffs, but they have a lot of problems for a team with nine wins and a safe division lead.
4. Indianapolis Colts
The worst team in the NFL came close to finally winning one today, but they waited until the fourth quarter to start playing, spotting New England a 31-3 lead that proved to be too much to overcome.
With the draft order nearing finalization, the Colts are thinking more and more about Andrew Luck, and while that might be the right move, we've seen that anyone under center other than Peyton Manning means a long season for the Colts.
If it's Manning in 2012, they could be an instant playoff contender again. If it's anyone else, even Luck, we could be looking at the third-best team in the division. Which would at least be a step back in the right direction.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags swung for the fences with Blaine Gabbert, and so far, they missed wildly.
Gabbert's still young, and he has plenty of time to improve, but he's been a hindrance under center this season, and the offense has been one of the league's worst on a weekly basis.
The defense, however, has been sensational when you consider how much time they've spent on the field. Of course, it won't matter who plays quarterback if the Jags don't add some weapons on the outside.
2. Tennessee Titans
The Titans are still flirting with an AFC Wild Card slot, and they helped their case again Sunday, beating Buffalo by six.
They still host New Orleans, and they have to travel to Houston, but in between they get games against Indianapolis and Jacksonville, giving them a serious chance of finishing 10-6 if they can pull just one more upset.
Matt Hasselbeck has carried this team, but the reemergence of Chris Johnson could carry this team to the postseason.
DIVISION WINNER: Houston Texans
The Texans are in shambles offensively, and for the first time in the franchise's history, that doesn't automatically equal a late-season swoon that helps the team dodge the playoffs.
This is the NFL's best defense right now, and if they can continue to grind high production out of the ground game, they could surprise in the playoffs.
Of course, there's also a chance that the offense dips to new, insurmountable lows now that Andre Johnson is out again.
4. San Diego Chargers
It finally happened. The Chargers finally started so slowly that the rest of the AFC West caught up.
Two years in a row. San Diego is the AFC West's worst team, and they're running out of chances to defend that stance with only one divisional game remaining.
The playoffs are out of the question this season, but more importantly, they could be out of the picture for years to come if a new coach is hired and a rebuilding phase begins.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are a scrappy team that will be a tough out until the end of the season, but that's all they'll ever be with Tyler Palko at quarterback and anyone but Jamaal Charles at running back.
They're not technically eliminated from the postseason yet, but it's coming with the Jets, Packers, Raiders and Broncos still on the slate.
If the right quarterback is drafted or brought in during the offseason, this team could get back to competing in a weak league, but this season is basically over.
2. Oakland Raiders
What was that? The Raiders, who looked to have a red carpet path to the division title, traveled to Miami, were promptly slapped around by the Dolphins, and finished up just in time to watch Denver jump them in the AFC West standings.
Darren McFadden can't return fast enough with Green Bay and Detroit in back-to-back weeks before finishing out the season with the Chiefs and Chargers.
DIVISION WINNER: Denver Broncos
It's almost unbelievable. After a 1-4 start and a roster that appeared to list a serious dearth of talent, no one in the world would have bet on the Broncos making the playoffs.
And winning the division was a completely impossible task. Not any more.
Tebow threw Denver to victory this time after the defense finally took a day off, and Denver suddenly looks like the team to beat in the AFC West. A 6-1 run will do that for you.
When Von Miller is healthy, this defense is the most underrated unit in the NFL.
NFC Wild Card
4. Chicago Bears
Without Jay Cutler, this team has no chance of winning a playoff game, so there's really no sense in making the trip, right?
Chicago has been bested by two subpar teams in two straight weeks, and the schedule only gets worse from here.
Donovan McNabb is not the answer. Not getting Jay Cutler injured was the answer, and the Bears already got that one wrong.
3. Dallas Cowboys
It's just not going to happen for Dallas. With a chance to really set themselves apart in the NFC East, they tripped on Arizona and may have fallen all the way out of the playoffs.
The two remaining games against the Giants are now bigger than ever, and it's hard to see Dallas reacting well to the pressure New York's front will bring. Dallas has beaten only one team with a winning record all season.
WILD CARD TEAM: Detroit Lions
The Lions are another hot-start team that's facing a harsh reality as the schedule tightens and the competition rises.
They've gone 2-4 since their 5-0 start, with a win over Denver serving as their most impressive victory since the skid started.
Like Atlanta, they can avoid embarrassment when playing the NFC's big boys, but they have to take the next step and start winning those games or they'll exit the playoffs in a hurry.
WILD CARD TEAM: Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons own a head-to-head win over the Detroit Lions, which should be enough to earn the five seed, considering both teams appear headed for 10-6 records.
Atlanta has been wildly inconsistent this season, but their losses have all come against very strong teams.
Now they just have to prove that they can not only play with the NFL's elite, but beat them. That'll be hard to do on the road in the playoffs.
AFC Wild Card
4. Cincinnati Bengals
If the Titans and Bengals finish with the same record, the Bengals will technically earn the right to call themselves the AFC's seventh-best team, but I'm not so sure Cincinnati can get to 10 wins this season.
Sure, the only remaining road game is a laugher at St. Louis, but two of the teams the Bengals host are division leaders Houston and Baltimore, and 9-7 won't get them to the playoffs.
3. Tennessee Titans
The Titans are still very much alive in the AFC, with a win over Denver stuffed securely in their back pockets, but a sixth loss is waiting in the form of the New Orleans Saints next week, and they still have to finish at Houston.
In between, they get Indianapolis and Jacksonville, but those aren't guarantees either, especially considering Tennessee already lost to the Jags once this season.
WILD CARD TEAM: New York Jets
I don't know exactly how the Jets will do it, and I know it won't be a cinch with the Giants still on the schedule, but the Jets will make the playoffs.
Sunday's win over the Redskins was a perfect example of how this team plays, and in the end, they'll find a way into the postseason.
The magic after that might run out this year, but a pretty easy run through Week 17 should spell a 10-6 record at worst.
WILD CARD TEAM: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are the safest bet of all the non-division leaders in the NFL. They're 9-3, they have a strong core and plenty of postseason experience and they have a pretty favorable final four games.
They'll get in at 13-3 or 12-4, and they'll be the worst thing any AFC four seed has ever seen.
Wild Card Round
(6) Detroit Lions @ (3) New Orleans Saints
If tonight's game is any indication, this one will be exciting. But it'll also be another home win for the Saints, as New Orleans ends Detroit's return the playoffs in a hurry.
(5) Atlanta Falcons @ (4) New York Giants
Matt Ryan outdoors in New York in January? Hard to pick the Giants to win a playoff game after four straight losses, but in this scenario, that's the right thing to do.
(6) New York Jets @ (3) Houston Texans
The Texans are proving against all odds that their defense really is the best in the biz. That might be enough to get to the playoffs, but the absences of Matt Schaub and possibly Andre Johnson will prove to be too much once they're there.
(5) Pittsburgh Steelers @ (4) Denver Broncos
No one else seems to agree, but if this game ends up happening in Denver, I'm betting on the Broncos. Their defense can hold the Steelers, and then there's this Tebow guy on offense...
(3) New Orleans Saints @ (2) San Francisco 49ers
The Saints would be underdogs on the road, and in a poor-weather setting, that might prove to be an astute assessment. However, the Niners are more vulnerable than they've looked, and Brees is on fire.
(4) New York Giants @ (1) Green Bay Packers
How great would it be to see a rematch of that Week 13 game? Of course, in Green Bay in the second round of the playoffs, it might not come down to the final snap.
(3) New York Jets @ (2) New England Patriots
The Jets made it this far, and this is the step where they usually laugh their way past the Pats, but not this year. New England finally wins another playoff game, getting their third 2011 win over the Jets.
(4) Denver Broncos @ (1) Baltimore Ravens
It had to end sometime. After finishing 10-6 and winning a playoff game, the ride stops in Baltimore where Denver can't dig themselves out of an early hole. Ray Rice closes it out with 150 yards.
NFC Championship Game
(3) New Orleans Saints @ (1) Green Bay Packers
The Saints get another shot at the Packers, and as improbable as it sounds, the game is even better this time. Still, Green Bay comes out on top, finding a way to win late in the fourth quarter.
AFC Championship Game
(2) New England Patriots @ (1) Baltimore Ravens
Luck again runs out for the Patriots, who take an early lead before packing it in and forgetting to cover any of Baltimore's receivers. Tom Brady is sacked on consecutive plays to end the game.
Super Bowl XLVI
Green Bay Packers vs. Baltimore Ravens
It's billed as offense vs. defense, but the Packers are once again lighting it up with postseason sacks and turnovers, and Joe Flacco is guiding an offense that's scored 30-plus in two straight games.
It comes down to the wire, like all hypothetical games do, and Green Bay repeats as champions when Torrey Smith is caught at the nine-yard line by Charles Woodson.