Updated NFL Playoff Predictions
Well, Green Bay's still undefeated.
If there's one thing we know by now, especially after Sunday's 46-16 win over the Raiders, it's that the Packers are clearly the class of the NFL.
Of course, prior to the Oakland wipeout, a few teams had seemingly narrowed the gap.
The Saints were one yard from sending Green Bay to overtime. The Giants nearly did the same. The 49ers looked lost in today's loss to the John Skelton-led Cardinals, but they're still 10-3, and the Lions and Falcons haven't relinquished Wild Card hopes.
In the AFC, the Patriots continue to win without playing defense and the Ravens have avoided stumbling behind 10-3 Pittsburgh, whom they've beaten twice.
And, of course, Denver won its sixth straight game, coming from 10 points down with two minutes to go to beat the Chicago Bears and take over sole possession of the AFC West.
What does it all mean, Basil? Let's take a look.
4. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are trying hard and they're playing close games with some good teams, but they just don't have the horses. The secondary is awful, and Christian Ponder's lack of experience is amplified by the lack of playmakers around him. They're a team to watch in coming seasons, but they could be in line for a top-three draft pick in 2012.
3. Chicago Bears
The Bears defense has played valiantly over the past two weeks, but even a unit this talented can't make up for the fact that Caleb Hanie has replaced Jay Cutler and no one has replaced Matt Forte. They're tumbling toward missing the postseason. Today's loss was heartbreaking.
2. Detroit Lions
The Lions got some help from the Broncos, but they're still playing for second place, at best. Still, they're 8-5 now, and with Chicago losing and Dallas or New York almost sure to eliminate the other, they appear to be headed back to the postseason for the first time in years. A trip to Oakland won't be easy, but a win there and another over the Chargers in Detroit could make the finale at Green Bay a formality.
DIVISION WINNER: Green Bay Packers
No one in the NFL is as good as Green Bay right now, but a few teams are catching up. The Raiders aren't one of those teams, as proven by their 46-16 loss to the Packers on Sunday. This is the league's front-runner, and they're well-equipped to defend that spot. An undefeated season is theirs if they want it. Now we'll just wait to see if they do.
4. Washington Redskins
It just keeps getting worse for Washington. The 'Skins started 3-1 and they've gone 1-8 since, finding new ways to lose each week. They're keeping it close with some talented teams, but they're not talented enough on offense to close the deal. They're a quarterback away, at least, and it wouldn't hurt to find some fresh legs at wide receiver.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles beat the Dolphins today. Can you imagine how hard you would have been laughed at if you'd told someone in August that today's win would be cause for celebration and deep breaths? For a 5-8 team that has fallen far from their preseason perch, any win is a big win. Michael Vick's healthy again, and although they're technically still alive, momentum is really all that's left to earn in 2011.
2. Dallas Cowboys
Dallas could have been in an excellent position if it had only beaten Arizona (yes, Arizona) last week. And they still would have been fine if they'd won tonight. However, Dan Bailey was iced at the end of the game again, this time by the opposing team, and his miss sealed a second-straight loss for the suddenly 7-6 Cowboys. Things look grim with a trip to New York waiting in Week 17.
DIVISION WINNER: New York Giants
The Giants had dropped four in a row, but after tonight's win in Dallas, the NFC East is still theirs to lose. 7-6 is not exactly where New York wanted to be after 13 games, but getting this victory in Dallas is huge considering they won't play a single game outside of their own home stadium for the rest of the regular season. They're not out of the woods entirely, but if Eli Manning keeps playing like this, they'll be a popular sleeper pick come January.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneeers
What happened to Tampa? The Bucs looked like one of the NFL's true teams on the rise in 2010, but they've fallen flat on their faces this season. Josh Freeman has regressed as drastically as any passer in the league, and the ground game never has time to get going. There aren't enough slideshows on the Internet to fully discuss the problems on defense. They're really, really bad.
3. Carolina Panthers
Almost, Carolina. The Panthers came so close to winning a second straight divisional game, but Atlanta stole their thunder in the second half. Still, it's amazing to see how far this team has come in only one season. They have a premier quarterback under center, and they've already doubled last year's win total. They could compete in the South in 2012. Especially since they'll be getting another high draft pick.
2. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have navigated a tough schedule to arrive at 8-5, with Jacksonville and Tampa Bay sandwiched around a game in New Orleans left on the schedule. They're almost assured of a 10-win season, and that should be good enough to get them into the postseason. What happens there is a different story, but they're finding ways to win, which they've done in six of their past eight games.
DIVISION WINNER: New Orleans Saints
They're the class of this division, even if the division has been disappointing as a group. The Saints are a real challenger for the No. 2 seed in the NFC, though it'll take a lot of help from San Francisco. Still, they've picked up five straight victories and they face only one team the rest of the way with more than four wins: the Falcons, who come to New Orleans to end the season. The Saints haven't lost in the Superdome all year.
4. St. Louis Rams
It's been a season to forget in St. Louis, though it may be tough not to remember if the team doesn't pull off a string of upsets to end the year. That's not likely, and it's starting to seem like Steve Spagnuolo's future might really be in jeopardy. Another new coordinator could do a lot of damage to Sam Bradford's development. And then there are all the other problems with pretty much every area of the team. It's not pretty in St. Louis.
3. Arizona Cardinals
Every now and then, the Cardinals show signs of playing like the second coming of the Kurt Warner-led Super Bowl team, but the high hopes never last long, and the harsh realities exposed by the offensive line and defense take their place. Arizona paid Kevin Kolb a lot of money, but besides today, they've really looked more like a team set to start over than a franchise that was simply a quarterback away from contending.
2. Seattle Seahawks
If only the season had gotten off to a quicker start for Seattle. The Hawks are playing strong football right now, as evidenced by their 3-1 record over the past four weeks. But they started 2-6, and that's proven too much to overcome. Not one of their remaining four games is impossible to win, but they're all dangerous as well, and sliding out at 1-3 could be just as easy to do as finishing 3-1. Either way, this team is easily the NFC West's second-best, and they'll be challenging for a playoff spot again next season.
DIVISION WINNER: San Francisco 49ers
What a difference a little coaching makes. Seriously, this is basically the same team that Mike Singletary piloted; they're just using a better compass. Today's loss to the Cardinals opened a door that many thought San Fran was ready to slam shut, but this team has the feel of one that will only get better from this loss. It shouldn't be hard for Harbaugh to find some motivational material from here on out.
4. Cleveland Browns
The Browns aren't as bad as they seem, and I really like their young pieces on defense. They just need a quarterback who can inject some energy into this offense, or at least some living, breathing playmakers around and in front of the quarterback they currently have. Until they have some teeth on offense, they'll continue to guard the basement of the AFC North.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Oh so close. The Bengals nearly pulled off a huge win over the Texans today that would have given them a stronger shot of earning a Wild Card berth. Instead, they've slipped to 7-6 after dropping four of their past five. That's what happens with rookies at quarterback and WR1, especially with a backloaded schedule like this one. They'll be back next year, and they'll be even better.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers lost twice to the Ravens. That's the whole story here. They're playing like a Super Bowl contender right now, after winning eight of their past nine, but it won't matter if Baltimore doesn't start to seriously stumble. The trip to San Francisco is the only thing standing between the Steelers and a 13-3 season, provided Pittsburgh can beat Cleveland and St. Louis to close the year.
DIVISION WINNER: Baltimore Ravens
It's not always pretty and it's almost never the outcome you expect, but the Ravens are winning football games, and they've been rewarded with a 10-3 record and a legitimate shot at the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. The defense is aging, but considering they're playing without Ray Lewis, they've been pretty smothering. San Diego, Cleveland and Cincinnati, teams that are a combined 17-22, are all that's left for Baltimore.
4. Miami Dolphins
They showed some fight, beating Kansas City, Washington, Buffalo and Oakland, but Dallas and Philadelphia proved too much, and the Dolphins once again look like the AFC East's softest team. The good news is that the defense is talented, and the offense is almost sure to get a shot in the arm in the form of a new system and a brand new, big-time quarterback via next April's draft.
3. Buffalo Bills
They weren't nearly as good as they looked after a 5-2 start, but they might not be as bad as they look right now, either. The Bills are trying to win in a tough division without their two best players, Kyle Williams and Fred Jackson. They're probably regretting the decision to overpay Ryan Fitzpatrick, especially if a premier passer is staring at them in April, but they're good enough to win nine games in 2012.
2. New York Jets
Big surprise, right? The Jets are 8-5 and almost assured of a Wild Card berth, provided they can take two out of three against the Eagles, Giants and Dolphins. Given what we know about the Jets making the playoffs in the face of sometimes difficult odds, they'll finish at least 10-6 with a date at Houston or Denver in the first round.
DIVISION WINNER: New England Patriots
This New England team might be the worst New England team to be headed toward a 12-4 season and a sure AFC East title. They might even be the conference's top seed. That might not last long considering their defense is a joke. You never know what will happen against Tim Tebow in Denver, but if the Pats can win that one, only Miami and Buffalo stand in the way of a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout.
4. Indianapolis Colts
Still the NFL's worst team. I'm all for drafting Andrew Luck with the first pick in the 2012 draft, but I don't know if he'll be able to carry this team from Day 1 the way Peyton Manning has carried them over the past few seasons. They'll be hopping from one elite passer to another, but expect a few seasons of struggling before the Colts are the Colts again.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
They've played admirably down the stretch, but big changes are headed their way, and that might mean a few steps back before we see them lunge forward. Blaine Gabbert is far from finished as a quarterback, and he's actually made some major strides lately. Still, you have to wonder how long he'll have Maurice Jones-Drew playing at an All-Pro level.
2. Tennessee Titans
That just about does it. Matt Hasselbeck and Chris Johnson finally decided to check out on the same day, and it probably ended Tennessee's playoff chances. Hasselbeck at least needed an injury to force him from this game, while Johnson picked up a healthy 23 yards. The good news is that Jake Locker made some plays, but this team is probably a year from competing for the postseason.
DIVISION WINNER: Houston Texans
It's improbable, but it's still happening. The Texans—yes, the Houston Texans—are relying on their defense and brutal ground game to win against strong opponents late in the season. T.J. Yates is playing smart, clutch football, and the running back tandem of Arian Foster and Ben Tate is the league's best. However, without Andre Johnson, a deep run in the playoffs seems like a seriously uphill battle.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
Tyler Palko isn't playing well, and although he has literally no ground game to support him, that means the Chiefs have no shot at the playoffs. They need a new quarterback, a better offensive line, a stronger complement to Jamaal Charles and possibly a new coach. None of those things are coming this year, and they won't all be coming in 2012.
3. San Diego Chargers
They waited too late. Again. San Diego looks strong right now, but Denver is 8-5, and that's a safe distance from the 6-7 Chargers. With Baltimore, Detroit and Oakland still left on the slate, it's looking like San Diego's next late, great postseason run will come with someone other than Norv Turner at the helm. Philip Rivers has to be anxious to put this season behind him.
2. Oakland Raiders
The Carson Palmer trade looked dumb at first, sort of smart in the middle, and now dumb again. The Raiders have dropped two in a row, to the Dolphins and the Packers, by a combined score of 80-30. Over that time, Palmer has thrown three touchdowns against five interceptions, and next week's visit from Detroit could be the final nail in the coffin.
DIVISION WINNER: Denver Broncos
Call it improbable, impossible, uncanny or unbelievable. Call it miraculous, gimmicky or fleeting. But don't call it ineffective. Tim Tebow and the fashionably late Broncos are showing up in the final two minutes of their games with more enthusiasm, grit and determination than most teams bring during the first 58. At some point, their slow starts seem likely to catch up with them, but until it actually happens, it's hard to doubt them no matter who lines up across the field.
NFC Wild Card
4. Chicago Bears
With no Jay Cutler and no Matt Forte, there's no shot at the postseason for the Bears. The good news is that they'll be back next year. Or, at least, Cutler will. Forte's still scheduled to be a free agent.
3. Dallas Cowboys
Dropping two in a row to the Cardinals and Giants has washed this team into a 7-6 outlier with a trip to New York likely to decide their fate. That's too much for this team to handle.
WILD-CARD TEAM: Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons weren't quite picturing a Wild Card berth and a 10-6 record when they traded Home Depot for Julio Jones in the 2011 NFL draft, but it's starting to look like that's exactly what they'll end up with. They're too schizophrenic to trust beyond that.
WILD-CARD TEAM: Detroit Lions
How about a big hand for the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants? Without their timely collapses, this potential playoff berth for the Lions might not be possible. Now, all that's left to do is find a ground game and teach Ndamukong Suh to avoid suspensions.
AFC Wild Card
4. Tennessee Titans
Today's loss to the Saints hurt their chances. Losing Matt Hasselbeck probably hurts even more. Chris Johnson isn't going to carry this team. That's ludicrous.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Almost, Cincinnati. Almost. This young team will be back next year, but finding a way to lose at home to Houston basically handed the Jets the last Wild Card slot.
WILD-CARD TEAM: New York Jets
Of course the Jets are going to the playoffs. Somehow, this is the only team in history to have a "really bad quarterback," a "really bad pass rush" and a "really mediocre offense," and still find a way to consistently sneak into the postseason.
WILD-CARD TEAM: Pittsburgh Steelers
It's almost a joke that the Steelers have to get into the playoffs via a Wild Card. They'll be a thorn in the side of whichever team ends up with the No. 4 seed, and they could very well make another Super Bowl run from this slot.
Wild Card Round
(6) Atlanta Falcons @ (3) New Orleans Saints
The Saints have been unbeatable at home this season, but if one team could end that streak, it's the Falcons. Still, does anyone trust the Falcons enough right now to bet on them to win a road playoff game?
(5) Detroit Lions @ (4) New York Giants
Two of the game's better defensive lines square off in a matchup featuring plenty of brand power. The Lions just don't seem to have the chemistry to beat the Giants in New York in the postseason.
(6) New York Jets @ (3) Houston Texans
The Jets might be favored in this one, but the Texans are on a ride right now, and their defense is probably good enough to win with TJ Yates under center and Arian Foster and Ben Tate in the backfield. I actually feel safer betting on Yates than the Jets' offense.
(5) Pittsburgh Steelers @ (4) Denver Broncos
I won't waste a lot of time defending it, but the Broncos are maddeningly unbeatable right now. At home, in the playoffs, it just seems like the impossible could happen. Again.
(3) New Orleans Saints @ (2) San Francisco 49ers
The Saints don't play as well on the road, but they still found a way to beat the Titans in Tennessee today. If they can keep Chris Johnson from going over 23 yards, maybe they can keep Frank Gore under 100.
(5) New York Giants @ (1) Green Bay Packers
And in the second chapter of Giants vs. Packers 2011, we have the exact same result. Green Bay is a more complete team. And at home, they're not losing to the Giants.
(3) Houston Texans @ (2) New England Patriots
The Patriots are the higher-profile team, but their defense has nearly let them down too many times this season for me to believe in their chances against a sound club like Houston. The Texans defense wins this one, and the ground games closes it out.
(4) Denver Broncos @ (1) Baltimore Ravens
Sure, it'd be impossible to beat Pittsburgh at home and the do the same to Baltimore on the road, but so is beating the Bears when you're down 10-0 with two minutes to play.
NFC Championship Game
(2) New Orleans Saints @ (1) Green Bay Packers
The rematch everyone wants to see. Call it LSU-Alabama part three. The Saints have already defied the road odds once in these hypothetical playoffs, so why not again? They were one-yard from winning in September, and even though it's even tougher in January, this is at least a different pick than last week's.
AFC Championship Game
(4) Denver Broncos @ (3) Houston Texans
Yeah, I know. No way do we see a TJ Yates-Tim Tebow AFC Championship game. And, of course, there's no way Denver can win another road playoff game... right? Wrong. The Denver defense forces three turnovers, and Tebow runs for two scores while throwing for another.
Super Bowl XLVI
Denver Broncos vs. New Orleans Saints
Is anyone still reading? We've come this far, so why not. Denver wins the Super Bowl. Von Miller is named the MVP, and everyone compares this season to Tom Brady's first as a full-time starter. Is it maybe the worst/dumbest Super Bowl pick ever? Maybe, but that's exactly what you would have been told if you'd called the Broncos 7-1 run eight weeks ago.