2011 NFL Playoffs: Contenders and Pretenders

Nicholas SteblenkoContributor IIIDecember 18, 2011

2011 NFL Playoffs: Contenders and Pretenders

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    As the 2011 season winds closer to the playoffs, it is time to take a look at who will be in and who will be out for the final playoff spots. There are teams that are a virtual lock, and there are those who are still vying for that fifth or sixth seed.

    Mathematically, there are few certainties, but that will change this week and next, as division leaders begin to lock things up. This list will sort out those who are a near-guarantee to make the playoffs from those who have a slim chance.

The Givens

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    Before Week 15 begins, there are only four teams who are mathematically locked into a playoff spot or a division win. They are: the Packers, 49ers, Saints and Texans.

    Week 15 offers some interesting matchups, and many of them have playoff implications. The AFC is a mix up, similar to the NFC's conundrum last year of having a team with a losing record in the playoffs.

    Denver is shaking things up with their current win streak, and in a perfect storm, a team like Pittsburgh or New England could be left on the outside looking in.

    Let's take a look at the rest of the NFL that has yet to punch their ticket to the post season.

Baltimore Ravens

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    2011 has been both kind and deceitful to the Baltimore Ravens. For a team that looks, at times, to be an unbeatable machine, they have had a couple slip ups that are questionable or unexplainable.

    Ray Rice has been a dominant running back, both in the ground game as well as the passing attack. He deserves the most touches on the team, but that hasn't always been the case in 2011, and in games where he rarely sees the ball, the Ravens find a way to lose.

    Baltimore holds the key between them and the Steelers, as they swept the season series. However, after puzzling losses to the Jaguars and the Titans earlier in the season, the Ravens still find themselves tied for the AFC North lead with Pittsburgh.

    The final three games are no cake walk for the Ravens, either. Week 15 pits them against the Chargers, who are clawing for their playoff lives after two consecutive wins. Week 16 brings the Browns and the finale sets Baltimore up for a showdown with the Bengals.

    If they lose any of the three, they risk losing their lead in the division, but they should probably take at least two of the three.

    Even if they don't win the division, I think the Ravens are well on their way to the playoffs.

    Verdict: Contender

New England Patriots

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    This one is a no-brainer.

    Tom Brady is playing some of his best football, and the Patriots are two full games ahead of the Jets for the AFC East lead (unfortunate for the heartbreak Bills).

    It seems as though the media will ride this week's matchup with the Tebow-led Broncos from every angle they can, but for now, I think it's safe to assume the Pats are favored for good reason.

    Regardless of the outcome in Week 15, New England has a favorable schedule down the stretch. They play the reeling Dolphins and the ailing Bills to wrap up their season, and the only thing the Bill and Tom duo will be worried about is wrapping up home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

    Verdict: Contender

Denver Broncos

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    It's tough to make a call on a team when their leader is being described in matters of divinity.

    Yet, as much of a believer as I am that Tim Tebow is a winner, the odds are still stacked against his continued success in a league like the NFL. Still, you have got to give this team credit where credit is due.

    They have one of the best defenses in the game, and a kicker who calmly sinks 55-yard field goals as if it were routine. Couple great defense and the puzzle piece that allows you to pull out close games, and what do you need after that? Just a little bit of Tebow magic, I suppose.

    This week might not end up that way, though. It's tough to bet against Tebow and this inexplicable string of victories, but the Patriots' offense is good. Real good. So, unless John Fox has a game plan that will allow them to put up 38 points, my money is on New England.

    The wrap up of the season is maintainable for the Broncos though, as they have games against the Bills and Chiefs. Both teams are ailing and reeling, and in many cases, downright pathetic. The Broncos should finish 10-6, the only team they would have to worry about is the Raiders.

    Verdict: Contender

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    After putting in two limited practices this week, it looks as though the questionable tag on Ben Roethlisberger will once again fail to keep him from playing through an injury. Even though he will probably lack his maneuverability in and around the pocket, it is still a huge addition for the Steelers as they prepare for their showdown with the 49ers on Monday Night Football.

    That being said, the Steelers are going to need Big Ben down the stretch if they are going to clinch a playoff spot. They only need one win to clinch at least a wild card spot, and it looks as if Mike Tomlin will want to do that on Monday night.

    If Roethlisberger can stay healthy, the Steelers will once again have a shot to make it back to the Super Bowl. They have all the pieces to the puzzle: a solid defense, a good passing attack and a running game that can contribute when called upon.

    They haven't been the most spectacular team in 2011, but they've done enough to put themselves in a good position for a playoff run.

    Verdict: Contender

New York Jets

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    As much as I'm sure everyone is getting sick of hearing Rex and his chatter, he has the team to back it up, and once again, the Jets are playing some great football in December.

    The Shonn Greene experiment is yielding results, and Mark Sanchez has been making better decisions. When the two go hand in hand, the Jets offense can be explosive, and has been the past three weeks.

    Shaking off a loss to the team we now know as a phenomena unexplainable, the Jets have won their last three games with offensive firepower, scoring 28 or more points in each contest. Yet, it's not all fun and games for New York down the stretch, and they are going to have to beat some pretty good teams to get in.

    First up, the Jets are playing the Eagles, and as putrid as the "Dream Team" has been in 2011, they are not going to lay down for New York. After that, it's a hometown battle with the playoff hopeful Giants before heading south to face the Dolphins.

    This week is going to be crucial for Rex and the boys if they hope to put themselves in a position to clinch a playoff spot. Their ability to win late in the season should be the deciding factor, and propel them to another playoff berth.

    Verdict: Contender

Tennessee Titans

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    I really wanted to give the Titans a bid in my pick for the playoffs, because I sincerely believe Matt Hasselbeck is being overlooked in the AFC. But with too many teams playing at a high level, I think the Titans are going to be on the outside looking in for another year.

    Tennessee has a bright future in their passing game. They have seen an emergence from Damian Williams and Nate Washington with the absence of their No. 1, Kenny Britt. If Britt recovers well from his ACL tear (which is not a given, by any means), then the Titans will have a receiving corps they can count on.

    The next best thing to happen to the Titans was the failure of Chris Johnson to return to super stardom.

    Now, I know that sounds crazy and you are probably shaking your head wondering how on earth this is a good thing. If I'm the GM, it may hurt a little that his lack of production could be a big reason Tennessee is hovering around .500, but as a coach, knowing that you have the tools to be successful is a blessing indeed.

    Waiting in the wings is a young quarterback taken in the first round who has shown flashes of success already, and when Jake Locker is ready to take over this offense, watch out because the Titans might just turn some heads right out of the gate next season.

    For now, it will be another disappointing end to the season.

    Verdict: Pretender

Cincinnati Bengals

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    It's a similar situation for the Bengals, as a crowded AFC Playoff picture will leave them on the outside looking in. What makes things harder for Cincinnati is the fact that they are playing in the best division in the AFC. When you play the Steelers and Ravens each twice a season, it's tough to be optimistic about the future.

    However, Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have shed a new light on things in Cincy. They are the most dynamic rookie duo the NFL has ever seen. Dalton deserves Rookie of the Year honors over anyone else this season.

    The Bengals had a good chance to make a mark this season, but faltered with losses to Houston and Pittsburgh in the last two weeks. The Steelers hold the season sweep over the Bengals, and Cincy has already lost their first contest against the Ravens with another matchup in the last week of the season.

    If the Bengals want to improve their playoff chances in the future, they are going to have to find a way to beat both teams next season. In any case, the Bengals' hopes are solely resting upon the Jets to lose two of their last three games, while they go undefeated to wrap up the regular season.

    Verdict: Pretender

Oakland Raiders

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    The Oakland Raiders were sitting in a great spot just two weeks ago. At 7-4 heading into their game against lowly Miami, the Raiders were in control of their fate, one game ahead of the surging Broncos.

    The reason the Raiders are just pretenders this season can be fully understood by what happened in the game against the Dolphins. Miami spanked the Raiders 34-14, and Oakland never had a chance.

    After another whooping at the hands of the Green Bay Packers, all of Oakland is scratching their heads, wondering where they went wrong.

    I'm going to throw them a bone though, the Raiders have to be the slowest healing team in the NFL. Darren McFadden supposedly had a minor foot sprain that would keep him out 2-4 weeks. It has since turned out to be of the Lisfranc variety, and will likely keep him out for the remainder of the season; a full 10 weeks of playing time.

    Breakout wide receivers Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford have been missing for a few weeks—since Carson Palmer's arrival, where Moore put on a show. If the three play makers had been healthy, Oakland may have been able to pull out a win against Miami to stay even for the division race down the stretch.

    Unfortunately, none of them were available, and the Raiders are still ailing. With matchups against the Lions and Chargers down the stretch, and the Broncos rolling the way they are, it's hard to see the Raiders stringing together the wins to pull this one off.

    Verdict: Pretender

Sad Diego Chargers

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    This season was over for the Chargers when they lost to the Broncos a few weeks ago.

    After a great start, Sad Diego (and no, I did not misspell) has dropped off the map almost entirely. Even with two wins in their last two contests, the Chargers are an afterthought with both the Broncos and the Raiders ahead of them in their own division.

    The San Diego papers had Norv Turner exiting at the end of the season about half way through their six game losing streak. After being handed a Marty Schottenheimer-coached 14-2 San Diego team a few years ago, Turner has been a big disappointment. He has not been able to get his team over the AFC hump and into the Super Bowl, despite having one of the most potent offenses in the game.

    This team is a joke and needs a lot of work if they are going to bounce back and establish some consistency.

    Verdict: Pretender

Atlanta Falcons

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    A slow start in 2011 is coming back to hurt the Falcons, as they are making a late season push for the NFC South division title over the Saints. Atlanta looked great against the Jaguars on Thursday night, but their record stands at 9-5.

    Now, they are rooting for a Saints loss in Week 15 to set up for a showdown for the division in Week 16.

    Right now, Atlanta is clicking on all cylinders. Their passing game is finally looking comparable to that of the Packers, Patriots and Saints, and their running game is better than all three of the NFL powerhouses right now. When they establish the run, the Falcons are tough to keep pace with.

    When you look past the early season let down losses to both the Bears and the Bucs, the Falcons have been a contender all along. Defensively, there are still some holes, but they have the ability to get to the quarterback and create havoc in the backfield.

    It looks like things are going the right way in Atlanta.

    Verdict: Contender

New York Giants

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    Okay, the caption is a joke, but in all seriousness, this guy is the only reason the Giants even have a chance at the playoffs this season.

    Eli Manning has been on the cusp of elite all season long, and is going to turn in another statistically relevant season once again. He has made a star out of Victor Cruz, and has done without Ahmad Bradshaw in a backfield where the committee approach is the only choice.

    Injuries to both Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham have not slowed Manning down at all. However, the rest of the Giants team is something to worry about.

    The Giants' defense has been decimated by injuries all season long. Strong safety Kenny Phillips has been out with an MCL sprain, and the G-men are just getting their first overall draft pick, Prince Amukamara, back since he was injured before the start of the season.

    In any case, the defense has been throttled by the Saints and the Packers in successive weeks, and will have to pull things together if they want to make a playoff run.

    The Giants pulled off a huge win last week against the Cowboys to take a slight advantage in the NFC East, but with matchups slated against the Redskins and Jets in the next two weeks, New York may count on their Week 17 matchup against the Cowboys once again for their playoff hopes.

    In the NFC East, that might not be good enough.

    Verdict: Pretender

Detroit Lions

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    The Lions have not had it easy the past three weeks. First, they were shown up on their home turf by the Packers on Thanksgiving Day, the same day they lost Ndamukong Suh to a suspension for stepping on another player in the pile.

    Then, they were slated against the Saints, where they were simply overmatched on defense, and promptly fell to Brees' passing attack.

    Finally, they found themselves in a comfortable situation against the Vikings after their defense scored twice to give the Lions an insurmountable lead. Somehow,  the Lions let the Vikings back in the game, and narrowly escaped with a win.

    Detroit's record sits at 8-5, and a couple things need to happen for them to make the playoffs for the first time since Barry Sanders carried the Lions.

    First of all, they need to find a way to get Calvin Johnson out of double and triple coverages. Second, they need Kevin Smith to stay healthy so they have some sort of rushing attack.

    Defensively, the Lions will get Suh back this week for their contest against the Raiders. Depending on whether Denarius Moore returns to the lineup, the Lions should be able to handle Oakland early and often. Matthew Stafford needs to continue his Pro Bowl-caliber season down the stretch.

    The most interesting scenario we could see in Week 17 involves the Lions and the Packers, for two reasons: First of all, if Detroit somehow finds a way to lose to either the Raiders or the Chargers, they could be playing for their playoff lives, much like the Packers did last season against the Bears.

    Second, the Packers could be playing for infamy.

    I think the Lions will roll in the next two weeks and clinch a playoff spot before they play the Packers.

    Verdict: Contender

Dallas Cowboys

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    Dallas is in a familiar spot.

    After losing on Sunday night to the Giants, they are now in second place in the NFC East. Fortunately for them, they have a second chance in the waiting.

    Right now, there may not be a group of wide receivers better than those on the Cowboys in the NFL. The emergence of Laurent Robinson as a potential No. 1 behind both Miles Austin and Dez Bryant has thrust this passing game to the forefront of discussions about the most potent passing attack in the NFL.

    The problem? Well, that all rests upon Tony Romo.

    With one missed throw on Sunday night, Romo effectively cost Dallas the game and allowed Eli to lead a game-winning drive with just minutes remaining on the clock. Romo overthrew Miles Austin for what would have been a sure-fire touchdown pass from Dallas's own end.

    The good news, like I said, is that the Cowboys will have a chance to make it up and, regardless of that fact, if the Giants lose and the Cowboys win out, Dallas will be in the playoffs as the NFC East winner.

    As I write this article, Dallas is beating up on the Bucs, so it's almost safe to assume that they will win this week. A matchup against the Eagles next week will be the key to their success, and the way this offense is clicking, I have to go with the Cowboys to win that one as well.

    If it comes to a showdown in Week 17, it will be the most sincere toss up all season long, but I will take my chances with the Cowboys.

    Verdict: Contender

Chicago Bears

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    As a Green Bay Packers fan, there was no greater pleasure in the world than watching the Packers beat the Bears, not only to get into the playoffs in 2010, but then to go to the Super Bowl as well.

    This season had implications of another showdown atop the NFC North, that is, of course, until the Bears lost Jay Cutler for the rest of the regular season due to a thumb injury.

    As ugly as the Bears can be sometimes, they know how to win and Jay Cutler is a key component to their success. Cutler can find receivers all over the field and coupled with Matt Forte, the offense knows how to go.

    Now, Matt Forte is riding the pine with Cutler at his side.

    The Bears' season can almost be entirely attributed to the losses of their top two offensive players. Before Cutler, the only losses on their schedule were to the Packers, Saints and Lions. I think it's safe to say that the NFC North is truly the black and blue division, and the Saints are rolling in the NFC this year.

    Chicago has dropped its last three games to the Raiders, Chiefs and most recently to the Broncos in a heartbreaking overtime loss. I think it's safe to say that we know the fate of these Bears already.

    Verdict: Pretender

Seattle Seahawks

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    Seattle is a scary place to play for opponents, as evidenced by the Saints' untimely loss in last season's playoffs.

    However, this season is just going to prove too little too late for the 6-7 Seahawks. Since the 49ers have already locked up the NFC West, Seattle's hopes will rest upon the performance of some pretty good teams in the NFC.

    Things don't look promising.

    Yet, there is a lot to look ahead to in Seattle. Like the rejuvenation of Beast Mode in Marshawn Lynch. The 1,000 yard rusher in Buffalo has somehow found his legs again, and is running over the competition every chance he gets.

    Unfortunately, the main problem on Seattle's offense remains their lack of a franchise quarterback. Tarvaris Jackson is not the answer, no matter how badly Pete Carrol wants him to be. The Seahawks need to look for a solution in the 2012 draft, or else their days of 7-9 records will continue.

    Verdict: Pretender

Arizona Cardinals

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    Now, I know that the Cardinals have some excellent skill players to deal with over the next few years. Larry Fitzgerald is a beast on his own, and Beanie Wells is putting forth a great season so far. Patrick Peterson is an excellent athlete and will help out in the secondary for years to come.

    Kevin Kolb, however, is going to be the topic of discussion in Arizona.

    The question has not yet been answered (in part to his injuries), but is Kolb the quarterback of the future?

    So far, the results have not been all that spectacular. Kolb has not shown the poise and big game delivery expected of a franchise quarterback in 2011.

    It will take a heck of a performance, and a couple of miracles for the Cardinals to make the playoffs in 2011, but they need to be worried about next season at this point.

    Verdict: Pretender

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Ha ha, just kidding, this team doesn't have a prayer.

    The Eagles need to rethink the Dream Team strategy as this is the NFL and not the NBA.