Updated NFL Playoff Predictions
The Broncos finally lost.
I mean the Packers. The Packers finally lost. The Broncos did, too. But the 13-0 defending Super Bowl champions losing to the Kansas City Chiefs is at least slightly more newsworthy than the 8-5 Broncos falling to Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Of course, their losses weren't the only surprises. The Colts picked up win No. 1 over the Tennessee Titans. The Giants were beaten handily by the Redskins and themselves. And the Jets were absolutely manhandled by August superstars, the Philadelphia Eagles.
And that all happened before San Diego turned the Baltimore Ravens back into the Cleveland Browns.
Luckily, not all of today's head-scratchers affected the playoff picture in a major way. No more Gronking around, let's get to the picks.
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4. Cleveland Browns
Almost, Cleveland. Almost. Today's overtime loss to the Cardinals at least involved some semblance of an offense, with Seneca Wallace half-energizing the unit on their way to an amazing 17 points. Peyton Hillis looked pretty good today, which would be nice if there was any chance he'd be returning to the city next season. This group is a long way off in a division this tough.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Everything really fell into place for the Bengals on Sunday, and they deserve some credit for taking care of business on the road against the Rams. There's still a chance that this team makes the playoffs, but it's going to take some effort with a game against Baltimore still remaining. It's tough to bet on a team finishing strong against two hot teams when they're relying on two rookies to fuel the offense.
2. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens still have a shot at nailing down the No. 1 seed in the AFC, technically, but that's far from their most immediate concern after Sunday's showing against San Diego. The Ravens are probably good enough to make a deep playoff run, but you never know which Baltimore team is going to show up, and when they're bad, they're really, really bad. Maybe Ray Lewis should head back to the sidelines...
DIVISION WINNER: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are getting a lot of billing as a Super Bowl favorite right now, and they certainly deserve credit for every game not played against Baltimore or Houston. But we'll know a lot more about this team after a trip to San Francisco Monday night. For now, the playoffs are imminent, and after Baltimore failed to show up against San Diego, the Steelers are in the driver's seat despite losing to the Ravens twice. They just have to beat San Francisco in San Francisco.
4. Buffalo Bills
The Bills have fallen a long way since their 5-2 start, dropping seven straight with games against Denver and New England still to go. It's never easy when you lose your best offensive and defensive players, but this franchise could regret giving $24 million guaranteed to Ryan Fitzpatrick if they end up drafting high enough to select one of 2012's elite passers. Falling behind Miami after the way these two teams started the season is flat out embarrassing.
3. Miami Dolphins
If only they'd fixed the quarterback issues before the season began. Since starting 0-7, the Dolphins have won five of seven games and should finish just out of the cellar in the AFC East. If they get the right signal-caller next April, they could challenge for a wild-card spot in 2012. The defense isn't that far off, and the offense could be sufficient with more consistent play under center. Of course, they're still just 5-9.
2. New York Jets
This is supposed to be a playoff team? As it stands right now, the Jets would edge the Bengals for the final playoff slot in the AFC, but that hardly seems fair after watching today's meltdown against the Eagles. New York has made a habit of backing into the playoffs and then getting hot, but that seems far fetched for a team that doesn't play as well on defense or in the ground game as Jets teams past.
DIVISION WINNER: New England Patriots
Beating Denver by 18 points in Denver was no small task. This team is dangerous when Tom Brady is on, and his two tight ends combine with Wes Welker to give him a sharp arsenal. The ground game can get it done, too. Of course, not every offense they face will be as generous as the Broncos', who turned the ball over three straight times in the first half. Still, this team is hurtling toward a No. 2 seed at worst, and Brady can never be counted out.
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4. Indianapolis Colts
Well, that's a start. The Colts finally found a pulse when checking their own wrists Sunday, beating suddenly swooning Tennessee for the team's first win in 2011. They're still a very, very long way from becoming a playoff team again, healthy Peyton Manning or not, and they may be gearing up for a transitional period that shoves a rookie under center. Andrew Luck is great, but he's not fix-this-team-in-his-first-NFL-season great.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
Maurice Jones-Drew is good. That's about it. Drafting Blaine Gabbert may be a decision they remedy in 2012, especially with all the turnover at the top. The offense lacks teeth on the outside and the defense is far from good enough to pick up the slack. Indianapolis may be much worse off right now, but Jacksonville is frantically fighting to regain the bottom spot in the AFC South.
2. Tennessee Titans
The Titans were once a smart bet to land a wild-card spot in the AFC, but they've quit trying at all the other positions just in time to see Chris Johnson remember what running looks like. Sort of. Either way, they've basically fallen out of playoff contention. The good news is that Jake Locker looks like the answer at quarterback, and getting Kenny Britt back will be a huge boost for the offense in 2012. Remaining games against Jacksonville and at Houston are certainly winnable, but that's looking less likely every week.
DIVISION WINNER: Houston Texans
This is going to be a problem. Mustering only 13 points against the Panthers' defense is not a good sign, and the defense wasn't good enough today to make up for the offense's ineptitude. The Texans are going to face better competition in the playoffs, and until they figure out how to regenerate their passing game post-Schaub, they're going to see similar results. At least they're finally going to the postseason.
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4. Kansas City Chiefs
How about that? The Chiefs managed only 19 points on Sunday, a monstrous feat for their offense, and still knocked off the previously unbeaten Green Bay Packers. This defense can be dominant when Tamba Hali is getting into the opposing backfield, and the offense has a few playmakers. With Jamaal Charles back in 2012, this team could be good enough to get back to the playoffs even if Kyle Orton is the guy under center.
3. Oakland Raiders
Ouch. After opening the season 7-4, the Raiders have dropped three straight to fall to 7-7 and one step further from the playoffs. Carson Palmer hasn't been close to good enough to make up for the absence of Darren McFadden, and now that McFadden is likely done for the year, things aren't going to get better in Oakland any time soon. Oh well, there's always next year, Raiders, even though you have no draft picks.
2. San Diego Chargers
The Chargers are heating up as the season ends yet again, but they've likely fallen too far behind a Denver team that ends the season on an easier note. The window is closing for Philip Rivers, but this team still has enough young talent on offense to get back into the AFC West race next season. For now, it appears the Chargers have again waited too late to start playing, though the beating of the Ravens was an eye-opener.
DIVISION WINNER: Denver Broncos
Today's game proved that the Broncos, while a much better team than some will admit, have a little way to go before hanging with the league's elite. Still, they were in control of this game early, a strong sign for a team that has struggled to start fast. The problem was that Denver finally decided to start turning the ball over, and their offense isn't built to absorb quick points from opponents. The defense was put in too many tough spots by the offense and special teams, and that won't get it done against the Patriots.
Still, Denver has only Buffalo and Kansas City standing in the way of a 10-win season, and it's starting to look like even a nine-win season should spell a playoff berth.
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4. Minnesota Vikings
They're not going to compete with the New Orleans Saints. Not yet. This Minnesota offense has a nice young quarterback, and a very competent ground game, but the defense is putrid, and there are too many glaring problems to believe that any sort of short-term fix is possible. Unfortunately for Ponder, a decision may have to be made if the Vikings somehow overtake the top spot in next April's draft. It's not impossible.
3. Chicago Bears
What a difference Jay Cutler and Matt Forte make. Without their quarterback, the Bears were bound to struggle. Without their quarterback and their running back, they were bound to lose. And that's exactly what they've done, losing four straight and falling to 7-7 in the process. The playoffs aren't going to happen, not with a trip to Green Bay scheduled next week. The Bears need better protection and more playmakers on the outside. It's not a new story.
2. Detroit Lions
That's how you redeem yourself. Ndamukong Suh let his team down when he was suspended for two games, one of which the Lions lost, but he came through in a major way on Sunday, blocking what could have been a game-winning kick from Sebastian Janikowski. Calvin Johnson scored his first two touchdowns in the past three weeks. One more win should seal a playoff berth, though there's no guarantee they get it with San Diego and Green Bay left on the slate.
DIVISION WINNER: Green Bay Packers
Losing to the Chiefs really dented the aura around this Packers team, and watching Aaron Rodgers miss receivers was almost as weird as watching Tim Tebow not win a game in the fourth quarter. Kansas City did an excellent job of pressuring Rodgers, and while many will point to that strategy as the blueprint for beating Green Bay, let's not forget that the exact same things were said about the Packers last season. We all remember how that worked out. The Packers have Chicago and Detroit remaining, but they're going to be the NFC's No. 1 seed.
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4. Washington Redskins
The Redskins looked like a different team in Sunday's win over the Giants. Or, at least, a team more similar to the one we saw at the beginning of the season. Washington could get another win before it's all over, too, with Minnesota visiting next week, but that's not going to erase the taste of another failed season. If the Shanahans are still around in April, expect them to finally find a franchise passer.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
When they've been good, they've been pretty good. They just haven't been good all that often this year. Still, with the playoffs remaining a very small possibility for this team, Sunday's blowout of the Jets had to feel pretty good. The Eagles can keep their hopes alive for another week if they can complete a sweep of the Cowboys next Saturday. After that, all that keeps them from an 8-8 season is a visit from the Redskins—which is pretty much the record they expected to have back in August, right?
2. New York Giants
What was that? Seriously, what the hell was that? The Giants solidify their image as this never-say-die, indomitable team in a must-win game at Dallas last week, then they return home to hand the Redskins just their second win since Week 4? Beating the Cowboys is still their saving grace, and it keeps their destiny in their own hands, but this team is too schizophrenic to bet on with the Jets still on the schedule.
DIVISION WINNER: Dallas Cowboys
Losing to the Giants really hurt. No matter what happens against the Eagles next week, the Cowboys are going to have to beat New York in New York to win this division, and that's not an easy task. Still, beating the everliving snot out of the Bucs was a much more impressive showing than losing to the Redskins at home, so for now, I'll give the Cowboys and their 8-6 record a slight edge. Funny that there's still no clear front-runner in this division.
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4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Remember when Tampa Bay was 4-2? Remember when Josh Freeman told everyone that would listen this summer how good he was? That didn't happen. Instead of building on last season's success, the Bucs have dropped eight straight games to fall to the bottom of the NFC South. If Raheem Morris isn't around in 2012, this team might be drafting high enough to think about dropping Freeman and starting over. They're that bad right now.
3. Carolina Panthers
Outside of Tim Tebow, no player has had as evident an effect on their team's performance as Cam Newton. This team, which by the way was clearly the NFL's worst in 2010, has become a dangerous foe for every opponent, every week, capping that reputation with a win over the Houston Texans, in Houston. The Panthers have actually won three road games in a row, and three of their past four overall. They'll be contending for the playoffs sooner than expected.
2. Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta finally put it all together against the Jacksonville Jaguars, which, to be honest, isn't that great a feat. Still, the Falcons have won seven of their past nine games after a 2-3 start. It helps that Detroit is the only team with a winning record that they've beaten during that stretch, but wins are wins. Next week's trip to New Orleans is a big one, but no matter what happens there, a Week 17 win at home versus Tampa Bay should clinch a playoff spot.
DIVISION WINNER: New Orleans Saints
This is starting to look like the NFC's hottest team. The Saints haven't been as invincible as the Packers on a season-long basis, but they're on a six-game winning streak, and Drew Brees seems to break a new record every week. No team in the NFC is playing as well as New Orleans right now, and if they can manage to lock up the No. 2 seed, they should get another shot at Green Bay in Lambeau. It just won't be as easy in January.
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4. St. Louis Rams
What has happened to Sam Bradford? A poor offensive line, third offensive coordinator in three years and a serious dearth of talented receivers will hurt any quarterback's growth, but Bradford has been just plain bad when he's been healthy enough to play. The Rams are another team that could be facing a tough decision in April if they somehow wiggle their way into the top spot in the draft. Even if they don't, starting over from scratch isn't an impossibility.
3. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals found a way to beat Cleveland, even if it did take overtime, which keeps their slim wild-card chances alive. They're the quietest team in the history of the NFL to win six of seven games, but even though they're on a roll, does anyone really think they're a playoff team? More than likely, this season will only serve to keep them out of contention for a top quarterback while keeping the current coaching staff employed for another season.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Too little too late for the Seahawks, but they have to be encouraged by the way the season has played out. If Pete Carroll can get this kind of play out of Tarvaris Jackson, imagine what he could do with an actual NFL passer. The Seahawks won't make the playoffs this season, but there's reason to believe they could challenge for a wild card or even a division title in 2012. Things are looking up.
DIVISION WINNER: San Francisco 49ers
Being a division winner by default is still being a division winner, but it's not quite as impressive. Especially when you find a way to lose to Arizona and still have to host Pittsburgh and play at Seattle. The Niners have made incredible strides in their first season under Jim Harbaugh, but their veil of invincibility has been pulled down a little over the past few weeks, and with Frank Gore slowing down, they don't seem as sure a bet to make it out of the first round.
AFC Wild Card
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4. San Diego Chargers
The fourth spot here is really pointless, so why not give it to San Diego? They always show up late in the season, and it's possible that 8-8 could still make them the AFC's eighth-best team. They're playing really well to end the year. Again.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
I want to put Cinci in the playoffs, and Sunday's results certainly helped, but I just can't bet on a team starring a rookie quarterback and a rookie receiver when that team needs to win out and still faces a Baltimore team that won't be able to let up in their pursuit for the AFC's No. 1 seed.
WILD CARD TEAM: New York Jets
I don't want to put the Jets here any more than the next guy, especially after Sunday's embarrassment, but the Jets are going to the playoffs. History is repeating itself with a much smaller interlude in this situation, but we've seen this story before. Somehow, New York will find themselves with the No. 6 seed.
WILD CARD TEAM: Baltimore Ravens
Dropping from the No. 1 seed to the No. 5 seed in one night is pretty hard to do, but the Ravens really rose to the occasion against the Chargers. Whatever that was won't get the Ravens far in the playoffs. It's amazing that San Diego may have buoyed the Broncos' chances of making it out of the first round. Beating Baltimore in Denver sure sounds a lot easier now than beating Pittsburgh in Denver.
NFC Wild Card
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4. New York Giants
They get Dallas at home to end the season, and that could spell the difference between a division crown and a fourth-place finish in the Wild-Card race. Still, after what happened in New York against Washington Sunday, there are few teams that I have less confidence in.
3. Seattle Seahawks
I'd be surprised if the Seahawks don't win out. Hosting San Francisco will be tough, but I still trust Seattle to win in Arizona more than I trust Arizona to win a home game against a nearly playoff-caliber team. Just my preference right now.
WILD CARD TEAM: Detroit Lions
Things are starting to come together for Detroit, and the Lions are looking more and more like a playoff team. They'll really need to beat San Diego when they host the Chargers next week because the season ends at Green Bay.
WILD CARD TEAM: Atlanta Falcons
After the way they dismantled a bad Jacksonville team, they're a smart bet to finish at least 10-6. All they have to do is beat the Bucs in Atlanta to finish the season. A trip to Dallas could be waiting, which doesn't sound like that bad of a draw for a No. 5 seed.
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Wild Card Round
(6) New York Jets @ (3) Houston Texans
This is a playoff game? Really? I mean, if Houston had Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson, they'd win this one hands down. As it stands, after watching New York play Philadelphia, I think they can win anyway.
(5) Baltimore Ravens @ (4) Denver Broncos
Everyone hates when I pick Denver to win this game, and after a 41-23 loss to New England, it certainly seems a good time to switch the winner. But I'm not. Denver is still a tough team to figure out, and Baltimore's been a very beatable team too many times this year.
(6) Detroit Lions @ (3) San Francisco 49ers
The rematch everyone wants to see might actually happen if the Niners drop another game and New Orleans keeps winning. This time, I'll take the Lions and an offense that should be better prepared to handle the San Fran defense.
(5) Atlanta Falcons @ (4) Dallas Cowboys
Pretty good draw for the Falcons, like we said. Beating Dallas in Dallas isn't as hard as it used to be, and Atlanta has certainly been the more consistent team lately.
(3) Houston Texans @ (2) New England Patriots
Not gonna happen, Houston. I'll give you the edge at home against the Jets, but on the road in New England, the Texans' defense will bend just enough to put the game out of reach for their quarterback-less offense.
(4) Denver Broncos @ (1) Pittsburgh Steelers
One win against an AFC North team is enough for Denver. Traveling across the country to face the Steelers proves to be too much for the Broncos, and Pittsburgh gets back to the AFC Championship game.
(6) Detroit Lions @ (1) Green Bay Packers
The Packers should take care of business here, likely completing a three-game sweep of the Lions. I just don't see Detroit winning back-to-back road playoff games against two of the NFC's top three teams.
(5) Atlanta Falcons @ (2) New Orleans Saints
A second trip to New Orleans in four weeks doesn't sound like a lot of fun for the Falcons, and it won't turn out to be much better than their first trip. The Saints are too hot right now, and Atlanta has too many questions on defense.
AFC Championship Game
(2) New England Patriots @ (1) Pittsburgh Steelers
Pretty good matchup of famed offense versus famed defense here, but the difference in this one comes from the fact that New England is really hitting their stride offensively and with the pass rush. They've scored at least 31 points in six straight games.
NFC Championship Game
(2) New Orleans Saints @ (1) Green Bay Packers
Another shot at the Packers in Green Bay in a rematch everyone's dying to see. It won't be easy for New Orleans to win on the road at Lambeau in late January, but New Orleans surprisingly owns the league's ninth-best rushing offense, and Drew Brees is playing out of his mind right now.
Super Bowl XLVI
New Orleans Saints vs. New England Patriots
What a game this would be, though it's hard to imagine two spotty defenses not getting in the way of their offenses throughout the entire playoffs. Brady and Brees are both deadly in the clutch and know this stage well, but the Saints are definitely the more complete team right now, and no one in the league has been as hot as Brees over the past few weeks. Congrats on your second Super Bowl title, Saints.