NFL Playoff Picture: Bold Predictions and Teams Which Should Be on Upset Alert

Nick Butterworth@nickbutterworthContributor IDecember 21, 2011

NFL Playoff Picture: Bold Predictions and Teams Which Should Be on Upset Alert

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    With just two weeks remaining in the NFL regular season, the playoff picture is beginning to take shape.

    Seven teams have already claimed their postseason berths, leaving 15 more to scramble for the remaining five places. And if the Week 15 action was anything to go by, there will be plenty more surprises before the final seeds are locked up.

    Who would have predicted that the Green Bay Packers would lose their undefeated record to the Kansas City Chiefs? Or that the Indianapolis Colts would taste victory for the first time?

    With so many moving parts, allow me to make things a little clearer.

    Here are some bold predictions for the playoff race, with some upsets that are sure to raise a few eyebrows.

The New York Giants Will Win the NFC East

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    For the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys, the playoff equation is simple: win out, and they're in.

    Their Week 17 matchup at MetLife Stadium will likely decide the division, vindicating the NFL's decision to schedule rivalries at the start and end of the season.

    Despite facing some tough opposition, the Giants have put together some stellar performances this year, with wins on the road in New England and Dallas among the highlights.

    But for every big victory, there's been a frustrating defeat, and Sunday's loss to the Washington Redskins put a dent in the Giants' hopes of playing football in January.

    As inconsistent as Eli Manning and company have been recently, they will be fired up for their Christmas Eve clash with the New York Jets, who themselves were laid low by a NFC East division rival last week, losing 45-19 to the resurgent Philadelphia Eagles.

    On what promises to be a big day for Victor Cruz—with Darrelle Revis occupying the deep threat of Hakeem Nicks—I see the Giants winning a close one, thanks to the combined efforts of Manning and Jason Pierre-Paul, who is emerging as one of the league's most talented pass-rushers.

    That would leave Tony Romo to face Manning in a winner-takes-all New Year's Day encounter, and in clutch situations, the Giants' signal-caller has been supreme this season, with six comeback victories and 14 fourth-quarter touchdowns.

    Theoretically, the Giants could lose to the Jets, beat the Cowboys and still take the NFC East with an 8-8 record, but I'll take Big Blue to do it cleanly.

The San Diego Chargers Will Win the AFC West

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    The San Diego Chargers would need a miracle to clinch the AFC West.

    But in a division in which Tim Tebow has been performing them on a weekly basis over in Denver, anything is possible.

    Previously dead and buried after losing six straight, the Chargers have rediscovered their mojo and are making their trademark surge to close out the season. San Diego is 31-6 in December games in the Philip Rivers era and is suddenly a team that nobody wants to face.

    It all starts with Rivers.

    No picks in the last four games, eight touchdowns, and a 68-percent completion rate all point to a quarterback in command of his game.

    The return of Malcom Floyd to the lineup has taken some of the focus away from stopping Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson in the passing game, and with Ryan Mathews now in an injury-free groove, the play-action can also flourish.

    To take the division, the Chargers need to win their final two games—on the road in Detroit and Oakland—and hope that Denver falls to both the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs.

    The Lions, who are chasing a playoff berth themselves, are dangerous opponents—look at Calvin Johnson's monster outing in Week 15 as a reminder of how easily they can torch a defense.

    However, their last two wins, over the Minnesota Vikings and the Oakland Raiders, were less than convincing, and against the league's best teams, Detroit has taken some sound beatings.

    San Diego can take care of its own business, but it still needs a favor from the Broncos.

    Tom Brady showed that the Denver defense can be dissected with a high-powered aerial attack, which neither the Bills nor the Chiefs possess.

    But that's not to say that Ryan Fitzpatrick or Kyle Orton can't cause problems, or have no weapons to hurt the Broncos with, and if either quarterback gets hot, it is questionable whether Tim Tebow can keep pace on the scoreboard.

    Finally, in recent weeks ball security has been a real problem for the Broncos, who cannot afford to undermine their long, clock-controlling drives by leaving the field with no points.

    It's a long shot, but I'm taking the Chargers to upset the odds in the West.

The New York Jets Will Go 9-7 and Earn a Wild-Card Spot

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    If the season ended today, the New York Jets would claim the sixth seed, so to suggest that they will make the playoffs is hardly a bold prediction.

    But doing it with a 9-7 record, and with the Cincinnati Bengals breathing down their necks, is a little more interesting.

    The Bengals finish their season with home games against the Arizona Cardinals and the Baltimore Ravens, and I think Cincinnati loses both.

    The Cardinals are enjoying a real resurgence with John Skelton under center, winning six of their past seven games and giving Larry Fitzgerald opportunities to make plays.

    Meanwhile, the Bengals have lost four of their last six, some of which can be blamed on a tough schedule.

    But Andy Dalton, as impressive as his rookie campaign has been, must shoulder some of the blame, as the team's quarterback.

    He hasn't thrown for over 200 yards since Week 12, and with a shoulder injury to his top target A.J. Green, his slump could continue to the end of the season.

    If the Jets do fall to the Giants on Christmas Eve, they face a must-win divisional battle with the Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium.

    Rex Ryan is an emotional head coach, so you can be sure that the players will be fired up over their next two games.

    In itself, passion is not enough to overcome Mark Sanchez's lack of production, but in Shonn Greene, the Jets have a running back hitting his stride at just the right time.

    I'm taking the Jets to edge the Dolphins, and at 9-7, they would hold tiebreakers over the Tennessee Titans, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers, all of whom could finish with the same record in this scenario.

The Arizona Cardinals Will Secure a Wild-Card Berth

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    Most teams which open the season with 1-6 records experience the playoffs like we fans do: at home, on television.

    But the Arizona Cardinals are this season's Jekyll-and-Hyde team, fighting back to 7-7, and, unbelievably, are still in the hunt for one of the two available wild-card spots.

    The scenario is relatively simple: they need to beat the Cincinnati Bengals on the road, then the Seattle Seahawks at home to close the season at 9-7. They then need the Detroit Lions to lose their final two, against the San Diego Chargers and the Green Bay Packers, at Lambeau Field.

    Arizona matches up will with the Bengals, who have problems in pass coverage after losing Leon Hall to injury and Jonathan Joseph to the Houston Texans in free agency.

    And in John Skelton, the Cardinals now have a reliable, if unspectacular, performer who can make use of one of the best weapons in the NFL: Larry Fitzgerald.

    The Seahawks are enjoying their own mini-recovery, winning five of their last six, and hold the same playoff-clinching scenario as Arizona.

    I'll take the Cardinals in their NFC West rematch, putting all the pressure on Jim Schwartz's Lions, who have wilted under pressure this season.

    Despite the Packers' securing their first-round bye already, they will be in no mood to extend favors to divisional rivals, making the New Year's Day clash at Lambeau one of the toughest assignments Detroit could land.

    Through the years, the playoffs have been littered with teams that catch lightning in a bottle—think of the 2007 Giants, or any San Diego team in recent memory.

    Everything is coming together nicely for the Cardinals and at just the right time.

    They'll need a little luck, but the wild-card spot could be theirs.

The Houston Texans Will Not Secure a First-Round Bye

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    The Houston Texans might be one of toughest, most resilient teams in the NFL. Few playoff contenders could cope with the loss of their starting quarterback, top wide receiver and elite pass-rusher and still hope to maintain any momentum.

    Step forward T.J. Yates.

    The Texans' postseason hopes now rest on the shoulders of a rookie fifth-round draft pick, or more accurately, the running back tandem of Arian Foster and Ben Tate.

    Yates had a rough game last week against the Carolina Panthers, which is not unexpected at this stage of his development.

    The problem for Houston now is its predictability: Defending the run becomes much easier if teams are expecting it on most downs.

    With a road game at the Indianapolis Colts, expect the Texans' defense to carry them against a hapless opponent. But the New Year's Day visit of the Tennessee Titans, who hold slim playoff hopes of their own, could be a much more problematic test.

    If the Texans drop a game, the window opens for the Pittsburgh Steelers to clinch a first-round bye as the likely No. 2 seed. The Steelers finish with fixtures against the St. Louis Rams and the Cleveland Browns, neither of whom score enough points to trouble Ben Roethlisberger, even on one leg.


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