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NFL Playoff Picture and Week 14 Picks

Usually at this point in this season — 12 games down and four to go for each team — most division races are heating up. Not this year.

In the NFC, the Giants have home-field throughout the playoffs secured while the Cardinals are already preparing for a home game in the first round, courtesy of the NFC West title they’re about to earn. In the South, to the winner of Monday night’s showdown between the Bucs and Panthers will go both the division crown and the second bye in the conference. The only divisional murkiness lies in the North, where the Vikings — currently 7-5 with a one-game lead over the Bears — will have to contend with a potentially bumpy schedule (at DET, at ARI, ATL, NYG) as well as the imminent suspensions of their two cogs on the defensive line, Kevin and Pat Williams (although the suspensions are presently on hold as the players union has filed suit to block them).

The divisional picture is equally clear in the AFC, where the Titans will take the AFC South and the top seed in the postseason. Out west, the Broncos have a three-game advantage over San Diego and a manageable final slate (KC, at CAR, BUF, at SD). Denver will be the fourth seed and host a wild card game. The Jets are lined up to wrestle the AFC East away from the Patriots for the first time since 2002. They could conceivably run the table (at SF, BUF, at SEA, MIA) and steal the second bye from Pittsburgh. While the Steelers are the most complete team in the conference, they must deal with unquestionably the most difficult final four games (DAL, at BAL, at TEN, CLE) of any AFC contender.

In essence, the entire divisional landscape of the league can be summed up in three questions. 1) Will Carolina avenge a 27-3 loss to Tampa Bay and win the NFC South? 2) Can Minnesota evade the obstacles and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004? 3) Is Pittsburgh capable of gaining the AFC’s second bye in spite of a brutal December schedule? We’ll see.

Right now, it’s the wild card races in both conferences that have the most moving parts. In the NFC, there are technically five teams battling for the two berths. However, the loser of the Tampa Bay-Carolina game will be 9-4 and virtually guaranteed a wild card, barring a total collapse. That means Dallas (8-4), Atlanta (8-4), Washington (7-5) and Philadelphia (6-5-1) will have to duke it out for the last spot. As for the AFC, there are four teams for two berths. Again, though, that is misleading, as the Colts are 8-4, riding a five-game winning streak and looking at the easiest final month (CIN, DET, at JAX, TEN) of all the contenders. Indy is a minimum 11-win team. Which leaves Baltimore (8-4), New England (7-5) and Miami (7-5) vying for the sixth and final spot.

So of those seven squads, which two are most likely to be playing football in January? Let’s take a closer look, within the context of each conference.

NFC

Dallas Cowboys: 8-4 (at PIT, NYG, BAL, at PHI)

It’s painful to merely look at the Cowboys’ December schedule. They will clash with, in succession, the league’s first, third, second and seventh ranked defenses. All have ferocious, unrelenting pass rushes and physical secondaries that can challenge the Dallas passing attack. They can also all stop the run. That said, the Cowboys appear to be peaking and getting healthy at the right time, which means they’re capable of winning any of these games. A 2-2 split is most probable, which means the Giants and Eagles games are especially critical if a 10-6 Cowboys team is to have any tiebreakers in its favor (most of the time wild card tiebreakers come down to conference record).

Atlanta Falcons: 8-4 (at NO, TB, at MIN, STL)

The next two weeks are crucial for the Falcons. If they can find a way to win in New Orleans and beat Tampa Bay at home, they’ll be in the drivers seat hitting the home stretch (as Dallas will be hard pressed to knock off the Steelers and Giants on consecutive Sundays). Behind the continued and striking improvement of rookie Matt Ryan, the Falcons have notched four of the last five, including a couple of tough divisional games and a victory in San Diego last week. As of now Atlanta is the team that most readily controls its own destiny.

Washington Redskins: 7-5 (at BAL, at CIN, PHI, at SF)

No team wants to finish with three out of the last four on the road, but at this point that’s far from Washington’s primary concern. The Redskins are 1-3 in their last four contests, mainly because they haven’t been able to put points on the board — scoring a total of 43 points during the lull. Clinton Portis has been playing hurt, and it’s shown, as he’s rung up just one 100-yard game in that stretch after recording five in a row. Jason Campbell’s receivers have not helped him by any measure, dropping countless passes in big spots. Anything short of a huge showing on Sunday night in Baltimore and Washington’s drive to return to the playoffs will stall out.

Philadelphia Eagles: 6-5-1 (at NYG, CLE, at WAS, DAL)

Impressive as he was coming back with an elite performance on Thanksgiving after being benched the week before, Donovan McNabb still has a mighty task ahead of him. Simply put, a loss to the Giants this week effectively kills Philly’s season. That’s what happens when you tie the Bengals. On the bright side, with the bizarre Plaxico Burress/Antonio Pierce incident coming to a head as this piece goes to print, maybe the Eagles are drawing the champs at the right time. Regardless, it’s simple. A win in the Meadowlands and Philly is alive and kicking.

AFC

Baltimore Ravens: 8-4 (WAS, PIT, at DAL, JAX)

Not what you would classify a friendly slate of games for the Ravens, but they have the benefit of playing three of them at home, where they are 4-1. Since getting pasted by the Giants in Week 11, Baltimore has responded with two resounding victories over the Eagles and Bengals. Considering the opponents they’ll have to face this month, a split of their last four games is the most likely scenario for the Ravens. Like Dallas, the pressure will be on Baltimore in their two remaining conference games, as three of their four losses have come against AFC teams. Even at 10-6, if the Ravens end up with five conferences losses they’ll probably be on the outside looking in come playoff time.

New England Patriots: 7-5 (at SEA, at OAK, ARI, at BUF)

With a 5-5 record in the AFC, the Patriots are pretty much assured of having no tiebreakers going in their favor should it come down to that. Which would indicate New England has to run the table if it wants to be competing for a Super Bowl for the sixth straight year. Given the Patriots’ track record of playing better as the games gain importance and the weather becomes inclement (they’re a cumulative 27-5 in the month of December since 2001), it’s plausible that New England wins out. They will be favored in every game left on the schedule, meaning a lack of preparation or an off-day is all that stands between them and 11 wins.

Miami Dolphins: 7-5 (at BUF, SF, at KC, at NYJ)

You gotta hand it to the Dolphins. They were routed by the Patriots in a blood match and clearly felt the effects well into last Sunday’s game against the Rams. But they held on and are now set up to be heading into the final week at 10-5 for a divisional clash with the Jets. It’s questionable whether they’ll be able to seal the deal and get back to the postseason for the first time in eight years, but don’t forget this was a team that still hadn’t even won a game at this juncture of the season last year.

Now, on to the Week 14 picks (home teams in CAPS)

SAN DIEGO over Oakland

CHICAGO over Jacksonville

Minnesota over DETROIT

TENNESSEE over Cleveland

GREEN BAY over Houston

NEW ORLEANS over Atlanta

INDIANAPOLIS over Cincinnati

DENVER over Kansas City

NY GIANTS over Philadelphia

NY Jets over SAN FRANCISCO

Miami over BUFFALO

ARIZONA over St. Louis

New England over SEATTLE

PITTSBURGH over Dallas

BALTIMORE over Washington

CAROLINA over Tampa Bay

Last Week: 8-8

Overall: 121-69-1

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