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Examining the NFL playoff picture

Let’s start with the bad news. For fans of the Raiders, Chiefs, Browns, Jaguars, Panthers and Eagles, the next significant date on the NFL calendar is April 25, 2013. Realistically eliminated from playoff contention, those teams and their followers should already be seeking the input of Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay (or in the case of Philly fans, preparing to make the 90-minute jaunt to New York City for a primetime boo-off with Jets fans at Radio City Music Hall next spring). Unfortunately, the 2013 NFL Draft is all those fan bases currently have to look forward to.

Now to the good news. With only six teams whose records have them earmarked for 2013 and beyond, that leaves 25 playoff hopefuls (plus the Jets) as the season hits the home stretch. Not too shabby. Of those, seven have four wins, four have five wins, five have six wins and 10 have at least seven wins. Some are hot, some are hurt, some are hollow, some are inconsistent, some are scary, some are just plain mediocre. In the NFC, there could be a fistful of solid teams that don’t make the playoffs. In the AFC, the Chargers are still very much alive. So there’s that. If I had to pick a Super Bowl matchup today, not one of the three best teams by record would be included. In other words, there are many unknowns with a mere five weeks to go in the regular season.

Since the playoff picture is so murky and out of focus, why don’t we turn this column into a microscope and see if we can’t reduce a bit of the blur? (Be advised: Any Tebows in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear).

AFC

Division winners – New England, Baltimore, Houston, Denver

The Patriots’ closing slate (Houston, San Francisco, Miami twice, at Jacksonville) is certainly no cakewalk, but they are straight rolling and haven’t lost a second-half game since 2009. Winning out will give New England 13 victories. Denver is clicking too, and its schedule (Tampa Bay, at Oakland, at Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City) is manageable. The Broncos should run the table as well and finish with 13 wins. At 10-1, the Texans are the odds-on favorite for the No. 1 overall seed in the conference, but their schedule (at Tennessee, at New England, Indy twice, Minnesota) has potential bumps in the road, and they are fresh off barely escaping five-quarter games against the Jaguars and Lions. Houston looks like the AFC’s third 13-3 team. Since the Broncos lost to the Patriots and Texans and the Texans will have lost to the Patriots (future-perfect tense alert!), the tiebreaker will go: New England, Houston, Denver. That means the Broncos and 9-2 Ravens – who are poised to stumble down the stretch, just wait – will be hosting Wild Card games.

Wild Card teams – Pittsburgh, Indianapolis

The Steelers are in the midst of their first losing streak since 2009 and likely won’t be pulling out of it with a Week 13 matchup in Baltimore that Ben Roethlisberger is unlikely to return for. If Pittsburgh were in the NFC, there would be legitimate cause for concern. But in a top-heavy AFC, the Steelers should be able to rebound from their tailspin and win their last four games (San Diego, at Dallas, Cincinnati, Cleveland). Injuries aside, this is a team that was playing at a high level in reeling off four straight wins against some quality opponents before losing its quarterback. Nine wins will be good for the second Wild Card, and at 7-4, the Colts should be able to squeeze two out of a challenging final five (at Detroit, Tennessee, Houston twice, at Kansas City). Indy will need to continue to protect its turf, which means splitting with the Texans. That’s doable as long as Andrew Luck doesn’t hit the so-called rookie wall.

Outside looking in – Cincinnati, San Diego, Miami

The 6-5 Bengals have come on strong, but despite a 21.3 point average margin of victory during their three-game winning streak, it’s tough to put a lot of stock in it considering they beat the Raiders, Chiefs and the Giants on one of Eli Manning’s personal bye weeks. Cincinnati would need to pull three wins out of a daunting closing slate (at San Diego, Dallas, at Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh, Baltimore). Can’t see it. As usual, the 4-7 Chargers should be better, but their quarterback and coach are a turnover/blunder machine. However, given San Diego’s proclivity for December surges and a palatable schedule (Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh, Carolina, at Jets, Oakland), it’s not out of the realm, right? On second thought … yes, yes it is. Six words for the 5-6 Dolphins: twice New England, plus San Francisco. I think that’s six words.

NFC

Division winners – Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, New York

Barring a total collapse, the Falcons will waltz to their second No. 1 seed in the last three years. Whether they do more with it than Green Bay 48, Atlanta 21 remains to be seen. But the road to New Orleans will go through the Georgia Dome. The Bears are a borderline juggernaut with Jay Cutler and hopeless without him. Luckily he’s back, and thanks to San Francisco’s tie, Chicago should be able to secure the second NFC bye with wins in four of its last five (Seattle, at Minnesota, Green Bay, at Arizona, at Detroit). Indeed, the Niners are going to regret drawing with the Rams, as back-to-back road games in New England and Seattle indicate San Francisco will finish 11-4-1 to Chicago’s 12-4. The Giants may win nine, they may win 10. But they will win the NFC East and play Wild Card weekend. Just how they like it.

Wild Card teams – Green Bay, Seattle

For once, I’m going to hate being right. In late September, after The Seattle Job got the real referees back on the job, I wrote that the matter would not be resolved until December and/or January. Well lo and behold, it’s looking more than ever like the Fail Mary will not only cost the Packers the NFC North crown and a first-round bye, but will also end up putting the Seahawks in the playoffs. At 7-4, Green Bay (which closes with Minnesota, Detroit, at Chicago, Tennessee, at Minnesota) could still win the division, but that will likely require going into Chicago and beating the Bears for the season sweep as well as running the table. Since it will probably take 10 wins to earn the second NFC Wild Card, 6-5 Seattle will need to go 4-1 against a slate of Chicago/Buffalo (road) and Arizona/San Francisco/St. Louis (home). The way the Seahawks play at CenturyLink Field and given how well they played the 49ers at Candlestick, a road win in Buffalo appears to be all that’s separating them from 10 wins. And a heap of controversy.

Outside looking in – Tampa Bay, Washington, New Orleans, Dallas, Minnesota

The 5-6 Saints face a murderers’ row (at Atlanta, at Giants, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Carolina) to end the season. While they would be a bona fide “team nobody wants to face,” it appears that 0-4 start will end up dooming the Saints. The Cowboys have traditionally been floppers in December. Sizing up the 6-5 Vikings’ final five games (at Green Bay, Chicago, at St. Louis, at Houston, Green Bay), it’s tough to find even one sure victory. The Redskins are playing splendid football behind Robert Griffin III but are still a year away, which leaves the formidable Bucs (at Denver, Philadelphia, at New Orleans, St. Louis, at Atlanta) as the team that figures to be crying foul should they fall a game or tiebreaker short to the Seahawks.

AFC projections

1. New England (13-3)
2. Houston (13-3)
3. Denver (13-3)
4. Baltimore (11-5)
5. Pittsburgh (10-6)
6. Indianapolis (9-7)

Cincinnati (8-8)
San Diego (8-8)
Miami (7-9)

NFC projections

1. Atlanta (13-3)
2. Chicago (12-4)
3. San Francisco (11-4-1)
4. New York (10-6)
5. Green Bay (11-5)
6. Seattle (10-6)

Tampa Bay (9-7)
New Orleans (8-8)
Washington (8-8)
Dallas (8-8)
Minnesota (7-9)

Super Bowl contenders: Who makes the cut?

The NFL prides itself on being an equal opportunity league. The turnover of playoff teams from one year to the next is traditionally at least 40 percent. It was a 50/50 split in 2011.

Since the Patriots won three out of four Super Bowls from 2001-04, five of the last seven champions have played in the Wild Card round. Three of them (’05 Steelers, ’07 Giants, ’10 Packers) ran the road gauntlet as Wild Card teams, and a fourth – the ’08 Cardinals – came within a minute of doing the same.

While gaudy, prolific regular seasons can captivate the masses, the trend of the league over the last seven years has illustrated time and again that it’s not how you get there, but the momentum you carry into January. Because of that, it’s difficult to gain a good handle on the true Super Bowl contenders until December at the earliest.

Then again, if we wait until then, there won’t be much to talk about around the Thanksgiving table, will there? Here’s a pre-Turkey Day stab at categorizing the contenders:

The pretenders – Baltimore, Seattle
The Ravens look like they blew their best chance at a second Super Bowl last season. Since Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff teamed up to flush the AFC title down the toilet in New England last January, Baltimore has been careening toward mediocrity – despite a house-of-cards 7-2 record through nine games. The Ravens’ defense is banged up and unable to stop anyone, allowing over 390 yards per game, fifth worst in the NFL. Joe Flacco, who by his own admission was poised to enter the ranks of the elite, is barely a Top 15 quarterback and only seems to play well against the Patriots. Yet the Ravens appear charmed, drawing Pittsburgh twice in the next three weeks with Ben Roethlisberger’s status in question. Baltimore looks headed for a second straight AFC North crown and a home game in the first round. One it will likely lose.

If the Seahawks had managed to upset the 49ers for sixty minutes instead of forty a few Thursday nights ago, they would be occupying a far more significant tier of these rankings. Seattle has the league’s No. 4 overall defense, as well as the fourth-ranked scoring defense. Marshawn Lynch always gains steam as the season progresses and is the type of unrelenting, downhill runner that can make life miserable for opposing defenses in the playoffs (hello: New Orleans, 2010). In addition, the number-crunchers at Football Outsiders have Seattle ranked third in the NFL by their total DVOA metric. However, because of that loss on Oct. 18 (and San Francisco’s subsequent tie), the Hawks trail the Niners by two games in the loss column in the NFC West, meaning they are all but assured to be on the road in the playoffs should they get there. And Seattle can’t win on the road. Russell Wilson has thrown eight interceptions in five games away from CenturyLink Field, four of which the Seahawks have lost.

The faux-tenders – Atlanta, Houston
Has an 8-1 team ever looked as ordinary as the Falcons? They should have lost to Carolina in Week 4, were outplayed by an awful Raiders team in Week 6, did everything they could to blow a 21-point fourth-quarter lead to the Broncos in Week 2 on Monday night and couldn’t score with three chances from the 1-yard line and the game on the line last Sunday against the Saints. The argument for the Falcons is they are seasoned after consecutive one-and-dones in the playoffs. From this view, the Atlanta defense is pretty much the same unit that was tuned up by the Packers and Giants, and Mike Smith is pretty much the same coach that has tightened up in each of those blowouts.

On paper (and the field, for that matter), the Texans shouldn’t be lumped with the Falcons. Houston boasts the No. 2 overall defense and No. 3 scoring defense in the league, along with the presumptive defensive player of the year, J.J. Watt. They can stop the run and feature one of the game’s best safety/corner tandems. So why are the Texans relegated to this status? For one, despite the growing up they did in the playoffs last year, they did so without their starting quarterback. As well-constructed of a team as Houston is, this is still a quarterback-driven league, particularly when it’s all on the line, and I’m not convinced Matt Schaub is ready to stare down the Bradys, Mannings and Rodgers of the world with a championship on the line. And sorry, but Super Bowl contenders don’t get their clocks cleaned at home in a nationally-televised game like Houston did by Green Bay in Week 6.

The caveats – Pittsburgh, Chicago
The jury is still out on the Steelers and Bears because of their ailing quarterbacks. If Jay Cutler experiences lingering post-concussion effects, it could be deja vu for the 7-2 Bears, who were 7-3 at the two-thirds marker last year and had the makeup of a legitimate contender before Cutler was felled. Likewise for the Steelers, who simply have no chance without a 100-percent Roethlisberger.

The uncategorizables – Giants
So the Giants won six of their first eight, highlighted by a 26-3 stampeding of San Francisco that is neck and neck with Aaron Rodgers’ six touchdown passes in the aforementioned Sunday night smackdown for the season’s most impressive victory. They’ve since dropped two straight games, Eli Manning has looked terrible and the schedule is murderous down the stretch. Hmmm, where have we seen this before …

The lurkers – New England, San Francisco
As usual, the Patriots are tough to quantify. They once again feature the league’s highest-powered offense, ranking No. 1 in total yards per game (430.3) and points per game (33.2) with room to spare in each category. Seventh in passing, fifth in rushing. In terms of total DVOA, New England is second overall, and its three losses have been by a combined four points. Yet in two of their last three games, the Patriots have been forced to pull rabbits out of their hats against the Jets and Bills. Back-to-back games against Houston and San Francisco in Weeks 14-15 will be interesting, but will probably tell us more about the Texans and Niners than the Pats.

Indeed, if San Francisco is able to fly cross-country and knock off New England in primetime on Dec. 16, the road to New Orleans could realistically be going through the City by the Bay. That said, Tom Brady rarely loses at home, in December or to NFC teams in the regular season. Tough to see all three happening at once. That’s not to say the Niners aren’t serious contenders. Quite the contrary, as this team is built to beat any NFC heavy-hitter minus the Giants, who just flat-out have San Francisco’s number.

The favorites – Green Bay, Denver
If the 49ers are built to beat Green Bay (they are) and the Giants pose legitimate matchup problems for Green Bay (they do), how can the Packers be the favorite to come out of the NFC? First, the defense, which has quietly regained its 2010 form: solid against the run (98.3 yards per game, tied for 10th in the NFL) and able to bring consistent pressure (28 sacks, tied for second). Then there’s Rodgers, who far too many questioned after four lackluster performances (by his standards) dating back to the playoff loss to the Giants last year. Rodgers didn’t look great to begin the season, and Green Bay lost two of its first three games (well, according to the replacement refs). Since The Seattle Job, the Packers are 5-1 and Rodgers has been in message-mode.

During their four-game winning streak, the Broncos have scored 35, 34, 31 and 36 points. Peyton Manning has established himself as the clear front-runner for MVP, the defense leads the league with 33 sacks and is ranked sixth overall. And just in case you were wondering, the Broncos are No. 1 in total DVOA. They haven’t lost since Week 5 in New England, and a cursory glance at their schedule indicates there’s a good chance they won’t lose again until a potential rematch with the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. And by the looks of it, that one may very well be in the Mile High City.

Taking the NFL pulse at season’s midway point

Some quick-hitting thoughts as the calendar flips to November and the 2012 NFL season reaches the halfway marker …

The West is already won
The AFC West appears to be a tightly-contested race, with only one game separating the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders. Don’t be fooled. At 4-3, Denver is poised to run away with the division after emerging from a grueling first two months that included games against at least four contenders (Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Houston and New England). Peyton Manning looks more comfortable by the week and the schedule shakes out favorably.
The Broncos can start fitting themselves for a three-seed unless San Diego finds a way to keep playing the Chiefs.

The NFC West has calibrated itself after a collective September surge that few, if any, saw coming. Since the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams started a combined 11-4, they have gone 0-9. San Francisco, meanwhile, is humming along at 6-2. At their best, the Niners have looked like a team destined for another deep January run. But they have also been pummeled by the Vikings and Giants, raising some questions about their ability to consistently win in the trenches. While the Jekyll and Hyde act could be a cause for concern in the long run, it won’t prevent San Francisco from cruising to its second straight NFC West title.

Talib the difference-maker in New England?
Trades are rare in the NFL, but don’t tell that to the Patriots. Bill Belichick has proven over the years that he will buck the trend if he feels he can acquire a potential impact player at a reasonable price (Randy Moss in 2007 and Deion Branch in 2010, both acquired for fourth-round draft picks, come to mind). Hence the deal for corner Aqib Talib, whom New England obtained Thursday in return for a 2013 fourth-rounder.

The longtime Buccaneer is one of the elite corners in the game, a position that has been a major problem spot for the Patriots since the departure of Asante Samuel after the 2007 season. Talib arrives with a good deal more baggage than that which he will stick in his new locker, but Belichick has never been fazed by so-called “character issues.” Some of his bold moves have paid off (Corey Dillon, Moss), others not so much (Albert Haynesworth). If Talib embraces the opportunity and helps shore up the Patriots’ only glaring weakness, they will be tough to beat in the AFC.

Dolphins/Colts has playoff implications
On Sunday afternoon, the Dolphins and Colts will tango at Lucas Oil Stadium, with the winner moving to 5-3 and squarely on track for 10 wins. The 10-win plateau is traditionally a goal set by teams with playoff aspirations. Indianapolis is coming off a 2-14 season and Miami didn’t inspire too much confidence during its stint on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which is to say this game wasn’t exactly highlighted in yellow on the “games to watch” list as recently as early October.

But these teams have combined to win six of their last seven, Indy on the strength of a coming-into-his-own Andrew Luck and Miami thanks to the league’s No. 5 scoring defense. In a weakened AFC this year, whomever comes in second between Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North looks to have a secure hold on the first Wild Card spot. The second Wild Card is up for grabs, and the winner of this game will have the inside track heading into the cold months.

Another Giant slide in the offing?

The Giants pull into the midway point at 6-2, the fifth time in the last six years they have won at least six of their first eight games. Only once in that span did they manage better than four wins over the second half of the season (5-3 in 2008). To be fair, the schedule almost always breaks poorly for Tom Coughlin’s crew. This year is no different, as the Giants face a daunting second half that includes games against the Steelers, Packers, Saints, Falcons and Ravens, along with divisional games vs. the Redskins and Eagles.

It’s tough to envision the Giants managing better than a split of that slate, but given that they’re currently the only team in the NFC East over .500, it’s reasonable to assume that 10 wins will secure the division. Of course, the caveat to all this is the one time the Giants produced a strong second half and locked down home-field and a first-round bye in ’08, they were bounced in the divisional round by the Eagles. Go figure.