Three weeks left, and both No. 1 seeds in the NFL are horribly flawed.
That’s why Sunday night’s between the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots is already being billed as THE Super Bowl Preview.
Belichick v. Jim Harbaugh is elitism at its very finest. To be a fly on the wall seeing those two get together at the NFL coaches wing of Bohemian Grove over the summer would be a sight to behold.
At the other end of the spectrum there are teams that were considered dead and buried, but are now very much alive. Then there are others who had the “Super Bowl contenders” tag just weeks earlier who now have to fight to make the postseason. Chicago Bears, I’m talking to you.
Here is a capsule look at the playoff picture in both conferences through Week 14, with 24 teams still harboring postseason possibilities of some sort.
1. Houston Texans (11-2)
Still just two losses on the resume, but both were on prime-time stages being torched alive by Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Houston now needs to run the table to ensure the No. 1 seed, with two of the three games v. the pesky Indianapolis Colts.
One more slip-up and they could be looking at another trip to Foxborough for the postseason. Even if Houston gets NE at home for a possible conference championship, they will be underdogs, and I’m not sure they even get that far.
2. New England Patriots (10-3)
Maybe one of the best Bill Belichick teams yet, and that’s saying something. Look at the recent results, 45-7 over a Rams team that’s actually decent, the Bills did play them close (37-31). Then they went 59-24 over Indy, 49-19 at the Jets, a close game down in Miami (23-16), and now 42-14 over the Texans.
My only question is how the hell they lost early in the season at home to Arizona??
Anything less than a Super Bowl win is going to go down as a disappointment, especially if they lose the big game for a third time.
3. Denver Broncos (10-3)
If you want a good laugh, listen to the Yahoo Sports Radio archive after the team lost at home to Houston, leaving the team 1-2 early on. They were calling for the benching of #18 and were already declaring Peyton done. Well, turns out Manning picked a good landing spot, especially with the Broncos cruising through the powder-puff AFC West.
This weekend in Baltimore will be a good measuring stick to determine how well the Broncos compare with the other AFC heavyweights.
4. Baltimore Ravens (9-4)
The panic alarm has been officially set off with the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. The Ravens are still in good shape in the division and can put themselves back in the No. 3 slot with a home win over Denver. But the road to the conference championship appears that it will have to go through both Houston and New England, both on the road.
It does appear though that all four AFC Divisional Champs from 2011 will repeat. That’s an oddity – but the AFC (as I predicted pre-season) is not a deep field this year.
5. Indianapolis Colts (9-4)
One more win clinches a playoff spot for Blue Horseshoe. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh cannot both finish 10-6 since they play each other. This is obviously one of the best NFL stories of the year. I would not be surprised if Indy gets a win in one of their two games v. Houston, and worst-case scenario they clinch the playoff berth at Kansas City.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6)
As much as the Steelers continue to trend downward, they still remain in line for a playoff berth with the Bengals at home in Week 16. A final 9-7 record should be good enough to send Pittsburgh either back to Denver (for the umpteenth time) or yet to another rematch with Baltimore in Round 1 of the playoffs.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (7-6)
The come-from-ahead home loss to Dallas definitely hurts. Either way though, it was going to come down to the trip to Pittsburgh for this team. Wouldn’t be surprised if they get it done there.
8. New York Jets (6-7)
I was trying to tell people to go to Vegas when the Jets were 4-7 and just put $10 on them winning the AFC Championship. The rest of NYJ’s run remains extremely favorable (at TEN, vs. SD, at BUF) so 9-7 can get them in, although being tied with just PIT at 9-7 would doom them thanks to Week 2 loss.
And if the Jets get in?? Well then they have murderers row (at DEN/BAL, at HOU, at NE), but then they can at least finally unveil the Tim Tebow bag of tricks Rex Ryan has kept hidden under wraps since July.
Miami Dolphins (5-8), Buffalo Bills (5-8), Cleveland Browns (5-8), San Diego Chargers (5-8)
All remain on the periphery of the playoff race. Besides winning out, all these teams would need the winner of Bengals/Steelers to lose their remaining two games.
1. Atlanta Falcons (11-2)
The loss at Carolina does not hurt in the grand scheme of things, the A-T-L still clinches the No. 1 seed by winning two of its final three games.
That said, this remains a team likely ripe for the picking in January. Yes, the team will be at home, but the potential opponents include the Giants and 49ers, or perhaps Green Bay.
The Falcons also get the Giants at home this week. That will be a good indicator on how far this team has truly come since the 24-2 loss in the Wild Card round last year.
2. San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1)
Everyone’s NFC darling still has some work to do. If the Niners lose in New England, then the following week in Seattle could suddenly be for the division title. And the tie with St. Louis?? That actually hurt both teams.
That said, the Niners should get one win out of the next two weeks with the best defense on the planet.
And as I said in an earlier column, the Kaepernick/Alex Smith situation is more of a luxury than a controversy.
3. Green Bay Packers (9-4)
In this week’s edition of “If the Fail Mary had been called correctly,” GB would currently be a half-game ahead of SF rather than a half-game behind – the difference between a first-round bye or having to play in the Wild Card Round before potentially going to San Francisco.
That said, the team who had been looking up at the Chicago Bears nearly all season would clinch the NFC North with two weeks left with a win at Soldier Field this Sunday. Even if GB loses, they could still win the title by winning in Weeks 16 and 17.
And if GB can run the table and defeat Tennessee and Minnesota after Chicago, 12-4 could very well get GB a first-round bye, which would be exceptional considering where the team sat earlier in the season.
But the run defense is shaky, and Chris Johnson/Adrian Peterson worry me in Weeks 16/17. And how did the Pack magically go from no running backs to seemingly having a half-dozen?? Well a night against the Lions will do that.
4. New York Giants (8-5)
You think Rodney Harrison is anointing this team now?? The Giants will be everyone’s bandwagon if they can win in Atlanta like they did in San Francisco earlier in the season.
That said, the NFC East is the one division still very much in play, and NYG also has a trip to Baltimore next week. They will need to win at least one to ensure making it to the postseason.
5. Seattle Seahawks (8-5)
And the other-half of if “Fail Mary” didn’t happen, Seattle would currently be in a huge log-jam for the final playoff slot at 7-6. Hopefully the Seahawks will send Lance Easley a nice gift basket for the holidays.
But Fail Mary did go down, and the Seahawks are slowly proving my preseason prediction of challenging the Niners in the division right. A win over the Bills in Toronto this week, along with a win in one of the final two home games should be enough to get the Seahawks at least a Wild Card.
6. Chicago Bears (8-5)
This team is taking on water fast. Brian Urlacher out and Jay Cutler hurting are just the tip of the iceberg.
I still see the Bears making the postseason though. Even if they were to lose the home finale to Green Bay, I don’t see how they lose at Arizona or at Detroit – those are a couple of wounded animals to close out the season.
7. Washington Redskins (7-6)
The Skins stand an excellent chance of running the table and getting a wild card berth or even division championship.
Worse-case scenario is Robert Griffin III won’t make the post against Cleveland. Granted the Browns are not a pushover (5-3 last eight games), but I think Kirk Cousins can get them through that one.
DC would then have a road game in Philadelphia and perhaps have control of their own destiny in their home finale v. the Cowboys. Washington continues to trend upward, and all three freshman QB phenoms (RGIII, Luck, Wilson) could all be in the playoffs.
8. Dallas Cowboys (7-6)
Nice comeback win on the road against a quality opponent under obviously trying circumstances. There’s still just too much drama here to expect the Cowboys to make the playoffs. And then Jerry Jones supposedly went off on someone in the locker room.
Also, now Dez Bryant is questionable for the rest of the regular season, and none of the remaining three games (Steelers/Saints/at Redskins) are automatic.
Dallas finishes 9-7 at best.
9. Minnesota Vikings (7-6)
Even if the purple falls short, they can take a lot out of this season after being 3-13 the year before. The final run (at STL, at HOU, GB) completes a second-half minefield for the Vikes, and 9-7 would be an accomplishment.
And why all my fantasy teams sucked… Not taking a swing at Adrian Peterson in Rounds 1 or 2. Chris Johnson?? DeMarco Murray?? The perennially dinged Darren McFadden?? With 400 rushing yards last three games AP would join the exclusive 2,000 yard rushing club.
Not bad for someone “questionable” at the beginning of the season.
10. St. Louis Rams (6-6-1)
The Rams are enjoying their first three-game winning streak since 2006. Considering the rest of the run in (Vikings, at Bucs, at Seahawks), winning out is not impossible.
At 9-6-1 the Rams could definitely find themselves in the discussion but would need a lot of help elsewhere. This is where that tie at Candlestick and the half-game lost possibly ends up hurting.
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7)
Another team that can look fondly at getting back on the right track this year, but the current three-game losing streak has ended any realistic chance of making the playoffs.
Even if Tampa wins out to go 9-7, three early season losses to the top NFC East teams would doom the Bucs in tie-breaker scenarios.
I don’t see too many combinations that will get the Bucs to leap-frog over five other teams at this point.
12. New Orleans Saints (5-8)
You probably can’t detect the pulse at this point. The Saints are alive mathematically, but that’s about it.