It’s December, which can only mean one thing: The NFL playoffs are looming. Beginning this week, each Tuesday I will be looking at the playoff picture with my projected playoff seedings. This is entertaining because it’s fun to write and even more fun to look back at it one year from now and laugh at how horribly wrong I was (especially when I was reluctant to correctly pick the Patriots to win the Super Bowl).
1. Denver Broncos (10-2; projected 13-3): They’re still the team to beat, even though they rank 4th worst in football in giveaways (25). Sunday’s game in Kansas City was the 6th time this season the Broncos have had a negative turnover ratio in a game. Denver’s defenders will point to the fact that they are nevertheless 4-2 in these games, and haven’t scored under 27 points in a game all season. Some observers have speculated that the Chiefs never really had a chance on Sunday because they cannot score more than 30 points in a game; but this reminds me of the faulty logic in 2007 that said the only way to beat the Patriots would have been to score 40 or 50 points. I think there’s a defense out there can stop them. And like the 2007 Giants, it could be in one of these scrappy, under-the-radar teams with an erratic quarterback (hello, Cincinnati Bengals?)
2. New England Patriots (9-3; projected 12-4): Sunday’s win against the 2-10 Texans was a decidedly mixed bag. Houston went into the game much better than their record (having lost their last five games by a combined 19 points) and New England fans knew the potential for a trap game. The Pats persevered, but in the process made Ben Tate look like Jim Brown, Case Keenum look like . . . a better Matt Schaub, and reminded New England fans everywhere that Kyle Arrington simply cannot defend in the secondary. The Pats rush defense now ranks 2nd worst in football. Fortunately, the Patriots get Cleveland at home next week and have a good shot at clinching the AFC East for the 5th straight season.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (8-4; projected 11-5): Guess who joined Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to begin their careers with three straight 3,000 yard seasons? If you guessed Andy Dalton, pat yourself on the back. Quietly, the Bengals are looking pretty good right now. They haven’t lost a regulation game since September, and are undefeated at home (three of their final four games are in Cincinnati). The Chargers aren’t exactly a superpower, but beating them in San Diego while grinding out 164 yards on the ground was a great sign moving forward. Next week’s home matchup vs. Indianapolis will be a good indicator which team clinches the 3 seed.
4. Indianapolis Colts (8-4; projected 10-6): So I guess we’ve learned that this team can play reasonably well so long as it doesn’t involve any bottomfeeders from the NFC West. Sunday’s big win over Tennessee gives them a comfortable three-game lead in the AFC South (and season sweep of the Titans). In his last four games, Andrew Luck has a QB rating of 66.9 . . . but on the positive side, he’s has an almost identical rushing total to Trent Richardson (one has a 6.3 yards per carry average, the other has a 2.8. You can guess which one is which). The Colts haven’t won consecutive games since Week 5, so a victory in Cincinnati next Sunday would go a long way in reminding fans that they are still the team that once beat the 49ers, Seahawks, and Broncos.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (9-3; projected 11-5): Believe it or not, the Chiefs haven’t won a game in 30 days. At this point, their most impressive win was Week 2 against Dallas when they won by a point. Sunday’s game was frustrating, not only because Kansas City blew a 21-7 lead at home, but because they actually looked pretty good for stretches of the game. Their nine wins aren’t a fluke, as some have suggested; the problem is that the Justin Houston injury has wreaked havoc on a once-elite defense, which has given up over 427 yards in each of its last four games. It seems unlikely that the Chiefs will finish 0-7 after their 9-0 start, but it’s not impossible either, with three out of the next four games on the road. In all likelihood, the Chiefs are little more than a desirable Wild Card round consolation prize to the winner of next week’s Indy-Cincinnati game
6. Baltimore Ravens (6-6; projected 8-8): Baltimore and Miami have the inside track for the AFC’s six seed, but you have to give the temporary nod to the Ravens as a result of their victory over the Dolphins in Week 5 (the Ravens’ only road win all season). Yes, they have six losses, but none have been by more than six points. They looked good against the Steelers on Thanksgiving, but have the Lions, Patriots, and Bengals in upcoming games. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce need to get healthy quickly; they average a combined 2.8 yards per carry, and the Ravens as a team have the NFL’s 2nd worst rushing attack. But with a healthy Jacoby Jones (and no coach on thesideline to thwart kickoff returns), this team feels a little scary once again.
Miami Dolphins (6-6; projected 8-8): Not sure if they have enough talent to win a playoff game, but wins over the Colts and Bengals could be a fascinating wrinkle come January (Ryan Tannehill has a higher QB rating than Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco). A slightly scary statistic: Miami is 5-1 in games where its opponent scored 20 points or fewer. But don’t the Dolphins seem to do this a lot? A good start to the season and then a collapse down the stretch? Wins in upcoming weeks against the Steelers and Patriots would be huge.
San Diego Chargers (5-7; projected 7-9): They get the Giants and Raiders at home . . . but also the Broncos in Denver and the Chiefs in Week 17. They play competitively in most games and can move the ball down the field, but can’t really stop other teams and are terrible in the red zone. A 2-2 split seems destined.
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7; projected 7-9): The Stealers certainly out of contention yet, with three upcoming home games and a road trip in Green Bay. Technically, they’ve still won three of their last four, but the Ravens loss made them fall from serious contention. Still, the passing game has been fine, but the AFC playoff picture may be too deep to keep them from watching from the sideline in January, no matter how hard they try to push forward.
New York Jets (5-7; projected 2-14): No.
Buffalo Bills (4-8; projected 6-10: Prior to the loss to Atlanta in Toronto, the Bills’ remaining schedule was intriguing: Three games versus the porous Florida teams, and a possibly meaningless Week 17 game in Foxboro. But then they lost to a team which hadn’t won a road game since December 22, 2012. Whoops.
Baltimore 24, Cincinnati 17
Indianapolis 19, Kansas City 13
New England 35, Indianapolis 21
Denver 27, Baltimore 13
New England 31, Denver 28 (OT)
1. Seattle Seahawks (11-1; projected 14-2): The 27-point demolishing of the Saints was just what the doctor ordered for Seattle, who may have still had skeptics after the Rams and Buccaneers games. The only real test for the remainder of the regular season is next week in San Francisco, but with their three-game division lead and their Week 2 26-point home win over the 49ers, the game really doesn’t matter that much. They travel to the Meadowlands in Week 15, where they can get acquainted with the field conditions as they prepare for a hopeful return trip in February.
2. Carolina Panthers (9-3; projected 12-4): The Panthers haven’t lost since October 6, and haven’t lost at home since Week 1. They travel to New Orleans next week, but even if they lose, the remainder of their schedule is more favorable than the Saints’. Cam Newton has 181 rushing yards in his last three games (on only 19 attempts) and Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart are picking up the pieces until DeAngelo Williams returns from his quadriceps injury. On the defensive side, they haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 10 games, lead the league in fewest points allowed, and lead the NFC in sacks. This is an outstanding team. The Seahawks can’t punch their Super Bowl tickets quite yet.
3. Philadelphia Eagles (7-5; projected 10-6): 19 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and one 7 touchdown game. Nick Foles is doing his best Peyton Manning imitation (he actually has a better QB rating than him) and the Eagles were 4-0 in November after his return. But for all the attention Foles is deservedly receiving, the running game has stepped up too, now ranking 2nd in the league in total rushing yards. They will have the inside track on the NFC’s 3 seed should they beat the Lions in Philadelphia this weekend, and the Week 17 rematch with the Cowboys looms large. Remember that they are 5-1 on the road, too. People are talking about them, yes, but the talk needs to be more serious.
4. Detroit Lions (7-5; projected 9-7): The Lions beat up Matt Flynn and a depleted Packers team on Thanksgiving, but still had four turnovers, most of them stupid. In fact, Detroit became the first team in 12 years to win a game by 30+ points with four turnovers. They now have 12 turnovers in their last three games. It’s obvious they have talent, but it’s their season sweep over the Bears (combined with Aaron Rodgers’ injury) that still somehow make them favorites to win the NFC North. Detroit is 6-0 when they rush for over 110 yards, but doing that on the road in Seattle or Carolina seems unlikely. Still, I can’t think of any secondary that would savor a matchup with Calvin Johnson.
5. New Orleans Saints (9-3; projected 11-5): Remember when the Saints demolished the Cowboys and had 40 first downs? It now seems like a long time ago. When New Orleans won the Super Bowl, they did it with a combination of an excellent running game by committee and the ability to create a ton of turnovers. They haven’t done either lately, and have only forced two takeaways in their last five games. It’s clear they are incapable of resolving their road woes, and although they have two more home games, their two remaining away games are against the formidable Panthers and Rams. Carolina is a team built to stop the Saints, so these final few weeks will tell us a lot.
6. San Francisco 49ers (8-4; projected 11-5): An NFC West three-peat may be out of the cards for the 49ers at this point, but a Wild Card trip to Dallas or Philadelphia doesn’t really scare this team. Colin Kaepernick hasn’t looked more comfortable in the pocket all season than in the 49ers’ last two games, and Michael Crabtree’s return adds a level of explosiveness they’ve lacked most of the year (they’re still in the NFL’s bottom five in total offense). This team is confident and getting hot at the right time – expect a dogfight this week against the Seahawks. In the past eight seasons, two 6 seeds were able to run the tables on the road and win the Super Bowl. Just sayin’.
Dallas Cowboys (7-5; projected 9-7): The worst two words in a Cowboy fan’s lexion are “Happy December.” The defense is still atrocious statistically, but Dallas was able to annihilate Oakland’s formidable running game on Thanksgiving. They also looked impressive in overcoming an early 14-point deficit. We all know the familiar story – they’ll look great one week, and terrible the next. But if I hate the prospect of the Seahawks reaching the Super Bowl (which I do), this would be one of the two or three NFC teams I’d pick to give them a tough fight at Qwest Field. The remainder of the battle is uphill, but it’s hard to count them out at this point with a 4-0 NFC East record.
Arizona Cardinals (7-5; projected 9-7): If the Cardinals were in the NFC, they would be in a superb position to clinch a playoff berth; but in the stacked NFC, even a winning record leaves them on the outside looking in. The Cardinals are 0-4 when they allow 100 or more yards on the ground, so upcoming matchups with the Seahawks, Rams and 49ers are not exactly ideal. Without a healthy Andre Ellington, Arizona’s playoff chances go from about 2 percent to 0 percent.
Chicago Bears (6-6; projected 7-9): Josh McCown has been impressive to this point (9 TDs, 1 Int) and Alshon Jeffery has been surreal, but the defense has been terrible, and with tough upcoming matchups with Dallas and Philadelphia on the horizon, the Bears’ chances seem slim. The return of Jay Cutler does not exactly inspire hope.
San Francisco 20, Philadelphia 16
Detroit 42, New Orleans 39
Seattle 27, San Francisco 10
Carolina 24, Detroit 9
Seattle 29, Carolina 20
SUPER BOWL XLVIII PREDICTION:
New England 33, Seattle 30
Thoughts? Disagreements? Do you agree with me that the Seahawks will stumble at some point like they always do? Write below!