With just three weeks remaining in the season, it's time to start seeing who is in and who is out.
The Patriots and Steelers have all but locked up a first round bye, and will likely finish out as the top two seeds respectively. Pretty much the only way Pittsburgh can gain the top seed is if they can finish a full game above New England since the Pats own the tiebreaker. This year will be a complete turnaround compared to last, with the top seeds Indy and San Diego hosting warm weather or dome locations last season.
One would never think to say "AFC South race" in December with Peyton Manning at the helm, but that is the case this year. To take it a step further, if the Colts do not win today not only will they be officially out of the division race, but they will really be putting their backs against the wall for a Wild Card spot. The Colts will likely beat the Jags today to keep it interesting. If the Colts win today, they will be tied with the Jaguars atop the NFC South at 8-6 with both teams having a 3-2 division record. The Colts would hold the tiebreaker due to record in common games, however since that would make the Jags 6-6 and the Colts 7-5 (Note: For division winners, common games tiebreaker precedes conference record). This has been Peyton Manning's toughest season in about a decade, and it would not surprise me to see them miss out on the division; however, it's really hard to put your money against a guy who has won the division for more than half the decade. I think both teams will finish 10-6 and the Colts will win the common games tiebreaker to claim the division.
The upstart Kansas City Chiefs (8-5) currently hold a half game lead over the late-surging San Diego Chargers (8-6), who always seem to make something happen in December. Obviously, the safest way for the Chiefs to win the division is if they win out. They will likely need to do that in order to clinch because they will not hold the common games tiebreaker. By facing two teams that have thrown in the towel in the final two weeks in the Bengals and Broncos, there is almost no way the Chargers will not finish 10-6. The division will likely tip in San Diego's favor after today since the Chiefs will be sending a recovering Matt Cassel to the field in St. Louis. As bad as the NFC West has been, St. Louis is at least a tough team to play in their building. Expect both teams to finish 10-6 and the Chargers to squeak by yet again.
As it stands now, the Ravens and Jets hold the Wild Card spots with the records of 9-4. The Ravens hold the edge due to their Week 1 win over New York. Both teams have pretty difficult final stretches and neither team has played well in the last month. The Ravens host a red hot Saints team today and then finish up at Cleveland and home against Cincinnati. Baltimore hasn't been the scary home site it used to be in the past two years and will be in a real battle today. Playing in Cleveland next week will be no picnic either, as the Browns have been very competitive this year despite its 5-8 record. I expect the Ravens to split these two games then obliterate the Bengals on Week 17 to vault themselves into the playoffs with a 11-5 record. In just two short weeks, the New York Jets went from first round bye to fighting for their lives. It doesn't get any easier with trips to Pittsburgh and Chicago before closing out at home versus the Bills. The Jets could easily squander away playoff hopes by losing these next two difficult games. The last thing they want is to finish 10-6 and hope to win tiebreakers because they will likely not make the playoffs that way. When it's all said and done, they will squeak their way into the playoffs in typical Jets fashion.
1. New England 14-2
2. Pittsburgh 13-3
3. San Diego 10-6
4. Indy 10-6
5. Baltimore 11-5
6. New York 11-5
For all intents and purposes, the NFC East crown will be decided today when the Eagles face off with the Giants. An Eagles win will pretty much wrap up the division since Philadelphia won the prior meeting. I expect that to happen today because the Eagles are the best team in the NFC records aside. In the end, Philly will end up as the #2 seed in the playoffs.
In the NFC North, the Chicago Bears have been able to keep the ball rolling after a hot start to the season, coming in with a 9-4 record. With an easy game on Monday against the Vikings, they will be 10-4 before two tough games to finish -- home versus the Jets and on the road in Green Bay to finish the season. The Green Bay Packers still stand at 8-5 despite the slew of injuries its faced thus far. It gets even worse tonight in New England without the heart of the team -- Aaron Rodgers. After a probable loss tonight, they would need to win out. Luckily they somewhat control their destiny after a loss because they will get to play the two teams they are competing with most -- the Giants and Bears. I expect both teams to finish 10-6, but the Bears will hold the edge due to division record.
The team with the best record in the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons, come in with an 11-2 record and will finish with the #1 seed. As "bad" as the Saints season has gone so far, they are still 10-3 and have been playing really good football lately with many of their injured offensive players coming back. Unfortunately for them, it won't matter because they will get shipped out on the road in the playoffs as the top Wild Card. Both teams do face each other and the Saints still technically could win the division, but it would take an epic meltdown from Atlanta. That won't happen.
Out in the lowly NFC West, the winner will host a home game despite not having a winning record. The only team of any promise in that division is the St. Louis Rams, a young team that is confident at home. While the Seahawks are still very much in the hunt, they are not any good and have started to fade of late. Counting on the 49ers to win their final two is a pipe dream. I'll take the team with the best QB (albeit a rookie).
The final Wild Card spot will come down to Green Bay and the New York Giants. More specifically, it will come down to their Week 16 matchup. Even though Packers players have been dropping like flies this season, I still expect them to crank out the victory in Week 16 and then close out with a win versus Chicago to claim the final Wild Card spot. The Giants are too streaky and turnover prone to be trusted to win the final spot. Losing Steve Smith hurts that dynamic offense, too. He was Eli's go-to guy on third downs and helped keep the chains moving. Tampa Bay is certainly in the hunt, but I still think they are too young to make the playoff run.
1) Atlanta 13-3
2) Philly 12-4
3) Chicago 10-6
4) St. Louis 8-8
5) New Orleans 13-3
6) Green Bay 10-6