The NFL playoff picture remains fluid as we get set for the final week of the season on Sunday (there are no Thursday or Monday games for this week, it’s a full 16-game Sunday). The following remains up in the air…
*Both #1 seeds–Denver/New England are still jousting in the AFC and homefield in the NFC can go to either Seattle or Carolina.
*Three of the four first-round byes–Denver is the only team assured of both the division title and a week off. The other bye in the AFC can go to New England or Cincinnati, while the NFC contenders beyond Seattle and Carolina include both San Francisco and New Orleans.
*Three division titles–two of these will be easy to settle. Green Bay-Chicago and Philadelphia-Dallas will settle the mediocre “races” in the NFC North and NFC East head-to-head. Seattle still has to wrap up the NFC West when they host St. Louis.
*The final wild-card spot in both conferences–New Orleans can not only get a bye, they can also miss the playoffs entirely if they don’t take care of a home game with Tampa Bay. If the Saints lose, that opens the door for the Arizona Cardinals, if the Cards can win at home against San Francisco.
The AFC is even crazier–Miami, Baltimore, San Diego and Pittsburgh are all alive for the #6 seed and none control their own destiny. The Steelers’ case is straightforward–they need to win and everyone else needs to lose. Miami and Baltimore are who this spot likely goes to, but with the Ravensgoing to Cincinnati and the Dolphins coming off a hideous tank job in Buffalo, who knows?
We’ll preview and predict all of the Week 17 games here at TheSportsNotebook later in the week. A recap of all Week 16 games is available here. For now, let’s keep it simple and project how the NFL playoff bracket will look if the betting-line favorites all win on Sunday. At least that way we have a grasp for who’s really in prime position.
One note–at this early point, there are no lines on Carolina-Atlanta, Green Bay-Chicago and Arizona-San Francisco. The Packer-Bear game has injuries all over, but with Aaron Rodgers looking unlikely to return and now Clay Matthews out, I’m finally conceding this game to Chicago.
I’m not sure why the hesitancy on the other two games, although if I had to guess it would be that because Atlanta and San Francisco just played last night, oddsmakers are waiting final word on injuries. In either case, I’m sure the Panthers will be heavy road favorites. I’m also going to cautiously project Arizona at home.
NFL PLAYOFF PICTURE
(6)Miami at (3)Cincinnati
(5)Kansas City at (4)Indianapolis
(6)San Francisco at (3)Philadelphia
(5)New Orleans at (4)Chicago
(1)Denver (2) New England
(1)Seattle (2) Carolina
The results of this past week have altered the NFL playoff picture, with a couple new teams moving into the current projections, two first-round byes changing hands and one of the teams going from a bye down to wild-card status. Here is the rundown on notable changes, the reasons why and how TheSportsNotebook sees the NFL playoff picture ultimately shaking out.
*Miami replaces Baltimore as the 6-seed in the AFC. Both of these teams are playing really well right now, but the Ravens’ schedule is just really tough. I’ve already got them winning on Sunday against New England, but that’s followed up by a road trip to Cincinnati in Week 17. Unless the Dolphins lose once, the Ravens will need to sweep. Miami plays Buffalo on the road and the New York Jets at home.
*Green Bay replaces Detroit as the NFC North champ. The Packers need to beat the Steelers at home and the Bears on the road in successive weeks. It won’t be easy, but so long as Aaron Rodgers is back, I’m making an exception to always deferring to the home team. Chicago’s record against Rodgers, and before him Brett Favre, is awful and it hasn’t mattered where the games are played.
Note that Chicago also controls its destiny, but if they lose at Philadelphia (which I project, as the Eagles are favored) on Sunday, that re-opens the door for Detroit in what remains a crazy three-team race.
*Cincinnati and New England flip places in the AFC bracket, with the Bengals getting a bye. Both teams play the Ravens, and I’ve got the Patriots losing and the Bengals winning, both based on homefield. The pointspreads are up for Week 16 so in those games I automatically deferred to the favorite and Baltimore is a slight favorite over New England.
If the Bengals and Patriots each finish 11-5, as this scenario has, Cincy has the head-to-head win and tiebreaker.
*Carolina and New Orleans swap places as the 2-seed and 5-seed in the NFC, the most dramatic change of teams within the bracket. Sunday’s head-to-head game is for the division lead and the Panthers are the home favorite.
Based on these projections, this is the bracket that sorts out…
(6)Miami at (3)New England
(5)Kansas City at (4) Indianapolis
(6)San Francisco at (3)Green Bay
(5)New Orleans at (4)Dallas
It was time for another visit to the ESPN Playoff Machine this morning, to see how the NFL playoff picture would shake out after you play out each game in the final three weeks. As was the case in last week’s projections, I used a conservative approach, deferring to home teams except when the road team seemed clearly superior.
This methodology creates some debatable results, ones that even I’m not entirely comfortable with. The two most prominent examples this week are the following…
*The way the Minnesota Vikings are playing right now, they look like a tough out at home. The Vikes have beaten Chicago on their homefield and when Minnesota went on the road to Baltimore it took a wild, heartbreaking ending to beat them.
Based on this, it is not unreasonable to look at their home games with Detroit and Philadelphia and pick the Vikings. I’m a little skeptical that Minnesota would win both of these games, but I feel like I’d mess with the projections far worse by trying to guess which one it would be, rather than just giving the home team the benefit of the doubt.
*With the season-ending injury to Rob Gronkowski, I can’t give the New England Patriots the benefit of the doubt in road games against mid-level playoff contenders, the way I did last week. Consequently, the Patriots are projected to lose road games at Miami and at Baltimore.
Here again, I feel like each pick individually is logical, but I’d consider it a good bet that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady find a way to pick off one of those wins. Based on how the rest of the projections fell, that’s the difference between a 2-seed and first-round bye, or a 3-seed and the long road to New York City for the Super Bowl.
But as with Minnesota, I felt it safer just to pick New England to lose both, rather than try and mix and match and figure out which road game they’d steal, thus creating ripple effects throughout the bracket.
What this methodology does do is shed light on which teams have the most favorable path. For example, last week, the projections showed the Pittsburgh Steelers holding serve at home and making the playoffs at 8-8. Even though the Steelers failed in this task last Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, the projections showed that Pittsburgh had blown a much stronger playoff position than their record may have indicated.
In this case, the projections tell us to keep an eye on those games Minnesota will play at home and New England will play on the road. They stand to be, to borrow a political analogy, the key battleground states that will settle playoff qualification and seeding on both sides of the bracket.
CURRENT NFL PLAYOFF PROJECTIONS
(6) San Francisco at (3) Dallas
(5)Carolina at (4) Detroit
BYES: (1) Seattle (2) New Orleans
(6)Miami at (3) New England
(5)Kansas City at (4) Indianapolis
BYES: (1) Denver (2) Cincinnati
There’s some debate going on regarding the San Francisco 49ers’ wild 41-34 win over the New England Patriots on Sunday night, with the argument being whether it means more that the Niners got a win in Foxboro, or that they blew a 31-3 lead in the process and allowed the Patriots to the tie the game. To borrow a phrase from Skip Bayless on ESPN’s First Take, “Are you kidding me?!” The San Francisco win significantly altered the playoff bracket in both conferences and might well be the determining factor in who reaches the Super Bowl—on both sides. So what if they blew a lead?
San Francisco did what most defenses have failed to do against New England this year and it’s that they shut down running back Stevan Ridley early and built up the lead. Tom Brady led a furious rally because that’s what Brady does, but when the Patriots have to throw the ball 65 times, they aren’t going to win, and for the Niners, the win was a nice vindication of Jim Harbaugh’s decision to go with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback over Alex Smith.
If you want to talk about what this win means as far as predicting a potential rematch in the Super Bowl, I’m skeptical about pulling too many conclusions. Every game is unique unto itself and certainly a rematch in New Orleans on two weeks’ rest would have an entirely different dynamic than a cold and rainy Sunday night in Foxboro. And frankly, why speculate about long-term implications when the short-term implications are so dramatic.
San Francisco’s win all but clinches the NFC West. Even if they lose at Seattle this coming Sunday night, the Niners would still hold first place and have the cushion of a Week 17 game against Arizona to lock it up. I’d been projecting Seattle to close strong and win this division. The Seahawks are still coming on strong and look like the best team in the NFC, but as I wrote last week, this is a team that would have a big threat out of the #2 seed. Not so much out of the 5-seed, where they would have to win three straight on the road. The Niners’ win in Foxboro might have knocked the Seahawks out of the Super Bowl.
The results from Sunday night also kept San Francisco in the lead for the #2 seed in the NFC, a race where Green Bay is in hot pursuit, only a half-game back. The Packers are a good news/bad news team. The offensive line problems and kicking game incompetence make it tough to believe they could win three games in succession. But give them a week off and a home game, then possibly a NFC Championship trip to Atlanta, a team they match up well against? The latter is a path Green Bay could navigate and the Frisco win reduced the Packers’ chances of making it to New Orleans.
Now let’s go over to the AFC. New England controlled its fate for the two-seed and a first-round bye, with only games against Jacksonville and Miami ahead of them, the latter at home. And if Houston just lost at Indianapolis in Week 17, the Patriots were poised to move to the top spot. Instead, the loss knocks them down into the #3 spot behind Denver, and with the Broncos playing home games with Cleveland and Kansas City, that isn’t going to change.
The Patriots are the kind of team that can come out of the first round and go the distance. But the problem here is that so are the Broncos. Brady & Peyton are on a collision course for a matchup in the second round, and the difference in the seeding is a week off—a significant issue for veteran teams—then playing at home. And while neither team would likely lose in the first round of the playoffs, you still have to give about 30-35 percent chance that an upset could occur.
Finally, let’s come to Houston. The Patriot loss all but secures the 1-seed for Houston—they do have to win one more game, but because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Broncos, the Texans now have room to lose either this coming Sunday at home to Minnesota or in the finale at Indy. I suppose it’s not unthinkable they could lose both of these games, but I’d hardly call it likely. Houston will now avoid having to play both New England & Denver on its road through the AFC playoffs.
So to sum it all up—the result of Sunday night’s game had a significant impact on the Super Bowl hopes of sixteams—the two involved, along with Seattle, Green Bay, Houston and Denver. Yes, I think that’s more important than whether the Niners blew a lead in the process of winning.
Here’s how TheSportsNotebook’s NFL playoff projections are sitting right now. There’s one part that I feel requires some explanation, but I feel stupid even putting it down and that’s Pittsburgh to win the AFC North. I’ve got the Steelers beating the Bengals at home this week, while the Ravens lose to the Giants. Even though that game is in Baltimore and my recent projections have had Baltimore winning it, I was much more alarmed with Baltimore’s play last week than New York.
The Ravens seem to be a team in an irreversible free-fall, while New York just played a clunker of a game. Altering my pick on that game, and also pegging Cincy to beat Baltimore at home, opens the door for Pittsburgh to win over Cleveland in Week 17 and they would win the division under that scenario. I know the Steelers have done nothing to merit such confidence, but has anyone else in this division? Picking a New York win also bounces Chicago from the playoffs, and likely bounces Lovie Smith from a job. Still, keep in mind the Bears only have Arizona & Detroit ahead of them and one slip-up by New York lets them back into the postseason.
NFC EAST: Washington NFC NORTH: Green Bay NFC SOUTH: Atlanta NFC WEST: San Francisco Wild-Cards: Seattle, NY Giants Byes: Atlanta (1), San Francisco (2) 1st Round Matchups: (6)NY Giants at (3)Green Bay, (5)Seattle at (4)Washington
AFC EAST: New England AFC NORTH: Pittsburgh AFC SOUTH: Houston AFC WEST: Denver Wild-Cards: Indianapolis, Baltimore Byes: Houston (1), Denver (2) 1st Round Matchups: (6)Baltimore at (3)New England, (5)Indianapolis at (4)Pittsburgh
If these exit polling numbers hold, I’d pick Denver to win the AFC title and probably lean Atlanta in the NFC. Combined with my preseason choices of Green Bay & Houston, that would keep me covered from every angle.
It’s a big week for the Seattle Seahawks. If they take care of business against the Buffalo Bills in a road-neutral game at Toronto, while the San Francisco 49ers lose to the New England Patriots on Sunday night in Foxboro, it would mean that the Seahawks control their own destiny to win the NFC West. This is a team that’s coming on strong and with a road win over Chicago, followed by a 58-0 smackdown of Arizona, is it time to start taking Seattle seriously as a true Super Bowl threat, rather than just a pleasant playoff team?
Seattle’s offense is very efficient. They run the ball frequently, second-most in the NFL and they do it well, still ranking 8th in yards-per-attempt. The reason is Marshawn Lynch, with his 1,266 yards. Seattle plays it close to the vest in the passing game, attempting the fewest passes in the league, but rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has made his throws count, hitting 63% and ranking a solid seventh in yards-per-attempt. This team takes good care of the ball and when you put that all together it makes them an efficient, if unspectacular offense, that can still come from behind if they need to.
The defense has a good reputation in the Pacific Northwest and that’s mostly justified. They get after the quarterback, with defensive end Chris Clemons leading a pass rush that’s tied for 10th in the NFL in sacks, and the coverage as a whole ranks high both in terms of forcing incompletions and making sure the balls that are caught go for minimal yardage. Consequently, teams don’t bother much with trying to throw the ball on this team. They’re missing Brandon Browner at corner right now, but he’ll be back for the playoff, and combined with Richard Sherman, they give the Seahawks the best corner duo in the game.
All of this makes Seattle a bona fide contender and we can add to the fact their kickoff return game is excellent. But not all is rosy. As physical as the defense is, they don’t defend the run particularly well, ranking only 21st. It’s something of a mystery why teams don’t run the ball more on Seattle and if a team like the 49ers or Giants decide to try and muscle up, it’s going to be a big challenge for Pete Carroll’s defense.
And when we look at the offense, is the fact they’re tied for seventh in sacks allowed a good thing or a bad thing? The ranking is good, but considering they throw less often than anyone else and have an extremely mobile quarterback, does it really speak well of the pass protection that they don’t rank higher? This adds to the question mark of whether Wilson could maintain his efficiency if he found himself in a quick 17-7 hole in a playoff game.
Finally, while the kick return game is outstanding, the rest of the special teams is lacking, with subpar rankings in coverage of both kickoffs and punts, and in punt returns. When you play the style Seattle wants to play—run the ball, play with a lead, pressure the quarterback—every little edge is huge, and the potential of giving up some field position on special teams is a good way to lose a heartbreaker in January.
The biggest issue—both pro and con—with Seattle is their home/road dichotomy. This is an oft-commented feature about the Seahawks, so I won’t spill a lot of ink on stuff you likely already know. But the dominance of Seattle at home—where they’re 6-0—vis-à-vis their play on the road, where they’re 2-5 is absolutely real. The home resume includes wins over New England, Dallas and a pseudo-win over Green Bay (the fiasco that ended the officials’ lockout in Week 3). The road resume includes losses at St. Louis, Miami and Detroit, and for that reason even a game like Sunday against Buffalo can’t be counted on. Conversely, if the Seahawks play the 49ers for first place on Sunday night in Week 16, do you really want to bet against Seattle at home?
Seattle is coming on strong—two of their losses, along with the should-have-been loss to Green Bay came in September, and it was just two weeks ago they answered a lot of critics with the big road win at Chicago. So to bring it back to our original question of whether the Seahawks are Super Bowl-caliber, I’m going to come down in the mealy-mouthed middle. On the negative, there is no way they’ll go on the road and win three in a row, or even two in a row. Its imperative they win the NFC West and get the #2 seed, ensuring they’d only need one road win, presumably the NFC Championship Game in Atlanta.
Matchups are going to be important as well. Seattle will fare better against a pass-heavy team like Atlanta or Green Bay, rather than a team willing to test them on the ground. This is another reason why I think they could win on the road in Atlanta. If Seattle grabs the #2 seed and gets the right matchup, they can get to the Super Bowl. But they aren’t a team that’s so good that just getting into the bracket is all that matters.
The AFC North I was expecting to see all year long showed up in a big way on Sunday. This division has been better than I expected—I thought 9-7 would win it, and there wouldn’t be any wild-card teams. As it stands, it will likely be double-digit wins to take first place and in all likelihood the final wild-card spot comes from this division. But Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all managed to come up small in big situations.
*Baltimore lost in overtime at Washington 31-28 and in the aftermath fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. I’m almost always opposed to this kind of radical change at this point in the season. Almost always. In this case, the move had to be made and it’s better late than never.
Cameron consistently pulled Baltimore away from its core identity as a running team with Ray Rice and tried to get too cute with Joe Flacco throwing the ball all over the place. Instead of trying to pretend Flacco is Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, the Ravens would be better served letting him be Eli Manning—a quarterback who’s not really elite-level, but is still pretty good and when you surround him with a running game and defense, you can win Super Bowls.
I suspect the window for the Ravens doing the latter has shut, especially regarding the defense. But there’s only one way to find out and that’s to put an offensive coordinator in charge who will give Rice the ball, over and over again. The path will be tougher, as Sunday’s loss drops them out of control for the #2 seed and into the first round.
*Cincinnati missed a chance to take control of the race for the final playoff spot because Andy Dalton couldn’t get big plays made in the passing game against a Dallas defense that has “thrived” on giving them up. Dalton’s completion percentage, at 20/33, was respectable enough, but it only produced 206 yards and he still threw an interception. Consequently, Cincy kept settling for field goals, missed chances to put Dallas away and lost at home 20-19. My current projections have them missing the playoffs as a result.
*Pittsburgh was the worst of them all on Sunday, with a 34-24 loss to San Diego. The score is misleadingly close, as the Chargers led 27-3 in Pittsburgh. The Steelers’ problems with the running game were again made manifest and the return of Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t bail the team out.
The Steeler loss dropped them to 7-6 and has them tied with the Bengals for the #6 seed, and the Jets in pursuit at 6-7, although New York has lost to Pittsburgh head-to-head and their uninspiring wins over Arizona and Jacksonville the last two weeks leave doubt over whether they can continue on with three more wins in the coming weeks.
In spite of how bad Pittsburgh was, I think they’ll turn it around. Even though their loss was worse than Cincinnati’s strictly on its face, there’s a couple mitigating factors. The media was alive all week in San Diego with reports that owner Dean Spanos had finally decided to do the obvious and fire general manager A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner at season’s end. It’s typical of the Chargers in the Smith-Turner era to rally to the cause after it’s too late, so while I’d have never predicted they’d come up big, I can’t say I’m shocked.
I also think we need to cut Roethlisberger a little slack on his first game back. The Steelers have a big game coming up in Dallas on Sunday, and while I reserve the right to change my mind, right now I think they’re going to have their own “rally-the-troops” kind of moment and win that game. I think Cincinnati is going to lose in Philadelphia on Thursday night. Then I think the Steelers are going to beat the Bengals in Pittsburgh in Week 16. Even if just the latter happens, that gives Pittsburgh control of the race in the final week. And if that entire sequence of three dominoes falls, the Steelers would clinch with a game to go.
If you’re not sold on either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati—and let’s face it, both teams have given you plenty of reasons not to be—then you can look at the Jets. They play a very winnable Monday Night game in Tennessee, then come home to play San Diego. The New York season ends at Buffalo. I think the Jets will lose at least one of the road games, and if I had to pick, I’d learn towards saying the finale against the Bills. But that’s also a manageable schedule, even for a team that can’t score.
Finally, if you think both the Steelers and Bengals will end up at 8-8, that opens up a whole new can of worms. The likeliest scenario for that is Pittsburgh losing to Dallas and Cincy, while the Bengals lose to Philadelphia and in the finale against Baltimore. This opens the door for any of the teams currently at 5-8 to run the table and see how the tiebreakers fall. Those teams are Buffalo, Miami, Cleveland and San Diego.
Cleveland would have the best shot at a tiebreaker because they’ve beaten Pittsburgh once and this scenario presumes they’d do it again, but the Browns also play at Denver. The Miami schedule is the most conducive—home games with Jacksonville and Buffalo and the Week 17 game at New England is a question mark since we don’t know if the Patriots will have any incentive to play. But the best argument against any of these teams is that regardless of schedule, any team that’s lost eight of thirteen to this point, is not likely to rip off three straight wins.
Here’s how I see the NFL playoff projections shaking out after three more weeks of games. I’ve moved New England up to the #1 seed in the AFC. It’s not so much because of their win over Houston last night, impressive as it was. I expected that last week when I still had the Pats playing in the first round. But the combination of the Baltimore loss and how impressive Indianapolis looks have changed the forecast. The Colts are relevant because they play Houston twice and I now think they’ll get at least one win, which opens the door for New England.
The notable parts of the NFC playoff picture are Washington and Seattle in division-winning spots. I laid out my reasons why as the lead in last week’s projections and those reasons all hold firm this week—even stronger in fact, given the Washington win over Baltimore and the fact Seattle’s coming on like “a beast” as ESPN’s Michael Wilbon put it yesterday on Pardon The Interruption, dropping a 58-0 beatdown on Arizona.
AFC EAST: New England AFC NORTH: Baltimore AFC SOUTH: Houston AFC WEST: Denver Wild-Cards: Indianapolis, Pittsburgh Byes: New England (1), Houston (2) 1st Round Matchups: (6)Pittsburgh at (3)Denver, (5)Indianapolis at (4)Baltimore
NFC EAST: Washington NFC NORTH: Green Bay NFC SOUTH: Atlanta NFC WEST: Seattle Wild-Cards: San Francisco, Chicago Byes: Atlanta (1), Seattle (2) 1st Round Matchups: (6)Chicago at (3)Green Bay, (5)San Francisco at (4)Washington
The division races in the NFC East & NFC West had seemed set in stone for a few weeks. The New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers would win, and the only question was whether either of them would get a #2 playoff seed and first-round bye, or perhaps chase down the Atlanta Falcons for homefield advantage. After road losses in Week 13, both divisions are not only back in play, but you can make a good case that the favorites are going to let them slip away.
New York, after losing 17-16 in Washington last night, is at 7-5 and one game ahead of the Redskins & Cowboys. The Giants still play road games with Atlanta and Baltimore. If we play the chalk and assume the home team will win, that drops Tom Coughlin’s team to 9-7. Then look at the Washington schedule—while they play Baltimore next week, it’s a home game. Then its two road games, but at Cleveland and at Philadelphia. Then they close the season at home with Dallas.
If Washington splits its next two against the AFC opponents, and then sweeps the two NFC East games—and those are eminently reasonable goals given the way Robert Griffin III is playing right now—then the Redskins also get to 9-7 and they would win the tiebreaker with the Giants. The teams split head-to-head, but this scenario presumes Washington would have swept the Eagles & Cowboys, while New York had their Week 1 loss to Dallas, meaning a superior division record gives the Redskins the division crown.
The Cowboys would still be a factor here as well, although I want to see them win at Cincinnati before taking a more positive outlook on their chances down the stretch. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they win home games with Pittsburgh and New Orleans in Weeks 15 & 16—but that’s a big benefit of the doubt and if you combine those two games with Cincinnati, Dallas would have to sweep them to be in position to win the NFC East in Washington for the season finale.
Yes, I am a Redskins fan and I’m seeing the world through burgundy-and-gold glasses, and I’ve sucking up all the RG3 Kool-Aid I can find. But I also think if you do the math on a week-by-week basis, it really does seem as though the NFC East is now Washington’s for the taking.
Before you immediately say the Giants always find a way to win when it counts, remember this—while that might have been the case in 2007 & 2011, it wasn’t the case in 2009 & 2010, both years they stayed home for the playoffs. This franchise has had two improbable January runs, but it’s not as though they’re an infallible machine in every big spot over the last five years. They’ve got to go at least 3-1 down the stretch and the schedule says that won’t be easy.
Now we move to the NFC West, with its two overtime upsets. St. Louis knocked off San Francisco, while Russell Wilson led Seattle to a win in Chicago. Neither was a shocker, but I don’t know that you’d have expected the parlay to come through. If you look at the standings, you still see the 49ers, at 8-3-1 with a full game and a half lead on the 7-5 Seahawks. But let’s dig a little deeper.
Seattle has a very manageable schedule the rest of the way. They play home games with Arizona and St. Louis and we know how good this team is at home. The road is a tougher sell, but the only road trip is to Buffalo. Is it unthinkable to suggest that a team which wins in Chicago can win in Buffalo? Then look at San Francisco—while we can concede the 49ers will take care of Miami & Arizona at home, are we ready to concede they’ll beat New England in Foxboro in two weeks?
If you assume Seattle wins out, while San Francisco loses in New England, that means the division comes down to a 49ers-Seahawks head-to-head battle in Week 16. Where’s that game at? Seattle. I’m not going against the Seahawks at home against anybody.
Maybe by this time next week, I’ll wonder what I was thinking, but right now I’m making the dramatic altering of my NFL playoff projections to say that Washington & Seattle are winning division titles—indeed, at 11-5, I’ve got Seattle taking a first-round bye, and New York is missing the playoffs. Here’s how I see the NFC shaking out…
NFC East: Washington NFC North: Green Bay NFC South: Atlanta NFC West: Seattle Wild-Cards: San Francisco, Chicago 1st-Round Byes: Atlanta (1), Seattle (2) 1st-Round Matchups: (5)San Francisco at (4)Washington, (6)Chicago at (3)Green Bay)
The AFC is a little tamer. I’m going to stick with Baltimore for the first-round bye behind Houston. Right now the Ravens are at 9-3 and tied with New England and Denver, and a head-to-head game between the Ravens and Broncos looms on the schedule. That game is in Baltimore, who has a home-friendly schedule and while I’ve never been sold on this team all year, I don’t think they’ll repeat their inexcusable showing on Sunday against Pittsburgh and Charlie Batch.
And as impressive as the Steelers were, I’ve still got Indianapolis and Cincinnati holding on to the two wild-card berths. The wins of the Colts & Bengals didn’t get the same kind of media attention and of themselves they weren’t as impressive. But Indy’s game at Detroit, and Cincinnati’s battle out west in San Diego were the kind of games that often sinks playoff hopefuls. They trailed on the road late and in each case rallied to win.
Indianapolis, at 8-4, has the manageable schedule, while Cincinnati has a home game with Pittsburgh in a race where both teams are 7-5. So for now, I’ll play it safe in this conference against the board. I can only roll the dice with so many projections and that’s all in the NFC right now.
AFC East: New England AFC North: Baltimore AFC South: Houston AFC West: Denver Wild-Cards: Indianapolis, Cincinnati 1st-Round Byes: Houston (1), Baltimore (2) 1st-Round Matchups: (6)Cincinnati at (3) New England, (5)Indianapolis at (4)Denver
The Baltimore Ravens keep finding ways to survive, and on Sunday in San Diego, they took their survival instinct to new heights. After playing poorly against a subpar opponent—again—the Ravens trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter, still trailed 13-10 in the closing minutes and faced a 4th-and-29. A simple dump-off pass to Ray Rice got them the first down, eventually the tying field goal and ultimately the win.
It isn’t often TheSportsNotebook’s pregame analysis is vindicated this thoroughly, but the take on this game was a sluggish effort by Baltimore, that San Diego would cover the 7.5 point line, but in the end this was one team with an art for winning games and another with an art for losing them. And it’s that Baltimore knack for pulling these games out that has them situated high in the first round of our NFL playoff projections that will now run early each week between now and the end of the regular season. Normally this will be a Tuesday feature, but I trust no one will think I’m jumping the gun if I ignore tonight’s Carolina-Philadelphia game.
Baltimore is an ugly 9-2. They have two narrow escapes against Cleveland. They beat Kansas City without scoring a touchdown. They barely escaped Dallas at home. Their win over Pittsburgh came without Ben Roethlisberger and still required a special teams touchdown. And now this escape in San Diego. John Harbaugh’s team has nothing to suggest its Super Bowl-caliber, yet they are the #2 seed based on current standings and with most of their key games of December at home,
TheSportsNotebook’s exit polling suggests they will hold on to that status. Here’s how I’d see the AFC playoffs shaking out. Please note these are not what currently holds, but as the title of the article suggests, they are projections…
AFC East: New England AFC North: Baltimore AFC South: Houston AFC West: Denver Wild-Cards: Indianapolis, Cincinnati 1st Round Byes: Houston, Baltimore
The division winners are pretty straight forward and the battle between these four teams is all about positioning, making the Ravens’ win so important. They are a game up on both New England and Denver for the first-round bye that comes with the #2 seed, with a head-to-head win over the Patriots and a home game with Denver ahead. While the Patriots played very well on Thursday night without Rob Gronkowski, that was against the Jets. It’s tougher to envision New England sweeping a remaining schedule that includes Houston and San Francisco without Gronk on hand.
Conversely, Baltimore trails Houston by a game and has lost head-to-head. And the Texans show no signs of letting up, as Matt Schaub has been locked in on Andre Johnson for two straight weeks (188 yards worth of receiving for Johnson in the Thanksgiving win at Detroit). The pass protection is solid, and J.J. Watt solidified his Defensive Player of the Year case with three sacks and five QB hits against Matthew Stafford.
Denver did not play well on Sunday, but they still beat Kansas City, and unlike the Ravens, Peyton Manning’s team isn’t making a habit of narrow escapes, so I think they’re entitled to this one without a lot of questioning. The Broncos’ path to the two-seed is there, with a manageable schedule. But also remember, Denver lost to New England, so if the Broncos beat Baltimore, we could end up in a three-way tie that goes deep into the tiebreakers. Overall though, like Denver to end up as the #3 seed.
Indianapolis won a big game against Buffalo, the latter being the team that never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Ryan Fitzpatrick was horrible in a game that would have put the Bills—and a few others—back in the AFC wild-card race and the 7-4 Colts look like a good bet to win ten games right now. That likely puts them in the 5-seed spot.
I’ve got Cincinnati edging out Pittsburgh for the final spot. I know Ben Roethlisberger probably returns Sunday in Baltimore, but that’s still a road game the Steelers will have a tough time winning. I think Big Ben can get Pittsburgh to 9-7, but I don’t know that will be enough. The fact Pittsburgh’s backs fumbled five times in Cleveland—a game they knew they had to protect the ball, with Charlie Batch at quarterback—speaks volumes. Meanwhile the Bengals pounded the Raiders with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and then whipped them in the trenches on the other side of the ball, as defensive tackle Geno Atkins led a pass rush that made Carson Palmer’s homecoming to the Queen City as miserable as the locals hoped it would be.
So that leads to AFC playoff matchups of… 1st Round: (5)Indy at (4) New England & (6)Cincy at (3)Denver) Byes: (1)Houston, (2)Baltimore
The NFC has five teams that are stable to make the playoffs, and three of them—San Francisco, Atlanta and NY Giants to do so as division champs, with Green Bay/Chicago sorting out the division winner/wild-card slot. The Giants regained control of the NFC East by physically dominating a wounded Packer team, not giving Aaron Rodgers any time to throw and taking away a mediocre Green Bay running game.
New York’s win kept Washington & Dallas at two games back, though the Redskins host the Giants in this coming Monday Night Game. Washington, now 5-6, has an outside shot at the NFC East and a legitimate shot at the last wild-card. As a Redskins fan, I’m excited beyond all belief and in the aftermath of the Thanksgiving win in Dallas, I was touting RG3 to be anointed the first American monarch. Admit it—can’t you see future history books titled “From King George III to Robert Griffin III: The Story of American Democracy”? But I digress.
I digress because the Washington offensive line still did a lousy job in pass protection and only this defense could take a 28-3 halftime lead, allow the opponent to make a game of it and leave me completely unsurprised that it happened. So while my emotions are smelling playoffs, my head is telling me something else.
New Orleans’ loss to San Francisco—thanks to a pair of Pick-6’s by the Niner defense against Drew Brees—hurt their chances, but the three teams leading the race for the final playoff berth all lost. Seattle, Minnesota and Tampa Bay all dropped to 6-5, so that leaves all the 5-6 teams—the Saints, Redskins and Cowboys, very much in the hunt.
But in Seattle’s loss, I see the reasons why I’m staying with them at the #6 seed. The Seahawks did not run the ball, nor could they stop the run in a 24-21 loss at Miami. But Russell Wilson continues to show how much he’s growing as an NFL quarterback, playing well against a good defense in a road environment and it came down to a last-play field goal for the Dolphins to win. It’s going down to the end and in all likelihood 9-7 will take this berth, but I’m sticking with Seattle.
Here’s how the NFC projects out…
NFC East: NY Giants NFC North: Green Bay NFC South: Atlanta NFC West: San Francisco Wild-Cards: Chicago, Seattle
The projection of the Packers is predicated on Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson getting healthy defensively, which looks on schedule right now. While the Green Bay offensive line isn’t going to magically get better, Chicago has the same problem, so even though the Pack is a game out today, I see them taking this division. I also see them moving past New York for the #3 seed. The reason is schedule—the Giants still play at Atlanta and at Baltimore, whereas Green Bay’s difficult road games are Chicago and Minnesota.
Both the Packers and Giants are 7-4 and New York obviously has the tiebreaker after last night, but I believe the schedule allows Green Bay to take this spot outright. Both teams are in a tough spot when it comes to catching Atlanta (10-1) or San Francisco (8-2-1) for a bye.
So that leads to NFC playoff matchups of… 1st Round: (6)Seattle at (3) Green Bay, (5)Chicago at (4)NY Giants Byes: Atlanta (1), San Francisco (2)
Admit it—you’d love to the Seahawks & Packers re-do their infamous Monday Night Game earlier this year and to see what kind of reception Seattle would get coming through the tunnel of Lambeau Field? My only regret is that the projections in the AFC deny us the Indianapolis-Denver matchup with Luck and Peyton Manning. Hopefully events can change and let both games become highlights of the first round in January.