With the NFL season half over, there are very few certainties present. You can count on one hand the number of teams that are locks to make the playoffs. The interesting thing is the number of first place teams in the NFL that are on shaky ground when it comes to maintaining their current standing.
First, I give you the teams that will make the playoffs, guaranteed: Chicago, Indianapolis, and New England. That's it. The other five divisions are so bunched up, it's hard to make sense of anything.
New York: 5-2
New Orleans: 5-2
St. Louis: 4-3
San Diego: 5-2
Kansas City: 4-3
And that doesn't include a couple of other contenders, Minnesota and Jacksonville (both at 4-3), the Jets at 4-4, and included in this conversation only because they're the defending champions, Pittsburgh, at 2-5.
So, who are going to be the 9 other teams to join Chicago, Indianapolis, and New England in the playoffs? Let's start by getting the easy ones out of the way.
Had Their Chance, Blew It:
- St.Louis could be 6-1 right now, with a three game lead on Seattle with a chance to make it insurmountable with Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander out for the Seahawks. Instead they stand at 4-3, tied with the 'Hawks for the division lead, having lost games against a bad 49er team and blown a two touchdown halftime lead against Seattle at home. And their upcoming schedule is rough, with the Chiefs, Panthers, Bears, and a rematch with the Seahawks still to go.
-As if it wasn't bad enough already for the Steelers, they get the Broncos next. Even if Pittsburgh rallies in the next stretch of games, their final three games will likely spell their doom given their small margin for error: at Carolina, Baltimore, and at Cincinnati.
-The Eagles could be 7-1 by now, and probably should be at least 6-2. But they've had a rough time of it with the close game, losing tough ones in the final seconds to New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and the Giants. The first half of the season was their chance to sprint out in front and build a cushion to prepare themselves for a tough second half of the season. Now, only at .500 with two teams ahead of them in the NFC East, the playoffs are looking more and more like a distant shot.
Pencil Them In, but Have an Eraser Ready:
- Given the weakness of the NFC West, the tough schedule of their only real challenger in the Rams, and six more winnable games on paper left on the schedule, the Seahawks should be making their fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs this year. If they're able to get Hasselbeck and Alexander healthy and going, the defending NFC champs could be a darkhorse contender to go deep into the playoffs.
-Minnesota has been one of the surprises of the year, and throwing out their awful performance against New England last Monday night, have been in every game they've played. This is a team that is not likely to go into a prolonged slump given their steady running game, solid run defense, smart quarterback in Brad Johnson, and the great attitude their new coach, Brad Childress has brought. And the rest of the season is full of winnable games - this could be an 11-win team by season's end.
-The Giants have a famously difficult schedule they've had to and will continue to have to surmount. But so far, that hasn't seemed to faze Big Blue, as they've gone to a 5-2 start, with a 3-0 record in the division. And the remaining games against their top divisional competition, Philadelphia and Dallas, both will be at home in December when the winds at the Meadowlands will be at their fiercest. To top it off, this team has shown that no lead is safe for the opponent, with the ability to come back from anything. New York is a team to be feared, and by season's end, it could be the main threat to knock out the Bears in the playoffs.
-It remains to be seen how they'll finish in their own division, and how they'll get through the upcoming 4 game stretch without their star, Shawne Merriman, but the Chargers have too much talent to miss the playoffs for a second consecutive year. They're 5-2 with a Hall of Fame runner in LaDanian Tomlinson, an ever-improving quarterback in Philip Rivers, and a great defense. The real question is whether coach Marty Schottenheimer's conservative approach will doom them if they play enough close games, but that doesn't usually hurt his teams until the playoffs.
-The Broncos' defense probably isn't as good as their remarkable showing the first 6 games of the season, but it's definately not as bad as it was during their close loss to the Peyton Mannings (er, I mean Colts) last week. Jake Plummer is hearing it from his critics this year, and deservedly so. However, Denver can run and play defense, which should be enough to get them into the playoffs in spite of Plummer's unpredictability.
And now, some tougher choices:
Close But No Cigar:
-Nobody expected the Jets to be at .500 at the midway point in the season this year under a rookie coach. So for that, they deserve a lot of credit. And looking at their schedule, a 9-7 finish looks very possible. The problem with that is 9-7 might not be good enough to make the playoffs in the AFC this year. So far, they've beaten the teams they should beat, (excluding last week's defeat to the Browns), but they're probably not ready yet to go get that tough win or two that propels them into the playoffs.
-You just never know what to expect from the Jaguars. Sometimes, they'll wow you with their defense and a run or two from their rookie star, Maurice Jones-Drew. But they're also capable of some bad losses, as their drubbing to the Texans from a couple of weeks ago shows. And now, there's quarterback uncertainty, with David Garrard filling in for "injured" Byron Leftwich, which may just be a not-so-subtle ploy to bench Leftwich. Neither of the quarterbacks though, strike me as able to lead the team into the playoffs this year given the tough competition in the conference.
-I get the feeling that the Bengals this year are going to end up the way the Chargers did last year, the infamous "best team not to make the playoffs." I don't know if it's the off-the-field problems, or Carson Palmer isn't quite himself again yet, but this does not seem like the same team that looked so promising in the first three games of the season. And their schedule is absolutely murderous down the stretch - they still have both games against Baltimore, and to end the season, at Indianapolis, at Denver, and at home against Pittsburgh.
Should Make It, But Not a Lock:
-Everybody loves the Saints these days. They're the feel-good story of the NFL and they're sitting on top of the NFC South after 7 games. They've certainly proven that they can beat good teams and they appear to be benefitting from the fresh start they're getting with new coach Sean Payton. They have a solid, consistent offense - you know what you're going to get from Drew Brees, Deuce McAllister, and Joe Horn. And add in arguably the two best offensive rookies of the year in Reggie Bush and WR Marques Colston, and this is a team that will put up points. I like this team to win the NFC South over the Falcons and Panthers.
-The Ravens are surprisingly sitting on top of the AFC North, and I think they'll be able to maintain their lead on through to the end of the season. The defense is as good as ever, and I think Brian Billick taking control of the offense is a good thing. Don't forget that Billick headed some of the most awesome offenses in NFL history when he was the offense coordinator of the Vikings back in the late '90's. His creative playcalling may be what's missing to make the Ravens' offense respectable. The unforseen struggles of the Bengals and Steelers don't hurt either.
-Kansas City is surging right now, playing surprisingly good offensively under backup QB Damon Huard. At this point, it may be Huard's job to lose even when regualar starter Trent Green comes back. If I was coach Herman Edwards, I would keep Huard in there and maintain the momentum the team has built over the last several weeks. What may put them over the top and into the playoffs in the end is the fact that they play most of their remaining tough games at home in fearsome Arrowhead - Denver, Baltimore, and Jacksonville. They have San Diego on the road in mid-December, but the rest of their road games are eminently winnable.
-I'm really hesitant about this pick, but I'm going to go with the Falcons as my last NFC playoff team over the Panthers and Cowboys. Michael Vick is furiously inconsistent, but they can run the ball with the best of them with their three-headed monster of Warrick Dunn, Jerious Norwood, and Vick. But why do the Falcons get the edge? Among these three evenly-matched teams, the Falcons get first the Cowboys, then the Panthers at home in the third and second-to-last games of the season respectively.
So, after all that, here are my projected playoff seedings as I see it now:
2. New York
3. New Orleans
2. New England
3. San Diego
6. Kansas City