Deep look into NFL playoffsWith six weeks remaining in the NFL regular season, it’s time to really zero in on the playoff picture. Since the AFC is quite a bit easier to assess right now, I’ll start there. Three of the four division leaders in the AFC have a three-game lead. So, I’m going to assume these three, Houston, New England, and Denver, will in fact win their respective divisions.
By: Mark Schuttenhelm For The Sun, The Jamestown Sun
With six weeks remaining in the NFL regular season, it’s time to really zero in on the playoff picture.
Since the AFC is quite a bit easier to assess right now, I’ll start there.
Three of the four division leaders in the AFC have a three-game lead. So, I’m going to assume these three, Houston, New England, and Denver, will in fact win their respective divisions.
In the North, the Ravens have a two-game lead over the Steelers, and with Ben Roethlisberger likely out for three more weeks, Baltimore clearly has the edge here. The only caveat is that the Steelers have a much easier remaining schedule than does Baltimore.
For the purpose of this exercise, however, I’m going to assume the Ravens win the division.
The two wild card spots, therefore, come down to a pair of 6-4 teams, Pittsburgh and Indy, and the 5-5 Cincy Bengals. There are currently five AFC teams at 4-6 — Buffalo, Miami, NY, Tennessee, and San Diego. None have impressed me this year, but it’s not out of the question for one or two of them to make a wild card push. For now, I’m going to consider them dead in the water.
So at this juncture, realistically, we have three teams fighting for two spots. The combined won-loss records of remaining opponents for the three teams look like this. Colts 31-29, Bengals 29-31, Steelers 26-34. But Indy’s remaining schedule is not as stiff as it would seem. They play the 9-1 Texans twice, the second time on the final weekend. If Houston has home field locked up by then, you could see a lot of subs in there against the Colts.
Besides the two Houston games, Indy has Buffalo, Detroit, Tennessee, and Kansas City, all winnable. Is it possible Indy could win five of six and wind up 11-5? It could very well happen.
The Bengals have three very winnable games left against Oakland, San Diego, and Philly. But they also play Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. At best I figure Cincy to win four of six and finish up 9-7. The Steelers have three without Big Ben — Cleveland, Baltimore on the road, and San Diego. Their final three are against Dallas, Cincy, and Cleveland. With the injury situation at QB, I’m only going to pencil the Steelers in for 3-4 more wins, leaving them at 9-7 or 10-6.
So what’s the bottom line on all this? The Steelers have already beaten the Bengals at Cincinnati, and play them at Heinz Field late in the season, tentatively with Roethlisberger back at QB. A win would give the Steelers the tie-breaker against the Bengals, should they both wind up 9-7. So, at this point in time, I’m figuring the Colts and Steelers will take the wild cards, with the divisions going to the Texans, Patriots, Broncos and Ravens.
Now to the much more difficult NFC.
With a three-game lead in the South, we can assume Atlanta wins the division. The 49ers are ahead of Seattle in the West by two games in the loss column, so I’m going to give that division to San Fran.
In the Black and Blue Division, Green Bay and Chicago, both at 7-3, will battle for the crown. Why don’t I mention the Vikings? We’ll get to the reason in a moment, but I don’t see the Vikings as having a legitimate shot at the division, and only a long shot at a wild card.
In the East, my beloved N.Y. Giants have a slim one-game lead over much hated Dallas.
Let’s assess the situation.
The Packers or the Bears should wind up with one wild card. That leaves the Giants at 6-4 (if they don’t win the division ), Tampa Bay at 6-4, Minnesota at 6-4, Seattle at 6-4, New Orleans and Dallas ( if they don’t win the division) at 5-5 seeking that last wild card. Dallas has the easiest remaining schedule of the teams we’re analyzing. They should win four, maybe five out of their last six, putting them at 9-7 or 10-6.
The Giants have a tough road ahead. If the team that clobbered the 49ers on the road early in the season shows up, they could win four of six for a 10-6 season. If the pitiful team that’s lost two in a row shows up, three more wins is the best I could hope for, resulting in a 9-7 record.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Dallas and New York wind up at 9-7, with Dallas likely winning the divisional record tie-breaker. At that point my Giants would be in jeopardy of missing the last wild card.
Seattle has been playing well under the radar, and they have four winnable games against Miami, Arizona, Buffalo, and St. Louis out of their final six, so 10 wins is very reachable for the Seahawks.
New Orleans and Tampa both have tough schedules remaining. The Saints will have their hands full finishing at 8-8, and 9-7 is about the best I see for the Bucs.
The Vikings remaining opponents have a combined record of 40-19-1, an incredibly hard way to end a season. As a result, I see the Vikes finishing up at 7-9 or 8-8. That brings us to the Packers and Bears.
Both teams face opponents with a combined won-loss record of 33-27. The Packers are starting to get on a bit of a roll, while the Bears are struggling with Jay Cutler out. Both should wind up with at least 10 wins, as I see it, with the Pack probably winding up 11-5 or 12-4.
Now, what happens if the Seahawks don’t make it to 10 wins? Time to fire up the NFL supercomputer, as you could have a huge logjam at 9-7 including Seattle, New York or Dallas, Tampa Bay, and maybe even Chicago if they continue to struggle. But for right now, my best assessment has Atlanta, the 49ers, Packers, and Dallas as divisional winners with wild cards going to Chicago and Seattle.
And just a side note for those of you who say the league is too protective of quarterbacks. I hope this past weekend has helped change your mind. Would you prefer watching a young guy who’s barely taken a snap or a retread who wasn’t any good on his best day, or Roethlisberger, Cutler, Smith, etc.?
Mark Schuttenhelm is a frequent contributor to the Opinion Corner.