Usually at this point in the regular season, most of us can figure out who will be in the NFL playoff picture; at least for the most part. However, with just three weeks left in the NFL regular season, the playoff picture (excluding the current division winners) is as muddy as ever.
Starting with the AFC, the East is at a deadlock with Miami, New England and the New York Jets all tied for first place. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are only separated by a game in the North, who play each other this week. Tennessee has clinched the South, but those sneaky Colts seem very intriguing.(Shh! Don’t tell anybody but they’ve won 6 straight). And lets not even talk about the dismal West.
Now you can say all you want about New England and New York in the East, but you can’t say enough about the Miami Dolphins. No team has done what they have done thus far, turning a former 1-15 team into a legitimate playoff contender. And most give the credit to Bill Parcells, who is well deserving, and has made many great moves in the Dolphins’ front office, but I’m giving it to Tony Sparano. His system not only wins them games, but maximizes the player’s use of talent on the field. Even Ricky Williams is quietly having a good year, and Chad Pennington has shocked us all. Sparano will be up there for coach of the year, and he is without question coach of the year in my book.
Most likely the Jets and Dolphins will win out until the last game of the season with both having weak schedules, (unless the 49ers keep rolling and drop the Dolphins this week, but I don’t see that happening) so it will come down to the Dolphins/Jets matchup on week 17 at Giants Stadium. Now we all know it will be cold, very cold, and we all know what succeeds in cold weather. The running game. Look to see Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams run wild while Favre throws a couple picks too many. The Jets’ offense is too inconsistent, and expect to see Sparano pull a few tricks out of his sleeve to amazingly get the Dolphins to the playoffs. Now I bet you weren’t saying this before the season- “Well I know the Dolphins went 1-15 last year, but they have some pieces there. I think they’ll finish with a better record than the Patriots and win the division.” I would have hysterically laughed in your face.
The hard-nosed AFC North can’t get any better, with two of the highest ranked defensive teams facing off this week. The winner of this game will take full control of the division lead, and it’s going to take all phases of the game. Every phase of this game is about even; yeah the Steelers have the number one defense, but the Ravens are impossible to score on at home. It’s going to be great to see Reed and Polamalu make big plays on their respective defenses. But in the end, this is going to come the quarterback play of Flacco and Roethlisberger, now let me figure this one out… A solid rookie quarterback with no experience in pressure games, or a stellar Superbowl winning QB who has the middle name of pressure and big games? Tough one, but I would have to pick Roethlisberger and the Steelers to win this game and the AFC North. I’m not going to make any bold predictions, but look for Big Ben to pave another road toward the Big Game.
The AFC South is a little more clear, with Tennessee already clinching the division title, Indianapolis on the rise, and no other competition within the division whatsoever. Look for the Titans to keep rolling throughout the season’s entirety; Jeff Fisher won’t bench anybody in the last few games. And the Colts will quietly take that top Wild Card spot in the AFC. (But don’t say it too loud, nobody will even notice if they make a deep playoff run).
Now I said I wouldn’t talk about the West, but I at least have to say something. First of all, this division is absolutely pathetic. The schizophrenic Broncos don’t even know who they are, the Chargers are the most disappointing team in the league and possibly in NFL history, the Raiders haven’t changed much and just might ruin JaMarcus Russell’s career if they do something soon, and the Kansas City Chiefs can hardly compete with anybody. Now I said I would say something, but I didn’t say it would be anything good. Denver will easily win the division, but only because the rest of the division can’t function properly.
The AFC playoff picture will turn out like this:
1. Tennessee Titans
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
3. Miami Dolphins
4. Denver Broncos
5. Indianapolis Colts
6. Baltimore Ravens
Now the NFC playoff race, especially the Wild Card race, would be your definition of a muddy playoff picture. The East is still beastly whether most still think so or not, the top end of the North is up in the air, the South is without a doubt the best division in football, and the West is almost as bad in this conference, but we at least have the Cardinals to talk about.
Now there’s no better team to talk about at this time of the year than the New York football Giants. I know they just came off of a close loss to the Eagles, but we all know what this team is really made of. All Harris Smith distractions aside, (oh I’m sorry I meant Plaxico Burress) this is the most mentally tough team in football, and will be the most physically tough once Brandon Jacobs returns. The only problem they will have once the playoffs begin is that they will have home-field advantage; they’re gonna have to get used to that. Moving towards the bottom of the division, the Eagles have been very impressive lately. Everyone was counting them out after Donovan McNabb was benched in that terrible loss to the Ravens, but I couldn’t understand why. I know many people like to count teams out just as they start a losing skid, and overly react when teams get on a run (for those of you who picked the Jets as Superbowl contenders two weeks ago). But this was the premier situation for Donovan, who comes up big every time the pressure is put on him. It also helps when Andy Reid comes to his senses and gives Westbrook the ball to take less pressure of Donovan and lower his attempts from almost 50 a game. So look for the Eagles to make a run for a Wild Card slot in the NFC, but fall short. The NFC South is just too tough, plain and simple. They will fall short of both Atlanta and Tampa Bay. As the Redskins have fizzled out, and the circus known as the Dallas Cowboys is slowly falling apart, it seems that the beasts of the East will only put the Giants in playoff contention this season.
The NFC North is very intriguing, and I know most of you would take the easy route and say AP and that great defense will lead the Minnesota Vikings to win that division. In the words of Lee Corso, not so fast my friend! The Bears have everything in line for them to easily take down the NFC North. The Vikings have remaining games against Arizona, Atlanta, and the New York Giants. This is easily the toughest remaining schedule in the NFL, and on top of that, starting quarterback Gus Ferotte is out this week with a lower back injury, leaving Tarvaris Jackson to lead the team, which isn’t great news. Jackson was the starter at the beginning of the season, only to go 0-2 with very average numbers. Minnesota could just give Adrian Peterson the ball every play, but I think that would get figured out rather quickly. On the other side of things, the Chicago Bears just came off of a Thursday night overtime win over the New Orleans Saints, and have remaining games against Green Bay and Houston. Green Bay has been disappointing, and Houston is a below average team. Even though Minnesota is arguably a better overall team than Chicago, look to see Chicago win the North, based solely off of their remaining schedule.
Where does that leave Minnesota? Well, that leaves them completely out of it; because the NFC South is just incredible. The Carolina Panthers are among the tops in the league, and it looks as though they will win the division. Smash and Dash (Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams) are practically unstoppable; the only problem I have is that they stole their nicknames from LenDale White and Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans. It’s good to see Williams succeeding in the NFL though, as I was a big fan of his when he was playing for the Memphis Tigers in college. They will be greatly tested when they play the Giants next week on Sunday night, which is possibly an NFC Championship preview. Jeff Garcia and the Tampa Bay Bucs have been great, and the Atlanta Falcons have been (along with the Dolphins) one of the most surprising teams in the league. The Falcons and Bucs will face off this week in a very important game, but it is absolutely insane for anybody to think the Buccaneers have any chance at winning this game. First of all, Garcia is listed as questionable with a sore calf, and it would be ludicrous to pick a team in this division to lose at home. The NFC South is 24-2 at home this season, and 10-0 at home when they play each other. Advantage, Atlanta. Tampa Bay may lose this game, but will easily win the next two against San Diego and Oakland of the pathetic AFC West. Did I mention the AFC West is pathetic? The Bucs will take the final NFC Wild Card slot, and the Falcons will take the first. Again, something else nobody would have predicted. 3 teams from the NFC South in the playoffs? Seriously, don’t even tell me you predicted that.
Lastly is the NFC West, which would be as pathetic as the AFC West if the Arizona Cardinals were not included, and if Mike Singletary didn’t take over and make San Francisco competitive late in the season. But the NFC West is all about Arizona this year, who have won a division title for the first time in 33 years. They will also be hosting a playoff game for the first time since 1947, which doesn’t really count for the people of Arizona because the team was in Chicago at the time. This is an enormous achievement for the Arizona Cardinals, who many have picked to make playoff runs in the past few seasons, but they just never got it done. They finally broke through this season, and every player on that team is well deserving. This is in large part because of another great first year coach in Ken Whisenhunt, who is also up there in my coach of the year vote, but edged out by Sparano just a bit. This is mostly because Arizona had an immense amount of talent before Whisenhunt got there, while Sparano did not have that luxury. All of that aside, Whisenhunt took a very dispersed Cardinal team and got them to gel very well, while taking the offense (which we all knew was very good) to the best of its ability. The NFC West might be a very weak division, but who cares. History has been made, and that should always be recognized, no matter what the circumstances. Congrats, Cardinals.
With all of that said, the NFC playoff picture should turn out as so:
1. New York Giants
2. Carolina Panthers
3. Arizona Cardinals
4. Chicago Bears
5. Atlanta Falcons
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With only a few weeks left in the regular season, there are many teams that have their playoff destiny in the palm of their hand. Not many teams will be looking to see who beat who every week, and if they do it will be because of their own doing. In the next few weeks, the picture should start clearing up, and the true playoff contenders will emerge. Look to see some interesting matchups in the playoffs this year, and some good games as well (without the Patriots involved). And did I mention the AFC West is pathetic?