The teams that are supposed to lose: A quick look at the stacked wildcard teams (Sunday edition)

Everyone will take a deep breath when the Seahawks are finally out of the playoffs. Problem is, somebody has to be the team to actually do it.

Everyone will take a deep breath when the Seahawks are finally knocked out of the playoffs. Problem is, somebody has to be the team to actually do it. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Yesterday, we briefly covered the two AFC wildcard teams playing on Saturday. Kansas City’s fantastic defense propelled them to a rout of Houston while the Steelers’ playmakers came alive just enough to edge the Bengals. Can the two NFC wildcard teams follow suit and win both their games?

Seattle Seahawks (10-6)

at Minnesota Vikings, 1:05pm on NBC

Seahawks are hot and in the playoffs. Sound familiar? We’ve gotten to know Seattle as a top-tier playoff team over the past few years now. Perhaps the only thing unfamiliar about them this year is their role as a wildcard team. They performed slightly below expectations to begin the season (2-4 start), paving the way for other NFC teams like the Cardinals and Panthers to take the spotlight for once. But sure enough, Seattle re-discovered that winning formula and finished the season 8-2. Would you want to face a hot Seahawks team? I’m guessing not because it’s extremely difficult to begin a Super Bowl run when you have to face a QB that’s thrown multiple TDs and no picks in seven of his last eight games (Russell Wilson, in case you didn’t make the connection). Also, good luck lighting it up against a defense that’s allowing just 17.6 points per game, the lowest in the entire league. Seattle’s struggles were real, but make no mistake, they’re back. Behind yet another top defense and a QB that just keeps churning out wins, this Seattle team is poised for their third-straight Super Bowl appearance.

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Aaron Rodgers blew a chance to win the division. Will that propel him to perform even better in the postseason? (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Green Bay Packers (10-6)

at Washington Redskins, 4:40pm on FOX

Speaking of teams we’re used to seeing in January, we have the Green Bay Packers. Their game in Washington marks their seventh straight postseason appearance. Even with all those chances, however, the Packers have only managed to win one Super Bowl. Can they steal a second from the lowly wildcard position? With Aaron Rodgers, anything is possible. Rodgers has that unique ability of making the Packers contenders no matter where they stand. Defenses can plan all week and perform excellently, but one stunning performance by Rodgers can undo everything an opponent has worked for. And he’s kind of a pro at delivering stunning performances. His numbers may have dipped a little this year, but Rodgers still has a solid team around him that is quietly doing great things. The much-maligned defense is actually 12th in the NFL in points against (20.2 per game). And despite the struggles of Eddie Lacy, the running game is holding up nicely (115 yards/game). They face an uphill battle, but these Packers still have plenty of weapons to take out the NFC elite.

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The teams that are supposed to lose: A quick look at the stacked wildcard teams (Saturday edition)

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Potential ROTY Marcus Peters makes the Chiefs fun to watch. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

The best part of the NFL season is right on top of us. Wildcard weekend starts tomorrow and it could be the beginning of an unbelievable ride to the Super Bowl. This ride, however, is usually reserved for division winners and top seeds. Only six wildcard teams have ever won the Super Bowl. These teams may have scraped and clawed their way to a postseason birth, but that’s where the fun usually ends. This year, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if all four extended their fun to the second round and beyond. All four teams–Chiefs, Steelers, Seahawks, Packers–have their starting QB and face their opponent’s backup. Save for the Packers, no team has more than one loss in the last five games. And save for the Chiefs, every team has relatively recent playoff success (aka Super Bowl wins). But enough about the similarities, let’s take a brief look at why these four teams have a shot at being that seventh wildcard team to win the big one:

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)

at Houston Texans, 4:20pm on ABC/ESPN

What an incredible run this team has had this season. They started off as a boring, struggling 1-5 mess that I absolutely couldn’t stand. Now, they’ve won 10 (!) in a row and are actually watchable. As usual, Alex Smith throws interceptions at a frustratingly low rate (seven all year), which makes scoring 20 points fairly painless. Why 20? That’s the number that will usually win a game for the Chiefs when their incredible defense only allows 17.9 per game (3rd in NFL). In fact, only one team (Bills) have scored over 20 and that was still a win for KC. How can you argue with a team that’s won 10 in a row? Behind defensive talents Justin Houston and Marcus Peters, this once-unwatchable Chiefs team could wreak havoc in a struggling AFC field.

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Pittsburgh’s receiving corp will make defensive backs pay for the smallest of mistakes (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

at Cincinnati Bengals, 8:15pm on CBS

Pretty tough to build a strong case for a team that needed another team to lose just to clinch a playoff spot. That is, unless that team is this year’s Steelers. Pittsburgh had some ups and downs this season mainly due to Ben Roethlisberger missing multiple games. With Ben, they’ve gone 8-4 and won six of their last eight. Their receiving corp is my absolute favorite in the league by far. Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton are all different variations of super-fast, ultra-athletic, smart route-running freaks. It’s incredibly difficult to cover all three effectively if you don’t have enough bodies back. They’ve helped Pitt become top-5 in both total passing yards (3rd) and points scored (4th). This offense alone is enough to make Pittsburgh a legitimate AFC championship contender. If the defense can play above expectations, the Super Bowl is a real possibility.

We’ll look at the Sunday wildcard teams tomorrow!

Friday Picks: Week 16 (2014-15), plus playoff outlook

Tony Romo has a chance to be a hero in Dallas on Sunday night against Indianapolis.

Tony Romo has a chance to be a hero in Dallas on Sunday against Indianapolis.

Only two weeks remain in the NFL regular season and that means we can start to make it easy on ourselves when looking at the playoff race. Without overcomplicating things by breaking down every team’s current standing and clinching scenarios, I’ll try to make a jumbled mess of teams simple to picture. In the NFC, only the Cardinals have clinched. We don’t know what seed they’ll get yet, but they’re in. The NFC South is going to give us another team. From that division, pick one: Saints, Falcons, or Panthers. That leaves us with four spots for five potential teams, all with a record of 9-5 or 10-4. Like I said, a jumbled mess. Pick one of these five to miss the playoffs: Lions, Packers, Cowboys, Eagles, or Seahawks. To sum it up, one pretty solid team is going to be watching from home, while an average team from the NFCS hosts a playoff game. That’s the NFC.

The AFC has more teams already in, but the picture is still not as clear cut. The Colts, Patriots, and Broncos are all in as division winners, meaning they’ll take seeds 1-3, but we don’t know what order yet. The AFC North will give us the fourth division winner. So pick one to be the 4th seed: Bengals, Steelers, or Ravens. Take the other two teams and throw them in the mix for the two wildcard spots. That will give us five teams with a real shot, so pick two: AFCN team 1, AFCN team 2, Chiefs, Chargers, or Bills. The fact that we could see three teams in from the AFC North makes things a little messy. I should note that the Browns, Dolphins, and Texans are all still alive, but need some ridiculous scenarios to go their way if they want a wildcard spot. So there’s the AFC.

As for games with playoff implications, take any game with one of the bolded teams. Even the teams that are already in are playing for a crucial bye week and home field advantage. If you want a game with major playoff implications, you may want to take a look at Atlanta vs. New Orleans, where the Falcons are eliminated with a loss. The Steelers are on the other side of the fence, only needing a win over Kansas City to punch their ticket. Again, that is their ticket to the playoffs, not necessarily the division. Seattle and Arizona play with plenty at stake in the NFC West, where Arizona can clinch the division and the 1st seed with a win. They play on Sunday night, meaning we might know if Seattle can clinch a spot with a win based on results from earlier games. Finally we have Indianapolis visiting Dallas, in the Game of the Week. Indy is fighting for one of those first-round byes in the AFC while Dallas is playing for the chance at a first-round bye, the division, or a wildcard spot. The next two games for Dallas are the difference between a top seed and elimination.

My picks below (home team in CAPS):

Last week: 13-3      Overall: 152-71

Cold Hard Lock: 8-6    Upset Pick: 10-5

JACKSONVILLE over Tennessee (Thursday)

Philadelphia over WASHINGTON (Saturday)

SAN FRANCISCO over San Diego (Saturday)

MIAMI over Minnesota

Baltimore over HOUSTON

Detroit over CHICAGO

CAROLINA over Cleveland

NEW ORLEANS over Atlanta

Green Bay over TAMPA BAY

PITTSBURGH over Kansas City

New England over NY JETS

NY Giants over ST. LOUIS

Buffalo over OAKLAND

DALLAS over Indianapolis

Seattle over ARIZONA (SNF)

Denver over CINCINNATI (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: Denver over CINCINNATI; Cincinnati has as much to play for as anyone and they’re at home. It’s on Monday night, a huge game. And that’s exactly why I’m taking Denver as the lock. We know about the Bengals’ struggles in the playoffs in the spotlight and this regular season hasn’t shown us any different. On Sunday night against the struggling Pats, they got run over 43-17. At home on Thursday night against the Browns, they were humiliated again 24-3. A win this week puts them in playoffs, so the pressure is on. I’ve fallen for it before, but not this time. Cincy cannot win the big game.

Upset Pick: NY Giants over St. Louis; It’s awfully hard to defend the Giants after the type of season they’ve had, but I truly believe they are a better team than we think. Save for an unforgivable loss against Jacksonville, New York has only lost to one team (Niners) with under nine wins. They’ve faced brutal competition. That doesn’t mean they’re a good team, because good teams beat other good teams, but they should be able to compete in St. Louis where they are underdogs by 6.5 points. That’s a lot of points for a couple teams separated by a game, so I’ll take New York with their hot new weapon Odell Beckham Jr.

Game of the Week: Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys; I mentioned it earlier, this is as big a regular season game as Dallas has had in years. Two games remain with a first-round bye and elimination equally as likely. Those other big games did not go their way. Is this a different Dallas team? If they drop this one, we’ll hear about the “same ‘ol Cowboys who always find a way to screw it up.” For the Colts, they can play loose knowing they already have a spot in the playoffs. But they would love nothing more than to have home-field advantage in the postseason. A couple of points could separate what’s at stake for these two great teams.

Friday Picks: Week 15 (2014-15)

With Hoyer struggling, Johnny Manziel gets his first NFL start.

With Hoyer struggling, Johnny Manziel gets his first NFL start.

The day has finally come. Everyone will remember where they were when Johnny Manziel made his first NFL start. Ok, maybe it’s not quite that significant, but the game is a big deal. And with Johnny taking the field for the first time, Cleveland-Cincinnati becomes the Game of the Week. If you get tired of watch Manziel however, there are plenty of other great games to see this week. Miami tries to score a big win in New England to keep their playoff hopes realistic. Buffalo and San Diego will do the same when hosting Green Bay and Denver, respectively. And watch out for Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Minnesota to pull an upset this week. My picks below (home team in CAPS):

Last week: 13-3      Overall: 139-68

Cold Hard Lock: 7-6    Upset Pick: 10-4

Arizona over ST. LOUIS (Thursday)

NY GIANTS over Washington

ATLANTA over Pittsburgh

NEW ENGLAND over Miami

KANSAS CITY over Oakland

INDIANAPOLIS over Houston

BALTIMORE over Jacksonville

Green Bay over BUFFALO

CAROLINA over Tampa Bay

Cincinnati over CLEVELAND

NY Jets over TENNESSEE

Denver over SAN DIEGO

DETROIT over Minnesota

SEATTLE over San Francisco

Dallas over PHILADELPHIA (SNF)

CHICAGO over New Orleans (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: INDIANAPOLIS over Houston; Houston won last week to keep their playoff hopes alive, but I’m afraid Indy will put an end to what has been a wild Texans season. Andrew Luck is tearing it up this season with limited talent around him and if it weren’t for a guy named Aaron Rodgers, he might be the frontrunner for MVP. In a good division matchup, I love the Colts at home here.

Upset Pick: ATLANTA over Pittsburgh; This is a tough upset pick. Atlanta is 1-8 against anyone outside their division and even worse, they are 0-3 against teams from the AFC North. You can add on top of that that Pittsburgh is coming off a solid road win over Cincinnati. But lets not forget that Pittsburgh is one of the most inconsistent teams in the NFL and Atlanta is fighting for the division. With only a couple weeks remaining after this, a win here for the Falcons would go a long way in locking up the NFC South. Sometimes games in the NFL don’t make a whole lot of sense and that’s what I expect here. The Steelers will continue to confuse us with their roller coaster season and the Falcons will surprise us with an upset win at home.

Game of the Week: Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns; This game is so much bigger than Johnny Manziel. The Browns are still right in the middle of the AFC North division race, not to mention the AFC wildcard race. Cleveland is putting the hopes in the hands of the Heisman winner in what may be the Browns’ biggest game yet. In front of the hopeful Cleveland crowd, Manziel takes on the division leading Bengals. Only two games remain after this so if he can’t deliver a win, Cleveland will be pushed to the brink. This is one of their best chances to reach the playoffs in years. Can the Bengals, fighting to keep the division lead, stop Johnny Manziel in his first NFL start? All eyes on Cleveland-Cincinnati this week.

Friday Picks: Week 14 (2014-15)

Mark Sanchez has done a nice job filling in for injured Nick Foles. The Seattle defense will be his toughest test yet.

Mark Sanchez has done a nice job filling in for injured Nick Foles. The Seattle defense will be his toughest test yet.

Only four games remain in the NFL regular season. Teams and fans can visualize the wins and losses ahead. They can see what needs to be done to reach the postseason and for some, win the division. Some of the most critical of those four games are this week. Take the Steelers, for example, traveling to Cincinnati to try to gain ground on the division-leading Bengals. Or the Dolphins hosting Baltimore in a game that could very well end up deciding who gets an AFC wildcard spot. Arizona is struggling and tries to keep a perfect home record intact against Kansas City. Another perfect home record at stake is in the Game of the Week, where the Eagles welcome the Seahawks. Those are just a few to keep an eye on in Week 14, though virtually every game carries some importance this late in the season. My picks below (home team in CAPS):

Last week: 10-6      Overall: 126-65

Cold Hard Lock: 7-5    Upset Pick: 9-4

Dallas over CHICAGO (Thursday)

NY Giants over TENNESSEE

Pittsburgh over CINCINNATI

St. Louis over WASHINGTON

NEW ORLEANS over Carolina

MINNESOTA over NY Jets

MIAMI over Baltimore

Indianapolis over CLEVELAND

DETROIT over Tampa Bay

Houston over JACKSONVILLE

DENVER over Buffalo

ARIZONA over Kansas City

Seattle over PHILADELPHIA

San Francisco over OAKLAND

New England over SAN DIEGO (SNF)

GREEN BAY over Atlanta (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: MIAMI over Baltimore; Now, Miami is only 3-2 at home this season but I love them in this spot. As the biggest coin-flip game remaining on Miami’s schedule, this game is critical. The Dolphins won’t give up such an important win against Baltimore, who suffered a heartbreaking loss to San Diego last week. Miami struggled as well last week (still escaped with win), but in a clash between two teams looking for a rebound, I like the home team. The Fins can smell the playoffs and a win here would be huge for them.

Upset Pick: Pittsburgh over CINCINNATI; I usually like Cincy at home but they showed me a few weeks ago (24-3 loss to Browns) that they aren’t the home team I thought they were. Proving this point even more, Cincy has won three straight on the road and heads back home to take on Pittsburgh. But something just doesn’t feel right. Cincy is on a three game win streak? They certainly don’t seem that good. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has been about as inconsistent as you can get. Having lost last week, I’ll take the Steelers to bounce back right on queue and beat the Bengals at home, snapping that odd win streak.

Game of the Week: Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles; Some might have thought this game easier to pick if it were in Seattle, but not so fast. Philly is quietly one of the best home teams this season, yet to drop a game in their own stadium. Seattle is hot, winning five of their past six. This is a great game and the matchup everybody wants to see is that high-scoring Philly offense against a red-hot Seattle defense that hasn’t allowed a touchdown in two consecutive games. Can Seattle overcome their road woes to capture the big win in Philly? Huge division and wildcard implications on the line in this NFC matchup.

A Tale of Two Divisions

Baltimore hosts Cleveland in Week 17 in a potentially season-deciding game. Baltimore won the first matchup on a last second field goal.

Baltimore hosts Cleveland in Week 17 in a potentially season-deciding game. Baltimore won the first matchup on a last second field goal.

In the 2014-15 season of the NFL, we are seeing something pretty unbelievable. Two divisions are polar opposites and could leave us with a playoff mess.

The AFC North and NFC South–almost comically opposite by name–aren’t your ordinary divisions. Unlike your average division with a front-runner or two-team battle, these two divisions still have all four teams in contention. The quality of the contest is where you see the difference. The AFC North is a battle of the best. The Ravens, Steelers, and Browns all sit at 7-4 behind the 7-3-1 Bengals. Cleveland’s 7-4 record is potentially good enough for second in six other divisions, but if the season were to end today, not only would the Browns miss out on the playoffs, but they would finish last in the AFC North.

The NFC South presents a much different kind of race. One more along the lines of “Who wants to win this division least?” It was widely predicted that the Saints would take the division, perhaps with ease. But their season hasn’t gone the way anybody has planned and they now find themselves with an abysmal record of 4-7. Again, most divisions would sit the Saints third or even fourth with a record like that but in the NFC South, they are in second and share the same record as the division leading Falcons. At 4-7, the Saints are in second via a tiebreaker. What’s even more mind-boggling is that last place Tampa Bay, at 2-9, is not only in contention for the first overall draft pick, but can also win the division! Carolina is third at 3-7-1.

Could one of the 4-7 disappointments actually be a division champ? It's either that or someone worse.

Could one of the 4-7 disappointments actually be a division champ? It’s either that or someone worse.

With only a few weeks remaining in the regular season, you can see what’s coming. The division winner for the NFC South is bound to have a record within the 6-8 win range. The extreme possibility remains that the division winner could enter the playoffs with a 5-11 record. Five wins. That’s insane. In case you forgot, the entire AFC North has already past that mark and all four teams are still battling for an AFC wildcard spot. In case you’re wondering when the last time all four teams were three games above .500, try never. It’s the first time in NFL history that has happened. And surprise, surprise, they are 10-1-1 against their NFC inverse.

The AFC North is on a collision course of the likes we’ve never seen before. Unlike the NFCS, with all four teams competing for one spot against only each other, the AFCN teams have the three inside the division as well as five others competing for a wildcard spot. It’s going to get messy and you can almost guarantee that a tiebreaker or two will come into play.

A five-win division winner is still very unlikely, but keep an eye on these two anomalies of the NFL. With these two divisions going rogue, we could witness some incredible playoff scenarios. When we do, prepare for at least a one AFC North team to feel slighted. Big time.

AFC North: Cannibalization inevitable?

Cleveland leads the AFC North but still has key division games ahead. Can they navigate their schedule en route to an AFC North Championship?

Cleveland leads the AFC North but still has key division games ahead. Can they navigate their schedule en route to an AFC North Championship?

In case you haven’t noticed, the AFC North is the best division in football. Didn’t see that one coming. Not only does every team have a winning record, but each team sits at least two games above .500.  As it stands now, the Cleveland Browns lead the division at 6-3 (yes you read that right), Cincinnati follows at 5-3-1, with Pittsburgh and Baltimore right behind them at 6-4. It’s as tight as can be. While many of the other divisions have a couple teams battling it out, all four teams in the AFC North have a legitimate chance to be the division champ. It’s shaping up to be one of the best division races ever.

Back to basics for a second. Every division sends its winner to the playoffs, with a chance to send a second team to the playoffs if they have a good enough record for a wildcard spot. Every now and then a division sends three teams to the playoffs. The AFC West did it last year when Denver took the division and Kansas City and San Diego won both wildcard spots. With how well each team is playing in the AFC North this season, the division looks poised to send three teams to the postseason like they did back in 2011. But with key division matchups remaining, is the AFC North doomed to eat itself alive?

Four division games remain: Pittsburgh @ Cincinnati (Week 14), Cincinnati @ Cleveland (Week 15), Cleveland @ Baltimore (Week 17), and Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh (Week 17). There are 16 different ways these games can play out and based on these scenarios, we might be able to get a sense of how important those non-division games are for all four teams. Because 5-3-1 Cincy has to play 6-4 Pittsburgh twice, we can guarantee that one of these two teams will have five losses from remaining division play alone. Additionally, Cleveland has to play within division twice and Baltimore has one division game remaining so either of those squads could have five losses after those games. In fact, there is an 87.5% chance that two teams will have five or more losses after their remaining AFC North games. There’s a slim chance (37.5%) that either the Browns or Bengals will win out in their remaining division schedules, leaving them with only three losses.

Both the 6-4 Ravens and Steelers hope to distribute division losses to their AFC North foes.

Both the 6-4 Ravens and Steelers hope to deal division losses to their AFC North foes.

Why does this matter? If you haven’t checked lately or read my post on the AFC playoff picture, the AFC wildcard race is extremely tight. The room for error is razor thin and getting thinner with every passing week. As far as the wildcard spots go, we are looking for records right around 10-6 to have a shot. Depending on the results of coming weeks, that estimation could dip to 9-7 or even rise to 11-5. Keeping this window in mind, the AFC North might be in a little trouble if two teams will have five or more losses after remaining division games. If, for instance, Pittsburgh loses both games to Cincy, they’ll have win out the rest of their schedule to go 10-6. Didn’t I say the room for error was thin?

The good news for the AFC North is that there are some scenarios in which every team puts itself in a decent position. There is a 62.5% chance that all four squads will have below six losses after their remaining division games. This will give some teams–like Baltimore if they beat Cleveland–some breathing room when it comes to their remaining schedule. These are the scenarios that give the AFC North the best chance to send three teams.

Seeing how this will all shake out is the fun part. Those non-division games could crush the dreams–for both the division and wildcard spot–of any of these teams. You could argue that those are the games that really matter most. Like pointed out before, a six-loss team (after division games) would have to consider every non-division game a must-win.

With all this mess, can the AFC North really send three teams to the playoffs? Pay attention to those vital non-division games because we already know the AFC North is gonna rough itself up a bit.