Posts Tagged ‘wildcard’

Someone famous and cool once said the NFL doesn’t truly start until Thanksgiving. Well Turkey Day has come and gone and what we’re left with is a deep field of teams that look poised to play “real” football. Four teams in particular—Chiefs, Dolphins, Giants, and Lions—are a few of the hottest teams in football. It’s a typical NFL trope: who these teams are and how they win makes us skeptical of their potential. But just because it’s typical doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing. Nobody likes to be made a fool. Is what we’re seeing with these four teams a mirage? A closer look may reveal what we should expect in a post-Thanksgiving world.

First, let’s play a game. It’s that really awful game where any football broadcast takes some impressive stats, but puts a question mark over the owner of those stats. When the question mark is taken away, we’re all shocked!

“The guy ranked 2nd in first downs and 4th in rushing touchdowns is…Melvin Gordon??? How can that be?!”

Anyways, there’s a team in the NFL that is scorching hot. They are 18-3 in their last 21 regular season games. Some might call that the beginning of a dynasty. (Most people wouldn’t, but some might!)

Here we go, the big reveal…..it’s got to be the Patriots, right? They’ve been great for seemingly forever, with or without Tom Brady. But nope, not them.

Then maybe the defending champion Broncos? Think again.

Cowboys or Panthers?? They both lost just one game either this year or last year, so it’s not totally unreasonable. Except it’s not them by a long shot.

The answer, if not already given away by the title of the post, is…the Kansas City Chiefs! Shocked?? Ah, see, the game works!

Yes, the Chiefs are on a hot streak that has seemed to slip somewhat under the radar. Many Chiefs fans demand respect! Question is, do they deserve it? The idea of combining Alex Smith and Super Bowl triggers some cognitive dissonance. The way they win isn’t easy to trust. I believe Smith ranks just above WR Willie Snead in passes over 20 yards this season. TE Travis Kelce has consistently been Kansas City’s leading pass-catcher, snagging countless 10-yard seam routes. The defense has been consistently solid, ranking in the top 10 in points allowed for four straight years and never allowing more than 20 points per game in that span.

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The regular season is Alex Smith’s favorite time of year.

So why does it feel like KC is going to cruise into the playoffs, only to be knocked out by a “real contender?” They’ve beaten both the Raiders and Broncos already this year. At what point do we accept that they could make a run? Perhaps the latter part of their schedule could be a more in-depth litmus test for a playoff performance. They play @Atlanta, Oakland, Tennessee, Denver, and @San Diego (combined record 33-22). That’s a tough road to navigate, but if KC manages to squeak out just three, they’ll be sitting at 11-5 and almost surely in the playoffs. Even then, they’ll need to nab a couple playoff wins for people to take this team seriously.

In the deep AFC, the Chiefs are hardly the most interesting story at this point in the season. Many would likely hand over that title to the Oakland Raiders, but one scorching-hot team may be giving them some competition. That team is the Miami Dolphins, winners of six straight and now 7-4 on the season. There was a time when Miami was 1-4 and life made sense. This, once again, wasn’t a team we could trust and we could finally write them off early and move on with our lives. Jay Ajayi had different plans. Behind an offensive line that finally meeting expectations, Ajayi and the Dolphins have found a winning formula. They pound the rock with hard-hitting Ajayi and then toss the ball up to a budding superstar in DeVante Parker. Their defense is doing a better job of getting to the passer recently, but they still struggle to stuff the run game. One problem I have with this team that gives me pause is that they don’t seem to do anything spectacular. They are pretty good at a lot of things, but we often picture solid playoff teams with two or even one thing they’ve mastered. However, unlike the Chiefs, Miami may not have to be spectacular to find themselves playing in January. They face @Baltimore, Arizona, @Jets, @Buffalo, and New England (combined 28-26). Aside from the finale with the Pats, those are all games they could win with how they’re playing now.

Now let’s travel over to the NFC, where the Cowboys own the conference but their toughest competition might be found in their own division. New York (8-3) owns the 2nd best record in the NFC and are just two games out from the division lead. They won the crucial season-opener over Dallas and have another matchup (at home) approaching soon. However, even with the six-game win streak and the proximity to Dallas, something feels off. The expectations for this team before the season rested heavily on the defense. Many (including myself) figured that if those highly-paid free agents could just elevate that defense to average, a high-powered offense could carry them to interesting places.

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Not exactly the formula for a playoff contender.

Well, in true Giants fashion, the defense has done their job (16th in total defense), but it’s the offense that is struggling mightily. An offense with a two-time Super Bowl MVP QB, Odell Beckham, Victory Cruz, and Sterling Shepherd only ranks 22nd in total offense. To be fair, the passing game itself ranks 13th. But you can see the difficulties on the field. Punt after punt after punt against the Bears and Browns doesn’t exactly scream Super Bowl contender. With the offense still figuring it out 12 weeks in, we’re left with a similar question to Miami’s: what is this team actually good at? If you want to tab “clutch defense at the end of games” as reliable trait, then maybe that. Game after game the defense holds the opponent from that back-breaking touchdown that cost them so many games last year. That’s the real difference this year, isn’t it? New York isn’t that much different of a team from last year, they’re just winning the close games with a slightly-more-reliable defense. For New York, December looms as a potential wake-up call. They’re @Pittsburgh, Dallas, Detroit, @Philly, and @Redskins. Something tells me those teams won’t forgive stalled drives as much as the Bears and Browns.

Finally we come to the black magic that’s disguised as the Detroit Lions. In a division we expected Aaron Rodgers to control, but then thought Minnesota would run away with, the Detroit Lions hold the lead at 7-4. How are they doing it? Oh, you know, that old fashioned football strategy where you win seven games after trailing in the 4th quarter. Think about that. In all 11 games this season, Detroit has trailed in the fourth quarter. They’ve won seven of those games. It takes a brighter mind than I to figure out how they are getting away with that. Keep in mind this is all without star receiver Calvin Johnson Jr. We’ll see if they can manage to keep a lead against their upcoming schedule of @New Orleans, Chicago, @Giants, @Dallas, and Green Bay. It wouldn’t surprise me if Detroit begins to drop some of these late game. Their matchup with New York should be especially interesting given both those teams’ ability to close games out this season.

The NFC and AFC are incredibly deep this year, filled with many more interesting teams than just these four. However, there’s a great chance more than one of these teams gets into the playoffs on the back of their hot start. It may be hard to imagine now, but teams like these just need a few wins in January to luck into a Super Bowl birth.

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Green Bay used to be the team to beat. Now they’re being beat and will have to fight for a division that looked locked up. Photo credit: ESPN.com

One of my favorite things about every NFL season is how we form a framework of the league in our heads, using what we watch and our own preconceptions to position teams. Power rankings are a perfect example of this. The standings reflect wins and losses, but power rankings try to explain who these teams really are based on what we’ve seen. Nobody in the history of the league has ever agreed on one Power Ranking list. Our frameworks are all different and they change all the time.

My absolute favorite part about all this is how soon these beliefs become deeply entrenched. After just five weeks, we think we know who these teams are. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong. I wish we had the ability to show our Week 5 selves what we’re saying now. Take, for example, the conversation I overheard today between a couple of guys about the Green Bay Packers:

“How about the Packers? Wow.”

“Yeah they’re awful now. No chance against Minnesota.”

Imagine telling that to somebody after Week 5! Green Bay was arguably the best team in the league at that point and looked poised to meet the Patriots in the Super Bowl after cruising to a 13-3 regular season. Now they’re “awful.” Now, that’s obviously a bit of an overreaction but it still illustrates how quick things can change. That may sound obvious, but just think about how confident you are in some teams right now. What if I told you the division-leading Vikings would miss the playoffs completely? Last year, the 7-2 NFC East leading Eagles were in the same position and ended up falling short of the postseason.

The season moves so fast and we’re unable to appreciate some of the trends and changes that form the league. Here at the start of Week 11, I think this is a good place to take a quick look back at where we were in Week 5 and then see where we might be in Week 17.

Seven weeks ago…

Real Clear Sports does a good job of gathering all the different Power Rankings from major sports sites and creating an aggregate list. This smooths out some outliers and gives us a good idea of what the public generally thinks of the league. Click here if you want to view the full Week 5 rankings yourself. Some things I noticed:

To me, the Patriots and Packers were clearly the two top dogs. They were hardly the only undefeated teams–there were six–but they were dominating opponents consistently, had two of the best QBs in the league, and performed as elite teams consistently throughout the decade. We were used to these guys being on top and they were on top again.

With Green Bay dropping three straight and relinquishing their division lead to the Vikings, who are the top dogs now? New England sure seems to have a stranglehold on the league’s top spot. While I’d agree that Carolina owns that second spot, I don’t think they’ve quite yet reached the caliber that Green Bay and New England appeared to have in those opening weeks. Green Bay is still a solid team, but their recent tumble has left the Patriots all alone.

On the other side of things, you may remember a few teams getting off to rocky starts. Chicago dropped three straight to begin the season on the way to 2-3. They were getting blown out in their losses and Cutler even got knocked out in the second week to make things look really grim. But pay attention to who some teams lose to because it could tell us something. Chicago lost to the Packers (6-3), Cards (7-2), and Seahawks (4-5), a pretty tough opening slate if you ask me. Against some easier competition, the Bears have figured some things out and have an outside shot at the playoffs at 4-5.

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All looked lost when Jamaal Charles went down for the year. Instead, Kansas City has won three straight and put themselves in contention for a playoff spot. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Minnesota and Kansas City are a couple teams in a similar position. They started slow (Vikings 2-2, Chiefs 1-4), but have strung together some wins to put themselves in contention. Minnesota is obviously in much better shape, now atop the NFC North at 7-2. But the Chiefs are quietly competing in that large pack of AFC teams gunning for a wildcard spot. They looked dreadful to start the season, but now sit at 4-5, a game out of that sixth spot.

It’s important to note that despite all these changes, most things have remained the same. Carolina, Cincy, and Arizona are still flying high while Seattle and Indy are surprisingly struggling. The NFC East was thrown into chaos with early injuries to Romo and Dez and somehow it seems like we’re dealing with even more questions today. We can expect a lot to stay the same in the next seven weeks of the season, but what has the potential to flip the script?

Seven weeks from now…

It’s all about playoffs. Seven weeks from now will be Week 17, right on the brink of deciding the final playoff spots.

Are five of the six NFC spots pretty much decided? Arizona (1) and Carolina (2) look to be well on their way to division titles, while Minnesota (3) and Green Bay (4) look to have the NFC North and first wildcard spot locked up. Atlanta (5) is two games ahead of any other NFC team for that final wildcard spot. They’ve struggled lately, but still look far more promising than the other NFC wildcard contenders. That leaves the last spot to be decided by how the NFC East shakes out. The teams in that division are so dysfunctional, there’s plenty of people suggesting that the return of Romo can propel the Cowboys to run the table and steal the division. They’re 2-7 right now and would be the first of their kind to ever clinch a playoff spot. Could we see a major change in that division? Will two teams emerge in a couple weeks or will it remain the jumble it is now by Week 17? Also, don’t count Atlanta in quite yet. I’m interested to see how Seattle competes down the stretch. They had a great second half in 2014 and another good run could launch them right back into the playoffs despite their 4-5 start. They are certainly capable of stringing together some wins.

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I’m personally most interested in the Arizona-Seattle dynamic. Has Arizona officially replaced Seattle or are we just being tricked? Photo credit: ESPN.com

In the AFC, there’s a major win equality crisis. Three teams (Cincy, Denver, New England), own 90% of the conference’s wins while the rest share the remaining 10%. Ok so it’s not quite that bad, but those teams look to have their division just about wrapped up. The fourth division, the AFC South, is in flux much like the NFCE is. The Colts, Texans, and Jags are all right there at four wins. The last two wildcard spots are where things get messy. The Steelers and Bills own them for now, but expect that to change with every passing week. There’s a pack of six other teams just one game out of that sixth spot. I’m really interested to see how this race shakes out. I expect three or four teams will remain afloat long enough to have a shot in their final game. The question is, who will it be? Keep an eye on Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Kansas City.

Every week we see a little bit more and adjust our image of the league. The playoffs are great, but try and appreciate these next few weeks of football. The race is heating up and we’re in for the best part of the NFL. Anything can change.

The Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans boast a couple of the best defenses in the NFL this year. Their weakness lies on the other side of the ball at QB. We’ve seen great QBs carry poor defenses to the playoffs, but can either of these elite defenses pull off the reverse for their QB?
No offense will look forward to facing Buffalo's defense this season. Photo credit: WGRZ.com

No offense will look forward to facing Buffalo’s defense this season. Photo credit: WGRZ.com

You might best remember the Bills for their fantastic defensive performances late in the 2014 season against Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. Although the game resulted in a loss, the Bills intercepted Manning twice, kept him under 180 passing yards, and most importantly, kept him touchdown-free. This was easily Peyton’s worst game of the year. The main issue for Buffalo was stopping running back CJ Anderson, who found the endzone three times. That trifecta of scores aside, Buffalo actually made life difficult for Anderson, who finished with only 58 yards on 21 carries (2.8 yards/carry).

As impressive as this was, the pinnacle of Buffalo’s defensive success came against Rodgers, the eventual MVP of the league. Rodgers experienced the same struggles as Manning, throwing two picks and no TDs. This was his only game all season without a touchdown. But perhaps the most stunning stat of all from that game was Rodgers’ pass attempts, which reached 42 by game’s end. Unlike Manning, who only threw the ball 20 times, Rodgers was slinging all game. Time after time, Buffalo answered the bell, stifling the MVP like we’ve never seen before. This time the Bills prevailed in 21-13 victory.

Buffalo ended the season with arguably the best defense in the league, allowing just over 18 points per game (4th in NFL), just under 5000 yards total (4th), and 30 takeaways (3rd). Despite trading talented linebacker Kiko Alonso, they show no signs of slowing down this year. Defensive savant Rex Ryan has taken over the head coaching duties and finds himself in charge of yet another team with questions at QB, much like his former New York Jets.

After winning an offseason QB competition, Tyrod Taylor was tabbed the starting QB for Buffalo. The Virginia Tech alum has only appeared in 14 games since being drafted by the Ravens in 2011. In reality, he’s only truly played in one NFL game. This was in 2012, when the playoff-bound Ravens rested their starters in a meaningless season finale. Taylor went 15/25 passing, 149 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. It’s safe to say that Taylor’s ability to play in the NFL has yet to be tested with real action. Being named the starter for Buffalo is by far the biggest feat of his career and we’ll finally get to see what Taylor can do.

JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney look to make life difficult for opposing QBs.

Jadeveon Clowney and JJ Watt look to make life difficult for opposing QBs. Photo credit: ESPN.com

The predicted success of Houston’s defense largely lies in its talent. Many believe defensive end JJ Watt is the best player in the NFL, MVP or not. He forces offensive coordinators to form plays around him or–to be realistic–avoid him. Fans are thrilled at the return of linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick from the 2014 NFL draft who suffered a season-ending injury last season. Houston will also welcome former New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork, hoping he can make a similar impact in their system. From Brian Cushing to Johnothan Joseph, Houston has talent and depth all over this defense and it’s why they are expected to be one of the NFL’s best.

Much like Taylor, QB Brian Hoyer had to survive a QB competition before being awarded the starting role. Hoyer has a bit more NFL action we can look at, but still a limited sample size. The last we saw of Hoyer was last year in Cleveland, where he was the starter as well. Hoyer found success early, helping the team reach 7-4 before struggling hard in the next two games. At 7-6, Cleveland decided to give Manziel a shot at salvaging the season. This effort fell flat as Johnny Manziel was roughed up in his first NFL start, handing the starting role back to Hoyer after an injury. The painful last weeks of the season finally came to a close as the Browns finished 7-9, missing the playoffs.

So Hoyer has found some scattered success in the NFL, but not anything to raise our eyebrows over. He’s average at best and like Taylor, will be tasked with winning games with an elite defense behind him. Can these guys do enough to take their teams to the playoffs? Both teams will likely be competing for the AFC wildcard spots, as their rivals in the Colts and Patriots have strongholds on their respective divisions. They’ll be looking at competent and successful QBs like Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, and Ben Roethlisberger vying for the very same spots. These QBs are used to moving the ball effectively and putting large numbers on the scoreboard. More importantly, they are QBs used to making the playoffs (except for Tannehill, yet).

In a time where there are so few great QBs coming out of college, a playoff birth for either the Bills or Texans will mean hope for those teams without a decent QB. It will mean that being stuck with a below-average passer isn’t a death sentence as long as you can grow a strong defense behind them through the draft and free agency. For now though, it remains a tough task as teams without a good QB continue to miss the playoffs year after year.

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.

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.

Should we buy what Miami is selling?

Should we buy what Miami is selling?

Last week I broke down the AFC playoff picture and didn’t give Miami much of a chance to make the playoffs. They didn’t have quality wins (save for New England in week 1) and faced a tough second-half schedule (and still do). But last week they ripped the San Diego Chargers 37-0 for their third straight win, catching the attention of many. Miami = playoff bound? Those are the murmurs I’m hearing this week.

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Where were those headlines before the Chargers game? There’s a reason we didn’t see them and one big win won’t convince me so easily.

Before I say anything else, I have to give the Dolphins credit. In a game I picked as my lock, Miami made me look like a fool for going with the Chargers. I did not see such domination coming. Perhaps they’ll prove me wrong again. But for now, let’s look at things realistically for Miami.

I have to believe at least two teams from the AFC North will make the playoffs, leaving one wildcard spot for seven teams. Even after a big win over one of those teams, they aren’t leading the race. They share the same record as Kansas City, Cleveland, and Buffalo, but are trailing each team due to tiebreaker rules. And you better believe tiebreakers will come into play in such a tight AFC. They’ve already fallen to KC and Buffalo earlier this season.

What is encouraging from the Dolphins is their conference record (4-2) and the fact that they haven’t had any bad losses. A loss is loss of course, but when Miami has had to take care of business–against Jacksonville and Oakland–they have. This makes me pretty confident they can pick up three wins against the Jets (twice) and Vikings.

Miami's remaining schedule.

Miami’s remaining schedule.

The rest of their schedule is full of good teams and brutal road games. They have to go to Detroit this Sunday, Denver in week 12, and New England in week 15. I seriously cannot see them beating the Pats or Broncos on their home turf. Detroit gets Calvin Johnson back, who should only add to the surprising success the Lions are having thus far. If Miami can keep it going and win in Detroit, they could be poised for a run. I don’t see it happening. Luckily for Miami, they don’t necessarily need this game.

They host Buffalo on Thursday night in week 11, an absolute must-win game. They already lost to Buffalo badly in week 2 and cannot afford to drop a home win against a potential wildcard team, not to mention a division rival. Another toss-up comes at home in week 14 against Baltimore, yet another wildcard team they are competing with. If they can pick up these two wins, along with those three “take care of business” games, they’ll find themselves at 10-6, certainly a record good enough to make the playoffs. However, which 10-6 record will be rewarded? The Bills, Chiefs, Chargers, Ravens, Browns, Steelers, or Bengals could all realistically go 10-6 (or Bengals 10-5-1). They all have tough schedules too, but I have to believe we’ll see at least a couple of those teams reach the double-digit mark. If it happens to be the wrong teams, Miami could find itself on the wrong end of the playoff bubble.

Ryan Tannehill has played some of his best football in the past month. Can he keep it up against a fantastic Detroit defense this Sunday?

Ryan Tannehill has played some of his best football in the past month. Can he keep it up against a fantastic Detroit defense this Sunday?

It’s certainly doable. Miami showed us they are fully capable of competing with any team in the NFL with their rout of San Diego. But where was that when they got shellacked by Kansas City (29-10) and Buffalo (34-15)? Are they just now starting to find their groove? We’ll get a good indication against Detroit this weekend.

And what about Ryan Tannehill? After week 3, we were hearing rumors about him getting benched. Now after a few good games against bad defenses, he’s suddenly our new favorite rising star? In Miami’s last four wins, Tannehill has faced the pass defenses of Oakland, Chicago, Jacksonville, and San Diego. All four rank in the bottom third of the NFL in opponent passer rating. Detroit ranks third in that category. Let’s see how he does then.

All I’m saying is, let’s slow down with the Dolphins. Don’t get tricked by one big win. They will not win the AFC East and still face a tough road to a wildcard spot. They still have had troubles playing to their potential, including last season. I’m not buying into Miami just yet, but they have plenty of opportunities ahead to prove me wrong.

Even after a mid-season QB change, the Bills find themselves in a good spot in the AFC wildcard race.

Even after a mid-season QB change, the Bills find themselves in a good spot in the AFC wildcard race.

The second half of the NFL is the best half of the NFL. We think we know who these teams are by now (for the most part) and now the race begins. We’ll take a quick look at the AFC playoff picture as it starts to take form for the first time. Trust me, I am just as interested in the NFC but it is simply too early take a look over there. Spoiler alert: it’s wide open. Not to say the AFC isn’t wide open, which it is, but we can at least take out a few teams to clear up the early picture.

Before the season started, we looked at the AFC and saw three divisions where there was an overwhelming favorite. We couldn’t quite mark them down yet because we at least had to see them play. Well, eight weeks have past and those teams are who we thought they were. The Patriots, Colts, and Broncos are all division winners. Mark it down. In pen. Yes I see you sitting there a game behind, Bills and Chargers. It’s not gonna happen. Have fun fighting for the remaining two wildcard spots. You have company.

On the opposite side of things, there are four teams we can absolutely declare dead. And again, we could have before the season started but, to be “fair” I guess, we gave them a shot. No surprises are to be had here. Take out the Jets, Jaguars, Titans, and Raiders. They’re done.

Before we get into the huge pack fighting for those two wildcard spots, we should talk about the division complicating everything: AFC North. Obviously this remains the last division spot to be filled and could also send a wildcard team, maybe even two. The problem? Without the entire division being tied, the AFC North teams are virtually as tight as they could possibly be. They are so close, in fact, that the division leader Bengals (4-2-1) have less wins than the two teams trailing them (Ravens and Steelers 5-3)! To make matters worse, the team in last (Browns) has a winning record at 4-3. All four teams have a legitimate shot at winning that division. This means, of course, that all four teams also have a legitimate shot at finishing last. I mean, someone has to place last. Moving forward with this playoff picture, we’ll have to keep all four of these teams in the back of our mind as possible division winners, wildcard teams, or last place teams. As more division games take place (Ravens at Steelers this weekend, Browns at Bengals next week), things will start to clear up. For now, we deal with a bit of a complicated, and crowded, pack of wildcard contenders.

All of a sudden, the AFC North is the most exciting division in football.

All of a sudden, the AFC North is the most exciting division in football.

Considering the teams we’ve already knocked out or talked about, there are only five squads remaining in contention for those elusive two wildcard spots: Chargers (5-3), Bills (5-3), Chiefs (4-3), Dolphins (4-3), and Texans (4-4). But again, we are forced to consider those four from the AFC North, making it nine teams in the race. To make the picture a little easier to manage, I break these teams up into three groups. First, we have four teams–Chargers, Bills, Ravens, Steelers–in the lead pack at 5-3, along with Cincy at 4-2-1. These are the teams in the best position as it currently stands. If the season were to end today, the Chargers and Bills would be your two wildcard teams. These teams are in a good spot, but not by much. Right behind them is the “step behind” group, with the 4-3 Chiefs, Dolphins, and Browns. If you want a concise group of teams to watch in the AFC, keep your eye on these three for the next couple weeks or so. Every win one of these teams picks up from here on out will make the AFC that much more competitive. Finally, we have a group with a single member, the 4-4 Texans, who are on the outside looking in. Yes, they only have one more loss than the preceding group, but when they finally hit their bye in week 10, all the other AFC teams will have a chance to gain ground. Remember, with only two teams filling the wildcard, the Texans will need a lot to go their way when they don’t win.

So that’s the picture. Three groups with a bunch of good teams. But what really lies ahead for the AFC? Right off the bat, I have to say that things do not look good for the Dolphins. They face a brutal stretch where six of their next seven games are against teams with at least five wins. This includes games in Detroit, Denver, and New England. Their week 1 win over the Patriots is the sole quality win to this point. Their other wins have come against abysmal Oakland, inept New York Jets, and underachieving Chicago. If the first half of the season has been any indication of who the Dolphins are, then I can’t see any way they make it to the playoffs with what lies ahead.

Success against four manageable teams will put the Browns ahead of the playoff race.

Success against four manageable teams will put the Browns ahead of the playoff race.

The Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals are as much of a toss-up as you can get. Baltimore has looked great but was just swept by the sliding Bengals, and the Steelers are as inconsistent as can be. Good luck figuring them out any time soon. But what about the Browns? We are so used to seeing the big three fight it out year after year that we may overlook the team that we’ve heard for years now is “going to contend soon.” So does Cleveland actually have a shot to take the division? They absolutely do, but would have a much better shot in any other division. They have a crucial four-game stretch where they face teams with four wins or less (aka beatable teams). If they go 2-2 or less in these next four, the wildcard spot becomes their only hope. These are games they need to win. Meetings with the Colts and Ravens still lie ahead. Losing such critical ground in a rabid division such as the AFC North be nearly impossible to recover from. Even a wildcard spot will become difficult to achieve with teams like the Chargers and Bills gunning just as hard.

The eye-test has me loving San Diego more than Buffalo or Kansas City, even though KC just beat the Chargers in week 7. Their running game is eviscerated with injuries, yet Philip Rivers continues to carry the team to win after win. But like Miami, a brutal stretch awaits that has the potential to derail their playoffs hopes. They face Baltimore, New England, Denver, and San Francisco from weeks 13-16. They’ll need to get out of there with at least a couple of wins to secure a wildcard spot. The Chiefs and Bills are a couple teams I’ve been low on for most of the season, but have impressed me with recent wins. They face each other in week 10 in what could be a season-defining game. The winner will own the head-to-head tiebreaker in the case that these two finish with the same record.

So that’s where we stand halfway through the season. Enough drama for you? Just wait, every passing week will yield better and better games. It should have been readily clear that I have no idea how the AFC play out. I guess my gut feeling says we’ll see one AFC North team (pick one) and the Chargers steal those two wildcard spots.

If you thought the first half of the NFL season was good, buckle up.

 

Saturday’s wild card games got the 2014 playoffs off to an incredible start. These are the NFL playoffs, so there’s not a whole lot of football left to watch. Don’t miss out on Sunday’s action.

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AFC Wild Card: San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)

January 5, 2013 CBS 4:35pm

Pick: Bengals

Give San Diego credit. With their backs against the wall in Week 14 at 5-7, they rattled off four straight wins and squeaked into the playoffs. Philip Rivers is having one of the best seasons of his career. It’s really tough to go against a team on such a roll, but Cincinnati deserves even more respect, quite frankly. They’ve found a groove and won five of their last six. They love winning big and when they lose, it’s not by much. The lethal Andy Dalton-AJ Green combo is among the best QB-WR pairs in the NFL, if not the best. I love what San Diego is about and they are perfectly capable of winning, but I gotta take the Bengals. At home with better talent, Cincy will be able to advance.

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NFC Wild Card: San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at Green Bay Packers (8-7-1)

January 5, 2013 FOX 4:40pm

Pick: 49ers

It’s not every year you see a team make the playoffs on an 8-7-1 record, but it was good enough for Green Bay to win their division and have home field advantage against the Niners. With Aaron Rodgers back, the Pack is a much different team than the one that lost five and tied one. However, Green Bay still has flaws that have been prevalent all season. Their defense ranks in the bottom quarter of the league in both rushing and passing yards allowed. They aren’t causing enough turnovers to make a difference and the pressure of the team’s success is placed on Aaron Rodgers. The 49ers, winners of six straight, know this and will use their top-10 defense to throw him off his game just enough to advance. With temperatures expected to be below zero and “feel” around -20F, even the hottest team will get a little chilly.

It doesn’t get much better than the NFL playoffs. It’s one the most selective systems in sports, allowing the very best 12 teams a chance to extend their season. Even those who deserve to make it can miss out, isn’t that right Arizona? After one weekend, eight remain. One bad game, one injury, or one missed kick can decide the fate of the entire playoffs. There’s no predicting what can happen. Yet we’ll all try.

I usually like to dive in to the postseason with heavy analysis before the games and break down every possible angle but with how busy–and, admittedly, a little bit lazy–I have been, I’m going to make these picks short and sweet. First, the two Saturday games. Sunday to follow sometime soon.

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AFC Wild Card: Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)

January 4, 2013 NBC 4:35pm

Pick: Colts

I’m very wary of teams going into the playoffs cold. Kansas City has lost their last two and five of their last seven. To be fair, they sat their starters in a Week 17 loss. However, in Week 16, they did not sit their starters and lost at home. To add insult to injury, they lost against Indy, the very team they have to beat to play another game. At home, and having won four of their last five, I like Indy to sneak by the 5-seed Chiefs. Kansas City can absolutely win this game with the proper adjustments, but Indy knows how to take care of the ball (least turnovers in the AFC) and with a just 1-2 TD passes from Andrew Luck, they should be able to neutralize KC’s scary defense.

 

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NFC Wild Card: New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

January 4, 2013 NBC 8:10pm

Pick: Eagles

Boy, do I feel terrible picking against Drew Brees. It feels like I am just asking to get this pick wrong, but I cannot ignore the telling facts: New Orleans has lost their last three road games and when they have won on the road, it has been against non-playoff teams. The short way of putting it: New Orleans is simply not the same team away from the Superdome. Will the fact that this is a playoff game change all that? I guess it could, but football is football. Philly is still going to have a tough time stopping Brees but they will play a little better knowing they have a high-scoring offense and the top rushing game in the league to back them up. It’s hard to imagine Brees losing so soon, but Philly has plenty of weapons too. Expect Nick Foles to rise to the occasion.