By Joe Hanretty
At this point in the NFL season, there are usually those “cut ‘n dry,” “no doubt about it,” “shoe-in” playoff teams that have separated themselves from the pack by wide margins. However, this year presents its enormous fan base with what could be one of the most exciting finishes in recent memory. The Arizona Cardinals have the best record with only one loss, and both the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots are looking stronger as each week goes by. But there are still so many teams that are not far behind. The margin for error lessens each week. The fight for the top grows ever more brutal. Let’s break this crowded room of competition down according to conference (NFC vs AFC).
In the NFC, the Cardinals (9-1), Lions (7-3), Eagles (7-3) and Falcons (4-6) are at the top of the conference based on the fact that they lead their respective divisions. The Cowboys and Packers, however, have looked like better teams than three of the four listed above. With six games left on the schedule, I predict the list will look a whole lot different at the end of the season than it looks presently. One reason for this is strength of schedule, which is actually a huge determining factor in predictions. Teams like the Seahawks, Saints and Forty-Niners are huge threats to all playoff spots, especially for the Cardinals as the team resides in the same division as both Seattle and San Francisco. The Falcons are in first despite an awful 4-6 record. The Saints should be much better, but have beaten themselves too many times and thus are fighting tooth and nail to snatch that NFC South title. Wouldn’t it be cool to see a six-win team clinch a spot in the postseason? My prediction for the NFC playoff picture goes like this: 1. Packers (North), 2. Cardinals (South), 3. Cowboys (West), 4. Saints (East), 5. Lions and 6. Seahawks (both wild cards). I would pick the 49ers to sneak in there if I was given a mulligan at season’s end.
Moving on to the AFC, we have quite a truncated group of contenders all of which are very viable teams. The top four right now are the Patriots (8-2), Broncos (7-3), Bengals (6-3-1) and Colts (6-4). The Patriots just finished walloping the Colts in the “horseshoe dome,” so they can be ignored for now. The rest of the teams aren’t so lucky.
The Broncos just lost to the not-so-playoffs bound St. Louis Rams in painful fashion. They also suffered key injuries to big-time players. The main questions left are: can they muster up a better defensive front four? Can they rebound from an injury-ridden loss? In the AFC North, the Bengals are trying to fend off the Ravens, Steelers and, oh my, the Browns, who are relevant this far into the season for the first time in a long while. The Colts were shown the door, or rather, the bus door, quite rudely on Sunday night after New England’s Jonas Gray ran all over their defense. Andrew Luck is good enough to forget and move forward, I think.
Some teams that should be noted are the Steelers, Chiefs, Dolphins and Ravens. These four figure to duke it out for the two wild card spots. The Bengals don’t quite look like a formidable playoff team, but they made progress in shutting down the Saints last week and had one of the best outings of the season by their quarterback, Andy Dalton. As much as I’d love to see the Cleveland Browns make the playoffs, I just don’t think they are ready. The way I see it finishing up in the AFC goes something like this: 1. Patriots, 2. Chiefs, 3. Bengals, 4. Colts, 5. Broncos and 6. Steelers.