As we reach the midpoint of the season, things only get slightly clearer on which teams are the best. We know who the worst teams are — here’s looking at you, Kansas City and Jacksonville — but that is the easy part.
How do we sort out the playoff picture halfway through the season?
Obviously the Atlanta Falcons (8-0) are in great shape as the last undefeated team and 25th team since 1940 to start 8-0. All of those teams went on to clinch a first-round bye.
The Chicago Bears and Houston Texans are both 7-1 and will meet in Week 10, but both of those teams are also in great shape with arguably the two best defenses in the league. Though the San Francisco 49ers (6-2) may have something to say about that, and you can bet they will be a contender in January too.
New England (5-3) has a considerable lead in the AFC East, though they have yet to play Miami (4-4). However, is anyone really going to bet against Bill Belichick’s team not being a contender again?
The same must be said for Denver (5-3) with Peyton Manning. With one game left on the schedule against a team currently with a winning record, look for the Broncos to finish 12-4 or 13-3.
The NFC equivalent is Green Bay (6-3). They started slow, but Aaron Rodgers has warmed up and they have won four straight heading into a bye week to try and get healthy for the stretch run. This is a playoff team.
Those are seven teams you can pencil into the 12 playoff spots. After that, everyone else more concerns. Let’s take a look at each conference. As always, paying close attention to the schedule will help guide us through.
No. 2 Baltimore (6-2, 1st in AFC North) vs. No. 6 Pittsburgh (5-3, 2nd in AFC North)
Baltimore’s remaining schedule: OAK, @PIT, @SD, PIT, @WAS, DEN, NYG, @CIN
Pittsburgh’s remaining schedule: KC, BAL, @CLE, @BAL, SD, @DAL, CIN, CLE
If the playoffs started today, the Ravens would have a first-round bye and the Steelers would have the final wild-card spot. Yet, they are only a game apart and have two critical games coming up soon that will most likely decide which team wins the AFC North.
Pittsburgh appears to have the advantage going ahead as they have already played the Broncos and Giants (AKA “The Mannings”), while the Ravens have swept Cleveland. The Steelers are 22-2 against Cleveland in their last two dozen meetings.
Baltimore has suffered key injuries with Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis, while the Steelers hope to get players like Troy Polamalu, David DeCastro and Rashard Mendenhall back this season.
It almost does not seem fair the two games will take place two weeks apart, but you can count on these games to decide your AFC North winner. The first-round bye will be much trickier as Baltimore is 1-1 against Houston and New England while the Steelers play neither team.
Both teams are well coached and have enough talent still healthy to be there in the end. Look for the Steelers to make a serious push for the division and more in the AFC.
The Verdict: Baltimore and Pittsburgh are both contenders.
No. 5 Indianapolis (5-3, 2nd in AFC South)
Indianapolis’ remaining schedule: @JAX, @NE, BUF, @DET, TEN, @HOU, @KC, HOU
Hard to believe, but the Colts are right there in that first wild-card position. They have a favorable game this week, though that loss to the Jaguars at home could really come back to haunt the team.
Including that loss, the Colts have still been an incredible 4-1 in close games. The question is how much is it luck, and how much is it Andrew Luck?
The rookie has been incredible so far with four game-winning drives, but it does not take much to see the Colts have had their share of good fortune this season.
Should Mason Crosby make a field goal to put Green Bay in overtime, Cleveland’s Josh Gordon not drop a touchdown bomb in the fourth quarter, Dwayne Allen not have his progress stopped before a fumble in Tennessee, and if Sean Smith did not drop a late interception for Miami, the Colts could just as easily be an afterthought at 1-7.
Last season the Colts struggled to win close games, and this year they have had the quarterback to put them in position for such wins. In this league, that goes a long way.
The schedule has five winnable games on it, which would mean 10-6. That only means losses at New England and a sweep by Houston. However, Houston could be resting in Week 17 with the top seed clinched, so the Colts could have an easier time that day.
They have a rookie quarterback wise beyond his years. They have an interim coach somehow pulling out a 4-1 start in place of Chuck Pagano. They have all the motivation to go out there and win, and just enough talent to do so. They also are getting better as the season moves along.
The Colts will not win a Super Bowl this year, but they sure can compete for the AFC playoffs, which no one expected to happen in this first year of the rebuilding plan.
The Verdict: Contender.
No. 7 San Diego (4-4, 2nd in AFC West)
San Diego’s remaining schedule: @TB, @DEN, BAL, CIN, @PIT, CAR, @NYJ, OAK
The Chargers are 4-4, but with two wins over Kansas City, it is hard to take their record seriously. They also have wins over Tennessee and Oakland to start the season, but have looked putrid against Atlanta, and in stretches against New Orleans, Denver and Cleveland.
With eroding skill players, an average running game at best, and a defense you cannot trust when they’re not playing the Chiefs, it is hard to see San Diego getting the 9-10 wins necessary for the playoffs.
Denver is in control of the AFC West, and can deliver more separation with a win in Week 11. San Diego could even lose their next game in Tampa Bay given how well that team is playing.
When you add them up, this looks like an 8-8 team at best, and that just will not make the cut once again in the AFC this year.
The Verdict: Pretender. You’ve been Norv’d for the last time, San Diego.
No. 8 Miami Dolphins (4-4, 2nd in AFC East)
Miami’s remaining schedule: TEN, @BUF, SEA, NE, @SF, JAX, BUF, @NE
The last team in the AFC with a .500 record, the Dolphins lost a big game in Indianapolis in Week 9 to fall behind the Colts and lose the head-to-head tie breaker.
That means 9-7 at best, which does seem possible only because of the schedule. However, the Steelers, Colts and Ravens all look to be in better shape to get to at least 10 wins, leaving no room for the Dolphins outside of an epic collapse for the Patriots.
It’s a numbers game, and the Dolphins just lack the firepower to crack the AFC playoffs this year. They still may have the second best defense in the conference, though that was heavily tested on Sunday when Andrew Luck dissected them with veteran poise, converting 12 of 17 third downs.
The Verdict: Pretender. It’s not Miami’s time yet.
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