In what seems like a sudden development, things are becoming clearer in the playoff picture in the NFL. There are now two great teams in each conference, with two really good teams nipping at their heels. The 9-4 teams are looking good as well for a bye in the first round. Still, anything could happen in the last three games. With division games still being played, each game means more than it did last season. Let's go!
1.) Atlanta (11-2) [no change]
Given that the AFC is the better conference, it might seem odd that New England isn't the first team here. I can't move Atlanta down in good conscience as long as they keep winning. Atlanta goes on the road in Week 15 to Seattle. Tough sledding, to be sure. In Week 16 they play New Orleans at home on MNF. So this week could be a "trap game". Either that, or the Falcons are going to pull out one of their better performances of the season. Third game in a row on the road, and an important one to stay in front of everyone else in the NFC.
2.) New England (11-2) [no change]
Two weeks in a row, the Patriots have utterly dismantled a division leader. Last week it was the Jets at home, this week the Bears in Chicago, in the snow, no less. One would think the Pats would play well in the snow, but not THAT well. They have what could be a tough game this week if Aaron Rodgers plays for the Packers. If not, it'll be a runaway. After that, two division games, @Buffalo and home for Miami. I'm not sure how New England loses the first seed and home-field advantage for the playoffs.
3.) Pittsburgh (10-3) [no change]
Making Carson Palmer look ridiculously bad wasn't too difficult for the Steelers. Troy Polamalu had a couple INT's, including a pick-six. How anybody could throw a pick to Polamalu, easily the most recognizable player on the field, no matter who the Steelers are playing, is indicative of just how terrible Carson Palmer is. And to think some people were proclaiming him an elite QB not too long ago. The Steelers have a surprisingly tough end-of-season schedule, with the Jets at home this week, a Thursday night game against Carolina, and then on the road in Cleveland, which is no gimme. I wouldn't be surprised to see a 13-3 Pittsburgh team with the 2-seed. Then again....
4.) New Orleans (10-3) [no change]
Much like New England, New Orleans lost to the Cleveland Browns. Much like New England, New Orleans hasn't lost since. It's a weird quirk of this season, and perhaps they're the two teams we'll see in the Super Bowl this coming February. The Saints travel to Baltimore and Atlanta before finishing up at home against Tampa Bay. Tough sledding. Baltimore is looking vulnerable after last night's OT debacle, while the Falcons are unbeatable at home, and poor Tampa can't beat a winning team. So maybe it's not that tough.
5.) Philadelphia (9-4) [+3]
One more road game remains for the Eagles, who travel to the "new" Meadowlands this week to face the Giants. They outplayed the Cowboys in the second half, especially LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson (say that three times fast, huh). Now that they're tied with the Giants, this week's game proves quite important for determining the division winner. Philadelphia gets Minnesota and Dallas at home after this week, which is a slight advantage compared to the Giants somewhat tougher schedule.
6.) Baltimore (9-4) [+4]
As I said above, last night was a debacle for Baltimore. The offense looked good in the first half before looking utterly pathetic in the second. Similarly, the defense ran out of gas in the second half, allowing two colossal drives and looking completely impotent in the process. When the game went to overtime, I had a bad feeling the Texans were going to win one they shouldn't, but then I was saved by Matt Schaub's tragic decision-making. He threw a pick-six to Baltimore CB Josh Wilson, and that was that. Baltimore has New Orleans at home next week, so maybe that was part of this ridiculous mess of a Monday Night game. All I know is, if the defense plays like that against Drew Breeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees! and the Saints, the Ravens are going to find themselves cursing at the end of the game.
7.) NY Giants (9-4) [-]
Having the game moved to Monday (and Detroit) had no effect on the Giants, who romped over the Vikings. Now they face the Eagles in a potential revenge game that will also decide the division, in all likelihood. The Giants end up at Green Bay and at Washington; if Rodgers is back for that game, the Giants could have some trouble. Then again, they might concuss the poor SOB for a third time.
8.) NY Jets (9-4) [-3]
If there was any team that really annoyed me in Week 14, it was the Jets. They looked utterly pathetic against a hapless Dolphins team that could barely move the ball up the field. Mark Sanchez was terrible, though his receivers were just as blameworthy; the defense was fine, for the most part. Let's face it, the Dolphins are no offensive juggernaut, especially with Chad Henne throwing for a pittance (55 yards passing! 55!). Coming off the heels of that terrible loss at New England, the Jets now look pitiful and vulnerable.
9.) Chicago (9-4) [-3]
No matter how much I wanted to kick the Bears out of the Rankings, again, I just couldn't because there aren't enough good teams beside them. I couldn't very well leave Kansas City or Green Bay in at 8-5 when the Bears are 9-4. That said, I loathe the Bears. They too have a tough schedule to end the season, going to Minnesota and Green Bay with a game against the Jets in between. I still don't see how they win the division, even with Green Bay losing a very winnable game at Detroit.
10.) Jacksonville (8-5) [-]
Playing a tough game against Oakland, the Jags pulled it out when Pocket Hercules (Maurice Jones-Drew, natch) ran it in quite easily. They play at Indianapolis this weekend; with a win, it's likely that the Jags take the AFC South. If they lose, it definitely opens the door to the Colts, who have a slightly easier schedule to finish.
Thanks for reading. See you next week.