Three-fourths of the season down for everyone, and a bunch of division matchups coming up. Sunday and Monday night's games were just the beginning of the mayhem, so to speak. That said, we finally have a pair of front-runners, after 13 long weeks. But by no means are any of the division races "over". We might actually have some clarity in a couple of them, though. It should be a fun final four weeks of the season. Let's go!
1.) Atlanta (10-2) [no change]
Going on the road for three in a row starting this past Sunday, the Falcons came out and fought hard before getting the winning INT. Given Tampa Bay's struggles against good teams, it probably shouldn't have been that close. But the Falcons are missing something on the road. That may not be a problem in the playoffs if the Falcons get home-field advantage. At this point, there's no problem. If Atlanta slips up once or twice...well, then it's something else entirely.
2.) New England (10-2) [+1]
Last night's game was one of the bigger beatdowns of the season. The Jets weren't in it at any point. It had to feel good to Bill Belichick, since he no longer has to listen to Rex Ryan's empty proclamations, at least for this season. If the playoffs come around and they play each other again, it's hard to imagine the Jets winning. Heck, it's hard to imagine them competing, much less putting it all together. New England has to be the consensus best team in the AFC. They've got the inside track on the East, the #1 seed, and home-field advantage through the playoffs. They looked unbeatable last night.
3.) Pittsburgh (9-3) [+1]
The AFC North picture looks a little clearer. Of course, now that the Steelers and Ravens have split the season series, I'm sure all kinds of complications would result if they both ended up, say, 12-4. At any rate, Troy Polamalu had the play of the game in a tough matchup Sunday night. Both teams played about as well as could be expected, given the robustness of their defenses. The Steelers are in line for the 2-seed in the AFC.
4.) New Orleans (9-3) [+2]
Let it never be said that the Saints fail to outsmart their opponents. They did just that on Sunday and got a win against the Bengals. Not quite the margin of victory that the inimitable Peter King predicted, but a win is a win. They've got some ground to make up on Atlanta in the next four weeks if they want to win the NFC South again. They've come around and are in good shape for the playoff run, being completely healthy finally.
5.) NY Jets (9-3) [-3]
A lackluster effort on all sides last night moves the Jets down three spots. Why ahead of the Bears? Well, if you've read this blog any time this season, you know the answer. The Jets have to regroup now, and have three tough games in a row, including road trips to Pittsburgh and Chicago. So while it might look bleak at the moment, the Jets' future is entirely in their own hands.
6.) Chicago (9-3) [+1]
Speaking of tough schedules, the Bears have a most difficult one on their hands, which pleases me to no end. They still have trips to Minnesota (who'll surely want to play spoiler) and Green Bay (ditto), while also having the Patriots and Jets coming into Soldier Field. They may be 9-3 now, but there's nothing saying they won't end up 9-7. Currently, they lead the NFC North, and hold the tiebreaker against the Packers. But this one's going down to the final week, I can smell it.
7.) Kansas City (8-4) [+1]
Lucky breaks abound in the AFC West, where KC gets a slim victory and watches as the Chargers deep six themselves. They now have a two-game lead on the Chargers, and the tiebreaker. We'll see how they match up this week; if KC wins, the division is all but theirs. With their schedule, 12-4 is very likely.
8.) Philadelphia (8-4) [+1]
It helps to play a team with a bad defense after getting beat. Philadelphia had the fraudulent Texans on tap last Thursday and despite a mini-comeback, prevailed in the 4th. Michael Vick looked good again, but his MVP run has been slowed while others are running ahead. The schedule stiffens up considerably as they get Dallas twice and the Giants once (in Jersey, no less). The Eagles have to be presumptive favorites in the NFC East...but with the schedule they have, it wouldn't be surprising if they take a Wild Card.
9.) Green Bay (8-4) [+1]
The Packers took out the 49ers and have won five of six. They may not be leading their division, but it's hard not to consider them the favorite, even with the Bears ahead of them. Their schedule is nothing to sneeze at, including a trip to New England, but given how tough the Bears have it as well...I like the Packers to take the NFC North.
10.) Baltimore (8-4) [-5]
Losing to the Steelers was tough, to be sure, but I'm not counting the Ravens out. After seeing their next four games, with the only tough one being New Orleans (at home, no less), it's easy to see that Baltimore can end up 12-4 or 11-5. With Pittsburgh's schedule being of similar "difficulty", the Ravens need to get all the wins they can to try and get the AFC North outright.
Thanks for reading. See you next week!