It's always tricky to project a playoff scenario when half the season remains, and last year's results tell us why. Nine weeks into the schedule, it looked like a Green Bay-Baltimore Super Bowl with the Packers a slam-dunk to win.
Only one problem: Neither made it. The Ravens lasted until the conference championship game, and the Packers did not. In fact, they didn't survive their only playoff appearance.
So making mid-season predictions is a premature, risky and potentially empty procedure. Nevertheless, we're going to try it because -- well, because that's what we do, outlining the future by using what we know and what believe. I know, now more than ever, the NFL looks like it stands for "not for long," as Jerry Glanville once said, but that won't stop us from handicapping the future.
Here's what the league could -- and maybe should -- look like by January:
East -- New England. As long as Tom Brady's standing, the Patriots won't lose. Go ahead and look it up. Since he became the team's starter, the Patriots failed to win the division only once when he started more than one game. And that was 2002, when they tied for the AFC East lead.
North -- Pittsburgh. The Steelers are two games behind the Ravens but closing fast. They still have to play Baltimore twice, and here's what I know about these two: The Steelers can beat you with the run, and Baltimore can't stop the run. Check, please.
South -- Houston. Indianapolis at least makes the division interesting, but let's be honest: The Texans are playing solitaire in the AFC South. They won the division last year with a third-string rookie at quarterback. Now they have Matt Schaub. This isn't rocket science, people.
West -- Denver. Look at the Broncos' schedule. There's one opponent left with a winning record, and that's Baltimore. Granted, the game is at Baltimore, where the Ravens almost never lose. But that schedule -- and Peyton Manning -- have me sold on the Broncos. Plus, their only competition within the division is San Diego, and the Bolts can't be trusted.
Wild cards: Baltimore and Indianapolis. Whoever finishes second in the North makes it, and my guess is that team is Baltimore. It's the second wild card that's the issue, and Indianapolis is right there with Miami -- with 9-7 probably good enough to get you in. The Dolphins have two games left with New England and one with San Francisco, and all are potential losses. The Colts have two games left with Houston and one with New England. All are likely losses, too, but here's the key: They're not only one-and-a-half games ahead of Miami (they hold the tiebreaker); they play their second game with Houston at home and on the last weekend of the season -- when the Texans could be resting their starters.
First-round byes: Houston and New England.
AFC champion -- Houston.
East -- New York Giants. There's only one team in the division with a winning record, and you're looking at it. I know, the Giants have a history of second-half meltdowns, but tell me who in this division is going to catch them. Someone? Anyone?
North -- Green Bay. The Packers should be 7-2, but that's another story. All I know is they're gaining momentum at the right time -- and they're doing it without Greg Jennings and Charles Woodson. Yes, they're two games behind Chicago, but the Bears play Houston and San Francisco the next two weeks and still have a game left with the Pack. Plus, there's this: Chicago's next eight opponents have a combined record of 42-27.
South -- Atlanta. The race is on in this division -- for second. Tampa Bay is the frontrunner, with New Orleans closing on the outside. But the Bucs are four behind the leaders with eight to play. Time to invoke the slaughter rule. The Falcons' greatest nemesis from here on won't be an opponent; it will be boredom.
West -- San Francisco. In two years under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers are 20-6. That includes the playoffs, and it's time to acknowledge the obvious: This is a damned good football team. It was two fumbled punt returns from the Super Bowl a year ago. It's going to make it a close call again in January.
Wild cards: Chicago and Seattle. The Bears are the popular pick to win their division, and I get it: They're a complete team. But their schedule-half schedule is tough, and I just don't trust them -- or their quarterback -- vs. Green Bay. It will be a close call, but in the end it comes down to whom I trust more -- Jay Cutler or Aaron Rodgers -- and that's a no-brainer. The second entry is more difficult, but I'll take Seattle, albeit reluctantly. The Seahawks have four games left at home, where they don't lose. So one of them is vs. San Francisco, and that's a potential defeat. That means they'd better find a victory on the road -- and they will: Dec. 16 vs. Buffalo, in Toronto.
First-round byes: Atlanta and San Francisco.
NFC champion -- Green Bay.