We all know the NFC has five teams that seem like virtual playoff cinches, and we can pretty much say the same thing about the AFC. But that leaves one playoff spot open in both conferences, and here's my question: Who gets there?
My guess is that it's anyone who makes it to 9-7, and here's how I handicap the field:
The argument for: At 6-4, the Seahawks are perfectly positioned to make it to nine victories, and here's why: They still have three games left at home, where they're 5-0. OK, so one of those is against San Francisco, and Seattle lost its last four to the 49ers. No problem. The Seahawks must find another win on the road -- and they will, with the Dec. 16 date at Buffalo the most likely. Except it's not in Buffalo; it's in Toronto. But forget the schedule. Settle has one of the league's top running backs and elite defenses, and that's a formula that can -- and will -- take the Seahawks far.
The argument against: Let's say they lose to San Francisco. There's no guarantee the Seahawks beat Buffalo. They're 1-4 on the road, for crying out loud, with a defeat of Carolina their only win. Plus, they're operating with a rookie quarterback, and, yeah, I know, Russell Wilson has been impressive. Heck, he has more touchdown passes than any rookie and as many wins as Andrew Luck. Still, he hasn't experienced the pressure of a playoff push.
The bottom line: The Seahawks are the favorite because it's not Wilson who makes the difference; it's Marshawn Lynch and the league's fourth-ranked defense. Plus, there are those three games at home where the 12th Man is a factor.
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The argument for: Not only have the Bucs discovered how to hold on to the football; they can find the end zone without a GPS. They've produced 28 or more points in each of their last five games, a franchise record, and you can trace that to quarterback Josh Freeman. He's working on a string of five straight starts with passer ratings of 100 or better and part of that has to do with an absence of mistakes that sabotaged him and the club a year ago. The Bucs have the quarterback, the promising rookie running back (Doug Martin) and the franchise wide receiver (Vincent Jackson) to put up the points they could not in 2011. Plus, they're hot, winning four of their past five -- including a signature victory in Minnesota.
The argument against: The schedule. There is nothing that should hold these guys back, but then I look at what's ahead of them. They have two games with Atlanta, one with Denver and one with New Orleans. What's more, of their remaining seven games, four are on the road -- including this weekend in Carolina, where the Panthers won three of the last four times. Then there's this: The Bucs' pass defense stinks, and you can look it up. They rank last in that department. So how do you think that's going to play out against Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees?
The bottom line: The Bucs have a chance, but they're going to have to pull an upset somewhere along the line. Maybe it's home against Atlanta on Nov. 25. That might be their best shot. I can't see them winning in New Orleans, and I definitely don't see them winning in Denver and Atlanta except --- except they play the Falcons the last day of the season, and there's always the possibility coach Mike Smith rests his starters for that game. One problem: He didn't when the Falcons closed out the 2010 season with the best record in the NFC.
The argument for: Adrian Peterson. He's not only the NFL's leading rusher; he should be one of the league's leading candidates for league MVP. The guy is carrying this club, producing five 100-yard games -- including his past four starts -- and gaining 5.8 yards per carry and 112.8 per weekend. Then there's kicker Blair Walsh. He should be given Offensive Rookie of the Year consideration, but he won't. He's a kicker. Nevertheless, the Vikings wouldn't be where they are without him. The guy doesn't miss, hitting all but one of 24 attempts -- including all five over 50 yards.
The argument against: The schedule. Not only do the Vikings play four of their last six games on the road; they must go to Chicago, Green Bay, St. Louis and Houston == all places where it's tough for anyone but the home teams to win. Moreover, of their last six games, two are with Chicago, two with Green Bay and one with Houston, and do the math. That's a combined 34-11 record for five opponents. Check, please.
The bottom line: The Vikings are a great story, but they're about to hit the wall. They have a magnificent running back, electrifying return specialist and wide receiver (Percy Harvin) and a kicker who can't miss, but I don't trust their quarterback or their defense. Furthermore, I don't like their schedule. There are too many hills to climb for them to make it.
The argument for: The Saints just knocked off the NFL's only unbeaten team, their fourth victory in their last five starts. So they're gaining momentum. Plus, Drew Brees is on top of his game again, with 18 touchdowns and only four interceptions in his last six starts. These guys believe they have the talent to reach the playoffs, and they do. I mean, they just beat the best club out there. The only question is: Did they wait too long to make a move?
The argument against: Defense. It stinks. In fact, there's nobody worse, with the Saints ranked last in yards, 31st vs. the run, 31st vs. the pass and tied for 28th in points allowed. After this weekend, the Saints' next month looks like this: San Francisco, at Atlanta, at the New York Giants and Tampa Bay. As I said, they might have waited too long to make their move.
The bottom line: The Saints have a chance because they have Brees, and he and his teammates appear to be on a mission. Nevertheless, they've made the job so difficult that they can't afford to lose more than two more games. Can that happen? Sure. Will it? Look at their schedule. It's going to be tough.
The case for: Five of the Cowboys' next six games are home, and only one of them == the Dec. 16 date with Pittsburgh -- is against an opponent with a winning record.
The case against: There is no such thing as a homefield advantage with these guys. They're 14-13 in the regular season at Cowboys Stadium. And there's no such thing as a playoff run with Tony Romo. Dallas is 9-14 from Dec. 1 on with him. Things might be different if the Cowboys could run -- but they can't. In fact, with DeMarco Murray sidelined, they've become the league's 29th-ranked rushing offense -- and that's with a 227-yard effort vs. Baltimore. What's more, one of the teams it must overcome is New Orleans, and the Cowboys meet the Saints on Dec. 23. Now the question: Do you really think they have the manpower to survive Brees & Co.? Neither do I.
The bottom line: Dallas must be considered because of the schedule, but the Cowboys would be a lot better off if their offense was more efficient and more productive. But it's not. Then, of course, there's that December decline, and I just can't get past that. I know, those were other clubs, but they were quarterbacked by the same guy -- which is why I make Dallas a longshot.
The argument for: First of all, they're 6-3 and on a four-game roll. If 9-7 gets you to the playoffs, the Colts must find three more wins, and with Buffalo, Tennessee and Kansas City on the map they can. Two of those games are home, where they're 4-1 and beat Green Bay and Minnesota, so I like their chances there. And I might like their chances in the season finale, too, because it's against Houston, and it's home. The Texans will have clinched a playoff spot weeks in advance, so there's always the chance coach Gary Kubiak rests his starters ... which means there's the chance for an upset.
The argument against: Nothing is for sure with a team steered by a rookie quarterback and a defense that can't produce turnovers. With the exception of Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the Colts consist of a lot of nobodies who, so far, have excelled. But how do they handle the stretch drive? I guess we're about to find out. They could lose to Buffalo, and they could lose to Tennessee. Hey, even Kansas City, their Dec. 23rd opponent, pushed the Steelers to the mat. So nothing's for certain here.
The bottom line: Indianapolis holds the inside track because the Colts have an enormous head start on the field. Plus, the schedule lines up for them. Nevertheless, I still worry about an interim head coach, rookie quarterback and defense that produces so few takeaways (six) the club is minus-9 in the takeaway/turnover differential. That said, make the Colts the runaway favorite.
The argument for: Let me introduce you to Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. There are few better quarterback-receiver combinations in the NFL. Let me also introduce you to a defense that just shut down Eli Manning and the New York Giants. Dalton and Green have playoff experience and know how to navigate what's ahead -- and what's ahead are only two opponents (Baltimore and Pittsburgh) with winning records.
The argument against: The schedule. The Bengals have games left with Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and tell me the last time Cincinnati beat either. It was 2010, with nine straight losses in the meantime. They must go to San Diego and Philadelphia, too, and neither of those is a lock. Plus, they have Dallas at home, and the Cowboys are on a playoff push of their own. There just seem to be too many speed bumps for a 4-5 team to overcome.
The bottom line: The beginning of the schedule was set up for Cincinnati to make its case as a division favorite. But instead of taking advantage, the Bengals split their first six games -- losing to Miami and Cleveland in successive weeks. They dug themselves a hole, and they can still get out, but with Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Dallas, San Diego and Philadelphia in their way it will be difficult -- maybe too difficult.
The argument for: Well, it's that time of year when Norv Turner and the Bolts wake up to make a push to the finish line. The Chargers are 33-13 in November under Turner and 21-3 from December on, which means you can never say never with these guys.
The argument against: Where do I start? They haven't beaten an opponent with a winning record. Worse, they haven't beaten a quarterback not named Matt Cassel since the second week of the season. They commit too many mistakes, with quarterback Philip Rivers responsible for 40 since the beginning of last season. Nobody has more. They're an awful second-half team, with the Chargers not pulling off a fourth-quarter victory since 2009. Ouch. Now they're about to engage in a four-week grind that includes, in succession, Denver, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Say goodnight, folks.
The bottom line: The loss to Denver was a killer. No, no, it was the loss to New Orleans the week before. Scratch that, it was that 7-6 loss in Cleveland. If there's one thing we've learned about San Diego is that it will play up or down to the competition, and when the competition is decent -- it will lose. The next month will determine what happens to the Bolts and to Turner, but, based on what we've seen, tell me why anyone should believe San Diego can reach the playoffs for the first time in three years. I'm waiting.
The argument for: Reggie Bush, Cameron Wake and the league's fifth-ranked run defense. Bush has moments that take you back to his days at USC, and that's nothing but good. Wake is one of the league's premier pass rushers. And the Dolphins are tough against the run, which always helps when Seattle, Buffalo and San Francisco is on your schedule.
The argument against: Ryan Tannehill shows promise, but he also makes rookie mistakes -- with last week's performance Exhibit A. The guy has a future, but the future isn't now -- not with an upcoming schedule that includes Seattle (6-4), San Francisco (6-2-1) and New England (7-3) twice. Miami can't suffer more than two losses, and I can find three there -- with Seattle a potential win only because the game's in Miami. But that's not all. The Dolphins already lost to Indianapolis. So what? So they lose the tiebreaker with Colts.
The bottom line: Four of the Dolphins' last seven games are home, but home is where they just were buried by Tennessee and where they're nothing more than 2-2. The Dolphins have a pulse, but not much of one. The schedule, more Tannehill mistakes and not enough defense will finish them.
The argument for: Chris Johnson looks like Chris Johnson again, running for 126 yards or more in three of his last four games and pumping his average up to 5.1 yards per carry. Now, that's more like it. When Johnson is right, he takes heat off the quarterback, and when your quarterback is Jake Locker that's a bonus. He can't carry you == but Johnson can.
The argument against: Well, first of all, the Titans have six losses. Second, they're not very good on defense, where they're in the bottom fourth of almost all categories, including points allowed, and where they rank 30th overall. Third, what happens when Johnson isn't right? Because there were four games this season where he ran for no more than 24 yards. Answer: Nothing. Last, let's move on to the schedule, and there you find Houston, Indianapolis and Green Bay among the Titans' remaining six opponents. They're a combined 20-7 and another reason Tennessee won't make it.
The bottom line: Now appearing at a theater near you: Forget The Titans.