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Playoff Picture: Handicapping the divisional races

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Saints or Falcons? Well, New Orleans just won in Atlanta and has a schedule advantage. (US Presswire)  
Saints or Falcons? Well, New Orleans just won in Atlanta and has a schedule advantage. (US Presswire)  

The easiest way to qualify for the playoffs is win a division, and Green Bay and San Francisco are approaching the finish line. But they're alone. There are 12 other teams with winning records that wonder what's in store the next six weeks.

I have an idea, and that's why we're here. Looking ahead, I see a playoff picture beginning to take shape, and what it looks like is something like this:

NFC East

The favorite: Dallas Cowboys

The reason: The Cowboys are hot. The Giants are not. And the Eagles? Who knows? The next two weeks are Cowboys-friendly, with Dallas playing Miami and Washington, while New York will take on New Orleans and Green Bay. Tony Romo has toughed it out this season and has 11 touchdown passes and one interception over his past five starts, four of which he won. Plus, he's 18-2 for his career in November. Yes, Dallas is vulnerable. The Washington game demonstrated that. But the Cowboys are the only division team that seems to be peaking at the right time.

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Key games: Dec. 11 New York Giants; Dec. 24 Philadelphia; Jan. 1 at New York Giants.

Biggest threat: The Giants or Eagles, take your pick. Dallas must play the Giants twice, so there's a chance for Big Blue to make up ground, and it still must face a Philadelphia team that destroyed the Cowboys last month. The Giants don't have a history of closing fast, but the Eagles do ... and they're still hanging around.

NFC North

The favorite: Green Bay Packers

The reason: There's no one better in the NFL and hasn't been for nearly a year. Led by MVP slam-dunk Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay is playing at a level apart from the rest of the league. The only question is: Do the Packers run the table and finish 16-0?

Key games: Nov. 24 at Detroit; Dec. 4 at New York Giants; Dec. 11 Oakland; Dec. 25 Chicago.

Biggest threat: Defense. Every club has a hole, and Green Bay's is a pass defense that ranks 31st and too often gives up big plays. Nevertheless, the Packers have the players, the coach and the time to straighten things out. But I remember saying that a month ago. I also wonder if time works against them. It's so tough to play five months at such an accelerated level, and we saw that with New England in 2007.

NFC South

The favorite: New Orleans

The reason: It beat the division's reigning champ, Atlanta, in the Georgia Dome, and the schedule works in its favor. Yes, there are three opponents left with winning records, but all three (N.Y. Giants, Detroit and Atlanta) the Saints draw at home, where they haven't lost and where they've outscored opponents 159-69. In fact, four of the Saints' last six games are at the Superdome, and New Orleans is just coming off a bye. The timing couldn't be better for a playoff run.

Key games: Nov. 28 New York Giants; Dec. 4 Detroit; Dec. 26 Atlanta.

Biggest threat: Atlanta. The Saints outlasted the Falcons in overtime only because coach Mike Smith went Belichick on us and gambled on a fourth-and-1 at his own 29. So these two are close, real close. Plus, the Falcons have an easier schedule than New Orleans, with doormats like Minnesota, Carolina and Jacksonville included. The problem: Their two toughest opponents -- Houston and New Orleans -- are on the road.

NFC West

The favorite: San Francisco 49ers

The reason: Because there's no one else in this division. Heck, if the 49ers win Thursday and Seattle loses Sunday, they clinch the NFC West. All I know is that San Francisco is so good, it will draw one of the two first-round byes and could, depending on what happens with the Packers, push Green Bay for home-field advantage. I know, that sounds like a reach, but have you seen San Francisco's schedule? Only two opponents (Baltimore and Pittsburgh) have winning records. This team is no fluke. It can run. It can pass. It doesn't make mistakes. And it has one of the NFL's best defenses. But this is what I like most: It can win home or away. In fact, the 49ers are unbeaten on the road -- with come-from-behind victories at Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Key games: Nov. 24 at Baltimore; Dec. 19 at Pittsburgh.

Biggest threat: Complacency. These guys clinch early, so it's up to Coach of the Year favorite Jim Harbaugh to challenge his players down the stretch ... and that's not easy when Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis (twice) are on the schedule.

AFC East

The favorite: New England Patriots

The reason: The schedule, the competition and Tom Brady. The schedule is soft from here on out, with New England playing no opponent with a winning record. The competition has fallen so far off the lead that Jets coach Rex Ryan last week all but conceded the division to the Patriots. Then there's Brady, and as long as he's standing, the road to the top of the AFC East goes through New England. People ask if anyone ever had a season like what Aaron Rodgers is going through now, and the answer is: Yes, as a matter of fact, check out Tom Brady in 2007. All the guy does is win.

Key games: Nov. 27 at Philadelphia; Dec. 18 at Denver.

Biggest threat: Its pass defense. Rewind the videotape of the Patriots against Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, and it looks like a 7-on-7 drill. The Patriots couldn't stop the guy, with Brady on the field for all of three snaps in the first quarter. New England's defense -- particularly its pass defense --- will improve dramatically the next six weeks, but don't be fooled. There are stiffs galore on the schedule, with backup quarterbacks taking turns as starters. That will make most defenses look good. The litmus test will begin in January.

AFC North

The favorite: Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens should make it if they don't forget about mighty mite Ray Rice. (Getty Images)  
The Ravens should make it if they don't forget about mighty mite Ray Rice. (Getty Images)  
The reason: The Ravens beat Pittsburgh twice, which means they hold the tiebreaker advantage. I understand they're sputtering, but have you looked at their schedule? With the exception of this week's game vs. the Jim Harbaughs, the Ravens don't face an opponent with a winning record until the season finale in Cincinnati ... a club they just knocked off. Of course, I say that knowing that this is also the club that bowed to Jacksonville and Seattle. But it's too good to fail. The Ravens are a complete team, so long as they remember Ray Rice is in the lineup. They can run, pass and play defense. And they force the takeaways that Pittsburgh does not.

Key games: Nov. 24 San Francisco; Dec. 18 at San Diego; Jan. 1 at Cincinnati.

Biggest threat: Pittsburgh. The Steelers have been here too many times to be discounted. Yes, their defense is old, and old legs tire as the season grows longer. Plus, it is last in takeaways (six). But the Steelers always seem to find ways to beat Baltimore to the top of the AFC North. Plus, they have the advantage at quarterback, where Roethlisberger has a history of making big plays in big games. Like Baltimore, the Steelers have only two opponents left with winning records (San Francisco and Cincinnati), but they have to tackle the 49ers at Candlestick. Translation: We could be looking at a first-place tie, with Baltimore holding the advantage.

AFC South

The favorite: Houston Texans

The reason: The competition. There isn't any. The Titans are two games behind and already lost to Houston ... 41-7, at Tennessee, no less. I know, not having Matt Schaub is an issue, but the Texans have the league's top-rated defense and second-best rushing attack to take the heat off new starting quarterback Matt Leinart. Not having Schaub could cripple Houston's chances of going deep in the playoffs, but it won't stop the Texans from making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Key games: Dec. 4 Atlanta; Dec. 11 at Cincinnati; Jan. 1 Tennessee.

Biggest threat: Leinart. He doesn't have to win games. He just can't lose them. Remember, this is a guy who turned down a chance to compete for the starting job in Seattle so he could remain the backup in Houston. Houston will win the division. Maybe its offense is compromised, but its defense isn't, and even without Mario Williams, it ranks as the league's second best in third-down stops. Still, you have to wonder about a guy who's content to sit on the bench. Matt Leinart, this is your wake-up call.

AFC West

The favorite: Oakland Raiders

The reason: Carson Palmer. He makes the Raiders a two-dimensional offense that is as effective with the pass as it is with the run. That hasn't been the case for years in Oakland, but based on what I've seen the past two weeks, Palmer is the right guy in the right place. Let's get something straight: The Raiders are a physical club that wants to hammer you with Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. But they can beat you with Palmer, too, lobbing deep strikes to Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford, Kevin Boss or Denarius Moore. In short, they're a tough out. Yeah, Palmer stunk when he first played, but what do you expect? The guy joined the Raiders after spending half a season on the couch. The past two weeks, he has three touchdowns, one interception and missed on only 12 of 43 attempts. That tells me he's getting comfortable in this offense. It also tells me this is a club that will be dangerous in the playoffs.

Key games: Nov. 27 Chicago; Dec. 11 at Green Bay; Dec. 18 Detroit; Jan. 1 San Diego.

Biggest threat: Denver. The Broncos are rolling and recently won two division road games -- including a 38-24 victory in Oakland. Yes, Tim Tebow has been special when it counts, but it's the defense that is the Broncos' strength. Denver is hot, with four victories in its past five starts, and his teammates believe in Tebow. Furthermore, two of Denver's toughest opponents -- Chicago and New England -- are home, and if you don't think that playing in altitude is an advantage, check out the Jets on Denver's game-winning drive.

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