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Assessing the hands wild-card contenders will have to play

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

With four games left, non-division leaders are jockeying for playoff positions -- only what should be four wild-card vacancies really look more like two.

That's because I make Pittsburgh and Atlanta dead-bolt cinches for two of the spots -- in all likelihood, the fifth in either conference -- among teams out of first place today.

I know, Oakland is tied with Denver, and Pittsburgh with Baltimore, but the Broncos and Ravens hold tiebreaker advantages -- which means Oakland and Pittsburgh are on the outside looking in.

Pittsburgh makes the playoffs again, with some people ticketing the Steelers for another Super Bowl, while Atlanta almost certainly keeps playing in January. The question is: Who's next? That's why we're here.

In the NFC, that's a sticky question now that Matt Forte is out an estimated 2-4 weeks, putting the Bears' playoff hopes on life support and throwing the wild-card race into upheaval. I'm not sure it matters who makes it, but my guess is 9-7 probably gets it done.

In the AFC, the Jets are the popular choice because their schedule is the easiest, but beware, people. They finish the season in Miami, and the Dolphins suddenly are a difficult out -- they've won their past three at home.

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Plus, the Bengals and Raiders are still out there, with Oakland my choice -- partly because I don't see the Raiders losing after this weekend and partly because they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker vs. the Jets.

No matter what happens, you don't want to risk anything less than 10-6 here. Now you know why Rex Ryan is so adamant about running the table.


Atlanta Falcons (7-5)

Why they should make it: Because they have the elements you look for in a playoff team. They can run, they can pass, and they can stop the run. OK, so they didn't stop the run vs. Houston. It happens. But the Falcons are a nicely balanced team that has been to the playoffs two of Matt Ryan's first three seasons -- so they know how to get there. The next step is knowing what to do once they're there. They're 0-2 in the playoffs.

Why they shouldn't: They should. Only one of their remaining opponents has a winning record, and two of their last four games are at home, where they almost never lose. That means they must beat either New Orleans or Carolina on the road, and let's just say I like their chances.

Record of remaining opponents: 20-28

Prediction: They make it as a No. 5 seed, finishing second to New Orleans in the NFC South.

Chicago Bears (7-5)

Why they should make it: They shouldn't, not with the loss of their starting quarterback and star running back. Overcoming the absence of Jay Cutler was going to be difficult; now add the loss of Matt Forte, who produced most of the team's offense, and you have Mission Impossible. Yeah, I know their defense is tough, but you can't win without scoring ... and they couldn't score vs. Kansas City. If there's hope, it's in Houston, where the Texans just won with a rookie third-string quarterback, a running game and a suffocating defense. If it can work there, why can't it work in Chicago? Turnovers, that's why. Caleb Hanie must stop making them.

Why they shouldn't: The losses of Cutler and Forte. Any questions?

Record of remaining opponents: 26-22.

Prediction: Third in the NFC North and out of the playoffs.

Detroit Lions (7-5)

Why they should make it: Because Chicago is falling apart, and the Giants' schedule is brutal. The Lions were one of the league's best clubs the first half of the season -- the second half, not so much. Not only have they lost five of their past seven, they lost running back Jahvid Best and their composure, too.

Why they shouldn't: First of all, they're falling apart. Second, look at the schedule. They have road games in Green Bay and Oakland. They must ... absolutely must ... win one of them, and good luck.

Record of remaining opponents: 26-22.

Prediction: Second in the NFC North, and a photo finish with the Giants that's too close to call.

New York Giants (6-6)

Why they should make it: They're only a game behind front-running Dallas and have two left vs. the Cowboys. OK, so they have to play the Jets, too. The schedule's brutal, but look how they battled Green Bay. They took the Packers to the mat in a 38-35 decision that reminded me of a 38-35 loss to unbeaten New England in 2007. That game launched the Giants into January. Maybe this one does, too. Remember, Dallas isn't exactly a fast finisher, with an 8-11 record under Tony Romo in December and January.

Why they shouldn't: In case you haven't noticed, they're in the middle of a four-game spin cycle. The Giants long have been known for good defense and a solid rushing attack, two elements missing from this year's team. Let the record show that they rank 29th in defense and dead last in rushing. Not good. Let the record also show that the Giants typically wilt down the stretch, with a 6-10 record from December on, dating back to 2008.

Record of remaining opponents: 25-23.

Prediction: Second to Dallas in the NFC East and neck-and-neck with Detroit at the finish line.


Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3)

Why they should make it: Because they either win the division or finish second to Baltimore, well ahead of the rest of the pack. The Steelers are 9-3, two games ahead of the others, and are making a push for another division title. Plus, they're big-game tested, making the Super Bowl in three of the past six years. They have all the elements Baltimore has, except they have Ben Roethlisberger to the Ravens' Joe Flacco. One difference: The Ravens already beat San Francisco; the Steelers must go there Dec. 19.

Why they should not: They don't play Baltimore again, and the Ravens hold the tiebreaker with two defeats of Pittsburgh.

Record of remaining opponents: 20-28.

Prediction: They're the first wild card after finishing second in the AFC North.

New York Jets (7-5)

Why they should make it: Because this is beginning to look like 2009 all over again when the Jets went 5-1 down the stretch. They just won their past two, Mark Sanchez is beginning to settle down and they rediscovered Ground and Pound. Oh, yeah, they won another road game, too, and success away from home was the hallmark of their past two years.

Why they shouldn't: Because the schedule's not what it seems. The Giants can beat them. The Eagles can beat them. And the Dolphins probably will beat them. That game's on the road, where the Jets are 2-4. Oh, yeah, one other thing: That tiebreaker with Oakland is a big, big deal.

Record of remaining opponents: 19-29

Prediction: Second in AFC East and out of the playoffs.

Oakland Raiders (7-5)

Why they should make it: Because they could win the division, and because they can do what most others can't -- run and win on the road. The two are related. You throw to win at home. You run to win on the road, and that helps explain what happened in Miami. The Raiders had a season-low 46 yards, with Louis Murphy the team's leading rusher through three quarters. He had 16 yards. He's also a wide receiver. There's one other thing: After this weekend, the Raiders' toughest opponent is Detroit ... and they get the Lions at home. The team that keeps its cool wins.

Why they shouldn't: They might not be able to catch the Broncos because the two don't play again, so let's see what's left. They play Green Bay this weekend, followed by Detroit. Let's just say they lose to Green Bay. Then they better beat Detroit at home. Oh, yeah, they better stop committing stupid penalties, too.

Record of remaining opponents: 29-19.

Prediction: They make it, not just because I don't see another loss after Green Bay but because they hold the tiebreaker over the Jets.

Tennessee Titans (7-5)

Why they should make it: Because Chris Johnson finally woke up and realized he's not only paid to be one of the best backs in the business; he's supposed to play like one, too. Combine a hot Johnson with an efficient Matt Hasselbeck and the league's seventh-best defense in points allowed, and you have a balanced club that could be a tough out down the stretch.

Why they shouldn't: Because two of their remaining opponents are New Orleans and Houston. The Saints are on a roll, but at least Tennessee draws them at home. Unfortunately, they draw the Texans in Houston, where they're 5-1; worse, Houston already smoked these guys 41-7. That's two more probable defeats.

Record of remaining opponents: 21-27.

Prediction: Second in AFC South, out of the playoffs.

Cincinnati Bengals (7-5)

Why they should make it: Because three of their last four games are at home. That's the good news. The bad? Two of them are vs. division leaders Houston and Baltimore. Nevertheless, Cincinnati won't go down easily because it has its bases covered. The Bengals can run, pass and play defense. What they can't do is beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh, going 0-3 against them this year. If they can split vs. the Ravens and Texans -- and Houston has a rookie quarterback with one game of starting experience -- they're right in the middle of this thing.

Why they shouldn't: I don't like their chances vs. Houston or Baltimore. While Andy Dalton has been terrific this season, you're asking him to beat the league's second- and third-ranked defenses -- both in yards and points allowed.

Record of remaining opponents: 25-23.

Prediction: Third in AFC North, just missing the playoffs.


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