Having digested half of this NFL season -- OK, slightly more than half -- it's becoming apparent to me that despite this era of rampant parity the playoff picture is virtually set. I'm willing to guarantee five of the six spots in each conference, and I really don't think I'm going out on a huge limb by doing so.
I will concede that the hunt for the second wild card in both the AFC and NFC could come down to a wild scramble, and that will be fun. In the AFC, in particular, it could be quite some time before some very poor football teams are mathematically eliminated. So we've got that going for us. ...
But the bulk of the teams, if not the most of the division races, are more or less clinched. It would take some epic fold jobs for teams like the Falcons, Broncos, 49ers, Texans and Giants not to take their divisions, and you're going to have a hell of a time trying to convince me the Patriots still aren't going to take the AFC East, or that the Bears and Packers both won't make the playoffs (obviously, one of them is going to take the NFC North). And, for their many flaws and ugly wins, the Ravens will be back in the postseason for a fifth straight year. And, news flash, the Steelers are still damn good and they're going back to the playoffs, too.
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Don't believe me? Let me prove it to you.
We can all agree that the Falcons will run away with the NFC South. Sorry, Buccaneers fans, you aren't making up that kind of ground (though you are definitely in the wild-card hunt). The 49ers are going back, another obvious one. The Bears at 7-1 are in, and the Packers still get to play four of their final seven games against division foes after their bye and have been winning games without Charles Woodson and Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings and a bunch of other guys they expect back.
The Giants let one slip away against the Steelers during what was a bizarre week for them, and sure, they have been prone to slides in the past, but the Super Bowl champs retain the inside track for the NFC East. Even if somehow the Giants let the Eagles or Cowboys back in it, do you really think they aren't at least in as a wild card? And, even though they are "only" one game back, do you really think the Dolphins can catch the Patriots in the AFC East?
New England comes out of the bye next week and gets the Bills, Colts, Jets and Dolphins (they have both Miami games remaining). They also get to take a bite out of the Jags. They're going to win at least 10 games; they're going to take that division. Denver is "only" a game ahead of the Chargers, except they already beat San Diego once and the Broncos have a cupcake schedule the rest of the way.
The Ravens, already at 6-2, are dominant at home, they still get the Raiders, Redskins and Bengals (though games against Denver and the Giants are at home), and even 9-7 will be good enough for them to get in. The Ravens' only conference loss to far is to the Texans.
The Steelers are finally hitting their stride, Ben Roethlisberger is playing better than ever, the defense and run game are a force again, and they haven't even faced the Ravens yet. If Pittsburgh sweeps Baltimore you know it's getting in, and it still gets Kansas City ... and Cleveland (twice!).
And the Texans may get a light push from the Colts, but they are going to win that division easily (Jacksonville, Tennessee, Minnesota and two tilts with Indianapolis still loom for the AFC's top seed to this point).
So let's not kid ourselves. Things are getting kind of set. So, who is really in this thing outside of those 10? Well, the Colts' head-to-head win over Miami on Sunday could prove to be a huge tiebreaker, and the Chargers (4-4) could still make a playoff run, despite their issues. I'll call those three teams the contenders for the final wild card. I don't see anyone else. The Bengals are just 2-5 within the conference and I don't see any of the three-win teams getting back in this thing.
In the NFC, I think that last spot comes from Seattle, Detroit, Dallas or Philadelphia. The Seahawks (5-4) must likely sweep their three home division games to get there -- and that loss to Detroit could be another huge tiebreaker -- but they are so tough at home and that defense and run game should travel well as the weather turns. Detroit's defense has been very good, the offense is finding its legs again and the wins over Seattle and Philly are big. The Lions face a tough schedule, and will have to win within their demanding division, but they are good enough to get back to the playoffs.
I'd like the Cowboys' chances more if linebacker Sean Lee wasn't out for the season and if they were more consistent mentally and physically, and didn't undermine themselves in the clutch with such regularity. But the Cowboys still have two games left against the Eagles and Redskins, and they get the Browns, Bengals and Saints still as well. And the much-maligned Eagles, if they beat the Saints on Monday night, can still control their own destiny as well, with five divisional games still left. They already hold a win over the Giants, and the Bengals, Bucs and Panthers are their only non-divisional games remaining.
As for the rest, the Vikings are in a spiral, Christian Ponder has been pretty awful since September, they play in the toughest division in football and Percy Harvin is getting dinged up. The second half could be quite cruel. I love the strides the Bucs have made, but that defense wilts late, Tampa is only 2-4 within the NFC and I think the upstarts fall short. The Cardinals may not win two more games; Mike Shanahan has already waved the white flag in Washington (a sentiment I totally agree with, but one no coach ever makes in the first week of November for goodness sake. Unreal. Always drama in DC, even with them finally having a real quarterback).
So there you have it. Two spots remain, and by my calculations, three teams in play for it in the AFC and four in the NFC. Lots of other juggling for seeds, but 10 of these 12 playoff openings are as good as filled.
Shurmur's mistake likely seals fatePat Shurmur, whose job security was already tenuous at best, may have dealt himself a crushing blow Sunday. His Browns played another spirited game and, after falling behind 14-0 quickly to the Ravens, dominated the second and third quarter, took a 15-14 lead and faced fourth-and-2 around their own 30 with just under four minutes to play.
The defense had suffocated the Ravens for much of the game, Joe Flacco looked awful, and they had bottled up Ray Rice after his torrid start in the first quarter. They had two timeouts. Yet Shurmur opted to go for it, and, rather than give it to bruising back Trent Richardson, who was giving the Ravens fits, he put it in the hands of rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, who was not having a great day and who throws to receivers who generally drop the football. The play missed horribly, as you might expect, and the Ravens were already well within field goal range for potent rookie kicker Justin Tucker.
It made no sense in real time and makes no sense now.
Baltimore milked the clock, forced the Browns to use their timeouts, Tucker made the field goal and it was a two-possession game when the Browns got the ball back with about two minutes to go. Shurmur's defense was carrying the day, but he never put them in position to impact the end of the game, and he didn't put any pressure on Baltimore's feeble road offense to move the ball or try anything to get in range for Tucker.
In a game during which Cleveland often dominated field position, he ended up giving away that battle in the most crucial time. And, in what is always a personal game for Browns fans (Baltimore stole their team, and all), no doubt this loss will resonate with new owner Jimmy Haslam and new CEO Joe Banner.
Shanahan to hear it after Carolina loss
The drafting of Robert Griffin III basically buys Mike Shanahan at least one more season, despite what will be another woeful win-loss record in this, the third year of his tenure there, but I would be pretty shocked if Jim Haslett is back there as defensive coordinator, and things are going to have to improve there in 2013.
It was beyond bizarre that Shanahan would make postgame comments about 2013 now being about player evaluation only nine games in (3-6 record or not), and he is only 5-15 at home since coming to Washington and 14-27 overall there. For all of the hope that RG3 engenders, Washington's defense needs significant repair and FedEx Field has to become a place teams fear (and it hasn't been more or less since the day it was built).
Shanahan must find a way to both exploit, and protect, his young quarterback, given his immense gifts but the limitations of his relatively slight frame. Also on Sunday, he was one of several coaches to have a fourth-down gamble go awry.
Washington had been 10 of 11 in fourth-down chances this season, largely thanks to Griffin, then went for it on a fourth-and-goal, failed, and watched as Cam Newton completed a bomb out of his own end zone a few plays later -- the Redskins' secondary fails majestically each week -- that keyed a 98-yard scoring drive that pretty much put the game away.
All in all, it was another brutal home Sunday afternoon for the veteran head coach, who now enters a bye week surely to be skewered for the better part of two weeks for his ill-advised comments following the damning loss.
• Most NFL coaches are given more than one season -- though not much more -- to show what they can do. With each passing week I doubt that Mike Mularkey will. The Jaguars have no discernible strength, quarterback Blaine Gabbert looks every bit like a coach (and general manager) killer and I can't imagine sweeping changes aren't coming for the Jags. They are one Cecil Shorts moment-of-brilliance away from being the league's only winless team. They've allowed 102 more points than they've scored, lost five in a row and have yet to register a home win for new owner Shahid Khan.
• The Titans might avoid sweeping changes -- ownership there is reluctant to eat contracts to make moves -- but I would expect coordinator changes to be very possible for 2013, if nothing else. And I also have a feeling Jake Locker's shoulder feels a heck of a lot better and he starts getting the bulk of practice reps and is back starting soon.
• The Raiders have been outscored 109-24 in the third quarter this season after getting blanked, 21-0, by Tampa in that quarter Sunday (which cost them the game). Something needs to change in that locker room at halftime.
• Watching the Bears block punts and make plays on special teams, I can't help but wonder if this is the year their special teams coach, Dave Toub, gets a head coaching gig? I expect he will have multiple interviews again this offseason.
• Teams seem to be squatting on some of the sideline routes Andy Dalton throws. He got away with a few bad passes early Sunday that could have easily been picked off, then bounced back to have an excellent second half ... but it wasn't enough. All in all he took Marvin Lewis's chiding from this week in stride, though. What may not be so easy to take would be losing coordinator Jay Gruden to a head coaching job, which I expect to be the case (the Eagles are one possibility generating some buzz should Andy Reid's long ride there finally come to an end).
• Andrew Luck made some simply magical plays Sunday. His footwork, coolly sliding away from the pass rush, was superb. He made plays while falling down, nearly to his knees. He has a supreme chemistry already with veteran receiver Reggie Wayne. He has proven that the fourth quarter is not too big for him and he was made to play games in that dome, a dominant performer at home. And he owned the Dolphins on third down, going 12 of 16 for 184 yards and a touchdown on third down. He converted on third-and-12, third-and-14, third-and-9, third-and-20, third-and-10, third-and-11. Of the five third downs he did not convert three were very long range -- third-and-12, third-and-13, and third-and-25.
Not your average rookie performance as Luck broke the single-game rookie yardage mark one season after Cam Newton set it. With the 2-14 Colts from a year ago now firmly in the playoff hunt, you can't help but wonder if Luck ends up getting some MVP consideration, particularly if he gets better on the road and the Colts keep this run going.