In the final weekend before Thanksgiving, the last four teams not to have had a bye yet all take a break from action, meaning that by Turkey Day, everyone will have five games left in the race to either make the playoffs, or obtain as high a pick in the draft as possible to enable the rebuilding process to begin (cough, Jacksonville, cough). With the final part of the season upon us, it is a good time to evaluate who look likely to make the postseason, the teams that are still in contention and those that can make early plans to take a vacation in January. Let’s start with the NFC:
Current Standings: 1. Detroit Lions 6-4; 2. Chicago Bears 6-4; 3. Green Bay Packers 5-5; 4. Minnesota Vikings 2-8
If not for Aaron Rodgers getting injured, this division would have been an easy win for the Packers, who have lost their last three since their quarterback was injured in the first drive against the Bears. On Sunday, they were unable to stop the Giants from winning their fourth in a row and if Number 12 is not back by Thanksgiving – when Green Bay plays the early game in Detroit – then the season will likely be over. The Lions remain favorites for the division, though a costly 37-27 loss in Pittsburgh last week means that they are only a single win ahead of the Packers and are tied with the Bears, who won the craziest game of the season against Baltimore last Sunday. Early on in the game, the Ravens took a 10-0 lead but there was then a two-hour delay due to a storm system in the region that saw more than 70 tornadoes touched down in the Midwest and Soldier Field in Chicago took a battering from wind and rain. However, when the weather cleared slightly, Josh McCown was able to lead the Bears to a famous 23-20 overtime victory, one that he had assured his teammates before the final drive that they would be telling their grandchildren about one day. Minnesota are the only franchise out of playoff contention in the North and it was no surprise that they lost 41-20 in Seattle in Week 11.
Current Standings: 1. New Orleans Saints 8-2; 2. Carolina Panthers 7-3; 3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2-8; 4. Atlanta Falcons 2-8
Both the Saints and the Panthers had controversial wins last weekend that moved each of them closer to the playoffs and setup a fascinating two games series between them as they face each other in Weeks 14 and 16, matchups that will determine who will not only take the division title, but may well enjoy a first round bye in the playoffs as well. New Orleans claimed victory over the 49ers after a penalty was called on Ahmed Brooks from a personal foul after he had strip-sacked Drew Brees – a call that gave the home team a new set of downs and allowed them to tie the score with a field goal, then claim the win via another kick by Garrett Hartley. On Monday night, Carolina held off a late drive by New England to win 24-20, though the Patriots believed their should have been a pass interference flag on Tom Brady’s final throw, which would have given them another shot at the end zone but the officials did not call a penalty and the Panthers won for the sixth time in a row. After an 0-8 start, the Buccaneers are now tied with the Falcons at the bottom of the division following their 41-28 dismantling of Atlanta in Florida last Sunday.
Current Standings: 1. Philadelphia Eagles 6-5; 2. Dallas Cowboys 5-5; 3. New York Giants 4-6; 4. Washington 3-7
Much has been made of the improvement that Philadelphia have made with Nick Foles under center instead of Michael Vick, as he is a less error-prone quarterback which is definitely an advantage in the high-pace of Chip Kelly’s offense, but the teams that they have beaten in the last three weeks have been substandard. First they racked up 49 points against the Raiders in Oakland, then defeated the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers in Green Bay, before last weekend ending their 10 game home losing streak, but it was against a woeful Washington team. Dallas were on a bye last week which will give them longer to think about how poor their defense was against New Orleans, but they have a very important four day stretch coming up where they face the Giants at MetLife Stadium, before hosting the Raiders on Thanksgiving – if the Cowboys can be at 7-5 by the time the Pumpkin Pies are being finished across the nation, then they will have ended New York’s improbably comeback from 0-6 this season and will be favorites to claim the NFC East title for the first time since 2009.
Current Standings: 1. Seattle Seahawks 10-1; 2. San Francisco 49ers 6-4; 3. Arizona Cardinals 6-4; 4. St. Louis Rams 4-6
If you had said at the start of the season that with six weeks to go, Arizona and San Francisco would be tied for second place in the West, it would be assumed that there would have been an injury to Colin Kaepernick, who looked almost unstoppable in the 49ers playoff run in January. However, their loss in New Orleans last week combined with the Cardinals 27-14 victory over the Jaguars means that both franchises are fighting for a wild card berth, while the Seahawks romp to the division title and they stayed perfect at home for 2013 with the aforementioned win over the Vikings. St. Louis had a bye last week so had an extra seven days to savor their 38-8 success in Indianapolis the previous Sunday, but the Rams are out of the playoff hunt.
Currently, the Panthers hold the 5th seed and the 49ers the 6th in the NFC, but San Francisco is tied with Arizona and Chicago; plus Dallas and Green Bay are only a single game back. If the Giants were to go 5-1 down the stretch and end 9-7, there is an outside chance they could claim a postseason berth even if they cannot usurp both the Cowboys and the Eagles in the East, however, their final run of fixtures includes the game against Dallas this Sunday, hosting Seattle and a trip to both San Diego and Detroit, so it is hard to see them doing any better than 8-8, more likely 7-9 or worse.
Current Standings 1. Cincinnati Bengals 7-4; 2/3/4 Browns/Steelers/Ravens – all 4-6
Last Sunday’s 41-20 victory over the Browns in Cincinnati all but confirmed the AFC North title for the Bengals, who head into their bye with a 2.5 game advantage over the rest of the division. Despite all being under .500 – Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are not out of the wild card race yet, but whoever loses between the Steelers and Browns this weekend can consider their season all but over.
1. Indianapolis Colts 7-3; 2. Tennessee Titans 4-6; 3. Houston Texans 2-8; 4. Jacksonville Jaguars 1-9
When the Colts lost to the Rams at home two weeks ago, it appeared to be opening the door to the Titans sneaking into contention to claim the AFC South crown, but their subsequent defeat to the previously winless Jaguars, then falling 30-27 at home against Indianapolis last Thursday night, has seen Tennessee fall out of the division race. While the Titans still have a hope of winning a wild card place, neither Houston or Jacksonville – who lost to Oakland and Arizona respectively last weekend and face each other this Sunday – will be playing in the postseason as, even in a year when a weak record could still claim a playoff berth, 3-13 is never going to be good enough for a team to play January football.
1. New England Patriots 7-3; 2. Miami Dolphins 5-5; 3. New York Jets 5-5; 4. Buffalo Bills 4-7
Despite their loss on Monday night to the Panthers, the Patriots are still strong favorites to win their division as the rest of the teams have been far from impressive in 2013. The Dolphins are still dealing with the fallout of the bullying claims in their locker room and have lost two of their offensive linesman as a result, but they did still manage to eke out a 20-16 victory over the Chargers last Sunday. The Bills have been impressive at times and dealt a blow to New York’s postseason aspirations with a 37-14 win over them in Buffalo, a result that meant that the Jets became the first team in NFL history to alternate victories and defeats through their first ten games of a season.
1. Denver Broncos 9-1; 2. Kansas City Chiefs 9-1; 3. Oakland Raiders 4-6; 4. San Diego Chargers 4-6
Denver moved back into poll position to claim the AFC West title and home-field advantage in the playoffs with a 27-17 defeat of the Chiefs last Sunday night, a result that marked Kansas City’s first reverse of 2013. The next two weeks will be telling as to who will claim that top spot, as the Broncos must play the Patriots in Massachusetts this weekend, before heading to Missouri to face the Chiefs the following Sunday. The other two teams in the division – the Raiders and Chargers – can still claim the other wild card spot, but neither has shown the consistency to suggest they can end the season with even an 8-8 record.
If either the Chiefs or Broncos were to lose their final six games, the chances are they would still claim a playoff spot as the rest of potential wild card teams are so poor. At the moment, the 5-5 Jets hold the 6th and final spot on a tie-breaker over Miami, whom they face twice in the final six weeks. With another six teams just a solitary game back, it is hard to write anybody other than the Jaguars or Texans out of contention, though Buffalo would need to win their final five to have any realistic chance of making it.
N.B. The Power Poll will return next week in my pre-Thanksgiving post
Week 12 Predictions
Last week, 7-8; Season, 83-78
Home teams in bold
Falcons +8.5 over Saints
Bears +1.5 over Rams
Steelers +2.5 over Browns
Lions -9.5 over Buccaneers
Vikings +4.5 over Packers
Chiefs -5.5 over Chargers
Dolphins +4.5 over Panthers
Ravens -3.5 over Jets
Texans -10.5 over Jaguars
Raiders -1.5 over Titans
Colts +2.5 over Cardinals
Cowboys +2.5 over Giants
Broncos -2.5 over Patriots
49ers -5.5 over Washington