Week 10: NFL Playoff Outlook – A Divisional Approach

With 10 weeks gone by in the NFL regular season, the playoff picture is slowly coming into focus. This week we will focus on each division, highlighting the ones we think are still up for grabs and telling you why some are all but wrapped up.

AFC East

Status: All but Locked Up

The New England Patriots lead the AFC East with a record of 9-0, even though they are just a shell of the team that we saw even 4 weeks ago. Key injuries to Dion Lewis (torn ACL), Julian Edelman (broken foot), and what seems like the entire offensive line make this team beatable for the first time all year, but with the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills being the next two closest teams at 5-4, we have a hard time thinking that they have any shot for the division. The Miami Dolphins at 4-5 aren’t mathematically eliminated quite yet, but there’s little chance they leapfrog everyone in the division with how poorly they have played the past few weeks. Buffalo and New York are still in the wildcard hunt, but the AFC East looks like it will once again go to New England.

AFC North

Status: Kinda Sorta Locked Up

Last night’s game really opened things up in the AFC North, as the previously undefeated Cincinnati Bengals (8-1) fell flat in Prime-Time yet again. The Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4) are one of the most banged up teams in the league right now, but are only three games back in the loss column and one important game against Cincinnati remaining. The Bengals travel to Arizona this week in a game that they could very well lose, but even if that happens, they have two games remaining against teams with a winning record (Pittsburgh & Denver). Assuming they lose both of those, but win the rest, the Steelers would have to run the table in order to win, and they have some tough games remaining on the schedule (@Seattle, vs. Broncos). We won’t even take the time to talk about the Baltimore Ravens (2-7) or Cleveland Browns (2-7) – they are so far out of it.

AFC South

Status: Wide Open

It seems that a year can’t go by without some scrub team making the playoffs and some good team missing out, just because of the divisional format the NFL employs. This year won’t be any different, as it’s hard to imagine the winner of the AFC South (whoever it may be) doing much better than 8-8 to close out the year. The Indianapolis Colts (4-5) will be without Andrew Luck during the most important stretch of the season, which keeps the door open for the Houston Texans (4-5). If our theory is right, and 8-8 is all that is needed to win this division, the Texans have as good a shot as any. The Colts remaining schedule is just as easy, but without Andrew Luck, we have a hard time believing that they can finish 4-3. A little more of a long shot to win the division, the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-6) have an insanely soft schedule remaining, with two against the Titans, one against Indy and Houston, and one against Atlanta and New Orleans. Only one of those teams has a winning record. The Tennessee Titans (2-7) are all but out of it, needing to go 6-1 to close out the year to have any real shot.

AFC West

Status: Not Locked Down Yet

Thanks to a hot start, the Denver Broncos (7-2) sit atop the division, but for how long is anyone’s guess. The past two weeks have seen Peyton Manning play poorly enough to require a benching (yeah, we’re not exactly buying all the injury business), and the defense has unraveled a bit, both physically and mentally. The Kansas City Chiefs (4-5) started off slowly, but their defense is playing as well as any unit in the league and the offense has been relatively mistake free (though not exactly dynamic). It’s a bit of a long shot, but unless KC loses two out of their next three games, we won’t call this division locked up quite yet. The Oakland Raiders are also at 4-5, but seem to be headed in the exact opposite direction as KC. There was quite a bit of hope in Oakland that the Raiders could eke out a wildcard spot this year, but things are tight and this team doesn’t look good enough to emerge. The San Diego Chargers at 2-7 are toast.

NFC East

Status: Wide Open

Nobody in the world is going to feel bad for the Dallas Cowboys (2-7), but you have to imagine that if they could have found a way to win just two or three of the seven games that Tony Romo missed, this team could have been the favorite to win the division, but instead they trail by three games – still not out of it, but no way they leapfrog three other teams to get to the top. The New York Giants (5-5) head into their bye as the division leaders, but wins from either the Washington Redskins (4-5) or Philadelphia Eagles (4-5) would tie things up, heading down the home stretch. The Giants have certainly looked like the most consistent team in the division, but their knack for losing close games in the fourth quarter doesn’t give us confidence at all. This could be another division that produces an 8-8 playoff team, and a race that will likely come down to the final week which features Eagles @ Giants and Redskins @ Cowboys.

NFC North

Status: Not Locked Down Yet

For six weeks, the Green Bay Packers (6-3) looked like the class of the NFC, but then the wheels fell off with losses at Denver, at Carolina, and a home loss to the Detroit Lions (2-7). This opened the door for the Minnesota Vikings (7-2) who aside from their season opening loss to the 49ers have looked like a team built for the post-season. With a strong running game and a top-tier defense, the Vikings feel they have the tools necessary to challenge Green Bay for the division. Minnesota does have to play the Packers twice before the season is over, which gives Green Bay a chance to re-take the division lead. We don’t see a scenario where both of these teams falter to the point where the Chicago Bears (4-5) can squirm their way into the division lead, and the Lions are all but eliminated. The jury is still out on the Green Bay Packers, and while they don’t seem to be outwardly panicking, their receivers’ lack of ability to get open for Rodgers is worrisome. Unless they get a few big wins in the next five weeks, the Packers are in danger of missing out on the playoffs entirely.

NFC South

Status: All but Locked Up

The Carolina Panthers (9-0) are just one of the two remaining undefeated teams in the NFL, and while their wins haven’t always been pretty, you can’t argue with 9-0. Carolina has a few trap games remaining on their schedule, starting with this week’s game against the Redskins, but they should be favored in every remaining game, setting the table for a 16-0 season. Early on in the year, the Atlanta Falcons (6-3) looked like the favorites to win the division, but since their 5-0 start, have gone just 1-3 with ugly losses to some beatable teams. The Falcons have two games remaining against the Panthers, which is a good opportunity to get back in the division race, but it’s unlikely they even split, let alone win both. The New Orleans Saints (4-6) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-5) are on the outside looking in. They’d be in the thick of a division race if they played in the NFC East, but not in the South.

NFC West

Status: Kinda Sorta Locked Up

The Arizona Cardinals (7-2) made a huge statement with their win in Seattle last week. The Cardinals offense is playing very well and the defense ranks among the best in the league. Some could argue that even at 7-2, they are the favorites to come out of the NFC. Last week’s loss pretty much spelled doom for the Seattle Seahawks (4-5), as there is little chance that they overtake Arizona, even if they run the table. The Legion of Boom has not lived up to their moniker this year, and the offense has yet to click since trading for Jimmy Graham. The St. Louis Rams (4-5) are another team that got stung with a loss last week, all but eliminating them from playoff contention. The San Francisco 49ers (3-6) are poised to pick in the top 10 if they continue their season, and should really be focusing on that rather than finishing the year on a strong note.