If the NFL this season has taught us anything, it’s to not bet on perennial losers and early success is not indicative of an actually good team. Cleveland and San Diego are prime examples of this. Cleveland, coming off two 4-12 seasons, has shocked the world with a 6-3 record and decisive wins over Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
San Diego, meanwhile, has fallen off everyone’s radar as an AFC Super Bowl contender. With a 5-0 start to the season, everyone bought into Charger-mania. With a 5-3 record, they’ve slowly vanished from view, as the AFC playoff race begins to tighten and the Chargers are pushed out, following a 37-0 blasting by the Dolphins, looking especially vulnerable against a winless Oakland team.
The playoffs are tight right now in both conferences, as the brackets fill up with winning teams and predictions. Here are mine.
People know how brutal the contention for a playoff seed in the AFC is, so I won’t bore you by telling you about the teams that are already out of contention.
No.1 Seed: Denver Broncos (Current record: 7-2)
Although many drunk, shirtless New England fans will take my head off and shove the Patriots’ decisive win over the Broncos in my face, but I sincerely believe Denver is the better team. New England has an incredible home field advantage, especially once the weather gets colder, and Peyton Manning had an off day against an admittedly tough New England secondary. Denver faces an easier schedule down the stretch, and I feel they’ll finish one or two games ahead of New England in the seedings.
No.2 Seed: New England Patriots (Current record: 7-2)
The Pats, as we all know, started off 2-2 and were written off by many. It may sicken AFC East die-hards like myself to see the Patriots rebounding to another über-successful season, but there’s no questioning their abilities or their nearly unrivaled home field advantage. The Patriots seem destined for another deep playoff run, and if they make it to the Super Bowl or win it, I think it might be Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s final song.
No.3 Seed: Indianapolis Colts (Current record: 6-3)
The Colts, despite having less talent than Nicki Minaj without auto-tune, have Andrew Luck, who makes up for that. He’s on pace to pass for over 40 touchdowns and break Peyton Manning’s passing yardage record he set just last year. He’s certainly a special talent, and although the Colts are gonna need a lot more than Luck (heh) to win in the playoffs against some tough teams, I think they have enough to make it to the AFC Title game or even the Super Bowl.
No.4 Seed: Cleveland Browns (Current record: 6-3)
Here’s where things get complicated. Although the Browns are winning the AFC North, there’s a total logjam of teams behind them trying to wedge themselves into the playoffs. Cincinnati, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego, Buffalo and Miami all have playoff hopes, and the spot that Cleveland is in is very fragile. If they can’t win the division, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be knocked from the playoffs.
That being said, Cleveland has put together a team that’s not sexy, but it’s a team that wins. Although I originally thought Brian Hoyer was a bum and compared him to Mike Pagel, he’s played very well, certainly well enough to guide Cleveland to a well-deserved 6-3 record, a mark they haven’t had since moving back in 1999. I’d rather have Brian Hoyer than Nick Foles, Ryan Chokepatrick, Jay Cutler, Geno Smith, RG III and maybe even Bonehead Matthew Stafford. The era of futility seems to be over in Cleveland, and sympathetic fans all over the country will hopefully be pleased to see Cleveland in the playoffs at the end of the season.
No 5. Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers (Current record: 6-4)
I’ll admit, this is a bit of a longshot. The Steelers currently sit in 3rd place in the AFC North behind Cleveland and Cincinnati, and have provided 1-8 Tampa Bay and the 2-8 Jets each with victories. Despite this, Ben Roethlisberger played at an otherworldly level against Indianapolis and Baltimore, two teams with respectable defenses that are good. I believe, however, that the Steelers have the firepower to overcome Cincinnati, a team that seems to be losing focus by the week, to finish 2nd in the division and earn a Wild Card spot.
No.6 Seed: Buffalo Bills (Current record: 5-4)
It’s salt in the open wound that the year Miami finally seems good enough to make the playoffs is also the year that Buffalo is playing the same way for the first time since 1999. The two teams, both 5-4, play on Thursday Night, and although they’re both jostling for position for second place in the AFC East, the game will likely decide that. E.J. Manuel was a horrible draft choice, no beating around the bush, and it’s a sad day when a supposed first-round talent can be upstaged by the venerable journeyman Kyle Orton. Orton has turned the team around, and although he seems to be slowing down, he’s a good enough temporary solution to guide the team to the playoffs.
Teams Running to Catch Up
Although Cincinnati has struggled to regain their swagger after getting manhandled by the Patriots, they’re a good team, even if Andy Dalton is the second coming of Charlie Batch. They’re a playoff-ready team, but a dogfight of a division and better teams handcuff them.
Miami is a confusing team to watch. They destroyed the Chargers and are one of only two teams to beat New England, but they occasionally look awful, as the offense struggles. That’s not what a playoff team is like, and if they want to possibly grab Buffalo’s No.6 spot, they have to overcome the inconsistency on offense and a tough remaining schedule. The defense is championship-caliber, however, and if the offense can play in every game like they did in San Diego, the Dolphins are suddenly a threat in the AFC.
Kansas City (6-3)
I can’t sell myself on Kansas City. I just can’t. They’ve beaten Miami, Buffalo, and crushed New England, but they lost to the Titans and have had several unglamorous wins, such as the one over St. Louis. They’re a tough team, with Alex Smith playing game-manager football and Jamaal Charles again revving up his engine, but they don’t seem like a threat in the AFC despite continuously dismantling threats.
Baltimore is probably playing better football than their Super Bowl win a few years ago. Joe Flacco, despite his child-frightening unibrow, is playing good, steady football, while forming a great duo with the reborn Steve Smith. The Ravens lack any other impact players at the receiver position, and the running game is average without Ray Rice, but the defense is tough and every week the Ravens do enough to win. However, with such a tough laundry list of teams stacked up above them, playoffs seem like a longshot for Baltimore.
The NFC has two really good teams and then a landfill. The best teams are in the AFC, while the NFC seems like the weaker conference this year.
No.1 Seed: Arizona Cardinals (Current standing: 8-1)
The Cardinals are a huge surprise in 2014, overcoming what was once looked at as an elite division, and surpassing very good teams such as Dallas and Philadelphia. Their only loss, coming against Denver, is totally understandable. Their upcoming match-up against the other best team in the NFC, Detroit, is probably the best game in Week 11. Carson Palmer has gotten injured, and although Drew Stanton is a nice backup, the Cardinals are going to lose some games they otherwise wouldn’t with Palmer at the helm. Despite all this, Arizona is clearly the class of the NFC, and are my pick to advance to the Super Bowl.
No.2 Seed: Detroit Lions (Current Record: 7-2)
For a while, I wasn’t completely sold on the Detroit Lions being the “Kardiac Kats”, and I’m still not, really. The teams they’ve rallied against, save for Miami, have all been bad, with two comeback wins over pathetically weak NFC South teams. The Lions, however, do find ways to win under improbable circumstances. Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson are both impact players, whom I believe the incompetent Matthew Stafford feeds off of, and the Lions have arguably the best defensive line in the league, definitely in the NFC. This is enough to carry Detroit to a deep playoff run.
No.3 Seed: Philadelphia Eagles (Current Record: 7-2)
Contrary to what I said in my Midseason Predictions post, I think the Eagles are a quality team. The defense has become stronger, and the offense doesn’t seem so starved anymore, surprisingly due to Mark Sanchez’s emergence. Philadelphia has a blindingly fast offense that most defenses (and referees, a la Monday Night against Carolina) can’t handle. They’re a good team, no more denying it, and seem likely to win the NFC East.
No.4 Seed: Dallas Cowboys (Current Record: 7-3)
The Cowboys started out the season as the class of the NFC, the conference’s version of the Chargers. San Diego has fallen off the map, but Dallas still remains a threat after a win over Jacksonville that got them back on track. Although they were upset by Washington, the Cowboys are a tough, tough team with Tony Romo finally playing intelligent football and DeMarco Murray poised to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record. Dallas seemed like a Super Bowl contender, and still are in my mind, if luck goes their way.
No.5 Seed: Green Bay Packers (Current Record: 6-3)
The Packers rode Aaron Rodgers’ hot streak to victories early on, with wins over Miami…and that’s about it. No other opponent Green Bay has beaten is very credible, and their 19-7 loss to Detroit will hurt them in the long run. There’s no doubting the skills of the offense, however, as Rodgers, Eddie Lacy and Jordy Nelson are terrorizing the league. Rodgers just owned the putrid Bears 55-14, and while the NFC North is shaping up to be a two-team race, the Packers seem very close to taking the lead of it.
No.6 Seed: New Orleans Saints (4-5)
I don’t even know if you can call New Orleans a playoff team. They’re the leaders of the awful NFC South, sure, but does that mean anything? The division was once feared, but it’s now the joke of the league, with New Orleans in first place with a losing record. They also had to take the disastrous Buccaneers into OT, and although they play well at home, the Saints seem more like an 8-8 team than they do a slick contender with a shot at a post-season run.
Teams Running to Catch Up
Although the Seahawks had some struggles recently on both sides of the ball, they seem to have righted the ship somewhat. They look average, however, nowhere near the powerhouse that bulldozed through the league in 2013. Seattle might be able to squidge out a playoff berth over New Orleans, but otherwise they don’t look very sharp.
San Francisco (5-4)
San Francisco has been a tremendous disappointment. Not only have they failed to live up to the Super Bowl hype that surrounded them coming into the season, but they are looking to finish 3rd in their division. The 49ers have lost any sort of sparkle that was on them, taking the Saints to OT and looking otherwise mediocre. Jim Harbaugh has been blamed for this, and it’s up to Jed York to see if he wants to fire him and go in a different direction.
Although Minnesota has been looked at by many (including myself) as a joke, and the Vikings probably don’t have playoff hopes considering two very good teams are above them in the division, but if Adrian Peterson gets out of trouble for beating his kid (true NFL material), Minnesota can get a huge boost. Although playoff hopes are slim, they can get in if all the dominoes fall the right way.
Carolina Panthers (3-6-1)
How can Carolina possibly be thinking about the playoffs? They’re practically 3-7, with their tie being a loss in my mind due to a makable field goal being missed, and that’s absolutely not what a playoff team’s record should look like. However, due to the weaker NFC and the sickening NFC South, the Panthers have a very, very outside shot for the playoffs if they can at least slap together 7 wins.