What could go better together than football and Thanksgiving? With 10 games down, and bye weeks a thing of the past, I thought I’d run down the playoff stretch around the league. I’ll start in the AFC, which is by far the deeper conference. There are four teams that have no shot whatsoever, Kansas City, Oakland, Cleveland and Buffalo. The best they can hope for is spoiler at this point. The Bills have games against Miami and New England;Kansas City plays San Diego, Denver and Cincinnati; Oakland gets Denver, Pittsburgh and Baltimore; and Cleveland has the most chances to ruin someone’s season (not that they will) playing San Diego, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville.
There are two 4-6 teams that could conceivably run the table, get to 10 wins and sneak in, but that’s not going to happen in either case. Tennessee, even being rejuvenated with Vince Young and Chris Johnson, has a schedule too tough to win out, having to take on Arizona, Indianapolis, Miami and San Diego. No way they win all four of those games. The Jets, actually have a better chance of pulling it off, but they’re playing so bad that it will be a minor miracle to turn it around now. If they can beat Carolina this weekend, they have two games against Buffalo and Tampa Bay, before closing with a fading Atlanta team, then Indy and Cincinnati, both likely playing for nothing at that point (and resting their stars). Still, not going to happen.
Which brings me to the other teams that will come up short in the wild card hunt. Houston is 5-5 and play the Colts and Jacksonville the next two weeks. Win those games, and its two winnable games against Seattle and St. Louis before closing with the AFC East pair of Miami and New England. If they can somehow stop the Colts and the Jags, avoid a letdown in the next two and split the final pair (more likely the Patriots possibly playing for nothing on the last day of the regular season) The Texans get to 10-6 and the playoffs. They won’t, though. The best it’ll be for them is 9-7, sitting home and playing What If instead of a playoff game.
Denver is imploding. The division is all but lost with the Giants and Colts on the schedule in the next three games and San Diego drawing very winnable games against Kansas City, Cleveland and Dallas. The Broncos had a great start, but unfortunately, the more things change in Denver, the more they stay the same with another late-season c0llapse, likely all the way to 8-8.
Jacksonville has been somewhat surprising, but they just don’t have the talent to get it done. They run the ball well enough, but don’t score enough points, and the defense is very suspect. Their next five games are San Francisco, Houston, Miami, Indy and New England. Go 3-2 in that run, beat Cleveland to close the year and it’s 10-6 and playoffs. It’s possible but not likely. They should be happy with 9-7 and surprise contention this year.
Which brings me to the defending champions. The Pittsburgh Steelers will fall short of the playoffs, according to me. Without Troy Polamalu, they will lose to Baltimore this week before winnable games against Oakland and Cleveland. Then they close with three teams likely to be fighting for the playoffs as well, Green Bay, Baltimore again and Miami. They are capable of getting it done, but if Polamalu misses any more time and Big Ben gets his bell rung again, they won’t, coming up just short.
That leaves me with the six teams I think will make the playoffs for the AFC. First is the Miami Dolphins. They are on a roll, playing sound football and have exactly the type of team and game plan to win games at this time of year. Their schedule is no cake walk, but they play four teams either tied with them or ahead of them, and that’s the best way to make up ground. They play Buffalo this weekend then a crucial home game against New England. Win that one and they have a legit chance of stealing this division again. Even if they don’t, finishing up with Jacksonville, Tennessee and home games against Houston and Pittsburgh to close the season are all winnable. They could run the table, and can most definitely put up a 5-1 run and get one of those wild card spots.
The other wild card will be Baltimore. They get Pittsburgh at home without Polamalu this weekend, a very winnable game, and games against Green Bay without two of their best defensive players, Detroit and Chicago. Following that is a virtually playoff game and a rematch against Pittsburgh, before closing with Oakland. They, too, can win all six, but I think 5-1 will get it done and a return trip to the postseason.
And now the division winners. New England has a tough schedule, but they are clicking at the right time. Still, games against New Orleans, Miami, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh is no cup of tea. I think they go 4-2 and host a wild card game.
The Cincinnati Bengals have four very winnable games left, with Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City and closing with the Jets. Sandwiched in there is the reason why I don’t think they’ll get a bye, back to back games against Minnesota and San Diego. The Charger game, in particular, will be for a playoff bye. I think they’ll lose it, but still, a division title and the playoffs is pretty good for a team no one thought would do anything this year.
So the byes go to: San Diego and Indianapolis. The Chargers are hot, and could run out to 13-3, with the Cincinnati game being the toughest test. They also get the Chiefs, Browns, Cowboys, Titans and Redskins. At worst, they’re 12-4 and taking a week off. The Colts have a legit chance to go 16-0. I don’t think they’re anywhere near as good as the Patriots team that did it a couple years ago, but with games against Houston, Tennessee, Denver, Jacksonville, the Jets and Buffalo, this is an accomplishment that can be had. Still, I don’t think they will, ending up 15-1 and the AFC favorite entering the playoffs.
So there you have it, how I see the AFC coming into the end of the season. A bit later, I’ll go through the NFC.