Week 12: Almost There (Third Quarter)

By: Shawn Davis

The AFC playoff picture seems like it won’t change too much as we have the Houston Texans (10-1), New England Patriots (8-3), Denver Broncos (8-3) and Baltimore Ravens (9-2) walking miles ahead to hold their respective division leads, which will ensure them all a postseason berth. In the race for the two remaining wild-card spots, we have the Indianapolis Colts (7-4), Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) and Cincinnati Bengals (6-5) ready to fight each other off to claim their ticket.

We have a clear view of how the AFC is taking shape but its conference counterpart, the NFC, is as wild as Clint Eastwood was at the RNC. There are a chunk of teams alive in the playoff picture because the NY Giants (7-4), San Francisco 49ers (8-2-1), Atlanta Falcons (10-1) seem like the only locks if we’re going to rely solely on their records. Injuries play a major part in postseason appearances so I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the offensive line of the Chicago Bears will keep Jay Cutler alive long enough to, at least, appear in the knockout games. Going back to what I mentioned earlier: other NFC clubs are clinging to legit playoff chances that (probably) won’t be decided until the final play of Week 17 so most teams will not be able to sleepwalk into playoff berths. Throw out the Sunday night game between the Giants and Packers because at 7-4, I think Green Bay still has some good football in them.

The NFC teams in the hunt:

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5): Remaining schedule: @ DEN, PHI, @ NO, STL, @ ATL

The schedule here is doing the Buccaneers no favors at all and I feel they need to go 4-1 to have a chance at the tournament. One thing that’s going to work in their favor: When they visit Atlanta in Week 17, there’s a good chance the Falcons are resting their top performers, and they can receive a gift victory.

2. Seattle Seahawks (6-5): Remaining schedule: @ CHI, ARI, @ BUF, SF, STL

I strongly support the notion that 9-7 will punch a plane ticket to a wild-card berth…and I think Seattle goes 3-2 to end the season.

3. Minnesota Vikings (6-5): Remaining schedule: @ GB, CHI, @ STL, @ HOU, GB

They’re dropping out, quickly.

4. Washington Redskins (5-6): Remaining schedule: NYG, BAL, @ CLE, @ PHI, DAL

A serious case can be made for the Redskins taking a slot but they could go 0-3 over the next three weeks. Yes, I think they could take a loss at Cleveland because I like how the Browns have competed this year. Being 5-6 with five remaining to play is such a disadvantage for them and the upcoming teams on this list.

5. New Orleans Saints (5-6): Remaining schedule: @ ATL, @ NYG, TB, @ DAL, CAR

Look at who they have to play; they would have to be perfect the rest of the way or go 4-1 at worst…AND pray the teams in front of them drop three or more games. Playing their way to .500 is a huge achievement on its own so they should take solace in that and may need to make peace with the fact that fighting back from 0-4 to make the playoffs is tough for a reason.

6. Dallas Cowboys (5-6): Remaining schedule: PHI, @ CIN, PIT, NO, @ WSH

Does anyone believe in anything this team tries to do on the field? I don’t.

On to the third-quarter groupings with a new category added just to be cheeky. We already know the identity of most teams with a month left to play so why waste precious key-strokes (or brainpower)? Let’s get to it:

Still Alive

We look at the teams pushing at the back-end to qualify for the knockout season. All of these teams have the ability to get hot and take that momentum into the playoffs. Need motivation? Look at the Giants blueprint during their last two runs to the Lombardi Trophy. Understand? Good! Now get out and play with some fire. Or don’t…I’m not getting paid to play.

Indianapolis (7-4), Tampa Bay (6-5), Seattle (6-5), Pittsburgh (6-5), Cincinnati (6-5), Minnesota (6-5), Washington (5-6), New Orleans (5-6), Dallas (5-6)

If you read my thoughts above you already know my feelings about most of these teams featured here. The Steelers are desperately searching for ways to put Ben Roethlisberger back together to get him on the field as they visit the Ravens this week with their playoff hopes dissolving in quicksand. Will they recover? I’m not sure at all because the rib injury he’s trying to return from is supposed to sideline him for 3-5 more weeks. If you haven’t noticed he’s missed their last two contests…both losses.  It’s going to be remarkable to see what happens if the Steelers activate him.

The Colts could be going to Denver if they keep their current spot in the AFC postseason tournament. Yeah, you read that correctly. Andrew Luck could be leading the Colts into Denver to play some guy named Peyton Manning in the opening round. I know Manning played somewhere else before signing with the Broncos but I just cannot remember the team. Can someone out there help me?

Playing For The Trophy

Simple.

Atlanta (10-1), Houston (10-1), Chicago (8-3), San Francisco (8-2-1), New York Giants (7-4), New England (8-3), Denver (8-3), Green Bay (7-4)

After paying close attention to the records of the teams above, it makes me chuckle to see the Patriots with three losses on their ledger. Doesn’t that seem strange? With the way they’ve been beating teams about the head, you’d think they’d be close to undefeated. Why aren’t they? Pass defense; ditto for the Packers and the Giants (sometimes).

Atlanta isn’t getting much respect for their glossy record because they’ve been engaged in tight games. What’s the criticism about? That they’ve been victorious by slim margins of 1, 2, 3 and 4 (twice) shouldn’t be a reason to overlook their chances at postseason success. Remember all those seasons where Peyton Manning led the Colts in rout after rout as they marched into the playoffs? I bet you do. But do you also recall those same teams going home, early? You probably don’t.

Although the 2006 Colts entered the postseason with a 12-4 record, they were tested in a lot of close games and I’m sure that galvanized them to adjust in-game when they could not overwhelm the opponent. They seemed just as comfortable playing in dogfights as much as they enjoyed blowing teams off the field. The final result of that year saw the Colts dancing with the trophy at Dolphin Stadium. Now, I am not saying the Falcons are winning it all but all those close victory margins are doing more good for them than consistently winning by two or more touchdowns. Please keep that in mind.

Can there really be two?

What’s going on in San Francisco deserves the attention it is getting. Should Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick take the ball on game day? Honestly, it’s a good problem to have in this case as both are legitimate players. Now I do feel Smith should reclaim his position but I see where Kaepernick adds another dimension the 49ers offense: the ability to extend – and make plays with his feet and the real threat of deep shots down the field because of his arm strength. I think Jim Harbaugh genuinely feels uncomfortable with the decision on who’s going to start going forward because he sees a lot of himself in Smith. I say that because Harbaugh – when he was an NFL quarterback – had to fight to stay on the field, had his peaks and valleys, and played to the best of his abilities. Sound familiar?

The Broncos played well on defense last year when they had Tim Tebow directing the offensive side of the ball – and although they advanced to the playoffs and vanquished the Pittsburgh Steelers everyone was right in the criticism that the offense would need an overhaul to compete with the better teams in the league, especially in the AFC. Meet Peyton Manning, Colorado. To have (a healthy) Manning directing that side of the ball would put them in the “contender” category almost by default – and that’s where this franchise is.

Houston, in my opinion, is the most complete and balanced team in the NFL. They can win ANY type of game because their roster is versatile and they have the perfect blend of veterans and young contributors. I’m sad the season is almost over but I’m excited to see how this group will perform in the playoffs.

Lastly, do not trust the Giants! They are lowering expectations – while gearing up for a postseason run.

I’ll see you for the Week 16 breakdown.

 

Photo: ap.org

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