Offering some clarity on the clouded playoff picture
Should the Titans be celebrating just yet? Do the Cowboys have the inside track to the NFC East? We answer it all.
By Ross Jones
The cold weather is upon us, and that means one thing: Teams must decide if they're built for January of if they should begin preparing for next season.
While pride and a myriad of other factors will keep games competitive, Week 12 helped offer some clarity as to who will be joining us on wild card weekend and beyond.
The NFL has done a masterful job designing a product that keeps fans invested deep into the season. We're more than 70 percent of the way through the the schedule, and all but nine or 10 teams are still capable of making a playoff push. With that said, there are questions that need to be answered.
So, who is the favorite to win the No. 6 seed in the AFC?
Two weeks ago, the Jets were a popular postseason pick. Since then, quarterback Geno Smith has completed 37 percent of his passes and has turned the ball over seven times (five interceptions, two lost fumbles). While it's easy to point at the rookie quarterback's woes as the main reason for their recent spiral, the secondary has been torched for 518 yards and three touchdowns in that span.
Six teams (including the Jets) are tied in the win-loss column with a 5-6 record, but the Jets — next to the Dolphins — need the most help to clinch the spot. Amid a full-blown locker room distraction, the Dolphins have played good football the past two weeks, but came up short by way of Cam Newton's last-minute drive.
Conveniently, the Jets and Dolphins will square off at MetLife Stadium in Week 13. The loser of that game will likely be left behind in the race for that last playoff spot.
Another Week 13 matchup that suddenly has playoff implications is the Thanksgiving night showdown between the Steelers and Ravens. Both teams, while wildly talented, were left for dead earlier in the season. The Steelers, of course, opened the season with four straight losses, but have won five of their last seven. After allowing a franchise-high 55 points against New England in Week 9, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has stabilized the unit, which has allowed just 16 points per game since.
The Ravens have been much more competitive over the past few weeks, but are still inconsistent in the running game. We'll find out a lot about this team on Thursday.
Head coach Mike McCoy's first season in San Diego hasn't gone to plan, but a stunning win in Kansas City on Sunday keeps the Chargers alive in the playoff picture. The Chargers are a much better team than their 5-6 record, but they might have dug themselves too deep of a hole. Each of their remaining five games come against teams who have proven to be tough outs.
The Titans currently have a slight grasp on the final wild-card spot, but face a daunting three-game stretch including trips to Indianapolis and Denver. It could be too much to overcome.
Two divisions are still somewhat up for grabs, so it's hard to speculate how this will shuffle out. But the Cardinals, who currently hold the No. 6 seed, are exceeding everyone's expectations with a 7-4 record. Are they poised to keep pace in the race? That's a different story. While the Cardinals are riding a four-game winning streak, their opponents' record during that stretch is a combined 13-31 (.419). Trips to Philadelphia and Seattle are tough tasks and a Week 17 slugfest against the 49ers will decide if their storybook season continues into January.
Make sure you don't write off the 49ers. They've lost their last two games by a combined four points against quality teams (Panthers, Saints). Colin Kaepernick has struggled to find consistency in the passing game, but Michael Crabtree could be promoted to the active roster as soon as next week. Oh yeah, they also have the Rams, Buccaneers and Falcons left on their schedule.
Will the runner-up in the NFC North make some noise for this prize? If the Bears end up winning the division, don't count on it.
Who will pull away in the NFC East?
The NFL on FOX crew highlighted the anticipated Week 17 showdown between the Cowboys and Eagles. Philly, a team that has been hitting its stride as of late, could be haunted by its early-season division losses down the stretch. The Cowboys' win over the Giants in Week 12 has them unbeaten in the division and positioned with the inside track for the division.
The NFC North is up for grabs
Quarterback injuries and inconsistent play in Detroit has allowed this to be a three-team race. Let's cut right to the chase on this one:
Lions: Detroit has been unable to tighten its grip on the division over the last two weeks by losing to the Steelers and Buccaneers. Fortunately for them, they own the tiebreaker in the NFC North, but four of their five final games come against teams who are contending for the postseason. A loss to Green Bay on Thursday would surely cement this team's fate.
Bears: Jay Cutler's much-anticipated return to the lineup couldn't come soon enough. Josh McCown has filled in admirably, but Cutler offers another dimension to this unit. Cutler is set to test the free-agent market in 2014 and is proving his worth as the Bears offense hasn't been the same without him consistently in the lineup since Week 7.
Packers: What can you say for a team that's been ravaged with injuries? The Aaron Rodgers injury is one thing. Other devastating blows to the offense including Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley have completely taken the air out of the offense. The last four weeks haven't been pretty in Green Bay, and the Packers need Rodgers back desperately. We await to hear news of his status for the Thanksgiving game.