Maybe the statistical swami who nailed the presidential election results beforehand can answer the most pressing debate question heading down the NFL season homestretch.
Who is the league’s best team?
Based solely on the standings, Houston (10-1) and Atlanta (10-1) would lead the pack if the playoffs started today. But there is reason to believe both could begin to fade in December or get eliminated quickly come January.
The Falcons have a recent history of this, losing their opening playoff game all three times in the first four years of Mike Smith’s head coaching tenure. While running away with the NFC South and enjoying a 1½-game lead over San Francisco for the conference’s No. 1 seed, Atlanta isn’t blowing out the competition like other 10-1 teams in the past. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Falcons are the first team since 2006 to win seven games by fewer than seven points.
As for the Texans, injuries are chipping away at what was one of the league’s top defenses. Houston surrendered 791 passing yards and six aerial scores in its past two games against Jacksonville and Detroit. Last month, the Texans were shredded at home in a six-touchdown performance by Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. That doesn’t bode well considering all three of the AFC’s other divisional leaders – Baltimore, New England and Denver – field passing attacks ranked in the Top 11 as well as franchise quarterbacks in Joe Flacco, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Without the benefit of polls or sabermetrics, here’s my prediction as to how the playoff field will look with five weeks left in the regular season. When I did this for FOXSports.com last season after Week 10, I nailed the exact seeding for six teams — including the top four NFC spots — and postseason berths for two others. I whiffed on my picks for the other four squads (serves me write for banking on perennial heartbreakers like Dallas and Oakland).
Not 100-percent perfect, but hey — not even Nate Silver was in November.
Potential fly in the ointment: A Dec. 10 road game against New England (8-3) looms large if a tiebreaker scenario should develop for the No. 1 seed.
Outlook: Even if the Texans stumble in prime time versus the Patriots, Houston does have the benefit of currently being the only AFC team without a conference loss at 8-0. Conference record is the second-step tiebreaker following head-to-head matchups. Houston does enjoy a head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over Baltimore by virtue of last month’s 43-13 blowout win. The Texans have a quirky end to their schedule with a Week 16 home game against Minnesota sandwiched between Week 15 and 17 matchups against AFC South rival Indianapolis. Any extra rest the Texans can get by being able to rest starters would be a big boost, especially after a rugged November that included a gritty road win at Chicago followed by overtime victories over Jacksonville and Detroit in a span of four days.
Potential flies in the ointment: After facing the Texans, San Francisco (8-2-1) comes to Foxborough in Week 15.
Outlook: The 2011 Patriots also started 5-3 before running the table en route to reaching Super Bowl XLVI. If they get past the Texans and 49ers, it could happen again. New England’s remaining schedule is modest with two games against Miami (5-6) and a Week 16 trip to Jacksonville (2-9). A Week 3 loss at Baltimore would hurt the Patriots in a tiebreaker scenario, but New England did defeat Denver in Week 5.
Potential flies in the ointment: Four of Baltimore’s five remaining opponents have winning records. And the fifth – Washington – features one of the NFL’s most dynamic quarterbacks in Robert Griffin III.
Outlook: No team needs home-field advantage more than Baltimore. While 4-2 on the road so far, the Ravens have scored only four offensive touchdowns in their past five games away from M&T Bank Stadium. The good news for Baltimore: Just two more away contests remain in Weeks 14 (Washington) and 17 (Cincinnati).
Potential fly in the ointment: Visiting Tampa Bay (6-5) should provide a challenge Sunday, but a Week 15 showdown in Baltimore (9-2) is the biggest game remaining.
Outlook: Denver has won six straight games, but it’s a 2-3 start that will probably prove costly in potential tiebreakers. Even if it topples Baltimore, Denver already has lost to Houston and New England. On the positive side for the Broncos, three of their final four opponents (Oakland, Kansas City and Cleveland) are a combined 7-26.
Potential fly in the ointment: Games against Houston in Weeks 15 and 17.
Outlook: One of the NFL’s feel-good stories in 2012 – Indianapolis rallying around ailing head coach Chuck Pagano – will extend into the postseason. Even if they stumble Sunday at Detroit (4-7), the Colts should be at nine wins after a Week 14 home game against Tennessee (4-7) and Week 16 trip to lousy Kansas City (1-10). A 10th win that would virtually assure a playoff berth will have to come against Houston. While that will be daunting in Week 15 at Reliant Stadium, the Week 17 rematch in Indianapolis won’t be as great a challenge if the Texans already have the AFC’s top seed secured and decide to rest starters. The Colts also are motivated by trying to extend the season as long as possible to give the leukemia-stricken Pagano the chance to return to the sideline for a playoff run.
Potential flies in the ointment: Four of five remaining opponents (San Diego, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Baltimore) are still in the playoff hunt to varying degrees.
Outlook: I predicted the Bengals would make the playoffs in the preseason. Although I hate doubting Pittsburgh’s resolve, I’m sticking to my guns. After a four-game losing streak, Cincinnati has righted the ship by beating the New York Giants, Kansas City and Oakland by a 93-29 margin. The end of the season will be rough with games at Pittsburgh and home against Baltimore. But as important as those matchups against AFC North rivals will be, a good indication of whether the Bengals are truly for real comes the next two weeks when facing the Chargers and Cowboys. A quality team should be able to win both against inferior opposition.
Potential fly in the ointment: Although three games behind Atlanta for the top NFC seeding, the New York Giants can at least keep alive in the race with a Week 15 victory at the Georgia Dome.
Outlook: Before last Sunday’s 24-23 victory over Tampa Bay, the Falcons hadn’t played a team that currently has a winning record since Denver in Week 2. Atlanta won both contests in an all-too-typical close fashion. The last team to win as many tight games as the Falcons was the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, who went on to win Super Bowl XLI. There’s nothing the Falcons can do about past playoff failings except to keep winning now, secure the No. 1 seed and ensure never having to leave the nest. Staying on the fast track of the Georgia Dome is even more desirable with the Falcons playing a more up-tempo style of offense and defense than in recent seasons.
Potential flies in the ointment: A Week 15 loss at New England would damage San Francisco’s hopes for the No. 1 playoff seed. But a non-conference defeat doesn’t carry as much weight in tiebreaker scenarios as would tripping the following Sunday in Seattle.
Outlook: So far, the glass slipper hasn’t broken for second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Presuming he continues to start in place of Alex Smith, Kaepernick will face the most difficult challenge of his NFL career against a Patriots defense that has traditionally stymied young passers. The 49ers are the first team this season to give me a true Super Bowl feel in every way except under center. That also makes playing to a 24-24 tie at home against an inferior Rams squad in Week 10 so maddening. The Falcons can guarantee home-field advantage by winning three of their final five no matter how San Francisco fares.
Potential fly in the ointment: The NFC North winner will likely be decided in Week 15 when the Packers play at Chicago.
Outlook: A 23-10 victory over the Bears in Week 2 looms large in tiebreaker scenarios. The Packers, who have a 2-0 division record, play four of their final five games against NFC North foes. The imminent return of key players like wide receiver Greg Jennings, outside linebacker Clay Matthews and free safety Charles Woodson will help bolster Green Bay down that stretch although there is great concern about an offensive line that has lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga (hip) for the season.
Potential flies in the ointment: No NFL team faces a tougher task than back-to-back road games against Atlanta (10-1) and Baltimore (9-2) in Weeks 15 and 16. No franchise, though, has shown more resiliency away from home than the Giants under head coach Tom Coughlin. New York won five of its six playoff games on the road in the 2007 and 2011 seasons en route to winning Super Bowl titles.
Outlook: A 38-10 thrashing of Green Bay last Sunday night gives New York a seeding edge in a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Packers. But the Falcons and Ravens games are huge potential stumbling blocks. Washington (5-6) and New Orleans (5-6) won’t be pushovers the next two weeks, either.
Potential flies in the ointment: Before the Week 15 showdown with Green Bay, Chicago will face two 6-5 teams fighting for playoff berths in Seattle and Minnesota.
Outlook: Much better now that quarterback Jay Cutler is back under center after missing two games with a concussion. A Bears offense that stunk for seven quarters under backup Jason Campbell was back humming in last Sunday’s 28-10 home victory over the Vikings. But how long Cutler will stay upright is in question once again because of ongoing offensive line problems. The Bears lost their best lineman (right guard Lance Louis) to a season-ending knee injury against Minnesota.
Potential flies in the ointment: The next two weeks are rough with games against the New York Giants and Baltimore. The Redskins need an upset in one of those games to stay alive but have shown signs they may be able to pull it off.
Outlook: Washington has a good shot at sweeping its final three games. Those matchups are at Cleveland (3-8), at Philadelphia (3-8) and the home season-finale against Dallas (5-6), a rival the Redskins already beat on the road Thanksgiving Day. If the Redskins can finish 9-7, their division and conference records will be favorable in tiebreakers.