Separation in the AFC, a jumble in the NFC
Separation in the AFC, a jumble in the NFC.
Closing in on December, fans can expect New England to grab a bye in the AFC, as well as whoever emerges from the NFL's best division, the AFC West. Two wild cards out of the West wouldn't be a surprise either, while the North is a two-team crawl and the South likely belongs to Houston if it can find a way to win a road game.
The NFC has powerhouses in Dallas and Seattle, and, well, who knows?
No team in the North is particularly inspiring, and Atlanta keeps coming back to the field in the South. The East is intriguing with no teams under .500, and there remain five head-to-head matchups among the Cowboys, Redskins, Giants and Eagles.
Maybe the surest bet in the entire league is that the Browns and 49ers will bumble it out for the top overall draft pick. Imagine opening with a win and then losing 15 straight – and not getting the first selection next spring. Could happen to San Francisco.
A look at the division races with Thanksgiving behind us.
The only unexpected item here might be that the Patriots (8-2) haven't clinched yet. They went 3-1 without the suspended Tom Brady, and he's come back with a vengeance, among the league leaders in passing. But New England has shown some vulnerability on defense – not that Miami (6-4), Buffalo (5-5) nor the Jets (3-7) have shown a penchant for doing much with the ball.
The Dolphins, riding a five-game winning streak, are in the wild-card mix, with their only opponent that currently owns a winning mark being the Patriots in the finale.
A two-team slog between banged-up Pittsburgh and inconsistent Baltimore. As long as the Steelers have their offense on track, they are dangerous. And the Ravens, who beat Pittsburgh earlier, have a solid defense.
This one could come down to Christmas Day in the Steel City, though Baltimore must navigate successive matchups with the Dolphins, Patriots and Eagles before then.
No one outside of Houston seems to want to believe in the Texans, yet they have a relatively simple path to the division crown. They have no one on the upcoming schedule that currently has a winning record, and have three of their final four contests within this weak sector.
Tennessee might be the team of the future in this division, but seems too fragile to steal the AFC South title this year.
The league's best group – yeah, we know that everyone in the NFC East is at or above .500.
Oakland (8-2), for the first time since it went to the Super Bowl in 2002, seems headed for a winning record. Who knows, the Raiders could challenge the Patriots for home-field advantage throughout the AFC postseason.
But they need to get stingier on defense, and they have to navigate games at all three division rivals.
That not only makes for an intriguing December in the AFC West, but perhaps a wild scramble with the defending NFL champion Broncos (7-3) and the usually study but currently injury-prone Chiefs (7-3).
And don't discount San Diego (4-6) playing a spoiler role.
How `bout them Cowboys? At 10-1, with a dynamic offense led by rookie stars Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott and the league's best line, they seem destined to win this highly competitive division. The stumbling block could be the Giants (7-3), whose five-game winning string pales compared to Dallas' 10-gamer. Of course, that opening loss for the Cowboys was at home to the Giants.
New York will need someone else to knock off Dallas, a major challenge right now, and also must beat the Cowboys in prime time on Dec. 11.
Washington (6-4-1) and Philadelphia (5-5) would be in the mix anywhere else in the NFC and might finish on the outside despite being better than some playoff qualifiers.
Green Bay's collapse, due to injuries, poor blocking and some strange coaching decisions, opened the path for Detroit (7-4) and Minnesota (6-5). The Lions' big win on Thanksgiving – yet another comeback success – gave them a sweep of the Vikings, and a clear path to their first division crown since 1993.
The Packers (4-6) have dropped four in a row and don't look capable of any sort of surge.
The Falcons (6-4) got off to their second straight fast start. They faded badly to 8-8 in 2015 and they haven't looked great in dropping three of their last five. They sure can score – a league-high 320 points – and are well coached. But their defense, like Oakland's, needs shoring up.
Carolina's plummet to 4-6 has been almost shocking, leaving Tampa Bay (5-5) as the closest challenger. Similar to the Titans, the Bucs need more nurturing, but are getting closer to true contention.
New Orleans (4-6) plays lots of tight games, usually losing them. As long as Drew Brees is around, the Saints will scare opponents, though their defense never does.
Seattle (7-2-1) has a habit of coming on as the mercury decreases, and seems to be doing so again despite a long line at the infirmary. Russell Wilson has the look of an MVP candidate, and the Seahawks' passing offense is formidable. They need to find a running game, and Thomas Rawls' return to health is essential.
That defense is as physical as they come and will keep Seattle in every game.
The rest of the West is hard to look at, especially the Cardinals (4-5-1), a club many called the most talented in the NFL back in September. All that talent has wilted in the desert this season.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL