Playoff picture clearing at midway point

BY foxsports • November 7, 2011

As I said at the beginning of the year, the NFL is full of parity this season with no team being the clear-cut favorite to win their division. For the most part, that rings true as we sit here at the midway point of the season. There is a three-way tie atop both the AFC East and the AFC West, a tie atop the AFC North, and the NFC South is separated by just one game. As we roll into the second half of the season, I will break down the divisional battles and take a look at how the playoff picture may develop.

AFC East

New England: 5-3
New York Jets: 5-3
Buffalo Bills: 5-3
Miami Dolphins: 1-7


Yes, the Dolphins got their first win in dominating fashion over the Chiefs in Arrowhead, but they are the only team not fighting for the divisional lead in the AFC East.

With New England and Buffalo coming off losses, the Jets are carrying the most momentum into the second half of the season and may be playing their best football of the year. They did something against the Bills on Sunday that I haven’t seen them do all season, control the line of scrimmage on offense and dominate the running game. In doing so, they possessed the ball for 15 more minutes than the Bills and did exactly what good defensive teams are supposed to do … run the ball, and stop the run.

While Mark Sanchez has been fairly inconsistent throughout his career, he has been a big game quarterback with multiple playoff wins and he showed just that in the second half. If he continues to play like that, the Jets will have a very successful November that includes games against New England next week and Buffalo on Nov. 27.

Before the end of the month, New York could hold the sole lead in the AFC East. With that said, I will take the Jets to win the division and the Patriots to get an AFC wild card.


AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals: 6-2
Baltimore Ravens: 6-2
Pittsburgh Steelers: 6-3
Cleveland Browns: 3-5


The AFC North has the Bengals and Ravens tied atop the division, but the Steelers have just as many wins and will have the benefit of the late-season bye coming in Week 11. This division may have been decided last night with the Ravens win in Heinz Field, as they completed the season sweep over the Steelers.

How could I say that with the Bengals still sitting there? Well, they are just now entering the meat of their schedule and will have to face both the Steelers and the Ravens twice, and also will face division-leading Houston during that span. Those five games are more difficult than any game they have played thus far, and it starts next week as they host the Steelers.

Very different than the Bengals, the Ravens will benefit from a second-half schedule that includes four teams with losing records (Cleveland twice, Indy, and Seattle next week). The problem with that is they haven’t played all that well against teams with inferior talent such as the Titans, Jaguars and Cardinals.

Like the Ravens, the Steelers also have a winnable second-half schedule with games against Kansas City, Cleveland twice and St. Louis, but they will obviously need Baltimore to lose at least twice to get them back in the race. If the season ended today, all three teams would be in the playoffs, but I think it is highly unlikely this is the case at the end of the season. I predict the Ravens win the division and the Steelers get the wild card.


AFC South

Houston Texans: 6-3
Tennessee Titans: 4-4
Jacksonville Jaguars: 2-6
Indianapolis Colts: 0-9


In a division typically dominated by the Indianapolis Colts, the door is now open for a new representative to come out of the South and the Texans are the easy favorite. The Texans are playing their best football and they are still without their best offensive player, Andre Johnson, and best defensive player, Mario Williams.

In years past, this team wouldn’t have been able to overcome those losses, but not this year. The NFL’s best free agent, Wade Phillips, has totally turned this defensive mentality around and they get after the quarterback up front and get takeaways in the back.

On offense, as shown by their performance this weekend against the Browns, they have two very special running backs. Arian Foster led the league last year, and is once again looking the part after a hamstring injury slowed him early in the season. Houston doesn’t have the most favorable second-half schedule, but neither do the Titans, and I just can’t see a way that they close the two-game gap. They will face off in the final regular-season game, but by that point, I predict the Texans will have a playoff spot already wrapped up.


AFC West

San Diego Chargers: 4-4
Kansas City Chiefs: 4-4
Oakland Raiders: 4-4
Denver Broncos: 3-5


This is the division that no one seems to want to win. The Chargers were expected to lose to the Packers, but it was a pleasant surprise that they were still tied for the division lead at day’s end.

The Chiefs were hosting the Dolphins and riding a four-game winning streak, but they got blown out and made quarterback Matt Moore look like a future Hall of Famer.

The Raiders lost to the Broncos, who had been written off by every expert after the horrendous play of Tim Tebow last week, and Carson Palmer has now thrown six interceptions in as many quarters.

The Chargers, Raiders and Chiefs have equal talent, but I think the division will go to the team that gets the best quarterback play, and I still think that is Phillip Rivers and the Chargers.

He stepped up in the second half on Sunday, and kept his team together when it could have been easy to fold after throwing back-to-back pick sixes in the first half. With that said, the Raiders host the Chargers in Oakland in Week 17 and that could determine who gets in and who is left out.


NFC East

New York Giants: 6-2
Dallas Cowboys: 4-4
Philadelphia Eagles: 3-4
Washington Redskins: 3-5


This is the most interesting playoff race in my opinion. The Giants obviously have the head start, but the Eagles are surging and the Cowboys should easily win three of their next four, with Buffalo being their only tough game in the next month.

The Giants obviously control their own fate, but their upcoming schedule is absolutely brutal. Next week, they travel to San Francisco, then host the Eagles, the travel to New Orleans and then host Green Bay. Even if they split, and go 2-2 over the next four, that means that the Giants will be sitting at 8-4 when they play the potentially 7-5 Cowboys on Dec. 11.

The Eagles have a tougher road, but may have the most talent, and that is shaping this up as the best divisional race down the home stretch. When it’s all said and done, they might beat each other up too much to actually get a wild-card team out of this division along with the winner.


NFC North

Green Bay Packers: 8-0
Detroit Lions: 6-2
Chicago Bears: 4-3
Minnesota Vikings: 2-6


The Packers obviously control this division and will be the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs; the only question that remains for this team is if they can go unbeaten.

Are they capable of winning all their games? Absolutely. Will they? No. They have tough games at Detroit and at the Giants and still have four divisional games that can never be overlooked.

The real story in this division will be the Detroit Lions and if they can hold onto the wild-card spot. They don’t have an easy schedule, but they do have a one-game lead over the Falcons and two games over the Bears and Cowboys. That makes next week’s matchup between the Lions and the Bears in Soldier Field very important, the Bears can close the gap or the Lions can separate themselves even further.

In the end, I think the Lions hold on, but they will need to find a running game if they want to survive in the playoffs. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson have carried them this far, but if they don’t find balance, they will become predictable, and therefore vulnerable, in the playoffs.


NFC South

New Orleans: 6-3
Atlanta Falcons: 5-3
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 4-4
Carolina Panthers: 2-6


The Saints control the division now, but the Falcons are flying high and this will be the game to watch next week in the Georgia Dome and then again in Week 16 in New Orleans.

Between those games, the Falcons have a very favorable schedule with games against the Titans, Vikings, Panthers and Jaguars. During that same span, the Saints still have to square off against the Giants and the Lions.

In the end, both the Falcons and the Saints will make the playoffs, but it will be interesting to see which team wins the division and which is the wild-card representative.

Either team could cause fits in the playoffs with explosive offenses and opportunistic defenses.


NFC West

San Francisco 49ers: 7-1
Seattle Seahawks: 2-6
Arizona Cardinals: 2-6
St. Louis Rams: 1-7


In what may be the surprise of the season, the 49ers are 7-1 and very easily could be undefeated if not for a heroic performance by Tony Romo in Week 2. The Niners have only three tough games left on their schedule, starting this week against the Giants. The other two are at Baltimore in Week 12 and at home against the Steelers in Week 15. They are capable of winning any of those games, but worst-case scenario, they enter the playoffs with a 12-4 record.

This success can be attributed to the ball-controlling play of Alex Smith, but what will carry over in the postseason is the dominant rushing attack of Frank Gore. Gore has now put together five 100-yard rushing games in a row, and conversely, the defense led by Patrick Willis is just as dominant.

In a division that was represented by a losing team in the playoffs last year, now, the 49ers have a legitimate shot to compete with any of the playoff teams coming out of the NFC.


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