I can hear the screaming in cities across the country. Chicago is 6-3 and written off? Tennessee is ready to point out they're only a game back of Indy. The entire state of Florida is up in arms, from Miami to Jacksonville to Tampa Bay. (Hey, one of my best friends lives in Florida, I really have nothing against the Sunshine State). And for Pete's sake, San Diego is trailing not one, but two teams in the AFC West. But that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
San Diego is 4-5 and one game back both Oakland and Kansas City. They also have both teams at home in these final seven weeks. And given the history of this division the last few years, the Chargers being only one out at this point seems tantamount to anyone else having a three-game lead. In the NFC, Tampa Bay has been a nice story, but it's a stretch to call them a playoff team. Out west, the Seahawks are the best of a bad lot. They get the 4-5 Rams at home and are plus-two on both Arizona and San Francisco. Tennessee & Chicago just don't have the firepower and while the Titans signing Randy Moss was a very reasonable gamble and certainly raises the interest level, I don't see it working out here much better than it did in Minnesota.
So am I saying there's no point to watching the final seven weeks? Hardly. First of all, I've been known to be wrong, as even a cursory review of the archives here will make very painfully evident. And even if I'm right, this is only the playoff field itself. Unlike baseball or hockey, the NFL is about more than just making the playoffs. You need to win division titles and get home games, get a first-round bye and get a #1 seed if you want to have a serious chance at the Super Bowl. The historical record shows it can be done out of the wild-card slots or without a bye--but that same record shows just how much the odds are improved if you're the top seed.
Here's how I see the playoff brackets shaking out: In the AFC, New England gets homefield advantage, with Baltimore taking the other first round bye. Indy and San Diego host playoff games, with the Jets going to Indy in a 4-5 game and the Steelers heading west. I picked Baltimore to win the Super Bowl at the start of the year and am sticking to it, but being a game back of the Patriots with a head-to-head loss is going to send them on the road for the AFC title game.
In the NFC, I'll stay with my preseason choice of Green Bay to get the #1 seed and I lean Atlanta for the #2 spot. Division titles and home games go to Philadelphia and Seattle, with the Saints getting the top wild-card and going to Philly, with the Giants packing their bags for Seattle.
A lot's left to shake out, but I'll stand by these 12 teams as the ones still playing football when the playoffs start on January 9.
Image from nfl.mapiles.com
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.