We’re reaching crunch time of the National Football League season. Technically no one has been eliminated from the playoff race as of yet – even the Tennessee Titans at 2-9 still have a mathematical shot at a Wild Card spot, one that could come through if everyone else passed out in front of them and couldn’t complete the season – but the top of the standings are beginning to get a bit clearer. If the playoffs started today, it is clear that the paths to the conference championships will go through Foxboro and Charlotte.
American Football Conference
Even though they were knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten in a stunning game against Denver last week, the New England Patriots have a comfortable schedule coming up. A home game against Philadelphia, a road trek against an improving Houston Texans squad, a home game against Tennessee and a roadie with the New York Jets will take them through the remainder of the month, with one win guaranteeing them the AFC East title. If they are able to sweep those four games (which will be tough with the team roster looking like a MASH unit), they should lock up home field for the playoffs.
After the Pats, the Denver Broncos and the Cincinnati Bengals are fighting it out for the two slot. The key game here will be on December 28 when the two teams meet in the Rocky Mountains. Both teams have similar schedules down the stretch, so the winner of this game is probably going to be your second seed and the loser the third seed. The final division winner will come down between the Indianapolis Colts and Houston, who play on December 20; your winner in that game wins the division.
As far as the Wild Cards I’d love to take the Jets, but they have a brutal stretch of games (New York Giants, Tennessee, at Dallas and New England over the next four weeks) so I have to count them out. Likewise for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have back to back games at Cincy and at home against Denver. I see the Kansas City Chiefs and the loser of the Indianapolis/Houston game on December 20 getting the Wild Card bids.
National Football Conference
Basically running away and hiding from the division, the Carolina Panthers are the lone undefeated team left in the NFL, one year removed from winning the NFC South with a losing record (7-8-1). They have a two game edge over the Arizona Cardinals for the top slot in the NFC, but there is some concern that the Panthers may not drive to the end of the season. With their next win, the Panthers will win the division crown to lock up their playoff slot (which could occur today) and some rest might be in order.
The Cardinals have their own concerns for the second slot on the ladder. The Minnesota Vikings are lurking one game back at 8-3 and will probably decide the second slot when they play this Thursday night in the Desert. Whoever comes out the winner in that game will take the second seed in the conference. The final slot will come out of the NFC East, which is a cesspool. Right now, the Washington Redskins (yes, that team) has somehow worked its way into the lead. Although they are tied with the Giants right now and only a game ahead of the Philadelphia Eagles, the ‘Skins have the easiest trek the remainder of the way; let’s give the East to Washington because whomever it is coming out with that title will lose to the Wild Card team they play.
One of the Wild Card slots is firmly determined. The Green Bay Packers might be a sneaky and dangerous team if they can get in through the Wild Card (and, at 8-4, still have a shot at the division crown). Whoever doesn’t win the NFC North will be one of the Wild Cards. The second slot will come down between two dangerous teams, the Atlanta Falcons and the defending two-time NFC champion Seattle Seahawks. Of those two teams, Seattle has the easiest schedule (the Falcons still have the Panthers twice on their board), so put in the dangerous ‘Hawks as the sixth seed.
We’ve still got a month of the season remaining, so this situation will be in flux. Right now, let’s take a look at this week’s games and some of the options you might have on the board (you know, if you’re in an area where you can legally bet the games!).
(Home team in CAPS, pick in bold)
Kansas City Chiefs vs. OAKLAND RAIDERS (+3); OVER 45
These two teams will play each other twice over the next five weeks and it could determine the playoff fortunes for one of the squads. The Raiders are building a young, strong offense behind QB Derek Carr, RB Latavius Murray and WRs Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. The Chiefs may have a way to shut down the Silver and Black, however, with the 10th ranked defense in the NFL.
You have to be able to score, however. Chiefs QB Alex Smith has watched as his weapons have dropped away during the season, first RB Jamaal Charles and then RB Charcandrick West. Add in the factor that TE Travis Kelce is nursing some injuries and I don’t see how the Chiefs can mount any offensive attack against the Raiders, who definitely aren’t being shown any respect with their home game.
New York Jets vs. NEW YORK GIANTS (+2.5); UNDER 46.5
Both teams in this game need the win to keep the embers of a chance at the playoffs alive. The Giants also still have the potential of winning the NFC East in their sights and winning this game would keep them in that mix. The odd thing about this game is that it started out as a “pick ‘em” and has swung those 2.5 points in just a few days; I don’t see why that has come about.
To be fair, QB Eli Manning has been doing it with smoke and mirrors for the last couple of years in reality, but it is something that he’s become used to. The Giant defense has been stout but will face some challenges from the Jets passing game and especially WR Brandon Marshall. It will definitely be a slugfest and, with the Giant fans holding the “home team” edge for this game, I see them willing the Gotham City Giants to a slim win over their housemates in the Meadowlands.
Dallas Cowboys (+3.5) vs. WASHINGTON REDSKINS; UNDER 41.5
Sure, I know that QB Tony Romo was absolutely crushed by the Panthers defense on Thanksgiving Day and is done for the year. I also know that the ‘Pokes will have had 11 days to prepare QB Matt Cassel for this game, which might be the closest the Cowboys will get to anything with a playoff feel in 2015. Add in the fact that the ‘Skins now have the burden of playing as the favorite – instead of the underdog role that they relish – and I see Dallas pulling off a major upset here, just to make the NFC East a bit more convoluted.
Week 11: 1-4-1
Not going to lie to you, after the performance in Week 11, it was best that I took a week off on Week 12. When your analysis of the action isn’t exactly working, it is best to step away from the fray for a spell until you’ve righted the chakras. This week, the chakras seem to be aligned and things should get back on track.