The Week 13 NFL playoff picture is coming into focus, as Marvin Lewis and the Cincinnati Bengals gained ground on their three AFC North rivals, the Arizona Cardinals sustained another blow without their starting QB, the Denver Broncos dealt the Kansas City Chiefs a huge setback, and the Philadelphia Eagles special teams roller-coaster kept pace with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
And down the stretch they come…with just four games and four weeks left for every NFL team, the playoff picture has its leaders, its followers, and its stragglers. It’s time to assess each team’s chances at the post-season and see who has the inside track.
|AFC Division Leaders
|New England Patriots||9||3||0||.750||378||253||125||6-0||3-3||2-1||6-2||3-1|
Indianapolis is closest to actually punching its postseason ticket and can wrap up the AFC South with a win and a Houston loss this weekend or with a victory when Houston visits in Week 15. But, having lost to both Denver and New England, the Colts need help to sneak into the top 2 and gain a first-round bye. They look to be on track for hosting a game on Wild Card Weekend.
New England’s loss at Green Bay in Week 13 drops their lead for home field advantage to a tiebreaker (head-to-head) over the Denver Broncos. Each will jockey for position over the final four weeks, having business to attend to in division matchups to secure their playoff spots and earn the bye.
The Patriots and Broncos will also have a large effect on who secures the wild card spots. Both current frontrunners – the San Diego Chargers and the Miami Dolphins – face their respective divisional leaders in Week 15, and the Chargers host the Patriots on Sunday. As for the Kansas City Chiefs, the Broncos severely damaged their postseason hopes by dropping them to 1-3 in the division and 5-4 in the conference with a win at Arrowhead in Week 13.
|AFC Wild Card||W||L||T||Pct||Scored||Allowed||Net Pts||Home||Road||Div||Conf||Non-
|San Diego Chargers||8||4||0||.667||279||249||30||5-1||3-3||2-2||6-3||2-1|
|Kansas City Chiefs||7||5||0||.583||277||224||53||4-2||3-3||1-3||5-4||2-1|
Meanwhile, the Broncos will also help determine the AFC North winner, traveling to Cincinnati for the Bengals fans’ dreaded “prime-time game” in Week 16. Cinci’s two-game lead in the loss column is key, but with games vs. PIT, @CLE, vs. DEN and @PIT to close out the season, the Bengals will need to perform lest they be overtaken by one of the other 7-5 contenders.
In fact, the numbers above show their biggest threat to be the Baltimore Ravens, sporting a +86 point differential to the Bengals +13. Marvin Lewis’s team has an anemic offense and it would not be surprising to see them tumble out of contention with a 2-2 month.
However, to discuss the AFC North and the wild card picture, we also need to discuss the NFC South – a.k.a., the worst division in the modern era. Take a look at those non-conference records: Cleveland, 3-0; Baltimore, 4-0; Cincinnati, 3-0-1. Only Pittsburgh, at 1-2 has not fattened up on the pathetic NFC South. In aggregate, the AFC North is 11-2-1 against their “competition” from the other conference. Two games remain: Pittsburgh’s visit to “leader” Atlanta in Week 15 and a Week 16 matchup featuring the Browns visiting the Panthers.
There aren’t enough negative adjectives in the English language to do the NFC South justice.
|NFC Division Leaders
|Green Bay Packers||9||3||0||.750||380||267||113||6-0||3-3||4-1||6-3||3-0|
Atlanta is tied with New Orleans at 5-7, owning the tiebreaker and the theoretical lead. With each passing week, it becomes more more likely that a sub-.500 team will be hosting a playoff game. We’ll get back to this cesspool in a moment.
The Arizona Cardinals and backup quarterback Drew Stanton have lost two in a row. They face a slew of tough division games, including a visit from a desperate Chiefs team this Sunday. Next comes a Week 15 trip to St. Louis and a home game vs. Seattle in Week 16 before closing out on the road against the also-desperate San Francisco 49ers. With this schedule, Arizona may sputter to the finish line. The loss of Carson Palmer looms large, as Stanton is a sub-par backup and the Cardinals’ point differential belies major offensive problems.
Green Bay owns the tiebreaker over the Philadelphia Eagles and, at this point, has to be considered the favorite for home field advantage in the NFC. Chip Kelly’s special teams scoring train now owns the clear advantage over their division rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, after a Thanksgiving drubbing of the Boys in the House that Noted Football Genius Jerry Jones Built. But with a visit from the surging Seahawks and then a return engagement with the Cowboys, we will surely know Philadelphia’s fate in the next two weeks: a division title and a bye, or back into the scrum fighting for a wild card spot.
|NFC Wild Card||W||L||T||Pct||Scored||Allowed||Net Pts||Home||Road||Div||Conf||Non-
|San Francisco 49ers||7||5||0||.583||231||244||-13||3-3||4-2||1-3||6-4||1-1|
|New Orleans Saints||5||7||0||.417||323||318||5||3-3||2-4||2-1||4-4||1-3|
|St. Louis Rams||5||7||0||.417||261||285||-24||3-3||2-4||2-2||3-5||2-2|
|New York Giants||3||9||0||.250||257||319||-62||2-4||1-5||1-3||2-7||1-2|
|Washington Football Club||3||9||0||.250||244||322||-78||2-3||1-6||1-2||1-7||2-2|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||2||10||0||.167||220||314||-94||0-6||2-4||0-4||1-7||1-3|
Meanwhile, the race for the wild card in the NFC is simple when compared to the AFC. If the Detroit Lions win their next three, they almost certainly earn a spot. While they must face the Packers in Week 17 at Lambeau, they have games with the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears and the putrid Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Take care of business, get to eleven wins and let the 49ers, Seahawks, Cowboys, Eagles and Cardinals beat each other up before a potentially meaningless game (for both teams and seeding) with Green Bay.
Finally, that Tampa and Carolina BOTH have a chance to win the NFC South tells you everything you need to know about how pathetic that division has been in 2014. Their ineptitude is artificially inflating the AFC North race, contributing to a huge disparity in the competitive balance of the Conferences. Of course, the terrible New York Giants and Washington Football Club are also contributing to the NFC’s stench, but as of today both the Cowboys AND 49ers miss the playoffs, while the Falcons “earn” a berth.
If that happens, count on major unrest (read: Jerry Jones complaints), breathless Peter King tomes, expansion of the playoffs and other steps taken to ensure that no sub-.500 team hosts another playoff game ever again.
Follow David on Twitter @SoSH_davemc.