Looking at the Playoff Picture

With the NFL season creaking past the half-way mark, the playoff picture is beginning to come into focus – a little bit, anyway.  With a lot of football left to play, here is an early look at how things might play out.    We’ll consider by conference and division.

AFC

Western Division

The Kansas City Chiefs, from the opening game, have been one of the most compelling stories of 2018.  With first-year starter Patrick Mahomes sparking the offense, the Chiefs have won eight of their first nine.  As of today, Kansas City holds the top seed in the conference.

Their one loss, of course, has been to the New England Patriots, leading many to think that perhaps that may come back to bite them – and it might.  But for now they still have a one-game lead over New England, and unless someone else can topple them, I still give them the advantage.

The Chiefs opened the season by rolling over the Los Angeles Chargers 38-28.  The Chargers would start the season with losses in 2 of their first 3 games.  With slow starts being a long-standing tradition for the Chargers, it was easy to sort of dismiss them.  But, of course, the Chargers’ losses have been to the Chiefs and Rams, two teams that have only been beaten once each all season.  As to the Chargers, they haven’t lost since, and, at 6-2 hold the first wildcard spot.

Nothing suggests that they will give up that position.  It has been a long time since Philip Rivers and company have been in the playoffs, but it looks for all the world like that drought is about to end.

Eastern Division

Even with their victory over Kansas City, the New England Patriots are still a game behind the Chiefs for first over-all in the conference.  As has been their recent pattern, the Patriots stumbled a bit out of the gate – losing 2 of their first 3 games.  They have won their last six in a row.  That the Patriots will win their tenth consecutive division title is pretty much a foregone conclusion.  The great question will be, can they catch KC.

The date to circle here is December 16.  New England’s Week 15 matchup is against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.  If the Patriots continue to run the table to that point, then this game will likely determine the top seed in the conference.  If New England pulls it out, they will probably earn that seed.  If not, that loss will probably give KC just the breathing room it needs.

Rising in the division are the Miami Dolphins.  After squeaking out a 13-6 win against the Jets, the Dolphins sit at 5-4 just a tick behind the 5-3 Bengals for that last playoff spot.  While I think Miami may stay in the hunt through the end of the season, the Dolphins don’t really do anything terribly well, and their closing schedule is quite rugged.

In addition to another game against the Patriots, the fish have road games in Green Bay and Minnesota.  Right now, the tell-all matchup could be their Week 12 contest.  They play Indianapolis in Indianapolis.  After a brutal start, the Colts have begun to play better.  If Miami is good enough to win this game on the road, they could be a significant part of the free-for-all for that final wildcard spot.  Right now, I don’t believe that they will, so – as of this writing – I don’t see Miami in the playoff pool.

North Division

The AFC North is a bit of a scrum so far this season.  As of this writing, the Pittsburgh Steelers (another team that started sluggishly) has fought its way back into first with a 5-2-1 record, just better than Cincinnati’s 5-3 mark.  Baltimore lurks at third.  They have fallen to 4-5 after last week’s loss to the Steelers, their third straight loss.

As the weeks roll on, the Steelers look more-and-more like they are still the class of this division.  After a 1-2-1 start, Pittsburgh has consecutive wins against Atlanta, Cincinnati (on the road), Cleveland, and Baltimore (also on the road).  They currently hold the third seed, and the present expectation is that they will hold on to that.

Less convincing – in my opinion – are the Bengals.  Currently holding that last wildcard spot, the Bengals are thirtieth in scoring defense and thirty-second in yards allowed.  Their closing schedule is notably tough.  They still have road games in Baltimore, Los Angeles (against the Chargers), and Pittsburgh.  Their home schedule includes New Orleans and Denver.  Unless Cincinnati fixes their defense real fast, it’s hard to imagine them surviving their second-half schedule.

Baltimore, on the other hand, is mostly through with the difficult part of its schedule.  Their road games are fairly challenging.  They will play Atlanta, Kansas City and Los Angeles (also the Chargers).  But four of their last seven are fairly soft home games against Cincinnati, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Cleveland.  If they take care of business at home and win one of those road games, then the Ravens will be looking at a 9-7 record.  Considering that one of those wins was a 21-0 shutout of Tennessee in Week 6, that record could very well earn them that last spot.

Certainly that game against Cincinnati two weeks from now will weigh heavily.  If the Bengals want the playoff opportunity, they will probably have to go into Baltimore to get it.

Southern Division

Continuing the trend of turnarounds are the Houston Texans.  Left for dead after an 0-3 start, Houston has won 6 straight and have claimed the lead in this division.  And, while none of the teams they’ve beaten have been upper-echelon teams, it has been convincing enough to establish the Texans as the probable class of the division and probable number 4 seed.  The streak includes division road wins in Indianapolis and Jacksonville.  Closing out the season, Houston plays 4 of its final 7 at home – and those are all winnable games (Tennessee, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Jacksonville).  Their road games are tougher, but not really terrifying.  They have games in Washington, New York (Jets), and Philadelphia.

Houston ranks ninth in total defense, seventh in scoring defense, and second in run defense.  Their position is currently quite good.

Behind them are the 4-4 Titans of Tenessee and the Indianapolis Colts, who are lurking at 3-5. 

As for the Colts, their slow start included losing 5 of their first 6.  But the Colts are now coming off two decisive victories and have 5 of their next 7 at home.  Those five home games are all winnable.  They have the Jaguars, Titans, Dolphins, Cowboys and Giants coming in.  One of their road games is against the fading Jacksonville team.  Even though they also have probable road losses in Houston and Tennessee, a 9-7 finish is not out of reason for Indianapolis.

Unfortunately for them, a home-and-home split with Tennessee – if they can get it – will probably not be enough.

After Monday night’s conquest of the Cowboys, the Tennessee Titans become the real unknown of the division.  They have been scuffling through the first part of their season playing behind a compromised quarterback.  Last night, Marcus Mariota looked considerably better.  If this is true – and the NFL is such a week-to-week league that one game isn’t enough to convince – then the Titans could easily re-write the playoff lineup.

But it will have to happen immediately.  Basically, the critical part of the Titan’s schedule is the next three weeks.  They play at home against the Patriots, on the road in Indianapolis, and on the road in Houston.  If they can steal one of those games, their prospects brighten considerably.

They end the season at home against the Jets, at home against the Jaguars, on the road against the Giants, then at home against the Redskins and the Colts.

Remember, though, that the Ravens hold the tie-breaker against them, so Tennessee’s closing run will probably have to be at least 6-2.  Doable, but a stiff challenge.

NFC

Southern Division

There is a strong feeling that the conference’s top seed was decided last Sunday during New Orleans’ dazzling 45-35 conquest of the LA Rams.  The game leaves the Saints at 7-1 with the tie-breaker over the now 8-1 Rams.  Again, there is a long way to go, but the Saints have had that air about them all season.

They may cough up that top seed, but they will have to be caught from behind – difficult to do.

Also in this division is the top wild-card team.  The Carolina Panthers have looked as legit as the Saints, and are an equally solid bet to hold on to their place.

Western Division

With the loss, the Los Angeles Rams – for the moment, anyway – surrender the top seed.  They, along with the Chiefs and the Saints, have been one of the top stories in the league.  Another team that mostly seems unstoppable at times, the Rams are clearly headed for the playoffs.

At the moment, the Seattle Seahawks don’t seem to be too relevant.  After a disappointing 25-17 loss at home to the Chargers (I’m telling you, that team is worth keeping an eye on), the Seahawks sit at an uninspiring 4-4.  Things will probably get worse before they get better.  Their next two road games will be in LA against the Rams and in Carolina.  Assuming they win the home game in between against Green Bay, they could face their last 5 games with a 5-6 record.

However, from that point on, the schedule mostly becomes their friend.  Their final five games include two against San Francisco and a home game against Arizona.  They also have Minnesota, but at home.  Even assuming they can’t keep up with Kansas City (even though that, too, is a home game), with the soft end of schedule, a 9-7 record is not out of reason.

And that would probably be enough to get them a playoff ticket.

Northern Division

In one of the most competitive divisions, the Chicago Bears have eked in front of the Minnesota Vikings with a 5-3 record to the Vikes 5-3-1 mark.  Close now, my expectation is that as the season wears on the Bears will pull away.

Gaining confidence with each week, Chicago’s remaining road schedule is less than daunting.  They will yet play in Detroit, New York (against the Giants), and San Francisco before ending the season in Minnesota – by which point the division should be decided.  Their remaining home games are stiffer, and will give a sense of how good this young Chicago team is.  Three of the games are division matches against the Lions, Vikings and Packers.  They will also host the Rams.  So there is opportunity for them to slide back in the pack. But, with their easy road schedule, if they can represent at home, this division is theirs for the taking.

As for the Vikings, in addition to both games against the Bears, Minnesota will also face road challenges in New England and Seattle – games that I don’t expect them to win.  The game in Seattle in Week 14 will probably be the most decisive.  The winner here probably gains that final playoff spot.  With the tie on their record, Minnesota will almost certainly not be involved in any tie-breakers.  They will probably either end the season 9-6-1 or 8-7-1, meaning they will go into the playoffs before any 9-7 team (if they finish 9-6-1), but after any 10-6 team.

Eastern Division

The Eastern Division of the NFC is limping through the season as the parity division.  Washington currently holds the division lead, at just 5-3, one game better than the 4-4 Eagles.  With the season at the half-way mark, Washington is the only current division leader that I expect to relinquish its lead and – in fact – miss the playoffs entirely.

While the Eagles have yet to remotely resemble the team that soared to last year’s title, my feeling is that they are still intrinsically the better team, and will rise to the top before the season is quite completed.  These two teams still have both of their games against each other before them.  If Washington is the better team, they will have their opportunities to demonstrate that.

Fading Hopes

As the early playoff picture takes shape, two of last year’s premium combatants will be challenged to return.  Two years ago, the Atlanta Falcons played in the Super Bowl.  Last year they played as deep as the Divisional Round before yielding to the eventual champs.  Last year’s Jacksonville Jaguars weren’t ousted until the Patriots took them in the AFC title game.

This year’s Falcons sit third in their division at just 4-4.  There is still plenty of time for them to rebound, but it hurts that they are in the same division as New Orleans and Carolina – two teams that seem to be among the NFL’s best.  At best, the Falcons seem to be battling for that last wildcard berth.

Adding to the stress is a very challenging closing stretch.  Their last six games take them into New Orleans, at home against Baltimore, on the road in Green Bay (this will be December 9, and the tundra is likely to be frozen), home again against Arizona, on the road in Carolina (both of their remaining games against the top two teams in their division will be on the road), and then a final road game in Tampa Bay.

It’s a tall order.  If the Falcons fight their way back into the playoffs, they will have definitely earned it.

Jacksonville’s situation is a little more desperate.  After a 3-1 start that included a convincing 31-20 conquest of New England, the Jaguars have lost 4 straight.  They are now tied for last in their division, and trail Houston by two games.

The record, though, isn’t the greatest concern here.  That would be – as it has been through most of his career – Blake Bortles.  The four losses have followed a similar formula: stop the run, get a lead, and force Blake to beat us with his arm.  In the 4 losses, Bortles is 78 for 140 (55.7%) for 926 yards with 3 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.  His 68.3 passer rating in these games highlights the concern.  Jacksonville has scored 46 point in the 4 games.

Does Jacksonville have enough season left to climb back in?  No question.  Do they have the quarterback to get them there?  To be determined.

Last Sunday’s Rams/Saints clash had a decided playoff atmosphere to it.  That intensity will become more and more common as we head down the stretch and seasons will start to be defined by the outcomes.

It’s my favorite time of the year.

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