First Thoughts on the 2019 Playoff Picture

With everybody having played at least eight games, now – and some having played nine – the 2019 playoff picture is starting to come into focus.  By this point of the season, most of the teams that are in playoff position traditionally will hold onto those spots.

With eight weeks of games to play, though, there will be some shifting of positions, and usually a couple of teams that will drop out of contention.  This year, I have my eye on two teams – one AFC and one NFC that are not currently in playoff position that I rather suspect will be there by the time December rolls around.

But first, let’s take a look at how things are currently set-up.

AFC East

The defending NFL Champions got their hats handed to them on Sunday night, but they still currently hold the top seed in the AFC by virtue of their 8-1 record.  The loss does narrow the gap between them and the two 6-2 teams that are chasing them.  One of those teams – the Buffalo Bills – are in New England’s same division.  Beyond the perception that New England is a significantly better team, still, than Buffalo, the Bills schedule will also hinder them from chasing the Patriots down from behind.

Beginning with Week 13, Buffalo has road games coming up in Dallas, Pittsburgh and New England – as well as a home game against the scary Baltimore Ravens.  New England has a difficult closing schedule, too.  Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston and Kansas City all await them after their bye – but at least the Patriots will get to play Dallas and Kansas City at home.  The likelihood of Buffalo pulling out the division title is, I think, slim.  They are, however, currently sitting in the top wild card spot.

AFC North

At 6-2, Baltimore is currently the only over .500 team in this division, and unlikely to be caught.  If that does happen, though, it will be because the Ravens had struggled through the hardest remaining stretch of their schedule.  Beginning in Week 11, they play Houston at home, the Rams in LA, San Francisco at home, and in Buffalo.  There may yet be a solution for this revolutionary Baltimore offense, but at the moment, their playoff credentials appear solid.

AFC South

This is the AFC’s tightest division at the moment, with a half game separating the 6-3 Houston Texans (who currently hold the number 3 seed) and the 5-3 Indianapolis Colts (who currently hold the second wildcard spot).  With Houston’s remaining schedule slightly easier than Indy’s, the Texans seem likely to hold on.

Both teams have challenging closing schedules, but most of Houston’s tough games are at home (where they will play Indianapolis, New England and Tennessee).  Their most challenging road games for the rest of the season take them into Baltimore to play the Ravens in Week 11, and into Tennessee in Week 15.

The Colts, on the other hand, will finish with four of their last six on the road – all of them difficult games (Houston, Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Jacksonville).  Those four road games will be especially critical for Indianapolis, because right now I don’t think 9-7 gets you into the playoffs.  In fact, at the moment, I have the Colts marked as the AFC team that will cough up its playoff position and watch the postseason from home.

AFC West

The Raiders have made a little run of late to creep back to .500, but they are still 1.5 games behind Kansas City, who seem to have survived the loss of their superstar quarterback without losing their lead in the division.  The Chiefs do have some tough road games left – in Tennessee, in Los Angeles against the Chargers, and in New England.  But even if they lose all of those games, it is hard to imagine them being overtaken by Oakland – or anyone else in that division.

NFC West

The NFC West is the home of the only undefeated team left in football – the 8-0 San Francisco 49ers.  They are, of course, currently the top seed in the NFC.  Talk of an undefeated season here is fairly premature, as San Fran’s closing schedule is borderline brutal.  On the plus side, though, they only have three more road games this season – games that will take them into Baltimore, New Orleans and Seattle.  A couple of the home games should be pretty difficult, too, as the Seahawks, Packers and Rams will all come to the city by the bay.

If this 49er team isn’t the real deal, they will be exposed rather quickly, now.  However, since they have answered every challenge presented them so far, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and call them the best team in this division.

Chasing them for the moment are the 7-2 Seahawks and the 5-3 Rams.  Seattle currently holds the top wild card spot, with the Rams just out of the playoffs – if they would start today.  At 7-2, Seattle’s position certainly looks solid – and their fanbase might have every reason to expect to see this team in the playoffs.  But Seattle has two major storm clouds hanging over them.  The first is a truly brutal closing schedule.  The second is a terrible defense.

There is no other way to say this, but Seattle has managed to fight its way to a 7-2 record in spite of one of football’s worst defenses.  With their 40-34 overtime win on Sunday, Seattle has now allowed at least 20 points in 8 of their 9 games, and 30 or more three times.  They have surrendered over 400 yards five times, including their 27-20 Week Eight win over Atlanta when they allowed 510 yards.  They rank twenty-second in the league in scoring defense, and twenty-fifth in yardage allowed.

They are twenty-eighth against the pass – in no small part because they have managed just 15 quarterback sacks this season.  They are twenty-ninth in sack rate, dropping the opposing passer on only 4.2% of his drop-backs.  Against the run, they are allowing 4.7 yards per rushing attempt, and have allowed 12 rushing touchdowns this season – the NFL’s second highest total.  Only Carolina – allowing 14 – has served up more.

Russell Wilson and company run a mostly magical offense, but this tepid defense will face this closing schedule beginning this Monday night (team record in parenthesis): in San Francisco (8-0), in Philadelphia (5-4), home vs Minnesota (6-3), at the Rams (5-3), at Carolina (5-3), home against Arizona (3-5-1) and home against San Fran (8-0).  Unless this defense gets much better before Monday night, this is the NFC team that I foresee giving up its spot in the dance.

NFC South

Lurking just off of San Francisco’s port bow are the New Orleans Saints – now 7-1 and holders of the conference’s second seed.  New Orleans’ future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees went to the sidelines injured in the second game of the season.  The Saints won all five games that he missed – three of them on the road (in Seattle, Jacksonville, and Chicago), two of them when the offense scored fewer than 14 points (12-10 over Dallas and 13-6 over Jacksonville) and the other three when the defense allowed more than 21 points (33-27 over Seattle, 31-24 over Tampa Bay, and 36-25 over Chicago).

And now Brees is back.  That is more than just a little bit scary.  This team does everything well – throw the ball, run the ball, stop the run, sack the passer – and is now in a mindset of doing whatever it needs to to win.

Their remaining schedule isn’t all that fierce, and the tougher games remaining will be mostly played at home (Carolina, San Francisco and Indianapolis).  They close the season on the road in Tennessee and in Carolina.  Compared to some of the other schedules, this one doesn’t sound so bad.

Good chance here for the Saints not only to win their division, but slip in front of the 49ers for the conference’s top seed.  That Week 14 game against the 49ers is already rife with playoff importance.

Carolina (5-3) is the only other winning team in that division.  The Panthers have had some bad moments, but have overall looked legitimate.  They do play the Saints twice, so catching New Orleans is possible, but the Panthers also have a few hard road games ahead.  Besides playing in New Orleans, they will also journey into Green Bay and Indianapolis.  If they win their home games, however, and pick up at least the road win in Atlanta, the Panthers could reasonably expect a 10-6 finish, which could make them one of the contenders for the playoff berth that the Seahawks will vacate.

NFC North

This one will come down to the wire between the 7-2 Green Bay Packers and the 6-3 Minnesota Vikings.  This one will come down to tie-breakers, with (my prediction) the Packers winning because of a better record in common games.  The Packers currently hold the third seed.  The Vikings currently sit as the number two wild card team, likely to finish as the number one wild card.

NFC East

This division has suddenly gotten tighter as the Eagles have started to piece their game together.  The Dallas Cowboys (5-3) hold a half game lead over the 5-4 Philadelphia team.

The Cowboys’ remaining schedule has a few top teams on it.  They will play Minnesota and the Rams at home.  The nastiest road game they have left is in New England in Week 12.  They also play in Philly in Week 16.

All of Philadelphia’s toughest remaining games will come at home.  Their remaining road schedule takes them into Miami, into Washington, and into New York to play the Giants.  The home schedule, on the other hand, is plenty daunting.  Their remaining home opponents include New England, Seattle and Dallas.  If they lose two of these three – and I rather think they will – they will probably see the division crown end up in Dallas – and may find themselves out of the playoffs entirely.  Even at 10-6, Philadelphia could well join Carolina as 10-6 teams watching the playoffs on TV.

Who’s Getting In?

The NFC has no shortage of quality teams waiting to claim Seattle’s spot.  Of the trio of teams with a real good chance of finishing 10-6, the Rams will probably get the nod.  Playing in the very competitive NFC West, their “strength of victory” number could well be the deciding factor.

The AFC usurper will be one of the better stories of the season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers began the season getting run off the field in New England.  In their Week Two loss against Seattle, they lost their starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, for the season.  Turning to backup Mason Rudolph, they lost two of the next three to begin the season 1-4, dropping off of everyone’s radar.

Since then, Mike Tomlin’s crew has won three in a row.  They haven’t all been pretty, but the victories do include a road win at the Chargers and Sunday’s 26-24 squeaker over Indianapolis on a missed field goal at the end of the game.

The Steelers and Rudolph still don’t scare anybody.  But take a glance at the rest of their schedule.  This Sunday they get the Rams at home (the usurper’s bowl?).  They end the season against Baltimore in Baltimore.  In between, this is how it reads: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Arizona, Buffalo (at home), and the New York Jets.  Even if they lose to the Rams and the Ravens, if Pittsburgh takes care of business against the weak sister teams in between, they will be going back to the playoffs – however short that stay might be.

So, here is how I call the final seedings:

NFC: Saints (1) 49ers (2) Packers (3) Cowboys (4) Vikings (5) and Rams (6).

AFC: Patriots (1), Ravens (2), Chiefs (3), Texans (4), Steelers (5) and Bills (6).

There are still a lot of games to be played, but this is how it looks to me at the half-way point.

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