I cannot believe we are here already. 9 weeks down. The playoff picture is starting to take shape.
So who has themselves in prime position, who has work to do and who is on the clock? Here is a breakdown by division of how all 32 teams look midway through the season.
AFC EAST (Remember when we all thought Tom Brady was done?)
- New England Patriots (7-2): Since being blown out in week 4, the Pats have won 5 straight, 4 of those by double digits. They made easy work of the of 3 teams that could be in the playoffs, including a 22-point victory over the Broncos last week. Tom Brady is top 5 in passing yards in a season where Rob Gronkowski came in off injury and Julian Edelman was leading the team in receiving yards early. It took a couple weeks for them to figure things out, and now here they are, atop the AFC once again. It’s almost like in the NBA when everyone calls out the Spurs for being too old, and they go and win the championship. Maybe we should stop underestimating Brady and Belichick?
- Buffalo Bills (5-3): They’ve lost their top running back, their 2nd back is banged up and yet here they are, fighting for a wild card spot. A big reason why is their defense. They’re 6th in points per game in the league and are a +7 in turnover differential. Add to that a steady progression from rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins to a big play threat, the ability to close out games and decent production from QBs EJ Manuel and Kyle Orton (yes that Kyle Orton). If this team wants to stay in the conversation, they have to continue their strong defensive presence and get Fred Jackson back.
- Miami Dolphins (5-3): Ryan Tannehill has taken a step. It’s in the right direction, but I’m not ready to say it’s a step that puts him in the next tier of quarterbacks step yet. His decision making has gotten much better, as has his accuracy, all things you want to see as your franchise starter gets older. Losing Knowshon Moreno was big, but Lamar Miller has done a good job picking up the slack. They find ways to win, and just demolished the once high flying Chargers to the tune of 37-0. Like the Bills, their defense is where they make money, and of the two teams, I think they have a better shot at a wild card spot coming off an 8-8 record a year ago. They’re no worse than a season ago.
- New York Jets (1-8): 8 straight losses with no hope on the horizon. Geno Smith is on the bench. Eric Decker hasn’t been the addition they hoped for. Their defense has been awful and the run game has been abandoned. Things are so bad for the Jets that fan put their money together to buy a “Fire Idzik” billboard (their GM). Could Rex Ryan be out at the end of the season? Time will tell, but they’re fighting hard for a very high draft pick, and not the playoffs like I thought they would be this season.
AFC NORTH (Who would’ve thought all these teams would be above .500?)
- Cincinnati Bengals (5-2-1): They’ve been inconsistent since coming out of their week 4 by with a record of 3-0. Inconsistency is bad in any sport, but it’s very bad for Cincy this year, as they can’t afford a slip in the only top-to-bottom over .500 division in football. Andy Dalton has shown flashes of deserving the big 6-year $115 million contract he got in the off-season. But again, inconsistency is an issue. Hopefully AJ Green is over his injury issues, because everyone knows how lethal he is in the passing game, and putting a confident Mohammad Sanu, who stepped up for Green in his absence, next to him is huge.
- Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3): 12 TDs in two games. Historic numbers. That’s what Ben Roethlisberger and company have put up of late to get back into the division champion conversation. Pittsburgh is still very inconsistent. They started out 3-3, and despite their 3 game win streak, the Steelers defense is nowhere near the “steal curtain” of old. It’s more like a bead curtain. It’s easy to outscore your opponents, until it’s not. Can they keep it up? Yes. Will they? Who knows.
- Cleveland Browns (5-3): So… we all saw this coming right? The Browns are 2 games over .500 despite not getting much from Ben Tate on the ground, an oft injured Jordan Cameron and a QB controversy heading into the season. They’ve been impressive, finding ways to win games late that they would’ve lost in years past. Brian Hoyer has gotten better at late game decision making and has his team looking at winning it’s most games in a while.
- Baltimore Ravens (5-4): After looking like they’d turned a corner, Baltimore has lost two straight in the division, finding themselves momentarily in the basement. The positive for this team? They have games left in the division and it’s close, so it won’t take long to jump back into the top. But they can’t be so inconsistent on defense. The offense without Ray Rice hasn’t really skipped a beat, so if they can get some more stops, they will be in it til the end.
AFC SOUTH (Indianapolis is starting to pull away)
- Indianapolis Colts (6-3): After an 0-2 start, the Colts have righted the ship in a huge way. Andrew Luck leads the league in passing yards, with a healthy 3,000 plus already! So you wouldn’t be surprised to know they have the best total offense because of it,which has helped cover up their middle of the pack total team defense. Those numbers are a bit skewed at 18 after allowing over 600 total yards to Pittsburgh in week 8, but it is what it is. They already beat Houston once, so in affect have a 3 game lead, and with how they’re playing, I think they’re easily on their way to another division crown.
- Houston Texans (4-5): The good news? JJ Watt is a beast and they’ve already doubled their win total from a year ago. The bad news. they are in the same division as the Colts, and Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t the greatest replacement for Matt Schaub, which has led to him being benched in favor of Ryan Mallett. But they are still in the conversation without any real production out of number 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney, so there is room for improvement. Add better days from offensive weapons Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, and I see them hovering around .500 the rest of the way.
- Tennessee Titans (2-6): They’re in the bottom third of the league on both the offensive and defensive sides of the football. So frankly, I don’t know how they have two wins (one of which came against Jacksonville). Two of their losses were by a combined 3 points, which shows a lack of late game execution, which reeks of bad coaching and bad personnel. Delanie Walker might be the lone guy that’s having a representative season for Tennessee. And after a 7-9 season a year ago, there was a place for improvement, and they haven’t and look like they won’t even get back to a similar record this year.
- Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8): They’re not good, but I have to give the Jags some credit. They aren’t rolling over on a weekly basis. They took down the Browns for their first win in wee 7. Things weren’t made easy for the Bengals and Dolphins following that win. Denard Robinson has proven to be a very good starting running back and Blake Bortles has shown some glimpses as the 4th pick in the 2014 draft. So while the record will again put them in the running for a top pick, there are at least signs of talent at skill positions in Jacksonville.
AFC WEST (Denver might start to run away with this one)
- Denver Broncos (6-2): Peyton Manning is still really good, but even he couldn’t lead his team past the red hot Patriots. But at 6-2, they’re still in prime position to make a deep playoff run despite a very difficult schedule. The difference between last year’s Broncos and this year’s… the defense. A bad showing against New England not withstanding, off-season acquisitions are doing big things for this team on both sides of the football. This offense is so good, Wes Welker is now the 4th option. Think about that. I’m not worried about this team, and even though they haven’t run away with the division, the Chargers have dropped and they can do no worse than tying the season series with both them and the Chiefs.
- Kansas City Chiefs (5-3): The defense hasn’t allowed more than 26 points in a game, and that came week 1. Jamal Charles continues to have the ability to break out on any day. Alex Smith isn’t lighting up the stat sheet, but he’s done enough to keep them in the conversation in the division. This team was never going to repeat the 9-0 start from a year ago, but they’ve responded from a slow start, and can still make a play at a wild card spot, if not the division.
- San Diego Chargers (5-4): This team was 5-1 and looked like a top 2, top 3 team in the league. Now they’re on a 3-game slid that’s seen them score 3 TDs in the past 8 quarters of football. The defense can’t live up to that, but it’s hard to outscore 35-plus point efforts as well. So if this team wants to get back in the conversation, both sides of the football need to improve and fast.
- Oakland Raiders (0-8): They may never win again. This team has yet to show me any reason to ever pick them. Charles Woodson called it early, and it never sparked a fire. They’re the worst team in the league, but could always fall into a win, and could lose that title to a Jets or Jaguars team. But I doubt that happens.
NFC EAST (Is this division really as “strong” as the records suggest?)
- Philadelphia Eagles (6-2): They’re well on their way to a possible 2nd straight division crown. But a couple of big injuries in week 9 could derail their Superbowl aspirations. Nick Foles is set to be out 6-8 weeks with a broken collarbone, while DeMeco Ryans is out for the season with a torn Achilles. The latter could prove more costly, as Philly at least has a backup QB in Mark Sanchez who has proven he can help lead a team deep into the playoffs. But if they want to survive the injuries, the run game has to pick up the slack. So this team will only go as far as LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles can run, in conjunction with Sanchez limiting the mistakes.
- Dallas Cowboys (6-3): Just when you thought this might be their season, Tony Romo goes down. DeMarco Murray is on a record pace on the round, but with his injury history, how much more can you ask from him? Brandon Weedon wasn’t horrible with Cleveland, but you’re not going far with him either. You’ve got to hope you can get Romo back after the bye week in week 12, while hoping teams like the Packers, Panthers, Seahawks or 49ers don’t get hot and steal a wildcard spot.
- New York Giants (3-5): The G-men were feeling good about themselves after a 3-game win streak that saw them score 30-plus to get them above the .500 mark at 3-2. But it’s been downhill from there. Eli Manning hasn’t thrown an interception since week 4, and has just 5 all season. But the injuries are piling up and Manning has no real deep threat. They’ve put themselves behind the 8-ball, but with games left with both the Eagles and Cowboys at home, to go with some softer games in the 2nd half, it’ll be tough, but they don’t have any wiggle room if they want to make a real run for the playoffs.
- Washington Redskins (3-6): RGIII came back, for better or worse and it didn’t make them better. The former Rookie of the Year looked slow and out of it in his return, and I didn’t understand bringing him back when they did. Colt McCoy (yes he still exists) looked pretty good and got them a win against Dallas. I would’ve run him out there again. They’re the worst team in the division, even with how banged up the Giants are.
NFC NORTH (This was always going to be a fight between Detroit and Green Bay)
- Detroit Lions (6-2): They boast the best team defense in football. You’ve been looking for this team to put all their talent together for a while now, and this seems to be the year, led by the D. But that being said, their offense has been off lately. Calvin Johnson has missed time, the run game isn’t what you want and they’ve played games using their 4th string tight-end. But when your defense is top 5 in rushing and passing defense, it tends to hide offensive question marks. If they can get Megatron healthy, this team is going to be very dangerous in the playoffs.
- Green Bay Packers (5-3): They might be in 2nd place, but they’re the best team in this division. Green Bay got off to a slow start, but while defense has carried the current leader, the Pack is a much more balanced team. Aaron Rodgers is an MVP candidate again. And if Eddie Lacy could ever be the consistent threat they need on the ground, I don’t know how you beat this team.
- Chicago Bears (3-5): You boast probably the best wide-receiver combination in football to go with a top 5 running back, and yet they find themselves under .500. The defense, aside from allowing a 51 spot to New England in their last game has been pretty good. The issue is on offense, where there is questions of a lack of trust between Jay Cutler and his targets of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. And when there is questioning of each other in the media, it’s hard to recover from.
- Minnesota Vikings (3-5): considering they lost their starting QB and their All-pro running back early on, Mike Zimmer has his team competing. Even with Matt Cassell and Adrian Peterson, I don’t think this team would be much better than 3-5, but they’ve learned that Teddy Bridgewater is a capable starter. In a tough division like the North, at least they’ve shown they can play with teams outside. Now they just have to figure out how to make games in the division close. And with how bad Chicago looks, finishing 3rd is in the realm of possibility, especially with two left against the Bears.
NFC SOUTH (The most disappointing division in football?)
- New Orleans Saints (4-4): It’s been a long trek back to .500 for the Saints after an 1-3 start. Drew Brees’ low is 17 points scored… that on the road against the Cowboys. So the offense has been pretty good. But this team is only going to go as far as the defense. They are very lucky to be in a division having a down year top-to-bottom. Having a game up on Carolina already for me gives them a clear path to the division crown.
- Carolina Panthers (3-5-1): So I think their defense forgot how to play… well defense. Carolina finds itself top 3 in points allowed and the bottom 3rd of the league in total yards allowed. Add to that, a banged up Cam Newton, and an offense that finds themselves in similar spots in offense as defense. All ingredients for a below .500 record. And nothing I’ve seen of late has me thinking they can rebound in the second half of the season here.
- Atlanta Falcons (2-6): Remember when this was a good team? Yeah, neither do I. A 2-0 start, the Falcons look like the 2013-14 Texans that finished the season on a 14-game skid. You know, minus the loss of a quarterback. Matt Ryan has been healthy, and has had enough weapons to get some wins here. The issue is on defense. Their secondary is basically swiss cheese, and the front 7 isn’t any better. I do think they’ll find a way to win again this season, but it might not be more than once or twice.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-7): Ugliness. I thought they’d be a playoff team. Nope. A rotating door at quarterback has shifted back to Josh McCown. Doug Martin looks like he’s never ran a football. The defense is atrocious. Vincent Jackson seems to forget that he’s a load and can out muscle any secondary player. It’s just bad for the Bucs.
NFC WEST (Arizona far atop the hill, just like we all thought… right?)
- Arizona Cardinals (7-1): I give you the best team in the NFC, and it’s not really even close. They swept the NFC East that currently holds 2 of the 4 best records in the conference. They survived a couple weeks without their starting quarterback. Not to mention they’re getting healthy and are consistent on both sides of the ball. Arizona’s only real issue is that they still have two match-ups with the defending champs, but with how they’ve played, there’s no reason they shouldn’t at least split with them and maintain their led in the division.
- Seattle Seahawks (5-3): For a team that entered the year as defending champs, they look nothing like a team capable of a repeat. Russell Wilson is leading one of the worst passing offenses in football. Marshawn Lynch is a shell of himself. Percy Harvin, a dynamic offensive weapon, was so distracting they traded him for nothing to the Jets. And the Legion of Boom has been disappointing to say the least.
- San Francisco 49ers (4-5): This team is a mess. Between off-the-field issues and a lack of a run game to help take pressure of Colin Kaepernick who has his team in the bottom half in passing offense, they find themselves on the outside looking in. Rumors that Jim Harbaugh is leaving don’t help. Their only bright spot is their team defense, ranked 2nd in total yards allowed. What they need is to take advantage of 3 games left with the teams ahead of them, and for Kaepernick to figure some things out offensively, particularly in the red zone.
- St. Louis Rams (3-5): I have to give them credit, they don’t quit. They’ve shown glimpses with getting big leads early over the Cowboys and Seahawks, but then they regress to a 3-5 team by losing both of those leads. Now they look to play spoiler (as they did against San Fran this week). Losing your starter just before the season starts is tough. If they could’ve executed better down the stretch of games, they could be in the conversation for 2nd in this division with a down year from the champs and niners.
So if things continue on the track they are, here are my 12 playoff teams as of now:
– Arizona, Green Bay, Saints, Philadelphia, Dallas (if Romo comes back quickly) and Detroit
– New England, Denver, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Miami and Baltimore