NFL: Halfway to the Finish Line… Who are the pretenders, and who are the contenders?

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?)

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

NFC

– Arizona, Green Bay, Saints, Philadelphia, Dallas (if Romo comes back quickly) and Detroit

AFC

– New England, Denver, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Miami and Baltimore

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NFL: Week 13 Predictions

It’s time for the holidays, which means three games kick off the action on Thursday. I’d say that’s a good enough reason to say Happy Thanksgiving.

Last week I was 7-7 (including the tie) last week. Here’s to a better showing in week 13.

Thanksgiving Day Games

  • Green Bay @ Detroit: It’s a battle for first place in the NFC North to kick-off all the holiday action. A Packers win vaults them back into 1st thanks in part to their tie from a week ago.  A Lions win gives them a big edge over the rest of the field.  Aaron Rodgers is still not back, and it remains to be seen if Matt Flynn or Scott Tolzien gets the call for the Pack, though Flynn is expected to get the nod.  So for that reason, give me Matt Stafford to bounce back from a rough performance in week 12. DETROIT WINS
  • Oakland @ Dallas: The Raiders have looked a lot better this year, and the Boys have been up and down.  But Dallas is used to playing on Thanksgiving, and if ever there was a time for them to live up to their potential, it’s now in a weakening NFC East. The biggest threat to a Cowboy loss is their inability to stop the run a week ago against New York, with Rashad Jennings having a breakout season this year for Oakland.  But even if Jennings can put up a lot of yards on the ground, I still see the Boys pulling out the Turkey day win. DALLAS WINS
  • Pittsburgh @ Baltimore: Both teams got of to slow starts, but have been coming on strong of late.  The AFC North rivals now battle for 2nd place, and a possible wild card berth.  The Steelers are on a 3-game win streak, but I think the Ravens defend their home turf and get the run game going again. BALTIMORE WINS

Take a second and tell me which of these  games sounds best with a side of turkey?

and now back to my picks.

1PM Sunday Games

  • Tennessee @ Indianapolis: Both teams currently have spots in the playoffs.  But a Colts loss would mean just 1 game separation in the AFC South.  Indy has been getting off to horrible starts of late but the Titans offense hasn’t been great either.  I just think the Colts are the better team, and this will be a good test and game to get back on track heading into the playoffs. It will also all but lock up the division crown. INDY WINS
  • Jacksonville @ Cleveland: The Jags have played better in the 2nd half of the season, where as the Browns are struggling after a fast start. And it hasn’t gotten any better for Cleveland, who lost a 3rd different starting quarterback to injury last week. That means Brandon Weedon, or their opening day starter is back under center.  And I think that makes the difference.  The Jags have been pretty good defensively of late but I think the Browns find a way to get their 5th win of the year.  CLEVELAND WINS
  • Tampa Bay @ Carolina: Two teams on win streaks  do battle in Carolina.  The Panthers have rebounded in a big way from a 1-3 start, while the Bucs haven’t lost since picking up their 1st win of the season.  The division foes may both be hot, but the Panthers have something to fight for, and playing at home, I see win number 8 in their future.  CAROLINA WINS
  • Chicago @ Minnesota: The Bears defense hasn’t been good since their 3-0 start.  The Vikings get very little offense outside of Adrian Peterson these days.  Jay Cutler is expected to remain out for this one, but Josh McGown has done a pretty good job.  I think the Bears can get back to their take-a-way selves, and rattle Christian Ponder. CHICAGO WINS
  • New England @ Houston: The Texans season has been very disappointing, while the Pats just continue to chug along.  I don’t see the Texans losing out the rest of the season, but I also can’t see them winning this week, especially with the good feelings New England is coming off after a huge comeback on Sunday Night over the Broncos. NEW ENGLAND WINS
  • Arizona @ Philadelphia: Both teams are flying high, and both are in the hunt for a playoff spot.  Nick Foles will in fact remain the starter for the Eagles, and for good reason, as he’s one of the biggest reasons for their 3-game win streak.  Philly hasn’t been good at home this year.  And I think the Cardinals are defense is for real, showing why this team got off to a 4-0 start a year ago.  With a real quarterback this team has been good all year.  And I think they take another step towards a possible Wild Card berth. ARIZONA WINS
  • Miami @ New York Jets: Neither team has been good lately.  Geno Smith is starting to hit the rookie wall, and the run game for the Jets hasn’t been consistent.  The same can be said for Miami, who continue to struggle after the loss of offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. I can’t see this being a clean game, but I think the Jets get back on track, at least for a week. NEW YORK WINS

4/4:25PM Sunday Games

  • Atlanta @ Buffalo: The Bills are coming off a bye, the Falcons have the worst record in the NFC.  It’s crazy to say that, but a Vikings tie dropped them in the 16th spot. Buffalo isn’t too much better off, sitting at the bottom of the AFC East. The Falcons defense was pretty good against a very good Saints team last week, and the Bills aren’t even in the same league as New Orleans.  For no other reason than I have liked Atlanta’s roster all year, despite the losses, I think the Falcons finally snap their 5-game skid.  ATLANTA WINS
  • St. Louis @ San Francisco: This should be fun.  Both NFC West teams boast shutdown defenses and good run games.  The 49ers have been up-and-down lately, while the Rams are coming off two very good blowout wins.  I think this will be more of a defensive struggle, with the Rams finding a way to come out on top.  This team gave the Niners fits a year ago, and I think it continues. ST LOUIS WINS
  • Cincinnati @ San Diego: The Chargers are coming off a huge win over the Chiefs, further showing the potential of this team.  But they have been very inconsistent basically the time Philip Rivers has been there, so it’s hard to trust them.  The Bengals have had it easy all season in the AFC North, and are coming off their bye.  San Diego has been shut down by lesser defenses, and only took off last week following Kansas City’s defensive injuries.  So give me the road team to pounce on the previously mentioned inconsistent Chargers. CINCY WINS
  • Denver @ Kansas City: They enter action tied for 1st, with the Broncos holding the edge thanks to a big win two weeks ago.  Whoever wins this time around could end up the number 1 seed in the AFC this year.  If you asked me who was winning this game based on how the Broncos played last week, I’d say KC.  But while the Chiefs played very well on offense, they lost a lot of key pieces on defense, and if they get into another shootout, I can’t see them out-dueling Denver.  After a 9-0 start, it’s hard to say they’ll lose a 3rd in a row, but I can’t see Peyton Manning having a 2nd bad performance in a row.  DENVER WINS

Sunday Night Football

  • New York Giants @ Washington: Both teams are coming off losses, and are just trying to stay out of last place in the East.  New York got a lot of good out of their offense a week ago, with Eli Manning committing no turnovers for just the 2nd time this season, and a huge effort on the ground.  The defense wasn’t bad either.  As for the Redskins, they were not impressive offensively yet again, and the defense wasn’t anything to write home about.  So give me the road team to have one of their better games of the year. NEW YORK WINS

Monday Night Football

  • New Orleans @ Seattle: One of the better Monday night match-ups of the season.  It’s a huge game in terms of who finishes as the number 1 seed in the NFC, with these two teams entering action with the 2 best records in the conference.  The Saints are not the same team on the road as they are at home, and having to go to the place with arguably the best home-field advantage in football isn’t going to help that.  I thin it’ll be a close game throughout, but give me the Birds at home. SEATTLE WINS

There you have it.  Enjoy your long holiday weekend Scoreboard watchers. May the turkey be as juicy as the story-lines that pop up this week in the NFL.

Happy Holidays.

– Alex