NFL Playoff Picture: Analyzing the Latest Scenarios for Week 12

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor INovember 18, 2013

NFL Playoff Picture: Analyzing the Latest Scenarios for Week 12

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    Linebacker Trent Cole and the Philadelphia Eagles suddenly find themselves in first place in the NFC East.
    Linebacker Trent Cole and the Philadelphia Eagles suddenly find themselves in first place in the NFC East.John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

    Is it ever too early to speculate?

    One more time, for your viewing and reading pleasure, here is a look at the NFL’s postseason matchups as they stand at this time.

    It is amazing what can happen in the span of seven days—or in a little over three hours, as was the case with one of the conferences. Meanwhile, there’s a new division leader in another conference, based partly on simple mathematics.

    Are we anxious for the playoffs to begin? There’s too much football remaining over the next six-plus weeks.

    But a little sneak peek never hurt anyone.

On the Bubble

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    Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

    Listed below are the top teams in each conference that would be on the outside looking in if the playoffs started today. The number attached is their current seeding.


    7. Miami Dolphins (5-5): Six days after handing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers their first victory of the season, Joe Philbin’s club got back to .500 after shackling the San Diego Chargers. It is also worth noting that the Dolphins play four of their final five games versus their AFC East rivals.

    8. Oakland Raiders (4-6): The Silver and Black aren't all the way back, but at least they're in the conversation. Dennis Allen’s team got its first road win of the season on Sunday against the Houston Texans. equaling last year’s victory total. But who plays quarterback next week versus the Tennessee Titans: Matt McGloin or Terrelle Pryor?

    9. Tennessee Titans (4-6): Mike Munchak’s team has to be kicking itself. The Titans lost a pair of home games within the division, first to the then-winless Jacksonville Jaguars and then to the Indianapolis Colts after jumping out to a 14-0 lead. And the two setbacks came in the span of five days. Getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 won’t be easy.

    10. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-6): Mike Tomlin’s team has won four of its last six games after that 0-4 start. A lot will be determined in the next week and a half, as the Steelers travel to Cleveland next Sunday and then head to Baltimore for Thanksgiving.

    11. Baltimore Ravens (4-6): John Harbaugh’s defending Super Bowl champions have already lost as many games as they did all of last season. The good news on Sunday against the Chicago Bears was that running back Ray Rice and the ground attack finally got untracked. But a loss is a loss.

    12. Cleveland Browns (4-6): The Browns looked like they might be on their way to a season sweep of the Cincinnati Bengals when they jumped out to a 13-0 at Cincinnati on Sunday. But there were collapses in every aspect of their 41-20 loss. The Steelers come to town this week, and this time around, it’s an even more intriguing matchup.

    13. San Diego Chargers (4-6): After a nice midseason surge that saw Mike McCoy’s team with a 4-3 record and a win over the Indianapolis Colts, the Chargers have dropped three straight games. And while the Bolts will get another crack at the Raiders, they have already lost to both the Dolphins and Titans.


    7. Arizona Cardinals (6-4): Don’t look now, but the Cards have become awfully tough to deal with thanks to an opportunistic defense, just enough Carson Palmer and head coach Bruce Arians. And now, this scrappy team finds itself tied for second in the NFC West with the defending conference champion San Francisco 49ers.

    8. Chicago Bears (6-4): Between a long weather delay and overtime, it was a long day for the Bears on Sunday. But a 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens has Marc Trestman’s team back in a tie for first place in the division. Still, that sweep at the hands (or paws) of the Detroit Lions this season looms large.

    9. Dallas Cowboys (5-5): While Jason Garrett’s team was resting this week, the rival Philadelphia Eagles moved into first place in the NFC East. The Cowboys get back to action this week against the surging New York Giants, and completing a season sweep of the series is essential.

    10. Green Bay Packers (5-5): Three different starting quarterbacks in three games and three straight losses in those contests as well. There’s still time for the Pack to get back atop the NFC North thanks to three more divisional games. But the recent losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants could come back to haunt Green Bay come tie-breaker time.

AFC No. 1 Seed: Denver Broncos (9-1)

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    Playoff Opponent: First-Round Bye

    For the Denver Broncos, it is one down and two more to go.

    That is, at least for now.

    Led by a balanced attack, the Men from Mile High who for now own the top spot in the AFC West, as well as the AFC, thanks to a 27-17 win over the previously undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. It’s a familiar spot for Peyton Manning and Co., who were the conference’s top seed in 2012 with a 13-3 record.

    The Broncos became the first team this season to score more than 17 points against the Chiefs. Denver also rolled up 427 yards of total offense in the 10-point victory.

    But there is hardly time to bask in the glory of the win. We will learn an awful lot about the Broncos the next two weeks versus the New England Patriots and Chiefs, with both of those games on the road.

AFC No. 2 Seed: New England Patriots (7-2)

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Playoff Opponent: First-Round Bye

    After nine games last season, the New England Patriots owned a 6-3 record and were in first place in the AFC East. Bill Belichick’s team was in the midst of a seven-game winning streak that saw the team finish 9-1 following a 3-3 start.

    On Monday night, the AFC East leaders can extend their lead in the AFC East to three games and move one game closer to the top spot in the conference with a win over the Carolina Panthers.

    These days, we know that's easier said than done due to the play of that Carolina defense. But it will be fascinating to see what Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and quarterback Tom Brady have in store for Ron Rivera’s team.

    The last time we saw the Patriots, they were hanging 55 points on the Pittsburgh Steelers two weeks ago in Foxborough. That’s roughly half the amount of points the Panthers have allowed (115) in nine games this season.

    Let the chess match begin.

AFC No. 3 Seed: Indianapolis Colts (7-3)

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Playoff Opponent: vs. N.Y. Jets (5-5)

    Chuck Pagano’s team is beginning to develop quite a bit of a nasty habit.

    Last season, we learned that then-rookie quarterback Andrew Luck had quite the gift for bringing his team from behind.

    Here’s a tip, Coach Pagano: There’s no need to prove it on a weekly basis.

    Faster than you can say “Elvis has left the building,” the Indianapolis Colts found themselves down 14 points in Nashville against the Tennessee Titans last Thursday night.

    Of course, Luck and Co. rallied for a 30-27 win to take firm control of the AFC South. However, it also marked the third straight outing in which the Colts dug themselves at least a 14-point hole. Pagano’s team came back to win two of those games against the Houston Texans and Titans, but in between those victories, Indianapolis was crushed at home by the St. Louis Rams.

    If Luck wants to add to his early resume with a playoff win in his second season, the Colts may have to start doing things a little differently.

AFC No. 4 Seed: Cincinnati Bengals (7-4)

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    Playoff Opponent: vs. Kansas City Chiefs (9-1)

    Apparently, both good and bad things come in threes.

    After serving up three interceptions in each of his previous two games, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton overcame a few more early miscues. The third-year passer finished with just 93 yards through the air but threw three touchdown passes in a weird 41-20 victory over the visiting Cleveland Browns.

    As Marvin Lewis’ club heads to its off week, it knows that it owns a two-game lead in the loss column over every other team in the AFC North. The Steelers, Ravens and Browns all own identical 4-6 records.

    The Bengals also know that the win kept them in the hunt for not only a division title, but perhaps a first-round bye should they reach the playoffs. Cincinnati already owns a win over the New England Patriots this season and still gets to face the Indianapolis Colts...

    In three weeks.

AFC No. 5 Seed: Kansas City Chiefs (9-1)

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Playoff Opponent: at Cincinnati Bengals (7-4)

    Yep, there’s a group of you out there who spent the evening texting and tweeting “I told you so.”

    The Kansas City Chiefs are no longer unbeaten. The 1972 Miami Dolphins supposedly popped the cork on something.

    That means Andy Reid’s team is now just...9-1.

    Still, while the zero in the loss column was replaced by a one, there was another zero that was hard to ignore in Sunday night’s 27-17 loss to the Denver Broncos: zero sacks of quarterback Peyton Manning. The hobbled veteran did what he had to do to elude outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali.

    “Our plan was to get to the quarterback but the ball is coming out quick,” said Hali, via Eddie Pells of the Associated Press (h/t “He did a great job and their team did a great job protecting him.”

    Now, for the first time all season, we will get to see how these Chiefs respond to a loss. Unfortunately, that’s a scenario everyone had to get used to last season.

AFC No. 6 Seed: New York Jets (5-5)

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    Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

    Playoff Opponent: at Indianapolis Colts (7-3)

    It was business as usual once again for the see-saw known as the New York Jets.

    How do you explain the team’s incredible pattern of 10 straight outings alternating wins and losses?

    This season, Rex Ryan’s team has posted wins over the first-place Patriots and Saints. The Jets’ five losses include setbacks to the Titans (38-13), Bengals (49-9) and Buffalo Bills (37-14), each by at least 23 points.

    And on Sunday, the Bills circled Jets quarterback Geno Smith all afternoon. The rookie signal-caller completed only eight of his 23 attempts for 103 yards, was sacked four times and committed four turnovers. That means Ryan’s team has now coughed up the ball 21 times this season, and Smith has all but one of those miscues.

    That’s the kind of consistency the Jets could do without.

NFC No. 1 Seed: Seattle Seahawks (10-1)

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    Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

    Playoff Opponent: First-Round Bye

    Talk about having a little piece of mind.

    With five games to go, the Seattle Seahawks are just one victory away from equaling last season’s total. That 11-5 finish was good enough to secure a playoff berth in 2012.

    Now, Pete Carroll and Co. have the somewhat satisfying feeling of knowing that no matter what the 49ers or Cardinals do next week, they will own at least a three-game lead in the NFC West standings with five games to go.

    After some close calls in recent weeks, Carroll’s team is suddenly humming again. Over the last two weeks, the Seahawks have disposed of the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings and scored a combined 74 points in the process.

    The division leaders, who are off this week, will perhaps need a lot of those points when the Saints come to visit on a Monday night in Week 12.

    For now, the Seahawks will enjoy some well-deserved time off.

NFC No. 2 Seed: New Orleans Saints (8-2)

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    Playoff Opponent: First-Round Bye

    It wasn’t as easy as a week ago. But it may have been more satisfying.

    Seven days after rolling up an NFL-record 40 first downs and 623 total yards in a 49-17 Sunday night conquest of the visiting Dallas Cowboys, the Saints used all 60 minutes to beat the San Francisco 49ers 23-20.

    With head coach Sean Payton suspended for all of 2012, the Saints finished 7-9 and allowed the most total yards in a season in NFL history. Ten games in 2013, with Payton back and a new defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan, New Orleans has already won one more game than a year ago and the defense is quite improved.

    On Sunday against the 49ers, the Saints allowed just 196 total yards. Over the last two games, Ryan’s unit has surrendered a combined 389 yards.

    Thursday night, Payton’s team travels to Atlanta but then gets a little extra time to get ready for a Monday night showdown with the Seahawks.

NFC No. 3 Seed: Detroit Lions (6-4)

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    Playoff Opponent: vs. San Francisco 49ers (6-4)

    In the National Football League, there are the haves and the have-nots.

    Of course, you also have the first half and the second half.

    So after looking like an offensive juggernaut for 30 minutes versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, what do the Detroit Lions “have” to say for themselves?

    After totaling an impressive 379 yards of total offense against Dick LeBeau’s defense, the Lions were limited to 72 yards in the final 30 minutes of a 37-27 loss.

    And for any number of reasons, “Megatron” turned into “Mega-Non.” Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson caught six passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns in the first half and then was held without a reception in the second half.

    With the Chicago Bears besting the Baltimore Ravens in overtime on Sunday afternoon/early evening, the Lions once again have company atop the NFC North.

    Then again, Jim Schwartz’s club swept the Bears this season. So there’s nothing really to be scared of

    Is there?

NFC No. 4 Seed: Philadelphia Eagles (6-5)

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    Playoff Opponent: vs. Carolina Panthers (6-3)

    Well, look who is on a roll now.

    And we're not making a cheese steak reference here.

    Thanks partly to the fact that the Cowboys were on hiatus for Week 11, the Philadelphia Eagles moved into first place in the NFC East following Sunday’s 24-16 victory over the Washington Redskins.

    In the process, the Birds managed to overcome their biggest challenge: their own stadium.

    Philadelphia snapped a 10-game home losing streak with the victory. And much of credit for the turnaround after the 3-5 start should go to head coach Chip Kelly, who apparently is pushing all the right buttons on offense these days.

    “The biggest thing is that he’s creative in the play-calling,” wide receiver DeSean Jackson said, via via Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He knows how to get mismatches and how to move guys around.”

    Kelly certainly knew how to move the Redskins defense around on Sunday. The Eagles rolled up 402 total yards, including 126 yards rushing. Quarterback Nick Foles didn’t throw a touchdown pass, but he ran for a score and remained interception-free for the season.

    Speaking of free, the NFL will be free of the Eagles this week, as they have a week off. And who knows what will happen with the rest of the NFC East while they are gone.

NFC No. 5 Seed: Carolina Panthers (6-3)

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Playoff Opponent: at Philadelphia Eagles (6-5)

    Ten seasons ago, the Carolina Panthers made the lone Super Bowl appearance in the franchise’s brief history—a game that ended in a tough 32-29 loss to the New England Patriots.

    Could we see history possibly repeat itself in 2013?

    At the very least, we’ll see the Panthers face the Patriots—as in Monday night on Monday Night Football.

    What an intriguing matchup it is. New England scored seven touchdowns in its last game, a 55-31 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. In nine games this season, Carolina has allowed nine touchdowns.

    But what lies ahead for Ron Rivera’s team is far more important. Next Sunday, his team heads to Florida for a date with the Dolphins. Then, the Panthers play four of their final five games against their divisional rivals, including a pair of dates with the Saints.

    Coming off a statement win over 49ers, the Panthers’ resume could be even richer with a victory over the perennial powerhouse Patriots.

NFC No. 6 Seed: San Francisco 49ers (6-4)

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    Playoff Opponent: at Detroit Lions (6-4)

    It’s been a rough two weeks for the defending conference champions.

    The San Francisco 49ers went head-to-head with the two powers in the NFC South and came up short both times by a combined total of four points.

    On Sunday, it came at the Superdome, as the New Orleans Saints used a last-second field goal to hand Jim Harbaugh’s team a tough 23-20 loss.

    A week after being limited to 151 total yards by the Panthers, the improved Saints limited the 49ers to 196 yards of offense.

    “They do a lot more on defense,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said, per Terrance Harris of the Times-Picayune. “Other than that, that’s the biggest difference. They give a lot of different looks.”

    The Niners have scored at least 31 points in each of their six wins and a combined 39 points in four losses. And if Harbaugh’s club doesn’t develop a little consistency, that object in the rear-view mirror known as the Arizona Cardinals will be passing them sooner than later.