Hey football fans, we’re entering the final quarter of the season and while the majority of the playoff seeds have already been spoken for despite Seattle being the only team to have clinched a berth, the sixth and final seed in both conferences are up for grabs between about dozen or so teams all desperate to get blown out during Wild Card Weekend.
   Actually, all joking aside, whoever ends up grabbing those sixth seeds will have a good chance to advance past the first round because of the lack of dominance amongst the three and four seeds in both conferences. Still, don’t let that get your hopes up if you’re a fan of any of those teams because it’ll be quite a task to get past any of the top seeds in the divisional and conference rounds of the playoffs this year. Did you see how easily Seattle was able to dismantle New Orleans last night? Good luck trying to win on the road against the 12th man and their world-record-breaking-ly loud crowd.
   Let’s start things in the NFC where it seems the only seeds available for the taking aren’t the wild cards, but instead are the divisional winners for the NFC East and North, though only die hard Bears fans are delusional enough to think they still have a chance.
   Unfortunately the Lions have not only a game up on Chicago in the standings, but they also swept the Bears in the regular season giving them a two game lead with four to go. The Bears host Dallas on Monday Night Football, then play on the road in Cleveland and Philly before finishing off the season at home against what could possibly be an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers team with no desire to win. If this were September and Chicago was fielding that tenacious ball-thieving defense they started the season off with, then I would be excited about my team’s chances of running the table. Instead, a slew of injuries has left the team with a junior varsity squad on that side of the ball, and on the other side of the ball QB Jay Cutler has missed four of the last six games (and was unable to finish either of the other two games in that same span of time) and is still listed as Day-To-Day. Even if the Bears happened to win all four games, they’d need the Lions to drop two of their remaining four games, a slate that includes a trip to Philadelphia this week, followed by two home games against the Ravens and Giants, and then finishing the season off on the road in Minnesota; four teams with a combined record of 21-26-1. Although I have to admit, after seeing the Lions lose at home against the hapless Buccaneers, a slight glimmer of hope still remains.
NFC North Division winner: Detroit Lions
   The more intriguing divisional race is in the East where Philadelphia has been trying to keep pace with Dallas all season, never having trailed by more than a game in the standings. Both teams sit atop their division at 7-5, with Dallas owning the edge from their 17-3 win on the road in Philly during week seven. The Eagles were struggling mightily back then, and with QBs Michael Vick and Nick Foles both sidelined due to injuries, the team was forced to start rookie Matt Barkley to run Chip Kelly’s speedy offense, a move that predictably failed in spectacular fashion. The Eagles offense had been averaging 27.6 points a game up until that point with either Vick or Foles at the helm, but with Barkley under center they were only able to score ten points in two games. Since then the team has gone on a four game winning streak with Nick Foles running a tight ship that has produced 31 points a game (and has yet to throw an interception). Hopefully, for our entertainment sake, the division will be decided by the teams’ rematch week seventeen in Dallas, which will likely be a win or go home situation for both teams, especially if San Francisco and Carolina continue to win.
NFC East Division winner: Dallas Cowboys
   Speaking of Carolina, they sit atop the division alongside New Orleans after the Saints loss to Seattle last night. The two teams have yet to face each other which means the division will likely be settled by the outcome of their two match ups in the next three weeks. Outside of those two games, NOLA plays on the road in St. Louis and at home against Tampa Bay, while Carolina hosts the Jets and travels to Atlanta, giving both teams a chance to win enough games to make the playoffs regardless of how they fare against each other. If they split those two games, and both are able to beat the other two remaining teams on their schedule, they would each finish at 12-4 overall as well as 5-1 in the division. The next tie-breaker after that is similar opponents, which means New Orleans would win the division thanks to Carolina’s one point loss to Buffalo in week two. No worries for Panthers fans, though, since a 12-4 record would likely place them in the fifth seed and a first round match up against the winner of either the NFC East or NFC North, neither of which appear to be formidable opponents.
NFC South Division winner: New Orleans Saints
   The Seahawks will likely walk away with the top seed in the NFC, meaning the road to the Super Bowl will go through Seattle and their deafening home field advantage. The Guinness Book of World Records folks were in the house last night as the 12th man tried to take back their championship belt from Kansas City to once again regain the title for the world’s loudest outside stadium crowd noise, but ultimately the crowd came up just a tad bit shy. Having set the record during their week two showdown against San Francisco, during which Seattle fans were able to register 136.6 decibels (or just a bit louder than a Boeing 737), the 12th man was outdone by the loud and boisterous fans in Kansas City who were able to register 137.7 decibels during their team’s week six victory over Oakland. Still, Seattle’s crowd factors in as a huge advantage for them over anyone they play, and with a two game lead and the tie-breakerover New Orleans and Carolina, it’s all but inevitable that they will be enjoying that advantage this postseason.
NFC West Division winner: Seattle Seahawks
   As stated earlier, whoever loses out between Carolina and New Orleans will have the fast track to the fifth seed, leaving the sixth seed to whoever comes out on top between San Francisco (the favorite), Arizona, and whoever loses the NFC East division race between Dallas and Philly. The 49ers will host Seattle this week, travel to Tampa Bay next week, are back home against Atlanta the following week, and finish off the season on the road in Arizona. Even if they drop two of those games, Arizona would have to win out in order to surpass them against a slate that includes this week’s home game against St. Louis, two on the road in Tennessee and Seattle, and their final game back home against San Francisco. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s damn near impossible to win in Seattle. Sorry, Arizona fans, maybe next year.
NFC Wild Cards: Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers
   Over in the AFC, the top five seeds are all waiting for the cement to dry while six other teams are clambering over each other for that last seed like it’s Black Friday. First things first, let’s state the obvious and assume New England and either Denver or Kansas City walk away with the first round byes. New England has an easy remaining schedule starting this week at home against Cleveland, then on the road against Miami and Baltimore, and back home against Buffalo to finish up the season. The Patriots put the pressure on Denver to win out in order to retain the top seed. They stand one game back at 9-3, but with that stunning come from behind victory over Denver they own the head-to-head tie breaker, meaning that Denver would have tostay one game up in order to ensure the top seed. Brady was fired up in that game, showing the world that he’s every bit the quarterbacking legend that Peyton Manning is. And though it’s taken them all season to get there, the Pats receivers have worked their way to health and competency right in time for their beloved leader to show them the way (to a Conference Championship loss). With a three game lead over the next best team in the division, the Patriots will clinch a playoff berth in the next week or so, but they’ll need some help from Denver if they want home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
AFC East Division winner: New England Patriots
   Denver, on the other hand, has an easy enough schedule that winning out should’t be a problem for Manning and company. They face Tennessee and San Diego at home and then travel to Houston and Oakland, both of whom should be looking to do anything but win at that point. What will be interesting to watch from here on out will be how Peyton Manning responds to cold weather games. It’s supposed to drop down to twenty-three degrees by Sunday in Denver, and we all know what Manning’s record is like when the weather is below forty. He’s gonna need to perform well in sub-forty weather if Denver expects to win; not just at home for the divisional and conference rounds of the playoffs, but in the Super Bowl as well, which is being played the first Sunday in February amid the open air and swirling winds of MetLife Stadium.
AFC West Division winner: Denver Broncos
   Barring a total collapse from Indianapolis and/or Cincinnati, both teams should be able to win their divisions thanks to easy schedules. The two teams actually face each other this week in Cincinnati in what will ultimately be the deciding factor in the placement between the three and four seeds. After that, Indy flies back home to play Houston, travels to Kansas City the following week, and then finishes up with a home game against Jacksonville. The Bengals will travel to Pittsburgh after this week and then return home for games against Minnesota and Baltimore. The Colts have a three game lead over the Titans and would have to lose all four games andhave Tennessee win their next four games in order not to win the division. The Bengals are in the same boat with a two game lead over Baltimore despite having lost to the Ravens earlier in the season. Still, if the Bengals can’t find a way to win at least two of the next four, then they don’t deserve to be in the playoffs.
AFC North Division winner: Cincinnati Bengals
AFC South Division winner: Indianapolis Colts
   Assuming that life works out exactly the way I’ve planned it and Denver holds on to the number one seed, that means Kansas City will be the front runner to come away with the fifth seed. With a three game lead on the next closest teams (Miami and Baltimore are both 6-6), the Chiefs are all but a lock to be in a position to play either the Colts or Bengals during Wild Card Weekend, and will likely be the favorite in either matchup. You should see an asterisk next to their name in the standings either this week or next. The only mystery that remains is which team will earn that sixth and final seed. Baltimore is currently the front runner with a tie-breaker over the Dolphins stemming from their week five win in Miami. Their remaining schedule is brutal, though; after hosting Minnesota, they travel to Detroit, then are back home for New England (who will still be vying for that number one seed) and then finish off the season on the road in Cincinnati. Miami doesn’t really have it much easier as they travel to Pittsburgh this week before coming back home for New England the week after that (albeit followed by a road trip to Buffalo and a home game against the Jets). The Steelers, Jets, Titans and Chargers are all in the mix as well. I know it’s not sexy, but if Pittsburgh can win their next two games at home against Miami and Cincinnati, they would then only have a road game against a possibly Matt Flynn-led Packers team and a home game against a possibly Brandon Weeden-led Browns team standing in their way of a 9-7 record. And in the AFC this year, 9-7 will get you into the playoffs.
AFC Wild Cards: Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers