NFL Playoff Picture After Week 12

Everyone is down to 5 games remaining and there is obviously still a lot to play for. Here is some numbers and analysis of the big pictures, starting in the AFC:

1. Indianapolis
2/3. Cincinnati/San Diego
4. New England
5. Denver
6. Jacksonville
0 games back of 6th: Baltimore, Pittsburgh
1 game back of 6th: Miami, New York, Tennessee, Houston
Planning for 2010: Buffalo, Kansas City, Oakland, Cleveland

Indianapolis can actually clinch a bye seed this week. They cannot clinch the #1 seed because they cannot clinch tiebreaking on San Diego this week, but its a matter of time. Cincinnati and San Diego continue to have the same conference record, but they play each other later in the season. New England moved a game back of the other division leaders but with only 3 conference losses is certainly very much alive for a bye seed; winning out and having the Cincy/SD winner lose a conference game alone would be enough. For that matter, the Chargers certainly do not have the division locked up. They have planted a 5-1 division record but if the Broncos win their 3 remaining games with the Raiders and Chiefs they would also be 5-1 against the West. San Diego losing that game with the Bengals, for example, would then be enough to hand tiebreaking advantage potentially to the Broncos.

As for the wildcard this could be one of those years that we go into the last game with a zillion scenarios on the table. Denver is in good shape right now being 1 game clear of the pack of 7 teams that are either 6-5 or 5-6. While I continue to assume that the 6th seed will at worst be 10-6 (and therefor continue to place Buffalo in the “out” category) this past week’s action does make a 9-7 playoff team somewhat more possible. But I am assuming enough teams will do enough winning to get to 10-6 or 11-5. The Broncos have a solid conference record if they fall back into a tie, but they have losses to the Steelers and Ravens that are a potential time bomb. Jacksonville only has 2 conference losses but would be in much better shape if they weren’t taking so many losses to NFC West opponents. But they have a relatively hard remaining schedule including Indy, Houston, Miami, and New England. Baltimore is currently ahead of Pittsburgh by virtue of Sunday night’s overtime result but the Steelers can pull a game ahead by winning the Week 16 rematch in Pittsburgh. If they win that game but lose somewhere else and tie the Ravens at 10-6 that is probably advantage Baltimore on record against common opponents where the Ravens currently have a 2 game lead. As for the 5-6 teams the Dolphins are in the best position having swept the Jets to guarantee being ahead of New York in the all important battle to be scored 2nd in your own division and they have the fewest number of conference losses amongst the desperate but alive group with 4. The Jets have already beat the Titans but lost to the Jaguars. Last Sunday’s breathtaking 99 yard drive against Arizona keeps the Titans pulse going and I would consider them the most likely to run the table from here except they still have to get past the Colts and Chargers. Houston is still a factor but its hard to see them rebounding from the losses they’ve had the last couple weeks and they have a couple underdog games left.

To speak more specifically about my Steelers for a paragraph their recent struggles tend to remind of the 2005 season that ended with them winning Super Bowl XL. Both seasons saw a late November 3 game losing streak, including a showdown at home with the Bengals, that caused them to lose the division to Cincinnati and force them to go on a December winning streak just to sneak in the playoffs. They play Oakland this Sunday and then Cleveland the following Thursday so they should be able to quickly bounce back to 8-5 before they host the Packers and Ravens in two games I figure will get moved to doubleheader game status and finish at Miami. They can probably afford 1 more loss if its not the Ravens game especially but other than head up with Denver (or San Diego) their tiebreaking situation is not the greatest. More to the point they need to play better defensive football. Someone that glances at a stat sheet might find that statement silly, especially going on reputation, but they seem to lack the ability to hold 4th quarter leads. Of the 5 losses, in 4 of them they held 4th quarter leads. The last two weeks in Kansas City and Baltimore the offense had a 4th quarter drive to claim the lead and couldn’t even get the ball back still leading. The Steelers squandered the momentum and let the other team go right back downfield on them. Surely the absense of Polamalu has been felt, but they need to play better than this. Heck, in a “for want of a nail” argument if they don’t blow that lead in KC it doesn’t go overtime and Roethlisberger and Batch don’t get hurt. Still, they are capable of peeling off a winning streak and making the playoffs.

And in the NFC:

1. New Orleans
2. Minnesota
3. Dallas
4. Arizona
5. Philadelphia
6. Green Bay
1 game back of 6th: New York, Atlanta
2 games back of 6th: San Francisco
Planning for 2010: Carolina, Seattle, Chicago, Washington, Detroit, Tampa, St. Louis

Anyone object to just skipping ahead to Vikings/Saints title game? Both can clinch their divisions this week and seem headed to the bye seeds. It should be noted that if the Saints lose a conference game they would hand tiebreaking advantage to the Vikings, whose loss was non-conference. Dallas has a 1 game lead on Philadelphia for the division which is obviously far from locked up. Arizona is up 2 on the 49ers but that advantage can disappear if they lose to San Francisco (they lost the first matchup) and another game somewhere. As for the wildcard the Eagles and Packers are a game up on the Giants and Falcons. Furthermore the Eagles only have 2 conference losses which puts them in an advantaged position. Its not likely that a playoff spot will slip to a team at 9-7 even though the NFC as a conference is -4 to .500 but it would take fewer teams having a mediocre finish than in the AFC. The 49ers are still very alive with a bit of help. If they get to 10-6 they may very well win the division and then be out of the wildcard discussion, but if not they would have an excellent 9-3 conference record. They may actually be the best positioned team in a 9-7 scenario.

There are a total of 3 game times “flexed” in the next 2 weeks. This coming Sunday New England @ Miami was demoted from NBC to 1pm on CBS and Minnesota @ Arizona promoted to NBC status. In a more minor move on December 13th St. Louis @ Tennessee was moved to 4:05pm to give Fox a 2nd game in the late alternative position and a 3rd game on the late afternoon schedule (it is locked in that CBS will have a national doubleheader game that day San Diego @ Dallas and the night game with be Philly @ NY Giants).

Below is the official clinching scenarios for this week’s games, and the list of teams officially eliminated from contention as lifted from nfl.com:

Week 12 saw one team (Colts) clinch its division and four others (Browns, Lions, Rams, Bucs) eliminated from the playoffs. This week includes a few more clinching scenarios. Here they are:

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
New Orleans clinches NFC South division:
1) NO win or tie
2) ATL loss or tie

MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Minnesota clinches NFC North division:
1) MIN win + GB loss

Minnesota clinches playoff spot:
1) MIN win
2) MIN tie + NYG loss + ATL loss or tie

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Indianapolis clinches a first-round bye:
1) IND win + DEN loss or tie + NE loss or tie + CIN loss

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