Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wild Card Races Take Shape

The NFL has played slightly more than three–fifths of its schedule, but, if the season was over, the division winners in the AFC would be Indianapolis, Cincinnati, New England and San Diego. The wild card teams would be two of these three — Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and/or Denver.

In the NFC, the division winners would be Dallas, Minnesota, New Orleans and Arizona. The wild card teams would be two of these three — Philadelphia, the New York Giants and/or Green Bay.

The catch is that each team still has six games to play and a lot of things can happen. Important games will be played this week between the Giants and Broncos, the Colts and the Texans, the Steelers and Ravens and the Patriots and Saints.

As the season plays out, some of the teams will fall out of the running while others will emerge from the pack. It's the same story every year. And, right now, it's probably safe to say the Colts, Vikings and Saints will be in the playoffs. But who will join them?

Clark Judge handicaps the wild card races for We'll start getting a handle on them this week.

  • Green Bay (6–4) at Detroit (2–8) — It's traditional for the Lions to play on Thanksgiving Day, but they've lost their last five Thanksgiving games. On the plus side for Detroit, the last time the Lions won on Thanksgiving was against this year's opponent, the Green Bay Packers, on Nov. 27, 2003. The Packers blanked the Lions, 26–0, when they met at Lambeau Field in October, and it could happen again. No other team in the NFL has given up as many points as the Lions, and few have scored less. The Packers have won eight in a row against Detroit, and their last loss to the Lions came on Sept. 11, 2005. I predict a Packers victory, but I don't look for the Lions to be shut out again.

  • Oakland (3–7) at Dallas (7–3) — The Raiders may have the worst team in the NFL. They definitely have the worst offense, yet they managed to pull off a 20–17 upset of the AFC North–leading Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The Cowboys, meanwhile, may have more talent on their roster than anyone else, yet they barely beat the Washington Redskins, a team that has lost to Detroit and Kansas City and barely slipped by St. Louis. I think the Cowboys should beat the Raiders by at least 10 points. Will they? Well, that's another question ...

  • New York Giants (6–4) at Denver (6–4) — Mark Kiszla writes, in the Denver Post, that the Broncos have come undone. After the beating they took from the Chargers last weekend, it's a point that is hard to dispute. They do have a chance to redeem themselves by beating the Giants. The winner will remain in the wild–card race. The loser will face a much steeper climb. It's funny how quickly the terrain shifts in the NFL, isn't it? Earlier this season, it was an upset to pick the Broncos to win. Then it became an upset to pick them to lose. What is it now? I'm not sure, but I'll go with Denver by a single point.
  • Miami (5–5) at Buffalo (3–7) — The quest for a new coach continues in Buffalo, where the organization is making overtures to Bill Cowher and Mike Shanahan. On the field, Miami trounced Buffalo, 38–10, when they met in early October. It will be colder in Buffalo on Sunday, but I think Miami will win again ... by a point or two.

  • Arizona (7–3) at Tennessee (4–6) — Cedric Golden of the Austin American–Statesman writes that Tennessee quarterback Vince Young is a winner after leading the Titans to their fourth consecutive win. Will he continue to look like a winner after playing the Cardinals? In an upset special, I say he will.

  • Indianapolis (10–0) at Houston (5–5) — Things would look a lot better for the Texans if they had beaten the Titans on Monday night. Nevertheless, they only lost by three points when they played Indianapolis on the road earlier this month. In fact, the Colts have won their last four games by a total of 10 points. I expect another close one, but I'll pick the Colts to prevail again.

  • Cleveland (1–9) at Cincinnati (7–3) — Cincinnati won by three points when the teams played in Cleveland in early October. The Browns, though, are so bad they lost to Detroit last week. Keep in mind, no one lost to Detroit last year — and only the Redskins had lost to the Lions this year. Until Sunday. Unless Cincinnati is overconfident, the Bengals should win handily.

  • Carolina (4–6) at New York Jets (4–6) — The winner will retain a slim shot at a wild card slot in the playoffs. The loser might as well close up shop for the winter. The Jets are 2–3 at home; ironically, the Panthers are 2–3 on the road. The Jets have been better on both sides of the ball, but, in their defense, the Panthers have been playing in the same division with New Orleans, one of the two remaining undefeated teams in the NFL. I'll pick the Jets. No special reason. Do I need one?

  • Tampa Bay (1–9) at Atlanta (5–5) — The Falcons are better on offense and defense, and they're unbeaten at home. D. Orlando Ledbetter writes, in the Atlanta Journal–Constitution, that good quarterbacks are "torching" the Falcons' secondary. That would be good news for Tampa Bay if the Bucs had a good quarterback. But they don't. I'll take Atlanta.

  • Washington (3–7) at Philadelphia (6–4) — The last time these teams met in Philadelphia, the Eagles got off to a fast start but ultimately lost the game when they were outscored by 20 points in the last three quarters. In fact, the Redskins have won the last two times they traveled to Philly. The last time the Eagles beat the 'Skins at home was on Nov. 12, 2006. This year, the Eagles have had a far better offense, but the Redskins have enjoyed a modest edge in defense. Washington is winless in five road games, though, and if Washington couldn't win at Detroit, I have no reason to think the Redskins can win at Philadelphia. I pick the Eagles by a touchdown — at least.

  • Seattle (3–7) at St. Louis (1–9) — Is there anything even remotely intriguing about this game? If there is, I can't see what it is. It is highly unlikely that the Seahawks can reel off six straight wins and somehow secure a playoff berth. The Rams — who happen to be the only NFC team that hasn't won a home game yet — can't even finish above .500. Well, someone has to win. I predict it will be the Seahawks.

  • Kansas City (3–7) at San Diego (7–3) — The Chargers have beaten the Chiefs four straight times, but their last loss to Kansas City came at home on Sept. 30, 2007. I don't think the Chiefs will duplicate that achievement on Sunday. Their only road win all season came at Washington, and the Redskins clearly are not playoff–bound. The Chargers, on the other hand, do appear to be headed for the postseason. And this game is likely to resemble their first meeting earlier this season, when San Diego rolled to a 37–7 triumph at Arrowhead Stadium. I expect the Chargers to extend their winning streak to six games.

  • Jacksonville (6–4) at San Francisco (4–6) — Before the season began, I predicted the 49ers would be in the playoffs. Their chances of winning the NFC West appear to be slim now, but a wild card slot remains a possibility, especially if they can beat the Jaguars. That's a tough assignment. The Jags are on a three–game winning streak, and they seem to be positioned to win four of their last six games, which should propel them into the playoffs. But if San Francisco can take advantage of the fact that the 49ers have a winning record at home and Jacksonville has a losing record on the road, it might give the 49ers the momentum they need. Can it be done? Maybe, but I don't believe it will. I pick Jacksonville.

  • Chicago (4–6) at Minnesota (9–1) — Mike Mulligan says, in the Chicago Sun–Times, that Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is a head case. That doesn't suggest confidence that he can lead a revival in the final six games of the year. Meanwhile, Mark Craig writes, in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, that Brett Favre is looking like MVP material. Maybe, but I think he's helped by all the talent around him. Don't get me wrong. I've always said Favre had talent. But he is 40 years old. Nature did not intend for any man to play quarterback at that age. Some have tried. Few have succeeded. Still, I think the Vikings can beat the Bears by at least 10 at home. We'll see what happens when they travel to Soldier Field in late December.

  • Pittsburgh (6–4) at Baltimore (5–5) — The Steelers expect Ben Roethlisberger to play on Sunday. And that's good news for Pittsburgh. But he's the AFC's fifth–rated passer, while Baltimore's Joe Flacco is the AFC's sixth–rated passer. Consequently, a modest advantage for Pittsburgh — which might be negated by the fact that Big Ben is believed to have suffered a "mild" concussion on Sunday that could have been worse than anyone thought. It's been a month since Pittsburgh's last impressive win against a team that was clearly on the rise (Minnesota), and the Steelers have lost their last two games. Baltimore, meanwhile, nearly beat Indianapolis last weekend (while Pittsburgh was losing to Kansas City). I'll take the Ravens.
  • New England (7–3) at New Orleans (10–0) — This is only one of several challenging games remaining on the schedule for the Saints, which leads me to believe that New Orleans will not finish the season undefeated. They play at Atlanta on Dec. 13 (which may not look too challenging on the surface, until you realize that, in a season in which the Saints have beaten most foes by double digits, they only beat the Falcons by 35–27 at home earlier this month), then six days later they play Dallas. I'll pick the Saints to beat the Patriots, but only because they're the home team.
Last week: 13–3.

Season: 113–47.

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