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Heavy Favorites. NFL Week 13 Recap

It took me a few days to process the events of Week 13. The Patriots emerged as the clear favorite to win the Superbowl, the AFC South is upside down, and the NFC is as congested as the Schuylkill Expressway. Updated NFL playoff projections are included too.

Week Two Headlines

Patriots stand alone
Premiere matchups of AFC heavyweights on Sunday and Monday night were supposed to go a long way in determining playoff seeding and establishing a favorite for the AFC title. Mission accomplished. I’m not a big fan of the BCS or college football in general, but let’s look at signature victories for the Jets, Patriots, Ravens and Steelers.
The Jets beat New England earlier in the year. You can count a victory over Houston if you want, but that’s it for New York. The Ravens topped the Jets on opening weekend and battered a Ben Roethlisberger-less Steeler team in October. The Steelers outmuscled Atlanta in week one and beat the Ravens this past Sunday.
Now let’s look at the Patriots. Wins over Baltimore, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and New York make up the most impressive win column in the NFL. New England also demolished the Steelers in Pittsburgh and steamrolled the Jets by 42 points.
While regular season wins don’t mean much come playoff time, the Patriots are the most tested team in the league. More importantly, they’re also the most proven. Tom Brady has regained his 2007 form and the offense looks unstoppable. Unless an injury derails their momentum, the Patriots are a lock for the top seed in the AFC.

The NFC is gaining ground
Two months ago, few would have considered an NFC team, or even a handful, among the heavyweights from the AFC. Now, with the exception of the New England Patriots, the conferences appear even. In fact, I would argue the NFC is the deeper conference. Outside the division races in the AFC West and South, the AFC playoffs have long been decided. A collapse could of course change things, but the Ravens and Jets will grab the AFC wildcards. That’s it. End of story. No drama, no competition.
The NFC, on the other hand, will leave two of the following teams out of the playoffs; Falcons, Saints, Bears, Packers, Eagles, Giants, Buccaneers. The Falcons, Saints, and Packers are just as good as the Jets, Steelers, and Ravens. In fact, the Packers beat the Jets, the Saints beat the Steelers, and the Falcons beat the Ravens. Moreover, the Bears grind out wins better than anyone, and the Giants and Eagles-when healthy-can beat anyone in the league. While defenses in the NFC don’t pack the same punch as their AFC counterparts, the NFC offenses reign supreme.
Some intriguing inter-conference match-ups will take place over the season’s final weeks. Although I expect the AFC to get the better of those contests, there’s no denying that NFC contenders have climbed back to even themselves with the top contenders in the AFC.

Someone take them to Chic-Fil-A (NFL’s top 5)

1. Patriots – Tom Brady has that look. That, “I’m the best quarterback in the league and you’re all going to feel my wrath as I prove it,” look. Seriously though, how awesome is it to watch a quarterback (A QUARTERBACK!!) get that fired up? I hope Kevin Kolb turns into Tom Brady in 2012.
2. Steelers – Sorry, Falcons. You got leapfrogged. Who are you taking on a neutral field, Pittsburgh or Atlanta? Matt Ryan couldn’t handle that Steeler D in September, what makes you think he could in January? Plus, Ben Roethlisberger is the most clutch quarterback in the league behind Brady and Derek Anderson.
3. Falcons – I keep waiting for Atlanta to slip up so I can dish out a big, “told you so,” but it never happens. Instead, I look like the big idiot while my brother calls me once a week to say, “I told you so!”
4. Packers – Aaron Rodgers. That’s all I’m going to say. Aaron Rodgers. (By the way, that Derek Anderson thing was a joke. He isn’t any good in the clutch, or after halftime, or in the 1st quarter, or before the coin toss. It doesn’t matter when, he always stinks.)
5. Ravens – I thought for sure the Saints would crack the top five this week, but that’s two very shaky wins in a row. Granted, both were on the road, but still. Thus, the Ravens remain in the top five despite losing a brutal battle because once again, their quarterback isn’t up to snuff.
(Last Week: NE, NYJ, ATL, BAL, GB)

Not even Ramen Noodle worthy (NFL’s bottom 5)

28. Titans – I know they’re not really the fifth worst team in the NFL, but any team that can’t score an offensive touchdown for three straight games deserve to be here. Vince Young’s thumb doesn’t look so injured now, does it Jeff?
29.
Lions – The quarterback carousel continues in Detroit. On a brighter note, I could watch highlights of Ndamukong Suh dishing forearm shivers to opposing quarterbacks all day long.
30. Bills
– Buffalo clearly didn’t study the game film on the Vikings. If they had, Buffalo would have surely known injuring Brett Favre was the worst thing they could have done to their chances of winning.
31.
Panthers – If Jimmy Clausen isn’t careful, he may be designated to third string duties next season, or worse, out of a job entirely. Because right now, Carolina HAS TO take a quarterback with the top pick.
32. Cardinals
– I wonder what Larry Fitzgerald feels when he watches Anquan Boldin fighting for a first round bye in the playoffs. It’s probably a similar feeling to what the Sixers front office feels whenever they watch Evan Turner flounder around the court for 20 minutes a night.
(Last Week: DEN, DET, CAR, AZ, CINC)

Stock rising (but not in top 5, yet)

Jaguars – Barring an unlikely surge from the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville can win the AFC South and the automatic playoff bid that goes along with it by winning three of their final four games. Like I’ve said a hundred times, Jack Del Rio refuses to go away.
Chiefs – Just when we expected the Chiefs to fold, they’ve won three straight and put two games between themselves and the rest of the division. Kansas City can put the Chargers to rest once and for all with a win this Sunday.
Rams – Currently in first place in the NFC West, the Rams will need to fend of the Seahawks to reach the playoffs. I’m willing to accept the Rams in the playoffs despite a poor record because they’re winning with a young team and a rookie quarterback.

Stock falling (but not in bottom 5, yet)

Buccaneers – In my week 13 picks, I declared Sunday’s game against Atlanta would be when the wheels came off Tampa Bay’s season. For more than three quarters, the Bucs proved me wrong. Then, with a 10 point lead, Tampa surrendered a kickoff return for a touchdown and ultimately fell to Atlanta when Josh Freeman threw an interception on Tampa Bay’s final drive. The loss devastated the Buccaneers’ playoff hopes. To make matters worse, the Buccaneers also lost their starting center and standout cornerback for the remainder of the year.  The wheels indeed came off.
Colts – Peyton Manning, has anyone seen Peyton Manning? The worst part about that final interception? Reggie Wayne was W   I   D   E open underneath for the first down and an additional 10-15 yards, too. Even though Manning literally threw the game away, his teammates contributed to the losing cause. After tying the game late in the 4th quarter, the Colts kicked off. Dallas fumbled on the return and two Colt players inexcusably tried to pick up the ball instead of falling on it. Of course, Dallas recovered. How stupid. 30 seconds left in a tie game, a recovery already puts you in field goal range. Fall on the ball and the game is over. Unbelievably foolish. Let’s move on to overtime. The Colts have all the momentum and receive the ball first. Manning has the offense rolling. The game looks as good as over. It’s only a matter of time before the Colts are in field goal range. Then on 3rd and short, Manning hits Reggie Wayne square in the numbers for a first down… except Wayne dropped the football. On the next possession, Manning threw the pick that would decide the game. There’s a lot of things to fix in Indy, and maybe not enough time to do so.
Redskins – Donovan McNabb looks like Akili Smith. Mike Shanahan is coaching like Jim Zorn. And the Redskins have already quit like the, well, the Redskins.

Things I thought and would’ve said, but my son is only 5 months old and wouldn’t understand…

Sorry, I canned this section for Week 13 to pass along the updated playoff projections, which I didn’t make any changes to, at least not yet. After another week I may do so, but for now, they remain the same. You can view the NFC bracket here and the AFC bracket here.

NFC

As you can see, the Bears face a brutal schedule down the stretch. It’s so bad in fact; I have them missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker with the Giants. An 0-4 finish isn’t too far-fetched.

Sunday’s loss against Atlanta was a heartbreaker for the Buccaneers. It probably cost them a shot at the playoffs.

What isn’t being discussed is how realistic it is for the Eagles to miss the playoffs. They own very few tiebreakers and their best conference win is over Atlanta, which is meaningless because Atlanta is too far ahead of the Eagles for it to matter. If the Eagles can’t hold on and win the NFC East, there’s a real possibility that Michael Vick and the Birds are watching the postseason from home. I don’t want to think about this anymore. Let’s move on.

The Packers could find themselves in a similar position as the Eagles if they don’t win their division AND lose to the Giants in Week 16. However, I like Green Bay to finish strong and win the second seed outright.

I considered changing my Seattle prediction for week 14 but left it alone because it’s Alex Smith’s final chance to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. Ok, that’s a horrible reason to pick San Fran but I’m sticking to it nonetheless.

AFC

The Jaguars are looking good. Even if the Jags only win two of their final four, but beat the Colts in week 15, they’ll still win the division. Of course, that is contingent on the assumption that the Titans won’t rebound. If Tennessee were to pull it together and finish with an identical record as the Jaguars, the Titans would likely win a tiebreaker based on record in common games mostly due to their wins over the NFC East where as the Jaguars fell to the Giants and Eagles.

The Chargers’ playoff hopes look bleak. I still have them winning the AFC West mostly because I was too lazy to switch everything around after one week. A win against Kansas City on Sunday keeps the Chargers alive. A loss could cost Norv Turner his job. Or, at least it should.

Similar to the Chargers, the Colts are short stacked and long odds against. Running the table guarantees them a playoff spot. Finishing 3-1 could bring in several different tiebreaking scenarios that I won’t bore you with until it’s necessary to do so.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about the Jets or Ravens losing their grasp on the wildcard spots. I’m not buying. The Jets’ cushion is too big and the Ravens’ schedule isn’t enough to cause a collapse that would push them from the playoffs.

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