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Who’s Who Among NFL Playoff Contenders, Part 1

There are close to 20 teams competing for playoff spots. Week 15 provided plenty of insight as to which teams are to be taken seriously and which teams we can write off until 2013. (AP Photo/Andy King)

Goodbye, George, See You Next Thursday

New York Jets – Here’s what I don’t understand. For the past month or so, Rex Ryan and the Jets had a horrible offense and floundering football team still within reach of the playoffs. Under center, the Jets had a bad quarterback with a noodle arm who committed countless turnovers and did nothing to ignite the offense, his team, or the fan base. Over on the bench sat an unorthodox quarterback with below average quarterback skills but a proven track record for rallying his team, pulling off miraculous victories, and whipping fans into frenzy. Monday night was a perfect opportunity for the Jets to unleash Tim Tebow. Instead, they chose to watch Mark Sanchez throw four interceptions and hand the Titans the football on the Jets final three drives. Tebow lives for those moments. He wins those moments. What the %&*# was Rex Ryan thinking putting Sanchez back in the game on that final drive after the Titans shanked a 19 yard punt? The stage was set for Tebow to rally the Jets, win the game, bump their record to 7-7, and give the Jets and their fans a fighter’s chance at the playoffs. But no, Sanchez fumbled the snap to end the game and more importantly, the Jets season. (Please don’t tell me inserting Tebow would have been dumb because his arm was cold and he hadn’t throw a ball all night. Hello?! Tebow can’t throw anyway. What difference would it have made?)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The Bucs spent the first part of Sunday getting steamrolled by their division rival and the second part of the day complaining about their coach. A few weeks ago the Bucs had an outside chance of catching the Falcons for the division and a reasonably easy road to a Wildcard berth at the very least. Now, the Bucs are flirting with dropping into the basement of the NFC South. Losses don’t carry over into 2013 but complaining about the boss will. Things are getting messy in Tampa.

New Orleans Saints – The Saints fought their way back from a 0-4 start by winning five of six, thus putting themselves in the NFC Wildcard chase. Then, Drew Brees fell in love with opposing defensive backs and the Saints dropped three in a row. Season over. But really, it’s all Roger Goodell’s fault. Sean Payton would have never forced Brees into those interceptions.

St. Louis Rams – A disappointing Week 15 by the Rams normally reliable defense. There’s really no shame in allowing Adrian Peterson to run for over 200 yards. At this point in the season, I’m not sure the ‘85 Bears could do much to contain AP. But letting Christian Ponder waltz into your dome and leave without a turnover is inexcusable. The Rams have the best shot of this group at still getting into the postseason. All they must do is finish 2-0 and hope the Vikings, Bears, Cowboys and Giants all finish 0-2. See? Simple!

The Moonwalkers

Chicago Bears – The best playoff teams are at the top of their game as they head into the season’s final weeks and the postseason. The Bears are one of those teams, only the complete opposite. Chicago has lost three in a row and five of six, all to playoff contestants. Know what it means when you lose five of six to playoff teams after a 7-1 start? It means you’re not a playoff team. I love Brandon Marshall and therefore watch the Bears more often than anyone outside of Chicago should, so I feel I have enough information to dish out blame for the Bears current slide. It all starts with Mike Tice, the Bears offensive Coordinator. At least four times a game Jay Cutler is shown screaming toward the sidelines for the coaches to get him the play. Even when the plays get to Cutler in time, they usually suck. Yes, Cutler is a crybaby and he checks himself out of games if things stop going his way, but the poor guy has had Mike Martz and Mike Tice as his last two offensive coordinators. Martz is a brilliant offensive mind but a renowned a-hole that nearly got Cutler killed last season. Tice simply has no idea what he’s doing. Here’s my advice: If you’re not running the football, throw it to Brandon Marshall. If you throw it in his direction 20 times, I guarantee you he comes down with the football at least 15 times. Chicago’s remaining schedule (@AZ, @DET) gives the Bears a chance but they’ll need help to reach the postseason.

Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers were rolling and on their way to four straight wins when Ben Roethlisberger went down in Kansas City on a Monday night in November. The Steelers still beat the Chiefs, but the damage had already been done. Without their star quarterback, the Steelers dropped two in a row, including an embarrassing eight turnover performance against the Browns. Then Charlie Batch rallied the troops to a huge victory over division-leading Baltimore, putting the Steelers back on the winning track and in contention for the division crown. Or so we thought. Roethlisberger returned in Week 14 and the lowly Chargers clobbered the Steelers. A week later, Pittsburgh shot themselves in the foot with a devastating 4th quarter fumble and a game deciding interception in overtime to lose to Dallas. Losing four of five this late in the season usually costs teams a playoff spot, but not in this case. The Steelers still control their own playoff destiny. Win out and they clinch a Wildcard berth. (If things go really, really well, the Steelers can still win the division, though it’s a  l   o   n   g  shot.)

Baltimore Ravens – Baltimore is on a three game skid that could have easily been four if not for an unbelievable 4th and 29 conversion in San Diego. Since then, the Ravens lost to the ancient Charlie Batch, surrendered an eight point lead in the closing seconds to the Redskins before losing in overtime to a right-off-the-bench-Kirk Cousins, and capped it all off by getting steamrolled by the Denver Broncos. And yes, I’d like you all to forget that I “confidently” picked the Ravens to beat the Broncos. Despite Baltimore’s recent struggles, they won’t miss the postseason. Furthermore, It would take a near miracle for the Ravens not to win the division. That said, it’s hard to ignore how bad Baltimore looks right now. Be it injuries, coaching, or Joe Flacco curling up in the fetal position, this team stinks right now and I’m not sure Ray Lewis’ return does much to change that fact.

Surging Surprises

Cincinnati Bengals – Winners of five of their last six, the Bengals are playing the best of any team in the AFC North. However, Cincinnati’s road to the playoffs is not an easy one as they travel to Pittsburgh in Week 16 and host Baltimore to close the season a week later. The Bengals season will probably hinge on that Pittsburgh game. Win, and the Bengals are in. Lose, and it’s likely the Bengals will be done (unless they can beat Baltimore a week later and hope the Browns somehow knock off the Steelers in Pittsburgh). Bengal fans are no doubt angry their season even comes down to this. The Bengals had the Cowboys beat in Week 14 before a questionable personal foul call kept a late Dallas drive alive. Regardless, the Bengals are in the playoffs right now. If they fail to hold on to that spot, that’s on them.

Dallas Cowboys
A week ago I posted about the NFC East and how Dallas could legitimately still win the division. Everything played out as I expected in Week 15 and now the Cowboys can win the NFC East crown simply by winning out. (Of course, so can the Redskins.) If you had the Cowboys – notorious for late season collapses – winning five of their last six and in control of the NFC East with two weeks to play give yourself a round of applause.

Indianapolis Colts
The Colts need one more win to clinch their first playoff berth of the Andrew Luck era. With the Chiefs on the schedule next week, I think it’s safe to Sharpie the Colts into the playoff field. Indianapolis probably belongs in their own group titled, “Roller Coaster Surprises,” because the Colts aren’t quite surging. As is the case with many young teams, the Colts have had some frantic wins of late, including a furious rally in Detroit and an ugly victory over the Titans. Regardless, the Colts are the NFL’s most united teams. They have one singular goal week in and week out; win for Chuck. Teams that focused are not a welcomed sight in the postseason. Given Baltimore’s struggles, it’s possible the Colts get their first playoff victory of the Luck era, too.

Washington Redskins
The Redskins are winners of five straight and sit in pole position for the NFC East title. Probably not what anyone expected after Mike Shanahan declared the Redskins out of postseason contention after a Week 9 loss to the Panthers, but oh well, here they are. Of the three NFC East teams, the Redskins have the easiest Week 16 opponent (Philadelphia). A win over the Eagles would guarantee the Redskins the tiebreaker over the Giants if the division title were on the line.

Minnesota Vikings
Though Minnesota currently sits in the final Wildcard spot, their road to the postseason is without a doubt the toughest. The Vikings travel to Houston in Week 16 before hosting the Packers to end the year. Houston needs one more win to clinch the AFC’s top seed. The Packers could still be fighting for a 1st round bye. In other words, it’s unlikely the Vikings make the playoffs. I know Adrian Peterson has been unstoppable of late, but Christian Ponder is still Minnesota’s quarterback. If Minnesota is to beat two of the NFL’s top 7 teams in consecutive weeks, Ponder will have to play a large role. I don’t think he’s up to that challenge. For now, though, the Vikings are the best of the surging surprises. It’s just too bad they won’t be in the playoffs.

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