Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Final Stretch

With only four weeks left to play, the NFL is entering its final quarter. All of the teams are entering the stretch run, some firmly in the playoff race, some already eliminated, and some who are reaching out for a final playoff spot. This time of year is so exciting. December. Where the real teams come to fruition. I will be reviewing all of the divisions and what to expect out of them for the remainder of the season.

AFC East: This one seems to be just about wrapped up. The Patriots will most likely win the division and probably even get a first round bye with their incredibly easy remaining schedule. At 7-5, the Jets are still fighting for a wild card spot. Their remaining games aren’t too difficult but aren’t easy either. They could very well sneak into the playoffs yet again. Buffalo is in a downward spiral that is really hurting their fast start. With the injury to Fred Jackson, it seems that their team has been exposed. With an average passing game and a defense built on the big play, things are not looking good for their remaining games. Expect the Dolphins to jump them in the division standings. They’ve won four of five, the loss being by one point to the Cowboys. Matt Moore and Reggie Bush have revived the Miami offense and maybe even saved Tony Sparano’s job. They are the perfect definition of a spoiler team.

AFC North: It has become clear that the Bengals are not quite in the same league as the Steelers or Ravens, and I’m not shocked. The Bengals are too young and their record has been favored by a creampuff schedule (before the meetings with Pittsburgh and Baltimore). If they can squeeze into a wild card spot, it will prove they really are ahead of schedule in developing as a team. If not, you could see them resemble the 2011 Tampa Bay Buccaneers next season (ouch). The Ravens are incredibly dangerous, especially at home. I would not be surprised at all if they can finally reach the Super Bowl this year, but if Big Ben is in their way, they may not fare so well. Roethlisberger and the Steelers step up in big games. They have the kind of mentally tough team that is built for a playoff run. Winners of 7 of their last 8, I would have to make them my AFC Super Bowl pick. The Browns are ugly. There’s really nothing else you can say. The team has little to no talent and it’s a blessing they’ve gotten four wins. Cleveland’s front office needs to have a busy offseason if they want to be competitive in their division for the next decade.

AFC South: This division is over-or is it? T. J. Yates has looked good enough to where the Houston defense and running game can carry him to the playoffs, but consider this: the Texans and Titans each have three games before their Week 17 showdown. To make that a winner-take-all matchup, the Titans would need to go 2-1 and the Texans would need to go 1-2. The Titans play the Colts, Jaguars, and Saints, so it is entirely possible. The Texans get the Bengals, Panthers, and Colts, another possibility. However, due to tiebreakers, one of those Houston losses would have to be to the Colts. Hey, they have to win at some point right? The Colts are a mess but look a little better with Dan Orlovsky at the helm. Drafting Andrew Luck is a must for them. Jacksonville has become one of the worst teams in the leagues but has a solid core to build off of if they make the right moves in the offseason.

AFC West: This is the only division where every team has a realistic shot of winning it. Right now, it’s Tebow magic up top leading the way. Tim and the gang are leading the division with good defense, good running, and clutch play. They seem to be the favorite, as wild as that may seem. But you never know in the Wild West. Just like you never know what you’ll get with the Raiders, who must travel to Green Bay Sunday after getting thrashed by Miami. If Darren McFadden doesn’t get back soon, Oakland’s season may be over. The Chiefs and Chargers are both still alive, being two games out of first. I wouldn’t count out San Diego because of their historically stellar play in December and the division up for grabs, but you can turn the lights out in Kansas City. Tyler Palko cannot lead this team to the playoffs and Kyle Orton is not the savior either.

NFC East: The Giants-Cowboys Sunday night game is actually a lot more crucial than people think. If the Cowboys win that game, they could clinch the following week with a win and a Giant loss. That isn’t a guarantee, but expect Dallas to come out and play their hearts out knowing it’s a huge game. Expect the same from the Giants, who know they are playing for their season. Losers of four straight, New York is desperate for a win. This week will show us which team is hungrier. The Eagles season has been a drag and they look absolutely miserable. They resemble the Cowboys of last year. Unlike the Cowboys, there won’t be a coaching change that will spark them to end the season strong. The front office needs to do some evaluating and find players who want to win. The Redskins need to find a new quarterback. And wide receivers. And head coach. Both the Shanahans have been awful since they’ve been in Washington. Did they really think Rex Grossman or John Beck could lead the team? The Redskins’ defense is solid, but the offense is what really holds them down.

NFC North: Ah, the Packers. Would you look at them. Blazing through the competition, it seems almost impossible to stop them. They should go 16-0, and I have them as my Super Bowl pick, but it is possible a team could upset them in the playoffs. It doesn’t seem like the Lions or the Bears want a playoff spot at this point, but I see the Lions getting one by process of elimination, and because they’re actually healthy. Playoff experience would be good for this young team. As for Chicago, it’s unfortunate that such a promising season has been doomed by injury, so they’ll have to wait for next year before they truly contend. A lot of people say that if the Vikings had a quarterback, they would be a good team, but I just don’t see it. Did you see that secondary on Sunday? The Broncos wide receivers aren’t that good. The defense is really aging quickly. This team is in full-scale rebuilding mode.

NFC South: The Saints look really good. Almost as good as the Packers. The only difference I would say is that Drew Brees throws more picks and the Green Bay wide receivers are better, but both defenses are awful. New Orleans looks like it could keep on rolling right into the NFC championship game. The Falcons have gotten better but I’m still not sold on them. Matt Ryan has struggled this year and the secondary is spotty. Due to mediocrity of other teams, Atlanta is the best NFC team that won’t win its division. Wasn’t this the year the Bucs were going to compete for the NFC South title? A win over the Saints had them in prime position at 4-2. Six games later, it has gotten ugly. The team looks absolutely lifeless, unlike the Carolina Panthers, who just thrashed them last week. Cam Newton is a special player. Once he limits his mistakes and the Panthers get defensive help, they will be a playoff constant.

NFC West: San Francisco has been outstanding this year. The defense has been spectacular and Alex Smith has become a good quarterback. I still worry about them in the playoffs, but they’re headed in the right direction. Seattle has been impressive. Marshawn Lynch can still run in the NFL and the team really plays hard for Pete Carroll. Can you say Matt Barkley? Arizona wishes they could. They would really love to draft a quarterback like that, but may be stuck with Landry Jones. Or they could still be stubborn and keep Kevin Kolb. Winners of four of their last five, Arizona is overachieving. The Rams are underachieving. Sam Bradford has had his sophomore struggles and the team just isn’t that good overall. How in the world did this team beat the Saints?

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