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Playoff Opportunities for Darkhorse Contenders

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The Jaguars’ loss to the Colts does two things: it opens the door for a whole slew of AFC teams to make the postseason, and it keeps us focused on the joint plight of the Colts and Saints, while all this shady stuff goes on in the middle of the NFL pack.

By that, I mean shady stuff such as the Broncos getting a step closer to the postseason after losing to the Colts.  And the Steelers: they’ve lost to the Chiefs, Raiders, and Browns in the last five weeks as they’ve dropped all those games.  But they’re still in it.  The Ravens and the Dolphins, who fought in the playoffs last season, are now the co-favorites to go get the final seed.  And the bottom end of the AFC South, left completely for dead just two weeks ago, and hope is very much alive in Houston and Tennessee.

The Houston Texans need to win their final three games playing at St. Louis and at Miami, before playing the Patriots in a game at home that could decide everything.  And not just for the Texans.  A 1-1 slide by the Patriots over the next two weeks could make this game a must-win, or they don’t make the playoffs.  If the Texans win their last two games, they would have the head to head tiebreakers over both New England and Miami, which makes the Jets and the Ravens the biggest threats to them making the postseason at 7-7.

The Tennessee Titans are probably not as likely to make the postseason as the Texans are, but they do have one advantage: if they win out, they’ll out-tiebreak the Texans, and would need only the Jaguars to fall to jump to second in their division.  They need a win against Miami to stay in the hunt this week, and if they get it, they’ll hold that tiebreaker, and the Texans tiebreaker, and…absolutely nothing else.  If the Titans are dead in the water, it’s because they need Jacksonville, Pittburgh, the Jets, and the Ravens (twice) to fall out of their way, and that’s not quite as realistic as say, Houston getting the Titans to fall.

It’s a bit surprising that the Pittsburgh Steelers do not control their own destiny at this point in the season.  But just how bad is it?  The Steelers have a brutal schedule to finish the season, need to win every game to just have a chance, and even if they do that, they still aren’t even likely to finish second in their own division.  It’s already known that the Ravens will have the tiebreaker with the Steelers should they be tied at the end of the year.  This means the Steelers can win each of their next three games by 40 points, including against the Ravens, and all Baltimore has to do is beat patsies such as Chicago and Oakland, and they’ve finished ahead of the Steelers in the playoff race.

On the other hand, while catching Baltimore seems unrealistic, the only chance that Denver could fall out of the playoff race involves the Steelers winning out, as the Steelers hold that tiebreaker.

Let’s look at the NFC race for a second.  The darkest of all horses: the San Francisco 49ers, and the Atlanta Falcons.  The 49ers will play for their season this week in Philadelphia.  If they fall to 6-8, they could be in trouble, although with Detroit and St. Louis to finish, they could be back into it with a lot of help.  But if San Francisco can win this week, they would have to be considered among the favorites to make the postseason.  With the exception of the Falcons, the 49ers hold basically all the relevant tie-breakers.  It’s perhaps a bit premature, but it’s okay to view the 49ers through the lens of a playoff team at this point.  Mike Singletary has done that good a job there.

For Atlanta, they will only remain relevant as long as they can keep winning.  At 6-7, and holding no meaningful tiebreakers outside of against San Francisco, they have to get to 9-7 and get a whole lot of help.  The schedule is certainly favorable: the Jets, the Bills, and the Bucs.  If they can win all of them, they just have to hope that Dallas doesn’t win again, and New York Giants don’t go out and win twice.

A footnote about the Carolina Panthers, who are mathematically alive, but need to win out while Dallas doesn’t win another game, and because Dallas holds the tiebreaker against them, they need the New York Giants to finish with exactly eight wins (including a head to head loss against Carolina), to give them the tiebreaker, along with a whole bunch of other stuff to happen.

Eliminating the darkhorses for a second (and if SF wins this week, they are hardly a darkhorse), the playoff race will be decided between the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, and New York Giants, best two out of three.  Green Bay figures to be pretty safe: they can fall once, perhaps even twice and still make the playoffs comfortably.  They have their home finale against the Seahawks though, so if they don’t take care of business there, then I’ll have to reconsider this vote of confidence.

Between NFC East Rivals New York and Dallas, the schedule down the stretch is brutal.  Both teams have to play at division rival Washington, who is playing mistake-free power football right now.  New York still has a game with the Carolina Panthers, which figures to close the game between these two foes.  Here’s why I’d bet on the Giants: 1) they hold the tiebreaker over Dallas, and 2) if it comes down to a one game on the final weekend of the season, don’t forget that the Vikings will host the Giants.  Last season, the roles were reversed: the Vikings needed a win to clinch a playoff spot, and the Giants were resting their starters in the second half.  Don’t be shocked to see Vikings coach Brad Childress return the favor if the Vikings have locked up a first round bye while the Saints remain undefeated.  A ninth win for the Giants could decide the 6th seed in the NFC playoffs…unless of course, the 49ers come to crash the party.

…Back to the AFC.

The New York Jets have announced that they are going back to Mark Sanchez at quarterback this week, as they need to win to stay alive against the Falcons, who are in the same boat.  To finish: Indianapolis, and Cincinnati.  9-7 gets the Jets in if and ONLY if the Dolphins drop two out of three to close the season.  10-6 will be enough if the Dolphins don’t win out.  As you can see, the Jets don’t have to do a whole lot to make the playoffs, but it’s not really about them.

The Jacksonville Jaguars fell yesterday, but they hold a lot of tiebreakers, and can make the postseason if they beat the New England Patriots and the Cleveland Browns to close out the year.  They can still clinch second place in their own division by controlling their own destiny.  They need help from the Steelers or the Raiders against the Ravens, and they need help from anyone who is playing Miami because they failed to take care of business themselves, but with just a little bit of help, they can make the postseason just by being the best team they can be down the stretch.

But through all of the AFC Darkhorses (and this is not to slight the Bills, who are right back in the thick of things if they can upset the Patriots this week), the two teams who are best suited to make the postseason in the AFC remain the Baltimore Ravens, and the Miami Dolphins.

If both teams win out…that means the Dolphins would beat the Steelers, and would share a 3-2 record against common opponents.  That means strength of victory would decide the 6th seed in the AFC, and the Dolphins hold a substantial lead over the Ravens there, although there’s certainly enough games left for that to change.

But…wait!  If both teams win out, the Denver Broncos can muddle things up by losing to the Eagles.  They hold the same lead that the Dolphins have over the Ravens in strength of victory.  So the Ravens are probably out at that point.  But if the Broncos fall instead to either the Raiders or the Chiefs at home, they could be the odd team out.  Fun stuff to think about.

In the AFC, it’s the Dolphins and the Broncos who have the spots for the taking, and if one of them stumbles (without counting Broncos-Eagles as a stumble), then the Ravens can go in and clinch the final AFC berth by winning out.  By far, that’s the closest spot right now in a very, very crazy American Football Conference.

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