NFL Playoff Races

ANALYZING THE NFL PLAYOFF RACES

Normally on Sundays we provide an in-depth stat preview of the prime time NBC game here in the Notebook. But, with Pittsburgh/Kansas City getting that slot this week...we're not exactly fired up about it. We just talked about the Chiefs in a prime time game last Monday in New England, and that wasn't much of a ballgame in the second half.

The second choice would be to run a stat preview of the big TV game in the late afternoon segment. That's New England at Philadelphia today. We just talked about New England on Monday! And, Philadelphia was in prime time last Sunday. No need to keep repeating ourselves about a couple of teams. And, Michael Vick may not be able to play anyway (it wasn't looking good at last report), which means we'd have to come up with 1,000 words saying Vince Young would try to manage the game again.

Given that we're in the early stages of the stretch drive for the NFL playoff race, this seemed like a good time to update where everyone "really" stands in the big picture. Several contenders already played their 11th game on Thanksgiving, which has helped solidify some of the races. Dallas is the frontrunner in the NFC East. Nobody's catching Detroit in the NFC North. Baltimore's in great shape in the AFC North even with embarrassing losses to Jacksonville and Seattle on their resume.

We'll run through both leagues today, focusing on where teams stand in the morning, where teams will likely stand at the end of the day, and what caliber of schedules are ahead for everyone in the mix.

Let's start in the NFC where we may only have seven teams battling for the six playoff spots if Philadelphia can't knock off New England today.

NFC EAST
Dallas 7-4
NY Giants 6-4 (but underdogs on MNF in New Orleans)
Philadelphia 4-6 (but underdogs today vs. New England)

NFC EAST REMAINING SCHEDULES
Dallas: Average
NY Giants: Brutal
Philadelphia: Tough

So, the Cowboys have a head start entering today's action, and they'll lead by one game and three games if the underdogs don't pull upsets this week. THEN, they'll also have the easiest schedule of the remaining teams the rest of the way. We didn't say "easy" though. It's Arizona and Tampa Bay, and three games against those other two NFC East contenders. If Dallas just wins their home games as favorites over NYG and Philly, they're a shoe-win. And, those other teams may be losing other games anyway.

NFC NORTH
Green Bay 11-0
Chicago 7-3 (Cutler out for regular season, underdog in Oakland today)
Detroit 7-4

The Packers can throw it in cruise control in terms of the division already. But, if they want home field throughout the NFC playoffs they'll need to finish ahead of San Francisco. They currently have a two-game lead in that race.

NFC NORTH REMAINING SCHEDULES
Green Bay: Tough
Chicago: Easy
Detroit: Strong

Interesting race for the Wildcard, with the Bears trying to survive an easy schedule with their backup quarterback, while the Lions have their starter but must face a strong schedule with a team that maybe imploding in terms of its composure recently.

NFC SOUTH
New Orleans 7-3 (7-point favorites Monday over NYG)
Atlanta 6-4 (9-point favorites today over Minnesota)

We're probably looking at 8-3 for the Saints, which puts them in GREAT shape for the postseason even if they don't end up winning this division. Atlanta is looking at 7-4. They can still win the division, but that home overtime loss to the Saints looms large in the tiebreaker.

NFC SOUTH REMAINING SCHEDULES
New Orleans: Average
Atlanta: Softer

The Falcons do have an easier path home (though some of that is based on facing Minnesota today). This may be more important in the Wildcard race if all three amongst Atlanta-Chicago-Detroit are 7-4 at the end of today, and the Giants fall to 6-5 Monday with a killer schedule ahead.

There's no reason to run the NFC West. San Francisco is a virtual lock, and it would take a few miracles for second place Seattle to get into the Wildcard mix. If those miracles start to happen, we'll pick up that story in a few weeks.

Here in the NFC, the four divisional leaders are in very good shape once you adjust for future schedules. The race for the Wildcard could be interesting...but it's not going to be one of those year's where a zillion teams are fighting for two spots. A few clear contenders, and somebody's going to miss out. Maybe Philadelphia will get hot and make things more interesting.

Moving to the AFC...

AFC EAST
New England 7-3 (favored today in Philadelphia)
NY Jets 5-5 (big favorites today vs. Buffalo)
Buffalo 5-5 (big underdogs today at NYJ)

We talked about New England's easy path to the playoffs here in the NOTEBOOK last Monday. They played poorly for the first third of the Kansas City game and still coasted home. They're going to win this division barring an injury to Tom Brady. The other two teams have some work to do just to stay alive in the Wildcard race.

AFC EAST REMAINING SCHEDULES
New England: Very Easy
NY Jets: Relatively easy
Buffalo: Strong

Buffalo's basically toast, but the run was fun while it lasted. If they play great today, they'll mess up the Jets Wildcard chances. Playing spoiler is about it right now though with what's left on the card. The Jets could launch themselves back into the Wildcard mix with a win today. Catching first place is nearly impossible because they've already lost the head-to-head tie-breaker with the Pats. The Jets would have to finish one game ahead of the Pats to win the AFC East.

AFC NORTH
Baltimore 8-3
Pittsburgh 7-3 (favored by 10 at Kansas City)
Cincinnati 6-4 (favored by 7 vs. Cleveland)

You'd assume wins at those Vegas lines...but the Bengals may be tired from a tough recent stretch...and Kansas City's capable of pulling surprises at home. Should form hold, then both the Steelers and Bengals would stay ahead of the Buffalo-Jets winner in the Wildcard race, as that winner would be 6-5.

AFC NORTH REMAINING SCHEDULES
Baltimore: Very easy
Pittsburgh: Very easy
Cincinnati: Average

It's interesting that so many contenders had front-loaded schedules this season. Baltimore and Pittsburgh join New England on the list of virtual AFC locks because they have strong records AND easy schedules the rest of the way. Cincinnati's schedule grades out a bit tougher than the Jets...if you're assuming those two teams are the best choices in the mix so far to win the final Wildcard spot.

AFC SOUTH
Houston 7-3 (favored by 3 at Jacksonville, but Schaub out for season)
Tennessee 5-5 (favored by 3 vs. Tampa Bay)

The fate of this division is in the hands of Matt Leinart. If he can keep the Texans moving in the right direction, they'll be able to take care of business. If not, we're going to have weak winners in the bottom two divisions of this conference!

AFC SOUTH REMAINING SCHEDULES
Houston: Very Easy
Tennessee: Easy

The Titans can move into the Wildcard race by winning games against that easy schedule. Should Cincinnati falter, or should the Jets keep handing games away...then the race for the final Wildcard spot could turn into a slapstick comedy movie where whoever screws up least gets the spot. Of the Jets, Bengals, and Titans, the Bengals are the only one approximating playoff caliber football recently. But, they're wearing down and they have a rookie quarterback.

AFC WEST
Oakland 6-4 (3-point favorites over Chicago)
Denver 5-5 (7-point underdogs at San Diego)
San Diego 4-6 (7-point favorites vs. Denver)
Kansas City 4-6 (10-point underdogs vs. Pittsburgh)

Somebody of this group is going to make the playoffs, even if nobody in this group is playing playoff caliber football lately. It's tough to see a Wildcard coming out of this foursome, though San Diego always seems like they should be able to string together wins. They've just strung together five losses while people were expecting them to get hot!

AFC WEST REMAINING SCHEDULES
Oakland: Average
Denver: Soft
San Diego: Average
Kansas City: Absolutely brutal

The Chiefs may have the toughest schedule of anyone in the league from this point forward, so you can write them off. No wonder Kyle Orton didn't want to get picked up by this team! The stage is set for Tim Tebow to have an interesting finish to the 2011 campaign. Of course, he's always one tackle away from a separated shoulder or high ankle sprain too...so you just never know.

All told, in BOTH conferences, we're dealing with smaller than normal races for the available spots, and more certainty for many of the divisions than you normally have entering the final Sunday of November. There may not be much of a stretch run this year! But, to the degree there is one, you need to know what's at stake each week so you can make proper handicapping choices.

JIM HURLEY is very confident of his NFL choices today. You can purchase those right here at the website with your credit card, or by calling the office at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to check on basketball rates when you call. College basketball is going strong, and now it looks like the NBA will tip things off around Christmas.

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