It has been a surprising season, to say the least. On one hand (Namely, the AFC) you have the traditional powerhouses looking to clinch their divisions with the Broncos, Patriots and Colts holding a steady league while the AFC North looks like the best division in football, with all 4 teams above .500. On the NFC, however, things could hardly be anymore chaotic. Only the Cardinals in the NFC West look to be the sure-fire division winner, and the NFC’s top seed to boot. The NFC East looked locked down until Tony Romo remembered he was Tony Romo and decided to get hurt, and then Nick Foles decided to follow suit with a broken collarbone that could leave him out for a month on the most optimistic diagnosis. The Saints lead the NFC South with a stunning 4-4 record, a far cry away from the projected 1st seed in the NFC. The NFC North is anyone’s game, with the Lion’s looking dominant defensively but far from good offensively (someone remind Stafford who he is and tell Megatron to hurry up the healing), while the Packers look basically the same as they have since Farve was playing with the exception of a working offensive line.
Things to look for:
AFC West: It is hard to imagine the Chiefs being able to reclaim the division lead this year, but a wild card is very likely with the Chargers on a 3 game losing streak (started, in fact, by the Chiefs). Alex Smith is playing well and Jamaal Charles, while not playing as well as last year, is still being Jamaal Charles. Combine this with a stout defense and the misfortune of being in a strong division and this leads to a major contender for a wild card.
AFC East: Everyone is talking about Tom and the Patriots playing well, but the real team of note here is the Dolphins. The Dolphins opened their season with a big win over the Patriots in a game where Brady really showed his age. The Dolphins just won a huge game against the Chargers, 37-0, shutting out Phillip RIvers. The Pats have an exceedingly difficult remaining schedule, and this is a golden opportunity for the Dolphins to reclaim the division.
AFC North: 12 TDs. 2 Weeks. No Interceptions. Big Ben Roethlisberger, the oft-underestimated Quarterback who people are quick to malign has been historic the past two weeks. Nearly breaking an ancient yardage record, set in 1951 by Norm Van Brocklin, followed by breaking Y. A. Tittle’s two game score record, the Steelers are arguably the hottest team in the league right now. Over their last 17 games, the Steelers are 12-5, and only look to be better with the emergence of Le’Veon Bell as one of the league’s premier running backs combined the Antonio Brown playing like the best receiver in the league. We already knew that this was a potent offense; after all, Big Ben is the Quarterback. The defense has turned it around the past two games led by none other than James Harrison. Harrison now leads the team in sacks with two per game over the last two weeks against the solid offensive lines of Baltimore and Indianapolis. As long as the Steelers don’t play down to their opponents, they might not lose another game.
AFC South: This year in the AFC South has been all colts. Andrew Luck through the first 4 games was projected to have the 2nd best season a QB has ever had, but he has slowed down over the last few. The Colts defense has been stifling except against QBs named Roethlisberger, The Colts look to be a nearly guaranteed division winner, barring injury to Luck.
NFC West: All the cries of “Dynasty” and “Best team since the Montana 49ers” have been silenced as Seattle has crashed down to reality. The holes in Seattle’s defense has been exposed, with Sherman leading the disappointments. Teams take advantage of the fact that unlike more traditional elite corners, he covers a specific side of the field, allowing defenses to take him out of the equation by simply lining up their number 1 guy on the other side of the field. Offensively, the Seahawks have been all rushing, with Lynch providing it early on, followed by Wilson’s scrambles, and now Lynch looks to emerge back as an elite rusher. The Seahawks just don’t look significant at all and will very likely miss the playoffs.
NFC East: On face-value, this is a strong division. The Cowboys have been dominant, beating Seattle at home, and the Eagles have the best special teams in the league with just enough offense and defense to move them to a solid 6-2 record. The playing field, however, has been shaken up with injuries to Nick Foles and Tony Romo. In the case of the former, his replacement, the infamous Mark Sanchez, practically duplicated Foles’ numbers after the exit. In the latter, however, this will be a major blow to the Cowboy’s playoff hopes, arguably eliminating eliminating them from the second seed and a first round bye (with the Cardinals taking the 1st round bye as an assumption). This opens the door for the giants to come in. The Giants, outside the one game against the Eagles, have been playing very, very well lately and, although it’s an uphill battle, could come back for the division.
NFC North: Da Bears. Da Packers. Da Lion. The former most have been a significant disappointment in terms of missed potential. In an offense that rivals Denver and equal’s Green Bay’s, Cutler is managing to play poorly. Next, the Packers, have been playing well under Rodgers, Nelson and Stacy but need more of a defense to secure the division. Lastly, and arguably most interesting, is the Lions. The Lions theoretically have a ton of pieces offensively. Matthew Stafford. Golden Tate. Last, and far away from least, Calvin Johnson. This team undoubtedly has the pieces to be a top 5 offense, and yet they continually under perform. Surprisingly, however, their defense has been more than capable, holding Rodgers to single digits in their previous match up. The Lions are in the lead and should maintain it as they look to secure that second seed.
NFC South: Did anyone think that the Saints would be in the lead of the division with a 4-4 record? Everyone and their brother said the Saints had this division on lock (except for, of course, ESPN’s writer for the Falcons who had them ending at 3rd in the division) and a shoe-in for the first round bye. That hope was shattered, however, after they started 0-2 with losses to the BROWNS and the FALCONS, although the former has actually turned out to be a quite capable team this year. Nearly every part of the Saints team has struggled, from the Offense to the Defense, from Brees to Vaccaro. Only two players can really be said to have done just as well or better this season, namely Mark Ingram who is having a career year at running back and Keenan Lewis, the Saints shutdown corner. Lewis has shutdown big name receivers such as Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson and rookie Kelvin Benjamin. Everywhere else, though, the Saints have struggled. This might have all turned around last week against Green Bay, While everyone was talking about how Aaron Rodgers was basically playing as the best quarterback ever, Green Bay picked him off twice (the first was a great defensive play, catching a tipped ball that was knocked out of a receiver’s hands and the second was Rodgers’ fault, throwing it too far in front of his receiver directly to a defensive back) and dominated the Packers. They followed this up with a convincing road win at Carolina, giving them first place in the division. Last year, the Saints proved they could win a playoff game on the road last year against the Eagles and though they should play the wildcard game at home, they will likely go on the road for the divisional game because of a hole too big to climb out of for the top two seeds.
MVP Watch: My prediction of Drew Brees having himself a season has been sorely remiss, so we will have to look elsewhere. Peyton Manning has been playing like Peyton Manning, but that unfortunately included a stinker at New England. Brady has been playing well, but it was noticeably against weaker opponents until hosting the Broncos. J.J. Watt has been phenomenal, as has Andrew Luck. One player outside virtually everyone’s radar right now is Big Ben. Ben is playing the best football of his career and if he continues playing this well, or even close to this well, Manning’s record might be in trouble.
Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt. Nothing else needs to be said.
Comeback Player of the Year: For the first 6 weeks or so, it looked like it was Dallas’ Rolando McClain’s to lose. He might, however, be doing just that. He has come down a little bit in performance, and none other than Pittsburgh’s James Harrison has been stealing the spot light. With 2 sacks a game two weeks in a row and several QB pressures, Harrison is looking to be re-entering his prime in his final season.
Rookies of the Year: No rookie on either side of the ball has really established themselves as the rookies of the year, but if I had to pick one for each side it’d be Kyle Fuller for the Bears who picked up where Tillman left off when the latter was hurt and Kelvin Benjamin for the Panthers who has ably taken over for Steve Smith as their number one receiver.
While it’s too early to call in most cases, I have a few interesting notions
Pittsburgh Steelers and _______ __________
AFC Seeds will be as follows: Denver Broncos #1 , Pittsburgh Steelers #2, New England Patriots #3, and Indianapolis Colts #4
Pittsburgh beats the winner of the wildcard round facing the Patriots ( I believe it’ll be Kansas City going to New England, and the Chiefs then go to Pittsburgh), and the Colts (second wild card is too close to call. But if I had to, I’d say Dolphins) go on to the Broncos. Winner of the Broncos/Colts game faces Pittsburgh in AFC Championship in a game that could go either way.
Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions
NFC Seeds: Arizona Cardinals #1, Detroit Lions #2, Dallas Cowboys #3, New Orleans Saints #4 (Wild Cards: 49ers and Packers)
49ers and Packers are easier Wild Card choices here. Dallas knocks off the 49ers, Saints top the Packers in a Super Dome rematch. Lions dispatch the Cowboys and the Cardinals edge out the Saints. Cardinals hold the lead in a close game but Calvin Johnson makes a last second play to send the Lions to the Superbowl.
Unfortunately for the NFC, the Broncos, Steelers and Colts can successfully dispatch any of their teams with impunity with the exception of the Cardinals and the Saints. I think if Arizona goes to the Superbowl against the Broncos, Cards win, but Steelers and Colts can top the Cards. Detroit loses to all 3 as does Dallas. Saints win to all but Pittsburgh.