Week 12 is over and we are now three quarters of the way through the season -- one that has not gone to plan. Most everyone's preseason Super Bowl predictions are down the tubes, and now is a good time to take a mulligan and re-examine things.
Nine win teams
The Patriots, Jets and Falcons are all tied for the lead league in victories. Regardless of how they each achieved those nine wins, all three will make the playoffs. So the fundamental question is which team is Super?
Patriots: We have learned the Patriots are tough, versatile and explosive on offense and their defense will allow yards but improve as the game goes along. With quarterback Tom Brady having a MVP-like season and Deion Branch looking like the Branch of old, the Patriots can beat any team in the league. Their defense must continue to improve -- in the red zone and on third down, as they will never slow any team down completely. The Patriots' greatest virtues are their grit, determination and youth.
Jets: The Jets find ways to win, including late in the game, which only enhances their already heightened confidence. As Bill Parcells always said, "You are what your record says." And the Jets, in spite of not dominating with their defense, are still a dominating team. They are tough to handle when their offense plays well and makes big plays. And, like the Patriots, they can win games with any phase of their team. We get a bonus playoff game next Monday, when the Patriots host the Jets, which might not be the last time these two teams will play this season. The Jets believe in themselves and that goes a long way this time of the year, plus they are healthy.
Falcons: Everyone knows how good the Falcons are at home, or when they get the lead at the half. Atlanta has perfected its style, and if the Falcons keep winning, they might not have to go outside in the playoffs. For me, if the Falcons secure home-field advantage, they will be a contender for the Super Bowl. If not, they will be a good playoff team that needs some work. I cannot think of another team that needs to play at home more than the Falcons. I say that respectfully, but the Falcons have three straight road games, two of them easy games -- this week they get the Buccaneers, followed by Seattle and Carolina. They must be the No. 1 seed -- how they handle the next three weeks will really determine their seeding.
Eight win teams
Ravens: They are much like the Patriots in terms of their overall toughness and how hard they come to play each week. The Ravens are not perfect, but they are hard to beat for 60 minutes. As the weather continues to get worse, the wind starts to impact games and toughness prevails. The Ravens can win in any style, which makes them unique and dangerous. They easily handled the Buccaneers, and now must hold serve against the Steelers. The Ravens are the kind of team no one wants to play the first weekend of the playoffs. While they are beatable, knocking them out might leave you unable to fight the next fight.
Steelers: Injuries have made winning hard for the Steelers, and beating quality teams even more difficult. Their lack of offensive line talent and lack of overall speed on offense -- with the exception of Mike Wallace -- makes them have to grind out wins. Not dominating the Bills was a direct result of these problems and perhaps looking forward to playing the Ravens this week.
Saints: If ever there was a team peaking at the right time, the Saints seem to be that team. Getting Reggie Bush back helps their offense make big plays and the defense appears to be improving each week. The Saints are more talented this year than last, and look to have that same desire back.
Bears: Can they grow grass in Chicago? I mean that field was horrible, but it played into the Bears' strengths. The slower field makes the opposing rush slower off the ball, thus helping this bad offensive line in pass protection. Even though they are 4-1 on the road, the Bears are like the Falcons in the sense that they need to be home to maximize their success.
Seven win teams
Chiefs: The Chiefs have found a passing game in the last month to match their running attack and their home field makes them dangerous. They continue to improve and compete at the highest level. They are for real -- and when they have offensive balance and get the lead, their defense, especially at home, is even better. They seem to be peaking at the right time and will be a factor the next five games, three of which are at home. They have to play in San Diego and St. Louis in Weeks 14 and 15. If they take care of their homes games, they are a 10-win team. Welcome to the playoffs Kansas City.
Eagles: Philadelphia needs a fast field and they must play with a lead. When they get behind, their defense is not good enough to go toe-to-toe with anyone. Then they make mistakes, and also it brings Andy Reid's inability to manage the game into play. Reid, for being a solid coach, really needs to outsource his game management and costs his team chances in big games. Style of play is critical to the Eagles, but most importantly, is playing on a fast track. The Birds proved they are not mudders in Chicago.
Giants: The Giants are a wounded team with all their injuries, but they fought through their hardship for the win against the feisty Jaguars. The Giants are tough and they compete, but their problems with protecting the football and being able to slow down athletic teams on offense won't go away. With the first of two more games with the Redskins this week, a trip to Minnesota and then the Eagles and Packers, one slip up might cost the Giants a playoff spot. I do not like their chances.
Packers: They are like the Giants and Steelers, a wounded team without many of their key players. They held the Falcons to fewer than 300 yards of offense and, at times, looked like the better team -- even though they lost on the road. The Packers might be hurting, but with their ability to move the ball and play defense as the weather changes, they are a tough seven-win team right now.
Buccaneers: They are improved, but a playoff run would be the result of their soft schedule, which has Washington, Seattle and Detroit left along with the Saints and Falcons. The Buccaneers cannot handle the better teams, but they are growing. They were dominated by the Ravens and now are a dangerous team for the Falcons to face. I like the Buccaneers, but I am far from loving them.
Six win teams
Chargers: The Chargers are right where they always are, a dangerous team with a big back who can pound the football. A fresh Mike Tolbert to complement a hot Philip Rivers makes the Chargers the team no one wants to play now. Tackling is a lost art as the season moves along and no team wants to stop a big back who runs with anger like Tolbert. He will be the difference maker for the Chargers down the stretch. San Diego can run the table, and once it is in the playoffs, it would be a nightmare for any team.
Colts: The Colts are wounded, soft and play with a bunch of players on both sides of the ball that are not NFL caliber. As John Madden once said, "Winning is a great deodorant for a team's problems." In this case, Peyton Manning has been able to cover the Colts' problems with his play. Manning has been hit more this year than in any season in the past and Indy's defense is bad. Still, all is not lost for the Colts. The schedule makers have been kind and the Colts can run the table. If Indianapolis can beat Dallas this week, then the Colts will run the table.
Jaguars: They are not the fastest team, or the most talented, but they play hard. Had they not made a 59-yard field goal against the Colts or connected on a Hail Mary vs. the Texans, they would be an afterthought. Watching them play Sunday made me think they are going to fall apart down the stretch. The lack of speed on either side of the ball makes them vulnerable.
Dolphins: Miami is a tough minded team and plays hard every week. Sometimes the Dolphins forget who they are and try to pass more than run, but they are going to be tough for any team to play down the stretch. Don't rule them out yet. They can match anyone physically and physical football wins in December.
Some team will get an automatic bid to the Super Bowl party from the NFC West, but that does not mean that squad is playoff worthy. The Rams are peaking at the right time, with quarterback Sam Bradford finally winning on the road and the defense playing much better. No other team in the division has the balance the Rams possess on either side of the ball. Don't forget, the winner of the NFC West will host a playoff game. I am thinking the Rams will emerge.
» The Chiefs had a nice draft last year but the reason they have seven wins has more to do with their past picks. Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles and Tamba Hali were nice pieces for the new regime to inherit. â¦
» The Raiders are not good enough to be a playoff team, but they might have found their new Cliff Branch and his name is not Darrius Heyward-Bey. Jacoby Ford is the real deal and the kind of player the Raiders love to feature. â¦
» The Lions are a 48-minute team. They are just not good enough to play for 60 minutes and win. They are close, but not close enough. â¦
» Did you ever think when Mike Shanahan was named the coach of the Redskins they would not be able to run the ball? I didn't. Their missing ground game is due to a bad line and lack of a featured back, which makes winning late in the year impossible. â¦
» Houston had a shut out, but the Texans better not get too excited with the Eagles this Thursday on NFL Network. The Texans played well, but they always do when they are out of contention. They will win enough to make you think they are back, but then lose when it counts. â¦
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.