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Patriots lead list of teams to beat down the stretch


It's time once again to sort through the playoff maze and determine who is for real and who is just pretending. With a quarter of the season remaining there is no shortage of teams with a mathematical chance of reaching the postseason, but sorry Dolphins, Titans, Vikings, and 49ers, you're not getting mentioned here. And Buccaneers fans, I can't see you getting beyond 10 wins. That Atlanta loss was crushing, and a second loss to the Saints would leave Tampa Bay 2-4 in the division. It ain't happening for you guys.

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Obviously the teams with fewer than five wins won't be included here. But for the rest of you, here's my assessment of the realistic odds of making the playoffs, and making a deep run.

We'll break things down based on likelihood of making the playoffs (playoff prognosis), using three categories: "Lock," "Little help," and "Dream on." I'll also give a prediction on how deep into the winter each team could advance: "Put a ring on it," "Playoff tested," and "One and done." And I'll point out a potential bugaboo or two as well.

So consider this your one-stop primer for the final four weeks of the regular season:

AFC

New England

Record: 10-2 (3-1 division, 8-1 conference)
Remaining schedule: at Bears, Packers, at Bills, Dolphins
Playoff prognosis: Lock

This will be the top seed in the AFC barring some collapse and, last year's postseason debacle aside, we know how dominant Tom Brady and the boys are in Foxborough. The last two games of the season set up well for them, and even a slip-up against an NFC team won't sting too badly. They have the tiebreaker over the Steelers and are sitting pretty.

Prediction: Put a ring on it

If this defense gets 30-plus points a game from Brady and Co. -- and it's hard to see that not being the case -- then the concerns about the defense obviously lessen. Playing with a lead plays to the advantage of youngsters like Jerod Mayo, Brandon Meriweather and Devin McCourty. They get enough of a pass rush and have a deceptively effective run game. With Danny Woodhead flourishing in the Kevin Faulk role, this is a difficult team to match up with. Oh, and the coach ain't half bad, either.

Team to avoid: Ravens. We know how much success the Pats have spreading out and exploiting the Steelers. They just delivered a dissertation on exposing the Jets' flaws. Old foes like the Colts and Chargers could be watching the playoffs from home. The Ravens took the Pats down to the wire in the 2009 regular season, blew them out in the 2009 playoffs, but managed to blow a lead and fall in overtime in Foxborough a few weeks back.

Pittsburgh

Record: 9-3 (3-1, 7-2)
Remaining schedule: Bengals, Jets, Panthers, at Browns
Playoff prognosis: Lock

Beating the Ravens last Sunday virtually ensured no worse than the second seed. If they beat the Jets in two weeks, then it is a total lock for the second seed. Nobody wants to go to Heinz Field in January. The Steelers have three straight home games coming up, also.

Prediction: Put a ring on it

The Steelers are a legit Super Bowl threat. Their inability to keep an offensive tackle healthy and a vulnerable secondary are big issues, but in the NFL of 2010, all teams have some warts. They have a big-play defense and are dominant against the run. Big Ben just wins games. The real problem could be ...

Team to avoid: Patriots. The road to an AFC title could go through New England. Otherwise, the Steelers look good. They put too much pressure on the QB for a player like Mark Sanchez to beat them. Big Ben always finds a way to beat the Ravens, even if they beat him up and break his nose. Upstarts like Jacksonville and Kansas City are too reliant on the run to match up well with Pittsburgh.

Kansas City

Record: 8-4 (2-2, 5-4)
Remaining schedule: at Chargers, at Rams, Titans, Raiders
Playoff prognosis: Little help

If they beat the Chargers this weekend, then go ahead and consider them a lock. No one else in the division can get to 11 wins, so any Chargers loss and running the table ensures them a division title. Problem is, if they hit a funk, and somehow lose the division, teams like Baltimore and the Jets could keep them out of the playoffs entirely. But I'm picking them to win the division and secure the No. 3 seed in AFC.

Prediction: One and done

The Chiefs are very young, and the AFC is very deep. Matt Cassel is having a great season, but the playoffs are a different animal. Having to go on the road after the wild-card round won't be easy, either. I love the run game and the speed on defense, but I'm not sure they're ready to go on a long playoff run just yet.

Teams to avoid: The big dogs. Any of the AFC's elite -- New England, Indy, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New York Jets -- would be a difficult challenge. Attack-minded defenses that can stuff the run, like Baltimore, the Jets and Pittsburgh, in particular.

Jacksonville

Record: 7-5 (3-1, 6-3)
Remaining schedule: Raiders, at Colts, Redskins, at Texans
Playoff prognosis: Little help

A massive game with the Colts in two weeks will decide the AFC South. A loss there, and things get really complicated, because if Colts run the table, even a 3-1 finish for the Jags could leave them home. And the Colts' schedule is pretty soft from here on out. This week's game might as well be considered a playoff matchup as well.

Prediction: One and done

I'm going to give the Jags the AFC South and the fourth seed. A heavy dose of MJD, a few deep shots from David Garrard, and I believe they will best the battered Colts. They are very young at the line of scrimmage, and I don't think they have the chops to go deep in the playoffs. I still worry about the defense. But even getting to this point is a major accomplishment.

Teams to avoid: Steelers. They have the best run defense in the NFL and no team runs more between the tackles the past two years than the Jags. In reality, though, like the Chiefs -- a team they share much in common with -- any of the AFC's elite will be tough, and the reality is wild cards won't fear traveling to Jacksonville.

Baltimore

Record: 8-4, (2-2, 6-3)
Remaining schedule: at Texans, Saints, at Browns, Bengals
Playoff prognosis: Lock

I can't see them folding to the point they miss the postseason entirely. They have made it both seasons under John Harbaugh already, and they don't lose to lesser teams. All four of their losses this season were heartbreakers. Getting over the Steelers' loss will be tough, but there is too much leadership here to fall apart. They're a tough wild card team.

Prediction: Playoff tested

Teams have gone on the road to win Super Bowls before. The Ravens have won three road playoff games the past two years. Their lack of a run game will keep them from winning it all, but going on the road in January is nothing new for Baltimore.

Teams to avoid: Steelers. Big Ben owns them. They lost the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh in 2008. They beat the Steelers in the final seconds in Pittsburgh earlier this season (when Roethlisberger was suspended). Also, if their old nemesis, Peyton Manning, sneaks into the postseason, he has the Ravens' number as well.

N.Y. Jets

Record: 9-3 (3-1, 7-2)
Remaining schedule: Dolphins, at Steelers, at Bears, Bills
Playoff prognosis: Lock

Like the Ravens, they would have to falter big time to miss. And while I think, at best, this team wins two of its next four games, some of the miracle finishes (at Cleveland in particular) are now looking huge in terms of tiebreakers. Winning the two AFC East games at home will be enough to get them in. Stumbling to just one win in these games could still be enough as well, but that opens up some wild tiebreakers.

Prediction: One and done

I've been waiting for reality to hit home here all season. They don't run the ball nearly as well as last year. They don't play defense or attack the quarterback nearly as well, either. And after playing turnover-free ball for the first five weeks, Mark Sanchez has regressed to 2009 levels. Injuries are mounting and that loss to the Patriots could haunt them. I don't have a good feeling. They could take down a Jacksonville or Kansas City, but I don't see them besting elite defenses like Baltimore or Pittsburgh.

Teams to avoid: New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh all seem to be tough assignments to me.

Indianapolis

Record: 6-6 (1-2, 4-4)
Remaining schedule: at Titans, Jaguars, at Raiders, Titans
Playoff prognosis: Little help

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The schedule-makers already provided some help, with the Titans collapsing this season and the teams meeting late twice. The margin for error is nil. Running the table will be in order, unless the Jags completely implode. Facing the Jags and Raiders will not be easy, though, considering how physical those teams are up front in the run game. Any other team with these flaws and I'd say, Dream On, but it is hard to count the Colts entirely out of it with this schedule.

Prediction: One and done

It is very hard not to include the Colts in any playoff picture, even though I like the Jags to hold them off. All of the injuries, Manning's funk and the inability to run the ball or stop the run is just too much to overcome, however. If the Colts get in, they are just not built for the long haul at this point. They need to figure out the offensive line in the offseason.

Teams to avoid: Steelers/Patriots/Chargers. Those teams are way too physical and have playmakers in the secondary. Those games could get lopsided. A Brady/Manning playoff reunion under the current circumstances would not be pretty, and we know the Chargers own them.

San Diego

Record: 6-6, (1-3, 5-4)
Remaining schedule: Chiefs, 49ers, at Bengals, at Broncos
Playoff prognosis: Little help

A week ago I figured they would run the table and take the AFC West. But going 1-3 in this pedestrian division thus far will ultimately be too much to overcome, and a loss this week would end it all and turn up the heat on Norv Turner. Making up two games on the Chiefs in four games is tough ... But of all the outsiders, the Chargers face the easiest schedule in the final three weeks, assuming they can beat the Chiefs. And if the Chiefs get to 10 wins and one of those wins includes beating the Raiders in Week 17, then the Chargers can't win the division.

Prediction: Playoff tested

If they get in, Philip Rivers makes them a very scary team. They might actually have a healthy group of receivers by that point as well. We all know they falter early in the playoffs, but if I'm the Pats, this is a team I don't want to see, because the Chargers might be able to outlast them in a shootout.

Team to avoid: Raiders. Sure they don't play them again and can't play them again, but getting swept by Oakland will tell the story of the season, if they fall short. If they get in, the Steelers and Jets would be difficult matchups.

Oakland

Record: 6-6 (4-0, 4-4)
Remaining schedule: at Jaguars, Broncos, Colts, at Chiefs
Playoff prognosis: Dream on

Only the Raiders could possibly sweep their division, yet miss the postseason. Finding ways to lose to Arizona and San Francisco, and botching the QB situation, have undermined what would otherwise be a strong AFC West front runner. They're just too erratic a team to run the table, and running the table is likely what it would take. Unless the Chiefs fall apart, a 9-7 Oakland club isn't making the postseason.

Prediction: I just can't see them getting in, especially with three of their final four opponents fighting for their playoff lives.

Team to avoid: Colts at this point, because a loss to Indy would doom them.

NFC

Atlanta

Record: 10-2 (3-0, 7-1)
Remaining schedule: at Panthers, at Seahawks, Saints, Panthers
Playoff prognosis: Lock

The only mystery is whether or not they secure the top seed or if the Saints somehow nab the NFC South. Two games with the Panthers look like a Godsend. If they win those games and beat the Saints, they lock up the division. This is a very balanced and dangerous football team, especially at home. I believe they win three out of four and take the top seed.

Prediction: Playoff tested

I'm just not quite ready to put them in the Beyonce category. They have a young QB and issues in the secondary. They reached the playoffs a few years back, but their offense is just not the same on the road. Like the Jets, I wonder if some of their good fortune turns a bit in the playoffs.

Teams to avoid: Eagles/Saints. Philly is the only team that has physically dominated the Falcons. That was a beatdown. Facing Michael Vick in the playoffs would be tricky. I don't like that matchup. Not sure you win two of three or all three against the Saints, either. Bottom line, if the Falcons get the top seed, look out. Otherwise, I have some hesitation.

Philadelphia

Record: 8-4 (2-1, 5-3)
Remaining schedule: at Cowboys, at Giants, Vikings, Cowboys
Playoff prognosis: Lock

I like the Eagles as the second seed in the NFC and could see them getting to at least 11 wins. They can test Dallas' suspect secondary and Michael Vick gives them the most unique weapon in the league. They can be overpowering in the run game, and have playmakers on defense. I'm giving them the NFC East.

Prediction: Playoff tested

This franchise knows the drill. Sure, they sputter out around the conference championship most times, but they're almost always in the hunt. If they can withstand the ground attack of the Giants and Vikings in back-to-back weeks, that will give them a big boost heading into the postseason.

Team to avoid: Saints. If Asante Samuel is dinged up at all, this secondary suffers, and Drew Brees might carve them up in a dome. The Giants' pass rush and run games makes them a tough foe as well.

Chicago

Record: 9-3 (4-0, 7-3)
Remaining schedule: Patriots, at Vikings, Jets, at Packers
Playoff prognosis: Little help

Of all the teams we're looking at in this little exercise, they have the toughest stretch to close out the year. Two AFC heavyweights at home and two monster division games on the road. A Bears team at 10 wins, however, including a loss at Lambeau, is by no means a shoe-in for the playoffs, and some quality team is going to be on the outside looking in.

Prediction: One and done

If the Bears get in, I'm still just not a big believer. I've been skeptical all along, particularly with the offensive line's ability to hold up against elite pass rushers. Jay Cutler still has the ability to turn into an interception machine as well. The defense is older and we'll see how it holds up injury wise down the stretch.

Team to avoid: Giants. They basically ripped Cutler's face off and ended Todd Collins' career at the Meadowlands earlier this season. And even though the Bears beat a tired Eagles team a few weeks back, I don't see that happening twice. I like Trent Cole in a rematch with the Bears.

St. Louis

Record: 6-6 (2-2, 4-5)
Remaining schedule: at Saints, Chiefs, 49ers, at Seahawks
Playoff prognosis: Little help

It's the NFC West. All those teams need some help. The Rams beat Seattle earlier this season, which is huge. But the next two games are very tough, which sets up a must-win scenario against division foes, and a trip to Seattle. That's never easy. I'm going to go with what I believe is the best QB and defense in the division to get it done and cap a tremendous reversal, but a slip-up by the Seahawks might be necessary in order to do it.

Prediction: One and done

Just reaching the playoffs would be monumental. The NFC wild card teams are going to be legit, and the Rams' lack of established skill guys beyond Steven Jackson would be an issue. I love Sam Bradford and I love what Chris Long is doing, but winning in the postseason would be a tall order.

Teams to avoid: Eagles/Giants/Saints. Facing a super-fast opponent in their dome on that quick track would not be good. The young offensive line would have difficulty with the Eagles and Giants pass rush. I can't see a Super Bowl winning team like the Saints faltering at St. Louis in playoffs.

New Orleans

Record: 9-3 (3-1, 7-2)
Remaining schedule: Rams, at Ravens, at Falcons, Buccaneers
Playoff prognosis: Lock

I've been big on the Saints all season. They are not winning pretty, but they are winning, and I expect them to win the rest of their NFC games. If they do that, with 12 wins and 10 NFC wins, they're in the playoffs. The Atlanta game is huge, obviously, and a must-win if they're going to take the division. I'm putting them down as my No. 5 seed.

Prediction: Put a ring on it

The defense is much-improved from a year ago. I expect the running game to take off down the stretch. It seems like they aren't getting the respect due a reigning world champion. Not having homefield advantage would be tough, but of all the teams that would have to go into Atlanta, I like the Saints' chances to exploit them deep.

Team to avoid: Packers. If Green Bay wins the NFC North, having to go to Lambeau would be a tough chore for this dome team.

Green Bay

Record: 8-4 (3-1, 6-3)
Remaining schedule: at Lions, at Patriots, Giants, Bears
Playoff prognosis: Lock

I picked these guys to win the Super Bowl, I still love a lot about them and I have them down for 11 wins. The last two games at home are going to be a lot of fun to watch. Aaron Rodgers is something else, James Starks might get the run game going, and there are a lot of underrated playmakers on defense. I'm putting them in the playoffs.

Prediction: Playoff tested

Their run game issues and inconsistencies on the offensive line give me pause. But much like the Ravens, even when these guys lose, it's a close game. They had the Bears beat, and had a tough loss at Atlanta. They can play with anyone in the league.

Teams to avoid: Eagles/Falcons. I know the Packers beat them back in Week 1, but that was a long time ago. They have the linebackers to handle Michael Vick to the degree that anyone could, but I could see the Eagles or Falcons hurting them with a ball-control type game.

N.Y. Giants

Record: 8-4 (2-2, 6-2)
Remaining schedule: at Vikings, Eagles, at Packers, at Redskins
Playoff prognosis: Little help

They face three road games in the final four and the other contest is against a division rival. I have a feeling it will come down to the Giants and Bears for the final wild card. Eli Manning's turnover issues, especially against Green Bay's secondary, might be the difference. If they're smart, they'll take it easy on Brett Favre this week to avoid knocking him out and getting the more mobile and dangerous Tarvaris Jackson under center.

Prediction: Playoff tested

If they get in, they have the recipe -- an experienced head coach, unique pass rush packages, a QB who has won a Super Bowl and a powerful and proven run game with two capable backs. We know they can win on the road. They could win the division and be a No. 2 seed, or miss the playoffs entirely. I'm going to pencil them in as the NFC's second wild-card team.

Teams to avoid: Saints. Drew Brees is so smart, so good and so quick with his delivery that he neutralizes the pass rush. Manning is throwing a ton of picks and guys such as Darren Sharper tend to make big plays in the playoffs.

Seattle

Record: 6-6 (3-1, 5-3)
Remaining schedule: at 49ers, Falcons, at Buccaneers, Rams
Playoff prognosis: Little help

Everyone knows the Seahawks are not good on the road. A mistake this weekend and it's over for the most part. Going to Tampa Bay will not be easy. The Falcons will be highly motivated for their trip out west. Obviously getting the Rams at home is a decided advantage. I'm giving the NFC West edge to the Rams, though.

Prediction: One and done

Despite the "12th Man" and all that jazz, this front office inherited a threadbare roster and there are still many holes to be patched up. Injuries have crippled both sides of the line and now receivers are dropping, too.

Teams to avoid: Any of the NFC's playoff teams would be difficult. The Packers or Giants team as a wild card would be a bad matchup. The Seahawks did win in Chicago, however. The Bears are playing much more balanced football now, but I still think of all the possibilities, that one might be the best for the Seahawks.

Quick hits

» I can't find too many people around the league who are buying the Steelers' complaints about being unfairly targeted by the league for discipline. Plenty of players have been fined over $20,000 for hits. Despite a warning months ago, James Harrison has been fined several other times without a suspension. Hines Ward has been considered a borderline dirty player by other players for quite some time. If the league wanted to make an example of them, or was out to get Pittsburgh, Harrison would have sat a game out by now. ...

» I would not be surprised if Karl Dorrell gets consideration for the Denver job. The former coach at UCLA has ties to the Broncos and owner Pat Bowlen, dating back to being a minority coaching intern there in 1993. As a receivers coach on Mike Shanahan's staff, he was very well respected, and former Broncos like Rod Smith would endorse him. Dorrell has head-coaching experience at UCLA and has coached receivers for the Dolphins since 2008. If Gary Kubiak gets let go by the Texans, he'd have to be considered a heavy favorite, especially with Air Force coach Troy Calhoun pulling himself from consideration. Gregg Williams and Ron Rivera might make some sense for the Broncos as well. ...

» Maurice Jones-Drew needs to be in the MVP conversation. He's averaging about 150 rushing yards a game over the past five weeks. If the Jags beat the Colts, Pocket Hercules figures to have been a huge part of the reason why. I can't see him passing the likes of Brady or Vick, but MJD and Jamaal Charles have to be among the non-quarterbacks to at least garner consideration.

The picks are in

I went a ho-hum 10-6 last week, bringing me to 121-71 for the season. This week, give me the Colts, Chargers, Patriots, Saints, Dolphins, Seahawks, Eagles, Jags, Falcons, Giants, Packers, Ravens, Steelers, Buccaneers, and Broncos.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.

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