Six weeks into the season, the NFL playoff picture is beginning to take shape. If the season ended today, it'd be the Chiefs, Patriots, Colts, Bengals, Broncos and Dolphins in the AFC, and the Saints, Seahawks, Lions, Cowboys, 49ers and Bears in the NFC. Which of those teams won't make the playoffs, and which team will jump into the picture by season's end?
Packers will replace Bears in NFCIt's hard for me to imagine an NFC playoff picture that doesn't include the Green Bay Packers. This is particularly true now that Eddie Lacy is in gear and giving the team a running attack -- and after the maligned defense powered a victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday without Clay Matthews. A quick glance at the Packers' schedule reveals a slew of opponents who once appeared potentially problematic -- Cleveland (Brian Hoyer version), the Vikings (twice), Eagles, Giants, Falcons and Steelers -- but are much weaker than initially envisioned.
Who drops out, though? That's trickier, because it almost certainly has to be someone else from the NFC North. If I have to choose now, I'll say the Bears will fall out, and for the reason you'd never expect: Their defense ranks 26th in scoring D and is living off turnovers -- which means it's living on the edge. If the takeaways don't come, can the defense still hold off Aaron Rodgers (or Matthew Stafford when Chicago faces Detroit again in November)?
The AFC is harder to figure. The Miami Dolphins would seem to be the weakest of the teams that currently would be in, mostly because they still have two games against the New England Patriots and also play the Cincinnati Bengals. If forced to pick a team over Miami, I'll take the Baltimore Ravens on pedigree alone. But they still play the Bengals twice, plus the Bears, Lions and Patriots.
Keep the faith in Houston, Green BayI like how the AFC stacks up currently, although I'm not bailing on the Houston Texans. If they get on a roll, I could see them making the playoffs -- and I'm still not sure they won't win the AFC South. Either way, if Houston were to make it, Miami would be out. I really like the Dolphins, but some of the issues popping up on their offensive line are potentially problematic.
As for the NFC, Green Bay will find its way in -- I like the Pack to win the NFC North. Yes, the Bears have played well, but I'm still trying to figure them out; either Chicago or Detroit will be watching the postseason play out from home. I like Seattle and San Francisco to come out of the NFC West, and I like two teams to come out of the North, but I would not be totally blown away if a team like Carolina, Arizona or St. Louis were to make a surprising run at a wild-card spot.
Someone has to be bold -- or crazy. I've been called a lot worse!
Eagles, Ravens on the upswingThe Cowboys eventually will get knocked out of the playoffs by the Eagles. That was my preseason prediction, and there's no reason to change it now. The two teams face off in a Week 17 game designed to maximize ratings -- and maximize painful Jerry Jones crowd shots, too. It's inevitable.
I also don't trust the Bengals to hang on in the AFC North. The Ravens have the better quarterback, and their defense quietly might be just as dangerous as Cincinnati's.
Cowboys, Bengals, Dolphins carry questionsI see three teams on the edge right now: the Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins.
The Cowboys and Eagles still have to play each other twice. I think Philly can overtake Dallas to win the NFC East.
As for the Bengals, they play the Baltimore Ravens -- who can't be discounted -- in Week 17; I think the winner of that matchup takes the AFC North, while the loser is left to scrap with the Dolphins for a wild-card spot.
Speaking of Miami, there's a stretch on its schedule that includes matchups with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Diego Chargers, Carolina Panthers, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers. If the Dolphins can make hay then, they'll make it as a wild-card team; if they falter, Baltimore and Cincinnati both will be in the playoffs.
Browns will break through; Foles-led Eagles will take NFC EastI admit picking a team that started the season with one quarterback, changed to its backup, then reverted to the initial starter when the backup was injured -- in addition to trading away its best offensive player -- seems a little loopy. But I'm going to say the Cleveland Browns make the playoffs and the Miami Dolphins do not.
The Browns, a throw-it-first squad with big-time weapons in Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, are better on offense than you think. Not that Cleveland needs to score 24 points per game, anyway; the defense -- which ranks eighth against the pass and seventh against the run -- is one of the five best in the NFL, easily. It's not going to be easy, but the Browns can reach nine wins -- as long as Brandon Weeden doesn't throw two picks per contest.
Miami has been a fun story so far, but the Dolphins have come back to earth after their 3-0 start. Miami is struggling to find an offensive identity -- the ground attack ranks 29th overall -- and can't defend the pass (26th overall). Teams with such deficiencies must be special in other places, but the Dolphins are just OK. A soft stretch of the schedule gives way to a December filled with rivalry games; three cold-weather matchups will spell doom for this team.
On the NFC side, I'm going to replace Dallas with Philadelphia as East champion. An Eagles team led by Nick Foles down the stretch will blow past the inconsistent Cowboys. Foles can throw the ball downfield more accurately than Vick, and if Vick's mobility -- which is what gave him the job in the first place -- is hampered by injuries, then he simply won't be the quarterback. Philadelphia eventually will give the ball to Foles full time, and the team will continue posting 400-plus yards every week on its way to the division crown.
Worried about Bengals, confident in Packers and RavensI'm feeling rather good about my preseason Super Bowl pick of the New Orleans Saints facing the New England Patriots.
One AFC team I can see falling off: the Cincinnati Bengals. They got a good performance out of Andy Dalton on Sunday, but I'm not confident he can keep it up. I expect the Ravens, meanwhile, to eventually figure it out.
In the NFC, I can't imagine a scenario in which the Packers don't make the playoffs. The Packers and Falcons both miscalculated with deficient offensive lines, but Aaron Rodgers has done a better job than Matt Ryan of masking team problems. I expect the Packers to work their way back into the mix.