With Week 13 coming up, the playoff picture is already taking shape. Here are my picks.
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons (10-1)
The Falcons can clinch a the NFC South this week if they beat the visiting New Orleans Saints and the Denver Broncos defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Although the Falcons’ sole loss this season came at the hands of the Saints, it’s safe to say the division is almost guaranteed to Matt Ryan and his explosive offense with weapons like wideouts Roddy Whtie and Julio Jones, running back Michael Turner, and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez. The actual playoffs are a different story, with Matt Ryan’s notorious 0-3 postseason record, especially noting the Falcons’ 28-2 playoff loss last season to the New York Giants.
NFC North: Chicago Bears (8-3)
This one is a tough pick over the 7-4 Green Bay Packers. The deciding factor is the Bears’ ability to adjust with a decimated offensive line while the Packers still had problems with their O-line this past Sunday. The Bears managed to stabilize their pass protection against the Minnesota Vikings by using tight ends and running backs to help block, which has the side effect of limiting their offensive possibilities. However, the Bears have seen what happens when Cutler is out (an 0-2 record). Keeping him healthy is really all they need to win the division this year, with their exceptional defense forcing turnovers at a robust clip. Further, they just signed Andre Gurode, a two-time All Pro, at right guard.
NFC West: San Francisco 49ers (8-2-1)
The 49ers seem well on their way to winning the NFC West with the Seahawks trailing them in second at 6-5. The 49ers are extremely well-rounded; their defense is fourth overall in the NFL against the rush and second against the pass and in total defense. On offense, the 49ers have two healthy, start-worthy quarterbacks in Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith. Kaepernick’s athleticism and deep-ball threat is enticing when combined with a great running game from Frank Gore. Many experts consider San Francisco to be the best team in the NFC.
NFC East: New York Giants (7-4)
After last Sunday’s rout of the Packers in the Meadowlands, Eli Manning and the Giants seem to have used their bye week to its full potential. Manning threw for 249 yards and three touchdowns and looked every bit the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback against Green Bay. The Giants have been highly inconsistent this year, but they always seem to find a way into the postseason. Another factor in their favor is their division. The Dallas Cowboys are struggling, as they showed fatigue on Thanksgiving with unacceptable penalties and turnovers. The Redskins and Robert Griffin III are definitely not to be underestimated, but Manning is a proven quarterback and should be able to ensure that the Giants will hold on to first place and the division.
AFC South: Houston Texans (10-1)
Houston is in the playoffs with a win on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans (4-7), or three different scenarios involving losses by Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Miami. With running back Arian Foster second only to Adrian Peterson in rushing yards and a healthy quarterback Matt Schuab throwing to wide receiver Andre Johnson (third in the league in receiving yards) and tight end Owen Daniels, the Texans’ offense is already a nightmare to face. But with J.J. Watt coming in with 14.5 sacks on a defense that is second in the NFL against the rush, the Houston defense is just as scary.
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens (9-2)
The Ravens have one of the toughest schedules coming up, facing the Steelers, Broncos and Giants in the next four weeks. Fortunately, these games are all at home, and assuming that the Ravens offense lays down a working ground game with running back Ray Rice in order to open up the passing game for quarterback Joe Flacco. With Roethlisberger still out for the Steelers, the Ravens most likely will clinch the division, but need to beat the Broncos so win the second seed (assuming Houston remains the 1-seed).
AFC West: Denver Broncos (8-3)
Quarterback Peyton Manning has carried the Denver Broncos atop the AFC West, one of the weaker divisions in the NFL. Regardless, Peyton is third in the NFL with a 104.8 passer rating with 26 touchdowns and 3,260 passing yards. The Broncos face a surging Buccaneers team this week, but if they win, they clinch a playoff berth and keep their hopes of a second seed alive.
AFC East: New England Patriots (8-3)
Tom Brady and company can clinch the division with a win over Miami this weekend, and it is pretty likely they’ll get it. Even if they do lose this weekend, they are the only team above .500 in the division, so it’s practically a given New England wins the East. However, their Week 3 loss to the Ravens makes a chance at earning the second seed extremely difficult for the Patriots.
Wild Cards NFC: Packers, Seahawks AFC: Colts, Steelers.