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NFL Playoffs: Runners And Riders

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With only two games left to play in the regular season, it seems time for a comprehensive overview of the runners and riders for the playoff berths that are still to be decided. We already have three teams who have secured some kind of playoff game for themselves in January, but this is one of the most interesting periods in the NFL season, with everyone who is still mathematically in with a shout trying to claw their way forward for a shot at the Superbowl.

AFC East:

Perennial winners of this division, the New England Patriots, sit atop the AFC East once again. But they have not had it all their own way this season, and it has seemed like an unmerciful slog the more it has gone on. Beginning the season without the departed Wes Welker, the jailed Aaron Hernandez and the injured Rob Gronkowski, New England came in with a very experimental offence that was constructed on the fly. It took some time to gel, and has seen some ugly performances on the way, particularly a desperately bad outing against the New York Jets early in the season, although they did manage to win that game. That seems to be the way for Bill Belichick’s team this year, who constantly just find ways to win. Scarcely credible comeback wins against the Broncos and the Browns epitomise this, and this team is never beaten. But the setbacks have come, and keep coming all season long. Injury has stripped them of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly on the defense, as well as Sebastian Vollmer on the offensive line. Gronkowski has also been ruled out for the rest of the season, which is a devastating blow for the team’s chances. These defensive losses are huge, and the interior losses have badly affected their ability to stop the run. But somehow, they continue to win ball games, and had a chance to move into the the AFC first seed spot, only to lose to divisional rivals the Miami Dolphins this weekend. But this is a team who is going to the playoffs, and no one will want to go to Foxboro for a playoff game against Tom Brady, and whoever else is fit enough to take the field.

Usually this division is New England and a cast of misfits, but not this year. While Buffalo are still very much in transition (a process that has arguably been ongoing since the turn of the century), and the Jets briefly threatened to make a run, which was quite remarkable given the pressure on Rex Ryan and the general absence of any offensive talent whatsoever. But it is the Miami Dolphins are right in the hunt for the AFC sixth seed. Despite being dogged by the Jonathan Martin- Richie Incognito storyline for the most of the season, as well as that stripping the team of the right side of their offensive line, the Dolphins continue to play hard and are hanging around just long enough that they might find themselves playing in January. This team spent big in the offseason, bringing in big-money signings like Mike Wallace and Dannell Ellerbe, so they expected to contend. They began the season 3-0, but the bubble appeared to have burst after getting spanked by the New Orleans Saints in week 4. But they have hung on for dear life, and won just enough games to give themselves a shot. They close the season with winnable games away to Buffalo and at home to the Jets, and although they will need help from other teams, if Ryan Tannehill can guide his team to two more wins, Miami could be going to the post-season for only the second time since 2001. Clutch wins against big teams like the Patriots can often bring about playoff football.

AFC North:

A division destined to go the last day of the season now, following Cincinnati’s inability to pull away when they had the chance. Cleveland have had the usual three starting quarterbacks over the course of the season, Pittsburgh began the year 0-4, and Baltimore have lost the ability to run the ball even remotely well. The Bengals have a strong side with some good depth, but losses inside their division have held them back. They have suffered a loss to each of the teams in this division, and now, if the Ravens overcome New England next week, a further loss to the Ravens would send the Bengals hurtling towards the wildcard spots, at best. The loss of Geno Atkins has admittedly been big for this team, but Cincinnati have plenty of weapons on offense and a very strong defense. It should not have come to this. The quarterback play of Andy Dalton is coming under more and more scrutiny, and it is fair to say they can have all the offensive players they like if the QB is unable to get the ball to them. If Dalton got hot, this team would be a match for anyone. How to achieve that remains a conundrum for Marvin Lewis.

Pittsburgh remain mathematically alive, but they have lost too many potential tie-breakers for it to be a realistic possibility. Age has probably caught up to some of the Steelers players, and they have not had their traditional success through the draft in recent years to provide obvious replacements. But this is still a very competitive team, and could bounce back next season if they get everyone back fit.

Baltimore now controls their own destiny, having been the beneficiaries of an imploding Detroit team on Monday Night Football and the Bengals inability to pull away in the division. This is quite an achievement given the amount of upheaval and player turnover in Baltimore following last season’s Superbowl win. The Ravens are another team who just find a way to win. Even with hugely diminished returns from Ray Rice and the running game, John Harbaugh and his team just win. Not every game, but when it’s really on the line, Baltimore provide a performance. It is a huge ask to beat New England and then go to Cincinnati looking for a win, but this is the way the Ravens do it. Joe Flacco may have given up five sacks in a brutal loss to the Bills earlier in the season, but when the game is on the line he is the epitome of a clutch QB. Harbaugh is the only head coach in NFL history that has won a playoff game in each of his first five seasons, and Baltimore have a shot at getting another playoff fixture this year.

AFC South:

One of the poorest divisions in Football this year, with the AFC South serving up some real dross throughout this season. While the Jacksonville Jaguars were flagged up well in advance of the season as a side who was bound to struggle, there were high hopes that there would be some titanic tussles between the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans for the division title, while some were tipping the Tennessee Titans as potential dark horses.

The Jags started 0-8, but to their credit have turned their season around since the bye week, now with a record of 4-10. They have played themselves out of position for the number one draft choice in next year’s draft, but it is good to see some life coming back into the Jacksonville Football team. Hopefully they will provide a great game against the Cowboys in London next season.

That is about the high water mark for this division this year. The Titans won some games early on, with Jake Locker starting to play really well at quarterback. But yet again he has earned his reputation for being made of glass, and is out for the season once more. Undoubtedly talented, but his inability to play through the regular season has doomed the Titans, who may look to move him on in the off-season. The Titans continued to threaten a run for a while, but now it looks like big changes coming next season.

The Texans have probably been the most disappointing team in all of Football this year. An unconvincing 2-0 start has been followed up by an appalling twelve losses in a row. The decline in production from Matt Schaub, throwing an unacceptable amount of pick-sixes, costing the team several games. He was eventually (and reluctantly) benched by Gary Kubiak for the supposed whizkid Case Keenum, but that has yet to provide any wins for the side. JJ Watt is still a dominant defensive force, but the Texans have sacked Kubiak mid-season and look like getting the number one draft pick, instead of a predicted number one AFC seeding.

Someone has to win this division, and it will be the Colts, who are guaranteed a home playoff game that likely will be in the wildcard round. Indy have had some very impressive wins earlier in the campaign, beating Seattle, Denver and San Francisco (in Candlestick, no less). All three are among the favourites for the Superbowl, but Indy have since lost a number of players on offence, most notably Reggie Wayne. This has had a massive impact on a team that looked to be building nicely, and they have stuttered badly since. Indy are going to the playoffs, but will need to find a change of gears to avoid being one and done.

AFC West:

The Denver Broncos have not failed to live up to the star billing they earned before the season kicked off. With Peyton Manning now well settled in his second season, they added to the already impressive offensive line-up by adding Wes Welker in free agency, making their receiving core downright frightening. The Broncos blew away Superbowl champions the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener, and have just kicked on from there. They were rocked by a loss in Indianapolis, and the Patriots were also able to get a win against them. The Chargers, too, defeated the Broncos in a desperate attempt to keep themselves alive. But the Broncos still look fierce. The loss of left tackle Ryan Clady for the season has hardly affected the way Manning has been protected. But it is the defense that will need to buck up if the Broncos are to go all the way.

Kansas City has bounced back big time this season. Having had the number one pick in the 2013 draft, the Chiefs now sit 11-3 and are guaranteed a playoff game, and could possibly even nick the division if the Broncos were to stumble in the last two games. They began 9-0 largely due to an impressive defense in the early games, but since then their offence has stepped up to compensate for injuries that have disrupted their pass-rush. If the Chiefs can get quality play from both sides of the ball at the same time, they will be a formidable opponent in January.

Oakland have been a train wreck in recent times, so this year was another transitional one. But San Diego, who had suffered so much during the last few years under Norv Turner, are still in there swinging at the death. Mike McCoy was appointed as new head coach this season, and the improvement in production from Philip Rivers has been evident for all to see. A resurgent Antonio Gates and the addition of Keenan Allen at wide receiver have undoubtedly helped, and the Chargers recorded a very impressive win over the Broncos to keep themselves in the hunt. However, in the extremely tight fight for the sixth seed, the Chargers may well look back to the week nine loss to Washington. They had the ball on the one yard line, but called three pass plays, all of which failed. They settled for overtime, and deservedly lost the game. It may well come back to haunt them.

NFC East:

Oh boy, where to start?

This current crop of teams in the NFC East is pretty poor. It is where Football goes to die. Washington have played most of the season with a broken quarterback, until they benched Robert Griffin III with three games to play, to preserve him for next season. They have also had an awful defence, which would make it difficult for any offence to succeed with. Similarly, the New York Giants had a woeful 0-6 start to the season, which killed their playoff hopes before they even began.

The soap opera that is the Dallas Cowboys continues to provide talking points. Dallas have had glorious defeats in a shootout with the Broncos and a narrow defeat to the Chiefs, but they have also left a number of games behind them. Defeats to Detroit, the Bears, the Packers and a shellacking by the Saints have left nobody in any doubt about the problems on this roster. The finger of blame gets pointed at Tony Romo a lot, but surely a porous defence that has given up four hundred yards several times this year is the real problem. Dallas has some big names, but aside from a couple of good edge-rushers, the defence has holes all over it. When Sean Lee went down injured, the holes got bigger and bigger. Dallas still has hope, but it is fading fast.

The one bright, redeeming light in this division is Philly. The Eagles jettisoned long-term coach Andy Reid in the offseason to bring in Chip Kelly, the college football offensive guru. Bringing in a fast-paced offensive system and some new ideas, Philadelphia lead this division in spite of having lost their first five home games. LeSean McCoy is flying from the backfield, and Nick Foles has claimed the quarterback spot, having come in to replace the then-injured Michael Vick. Despite all of this, the Eagles threw away a chance for some real separation in the division by losing to Minnesota. They close with games against the Bears before going down to Dallas on the final day, in what could well be a win-and-you’re-in divisional decider.

NFC North:

Consistently one of the most competitive divisions in all of Football, this year is no different. Last season, the Vikings emerged as the surprise outfit, and left the Chicago Bears unlucky enough to get a 10-6 record but still failed to make the playoffs. While the Vikes have fallen away this year, due to a preposterous quarterback situation (the very thing that ruins the prospects of a team quicker than anything else), Detroit have emerged to lay claim to their place. Injuries badly affected the Bears and the Packers, and the Lions advanced to an early and seemingly insurmountable lead, following their sweep of the Bears and a rout of the Pack on Thanksgiving day, but they have choked horrifically since then. Turnovers have made it nearly impossible for the Lions to continue winning, with quarterback Matthew Stafford particularly guilty of giving the ball away. The Lions were in pole position to win the division, but now after a bad loss to the Ravens on Monday night, they are left depending on others to fall away too.

Green Bay are still without their star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, having lost him to a broken collarbone against Chicago in week nine, while Randall Cobb and Clay Matthews have also missed long periods of the season with injury. But it is undoubtedly Rodgers’ absence which has affected the team most, transforming a perennial playoff team into an average side in an instant. The failed experiments with backups Seneca Wallace (also out injured) and Scott Tolzien, led to the Packers turning to old backup Matt Flynn. Flynn had been passed around from Seattle to Buffalo via Oakland, making a fortune off the back of some performances for Green Bay a few years ago. He had failed to produce the goods at any of those other teams, but has done enough to keep the Packers in the hunt for the division, as they hope to get Rodgers back for the last two games.

Chicago is another team who have been ravaged by injuries. The new coach, Marc Trestman, has had to cope with the losses of Henry Melton, Nate Collins, D.J. Williams and Charles Tillman on his defence, which has seen the Bears get ravaged by the run game. Offensively, they have been without quarterback Jay Cutler for long stretches too, but the quality play by backup Josh McCown has kept the team competitive, and they currently sit atop the division with do-or-die games to come against the Eagles and the Packers. But the defensive losses, as well as the aging across the entire defense, will make it difficult for the Bears to win games against quality opposition that awaits them, both in the regular season and in any potential playoff encounters.

NFC South:

The NFC South has provided some quality football, but also some big disappointments. While Tampa Bay were at best a potential dark-horse team and their faltering is less of a disappointment, the fall away of the Atlanta Falcons, who were on the verge of winning the NFC Championship game last season, has been very hard to watch. They started the season with Roddy White hurt, and before long lost Julio Jones for the season. But this team had trouble long before any of this, with a poor defensive unit and an inability to run the ball. It is not a mix that bodes well, and they will be drafting high in 2014.

New Orleans have had a bounce back season following Sean Payton’s return from suspension. He resumed his successful relationship with Drew Brees, and have fired out to a lead in the division. Their spread offence is posing endless headaches for defensive units, with Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles causing mismatches when they move to the outside. One of the top screen teams in the league, it almost seems unfair that, when none of that works, they can still lob it up to Jimmy Graham or Marques Colston for big plays. The defence is much improved this year under new coordinator Rob Ryan. But, when all is said and done, they got blown out in a big game in Seattle that could have pushed themselves toward the number one seed. The Saints just aren’t the same team on the road, and that could cause a problem when they go to Carolina with the division on the line next week.

Yes, that’s right, Carolina are right there challenging the Saints for divisional honours. Cam Newton and Ron Rivera have gotten their act together after starting the season 1-3, by following that run up with eight wins on the bounce. New Orleans may have beaten them in their house, but coming down to Carolina is a different ball game entirely. The powerful run game has been supported by more consistent play from Cam, and a rigid defense that has only conceded more than twenty points in a game twice all year. Big wins against the Niners and Patriots suggest the Panthers are for real, but the game against New Orleans is the all-important fixture now. Win out, and the Panthers get a bye in the playoffs and a home game in the divisional round.

NFC West:

The best has been saved for last. Welcome to the best division in Football, and the home of smash mouth ball.

St Louis remain an enigma, having lost Sam Bradford to injury early in the season. It is hard to know what to make of their team in his absence, but a rugged defense and strong run game have kept them competitive. But another transition year was not wanted.

Arizona, armed with new head coach (and reigning Coach of the Year) Bruce Arians, have become a force once more. The quarterback carousel has run around Arizona ever since Kurt Warner retired, and that has held this team back. Carson Palmer was an unlikely saviour in this regard, and was likely only signed as a one year stopgap solution. He has had his troubles, but Palmer has also gotten hot at times, and done enough to keep the Cards in with hope of making the playoffs. We must not forget that the improved offensive weapons, like Michael Floyd who provides an excellent compliment to the long-serving Larry Fitzgerald, have helped in a big way. But this is another playoff hopeful built on a strong defense. The only downside is the strength of the division that Arizona find themselves in, and have to close out their season with games in Seattle and against the Forty-Niners. It is a big ask from here, but Arizona are going to be in the fight until the last.

San Francisco look likely to take a wildcard spot, having recently (finally) gotten a win over the Seahawks at a crunch time. The Niners started out the season a little slowly, while waiting for the return of offensive weapons like Michael Crabtree. That coincided with an opening three games against the Packers, Seahawks and Colts, so a little slack could be cut. Since then, the Niners have played some dominant ball and, while they are still behind the Seahawks and likely will have to settle for a wildcard spot, San Francisco look like a dangerous opponent for any team. The addition of Anquan Boldin , along with the return of Crabtree and Mario Manningham see the Niners with as many options as anyone going forward.

Seattle, though, are the ones who have established themselves as the big dog in the NFC. They have seen off all comers, to this point only having succumbed to defeats against the Colts and the Niners. The road to the Superbowl is going to go through Seattle, barring a spectacular collapse. They boast a powerful running game led by Marshawn Lynch, and ably complemented by Russell Wilson at quarterback. His ability to extend plays and escape pressure has been staggering at times. The defence has suffered some losses to the secondary, known as the Legion of Boom, but the depth in this roster is there for all to see. Players have been cut by the Hawks, and ended up starting on other teams around the league. The rotation of defensive linemen like Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons, among other impressive rushers, means that fatigue isn’t an issue and the pressure is constant. Seattle have all the tools to go all the way, but finances might mean this team will break up soon enough, so they know they don’t have too many chances to get the job done. It will take a strong performance from any team to knock the Seahawks out.

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