Ten NFL Sundays down and seven to go, and I know who’s making the playoffs.
OK, I might be wrong about a few, and in seven weeks you might remind me of this column and point out all the places where I was wrong and make me eat my words. But I actually think that as you go through the NFL standings right now, you can get a pretty accurate picture of how the final standings are going to look seven weeks from now. Let’s go through it:
NFC East: Dallas. Despite Sunday night’s massacre in New Orleans, I still favor the 5-5 Cowboys over the 5-5 Eagles, largely because the Cowboys have already won at Philadelphia. The Cowboys and Eagles meet in Week 17 in Dallas, and I think the Cowboys will complete the season sweep and seal the division title on the last day of the season.
NFC North: Detroit. The Lions’ win over the Bears gives Detroit a one-game lead, and considering how easy the Lions’ schedule is, plus the fact that the Packers are down to Scott Tolzien at quarterback, we can pencil in the Lions to win the North.
NFC South: New Orleans. The 7-2 Saints, whose offense looked amazing on Sunday night in Dallas, will hold off the 6-3 Panthers.
NFC West: Seattle. After San Francisco lost to Carolina on Sunday, the Seahawks have a two-game lead over the 49ers, and Seattle has a head-to-head win over San Francisco as well. This is Seattle’s division.
NFC wild cards: Carolina and San Francisco. The 49ers and Panthers are currently a game ahead of the pack at 6-3, and I’ll be shocked if they don’t end up as the two NFC wild card teams. The 5-4 Bears, Packers and Cardinals are all in the mix, as are the 5-5 Eagles, but the Panthers and 49ers are pretty clearly the two best in the wild card chase.
AFC East: New England. The Patriots lead the Jets by two games in the standings and will win this division for an amazing 11th time in Tom Brady’s 12 years as their starting quarterback.
AFC North: Cincinnati. The Bengals missed a golden opportunity to put the division away on Sunday in Baltimore, but they’re still a game and a half ahead, and they’re going to win this division.
AFC South: Indianapolis. The Colts looked terrible against the Rams on Sunday, but Indianapolis is still two games ahead of Tennessee, and Houston and Jacksonville have no shot. It’s the Colts by default.
AFC West: Denver. This is the only division that I don’t think the current first-place team will win. I expect the 8-1 Broncos to sweep the 9-0 Chiefs, winning this week in Denver and then winning in Kansas City in Week 13, and Denver will win this division.
AFC wild cards: Kansas City and New York Jets. The second-place team in the AFC West will be the top wild card team, so let’s pencil the Chiefs in for that spot. The biggest question mark on the board is the sixth and final AFC playoff spot: As of right now the Jets would get it, and I think they’ll hold onto it holding off the Dolphins, Chargers, Browns, Ravens and Titans.
A lot can change in the next seven weeks, especially if a key player is injured. (It’s worth noting that before Aaron Rodgers went down, I thought the Packers had a very good chance of getting to the Super Bowl, and now I’m picking them to miss the playoffs.) But I’m feeling pretty confident that I’ve got this whole playoff picture figured out. Here are the rest of my observations from Sunday:
Another terrible game for Trent Richardson. With five carries for two yards in Sunday’s loss to the Rams, Richardson now has 88 carries for 250 yards, an average of 2.8 yards a carry, in seven games as a Colt. It’s looking more and more like the Browns fleeced the Colts when Indianapolis shipped a first-round draft pick to Cleveland in the Richardson trade.
Another terrible game for Ray Rice, too. Rice had 18 carries for 30 yards in the Ravens’ win over the Bengals on Sunday. He’s now averaging 2.5 yards a carry this season. That’s a stunningly bad average for a three-time Pro Bowler who had never averaged less than 4.0 yards a carry in any season of his career before. Rice has no room to run behind a terrible Baltimore offensive line.
The Seahawks’ secondary is sensational against tight ends. One of the things that really stands out when you watch Seattle is the way strong safety Kam Chancellor and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner cover tight ends. On Sunday Seattle played one of the best tight ends in the league, Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, and totally kept him in check: Gonzalez didn’t catch his first pass until it was basically garbage time, with the score 26-3 Seattle in the third quarter, and Gonzalez finished the day with just three catches for 29 yards.
Clay Matthews looked like Art Jimmerson at UFC 1. Matthews is playing with a massive club on his broken right hand. He’s a tough guy for wanting to be out there, but he looked like he was struggling and had a quiet day in the Packers’ loss.
That’s the Tavon Austin the Rams thought they were drafting. Through the first nine weeks of the season, Austin looked like one of the NFL’s more disappointing rookies, averaging just 6.7 yards a catch. On Sunday, Austin had touchdown catches of 81 and 57 yards and threw in a 98-yard touchdown on a punt return as well. I still have my doubts that Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is the right guy to find ways to get Austin the ball in space consistently, and it’s worth pointing out that Schottenheimer only called four plays for Austin (three passes, one run) all game on Sunday. But there’s no doubt that Austin has game-breaking talent.
Welcome back, Jake Ballard. It was nice to see Ballard catch a pass for the Cardinals on Sunday in his first live game action since the Super Bowl almost two years ago. As the Giants’ starting tight end in that Super Bowl, Ballard suffered a major knee injury in the game and hadn’t been able to get all the way back to 100 percent healthy for more than a year. Both the Giants and the Patriots released Ballard, but he signed with the Cardinals last week and is already contributing to the offense.
Giovani Bernard has some learning to do. Bernard, the Bengals’ rookie running back, is a superb young talent who’s a threat to break off a long gain every time he touches the ball. But he needs to learn that there are times when you just need to lower your shoulders and run straight ahead, and one of those times is when you get the ball on fourth-and-2 in overtime. Bernard tried to dance around after catching a swing pass from Andy Dalton, and he ended up losing 11 yards. Those 11 yards helped the Ravens greatly when they won the game with a 46-yard field goal on the next possession.
What happened to Colin Kaepernick? The 49ers’ quarterback was awful against the Panthers on Sunday. Since throwing for 412 yards in Week One, he’s only reached 200 passing yards once. On Sunday he completed 11 of 22 passes for 91 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception.
Did the Jaguars just cost themselves the No. 1 pick? It’s nice that Jacksonville won a game and assured itself of avoiding the fate of the 0-16 Lions of 2008. But did the Jags cost themselves the chance to draft their franchise quarterback of the future (maybe Oregon’s Marcus Mariota or Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater) with the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft? Actually, I don’t think so. Looking at the rest of the schedule, I think there’s still a good chance the Jags will finish 1-15. And while the Buccaneers are currently winless, they have a few winnable games the rest of the way and should finish more like 2-14 or 3-13. The Jaguars are so far out of the playoff race that they can’t even see the leaders, but they’re still in the pole position in the race for the No. 1 overall pick.