Just four fun-filled weeks left in the NFL until the playoffs start, so let's take a look at the league's version of musical chairs and see who's gonna get left out when the music starts.
They've already clinched the West and are making a strong push for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. I've never believed in Holmgren's birds, but if they can secure home field, they've got a shot. Alexander looks like a top-three candidate for league MVP, Hasselbeck's making smart decisions, and the defense is opportunistic.
They've been down, then up, then down for a couple of weeks, now back up again. I'd like to see some consistency out of this group, but right now I'd say they're the only team with a real chance of beating Seattle on the road in the playoffs
Thanks for the Nice Season and the Single Playoff Loss
New York Giants
Strong defense, scary weapons on offense, Captain Bligh getting it done coaching on the sidelines—so what's the problem? There's three of them, actually: 1) Eli Manning's still too inexperienced to get it done when it counts in a pressure situation; 2) WAY too many stupid penalties; 3) If Jay Feeley were a horse, Coughlin would have shot him, skinned him and sent him to the glue factory two weeks ago. You can't win in the playoffs without a reliable field goal kicker.
Scariest defense in the league combined with weakest, most anemic offense ever assembled. Defense wins championships? Not if you can't score at least 20 points in the playoffs. Dan Patrick on ESPN Radio reported on Dec. 6 that in the past ten years, only four teams have won a playoff game while scoring less than 20 points. Lovie, you're doing a great job—now return the favor to Mike Martz and hire him as your offensive coordinator for next year's Superbowl victory.
Tampa Bay Bucanneers
Anyone think Chris Simms is taking this team to a championship? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller...?
Dallas, Minnesota and Atlanta
I call them this because they might blow up on themselves before the end of the season and not even make it into the playoffs, but they could also run the rest of the table, get into the playoffs and upset a team or two. Strengths: Dallas has Parcells' smarts and experience; Minnesota has Brad Johnson playing the smartest QB in the league right now combined with an improved (and improving) defense; Atlanta has Michael Vick. Weaknessess: Dallas has Drew Bledsoe; Atlanta can't make up its mind how to best use Vick's multiple weapons; Minnesota—well, come on, this is the Vikings...
A League of Their Own
I'd not only love to see them run the table, I'd like to see the Colts go out in the next three weeks against strong teams—Jacksonville, San Diego and Seattle—and just crush them. Wouldn't that make a huge statement about their supremecy going into the playoffs? As I've said throughout the season, the first goal is home field advantage, which still isn't certain yet, so they don't need to back off anytime soon.
Yeah, I know I thought they stunk at the beginning of the season, thanks mainly to their opening week stinker at Miami. Lesson: Never underestimate Mike Shanahan. He may not be the most sparkling personality in the world, but he gets the job done consistently season after season. The biggest question for Denver is whether Jake Plummer will help them win or lose in Indiapolis, where they have been crushed in their past two playoff games.
If the Jags hand the Colts their first loss this weekend—a possibility, though not a probability, IMHO—they will build confidence for playoff success. I don't think they will be able to beat the Colts twice in one season, however, and certainly not in another game at Indy. Jax's defense remains impressive, but they have scoring problems regardless of which oversized QB is driving the car.
I see the Bengals as the biggest threat to beating out Indy for the AFC title just because they are the only team who can keep up with Indy's pinball-machine offense in a scoring shootout. Chad "The Mouth" Johnson has all but guaranteed a Cincy victory over Indy for the Superbowl berth. If it's anything like the first game, it ought to be one of the most exciting games we've seen in a long time.
This Schedule's Some Kind of Sick Joke, Right?
San Diego and Kansas City
Both teams are legitimate playoff contenders, both have tough defenses, both have powerful running games and skilled quarterbacks. So what's the problem? Let's take a look at the next four games for each teams...
SD: Miami (tough defense), at Indy ('nuff said), at Kansas City (don't lose at home in December), Denver (division leader).
KC: at Dallas (nasty defense), at NY Giants (division leader), San Diego (see above), Cincinnati (also see above)
Both of these teams could make the playoffs, or both could fall short. Either way, it's unlikely that either one will get a first-week bye, so it's back-to-back road games after completing these equally brutal four-game schedules. Yikes! It's probably too much to overcome.
Not This Year
New England and Pittsburgh
NE will win the west by default, but they're a first-week loss to the wild-card team that will almost certainly have a better record than the Pats. I'm not even sure that Pittsburgh will make the playoffs at all. Big Ben is hurt, the running game is no longer dominating games, and the defense is giving up too many points and big plays. I don't see how they can overtake both SD and KC for the last wild card spot.
More playoff previews to come after this weekend's games!