By: Chris Dagonas
With December upon us, the time is right to discard those teams that will not make the postseason and focus on those in the thick of the playoff hunt.
For the uninitiated, each conference holds six playoff spots. The top two records in each conference receive a bye to the second round, with the remaining four in each conference being either division leaders, or wild cards.
Sometimes, teams make the playoffs with records of 8-8, or even the occasional 7-9. Other times, wild card teams could be carrying a 10-6 record, but be stuck in a division with a stronger team. There is also the issue or winter weather, home games versus road games, strength of schedule, and injuries, all of which will play a role in determining playoff seeding.
With that said, it’s hard to figure which team is the most likely to advance to the conference finals or Super Bowl at this early stage. Hell, it’s early to even know which teams will be in the playoff picture at all. But good news! It is the right time to play a little game I like to call: Contender or Pretender?
1. New England Patriots: Contender (10-1 record, 3 to 1 odds to win Super Bowl)
Despite Sunday night’s overtime loss to the Brock Osweiler-led Denver Broncos, the Patriots are still far and away the best team in the AFC. Considering the loss of running back Dion Lewis earlier in the season, and Sunday night’s injuries to linebacker Dont’a Hightower and tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots actually held up very well in the snow and against Denver’s ferocious defense. They still have MVP frontrunner Tom Brady, and initial reports name Gronk’s injury as a strained right knee and nothing more. With head coach wizard Bill Belichick, the Patriots are clearly headed for a long playoff run.
2. Cincinnati Bengals: Pretender (9-2 record, 12 to 1)
On the other hand, the Bengals are notorious for having strong regular seasons and folding in the playoffs. I don’t see why this year would be any different. They have been as good as expected, on both sides of the ball, but head coach Marvin Lewis and his staff does not appear to be able to make key in game adjustments necessary when they are in the playoffs. That, and quarterback Andy Dalton has never been good under pressure, and smart playoff teams know how to use that to their advantage.
3. Denver Broncos: Contender (9-2 record, 10 to 1)
When future Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning went down with a foot injury earlier this season, things were looking scary for the Broncos. Despite Manning’s wonky shoulder and fluttery deep balls, he was still their best option, and knew the game like few others before him. But, the Broncos actually got better when Osweiler took over under center. They are now a credible threat to throw downfield, and their defense is still the best in the league overall. Osweiler has filled a gap for the Broncos’ offense, and they are now a serious threat to the Patriots when the two teams eventually meet again, sometime in late January.
4. Indianapolis Colts: Pretender (6-5 record, 30 to 1)
Naw. I don’t want anything to do with this team. With Matt Hasselbeck taking over for starter Andrew Luck, who went down a few weeks ago with a kidney and abdominal injury, the Colts have actually looked better lately. But that does not hide the troubling fact that this Colts team needs a serious overhaul, especially on the offensive line. When your franchise quarterback has injuries “that would appear in car crash victims”, maybe it’s time to stop thinking about signing aging wide receivers, and start thinking about offensive linemen who can actually protect the pocket.
5. Kansas City Chiefs: Contender (6-5 record, 40 to 1)
Yes, you read that right. The loss of star running back Jamaal Charles has actually led to improvements in the offense, with quarterback Alex Smith forced to throw the ball more often, and behind a strong offensive line, backups Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware have played superbly. More than that, their record is a bit misleading, as most of those losses came earlier in the season, and they have reeled off five straight wins to jump from 1-5 to 6-5. They may be the hottest team in the AFC right now.
6. Houston Texans: Pretender (6-5 record, 75 to 1)
You can’t trust a team that starts – hold on, let me check – Brian Hoyer at quarterback, can you? They may not even win this wild card spot anyway, but for now, they hold it. Other than JJ Watt doing JJ Watt things in opposing teams’ backfields, and De’Andre Hopkins emerging as a top-5 receiver in the league, there is little to shout about with this team. If they crawl into the playoffs at all, they will be looking at a first-round matchup with the Denver Broncos, and that does not bode well for the Texans.
1. Carolina Panthers: Contender (11-0 record, 11 to 2)
Yeah, it’s been said enough around here. I’m all in on the Panthers and Cam Newton. Their Thanksgiving dismantling of the Cowboys proved it to an international audience, but the Panthers might just be an historically good football team. There is nothing else left to say.
2. Arizona Cardinals: Contender (9-2 record, 11 to 2)
If there is any team in the NFC that can derail the Panthers runaway train, it may be the Cardinals. Their offensive capabilities rival the Panthers’ defense. They have experience at key positions, like quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker, and cornerback. They also have a coach who has a 39-16 NFL record, one of the best percentages around the league. Right now they are even money with Carolina to winthe Super Bowl, but I think that is a little disrespectful to the Panthers. Still, I would not want to see the Cardinals in my upcoming schedule.
3. Minnesota Vikings: Contender (8-3 record, 16 to 1)
The best non-quarterback MVP candidate. A tough defense. A decent passing game featuring a young, athletic quarterback. The Vikings are like the Seahawks version 2.0. And much like their fore-bearers were back in 2011, this team appears to be on the verge of greatness. I would not be surprised to see them upset a favourite in these playoffs with a long Peterson touchdown, a la Marshawn Lynch.
4. Washington Football Team: Pretender (5-6 record, 85 to 1)
Ugh, yuck. These are the current NFC East division leaders. Anyone who comes out of this division, whether it is Washington or the Giants, will be legitimate pretenders, the absolute worst team in the playoffs. After losing Robert Griffin in the preseason, Kirk Cousins has become a solid NFL-level quarterback, but the rushing game is less-than-impressive and their defense can’t really stop anyone. Besides, there should be enough bad karma floating around from their inappropriate team name to not let them into the playoffs again until Dan Snyder changes it.
5. Green Bay Packers: Pretender (7-4 record, 12 to 1)
Who would have thought that Jordy Nelson could make such a difference? The Packers have fallen off a cliff lately, losing to the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, both home games, in recent weeks. On paper, Aaron Rodgers is not playing all that poorly, but the offense stalls out way too much without Nelson’s playmaking abilities. Add that to the fact that Eddie Lacy has looked very average this season, and the once lightning quick defense seems to have lost a step or two, and this Packers team does not strike fear into the hearts of their opponents as they once did.
6. Seattle Seahawks: Contender (6-5 record, 18 to 1)
I still find it hard to spot a weakness here. When running back Marshawn Lynch went down, backup Thomas Rawls stepped up and looked like a younger, faster version of Lynch. Against San Francisco in Week 11, Rawls rumbled for 209 yards and a touchdown. The loss of tight end Jimmy Graham may hurt their chances a bit, but the Seahawks still have a solid defense and an experienced quarterback-head coach combo, an underrated but important facet in playoff teams. If the seeds stay as they are now, they would have to play the Vikings in Minnesota, but the winner of that match would have a huge advantage over the winner of the other wild-card round matchup, between the Packers and the winners of the NFC East.
There are teams in both conferences that may make moves up the standings and into the playoff picture before the regular season expires, but for now, that’s all for this round of “Contender or Pretender?”