Recently, I was asked why I confined this monthly piece to the AFC. The rationale: Unless we happen to be playing them on a given Sunday, NFC teams do not matter to the Steelers. And the playoff landscape of the NFC certainly doesn't. Making the playoffs as healthy and with as good a record as possible SHOULD be the goal of every team at the onset of the season. I didn't give a sugar-frosted fuck about the Arizona Cardinals until last January (except Edgerrin James, who was on my fantasy squad because I am a fantasy "guru," clearly).
What follows is a break-down of The AFC, but I've included what I see as the NFC picture for now, like I'm some sort of soothsayer, I know...
Indianapolis (7-0): Wish I had been wrong about this one, previously. Pey-Pay actually looked rather pedestrian Sunday, failing to find the end zone. Again, Manning is going to put up his usual numbers (his cast of offensive characters is definitely better this year) but the defense is what is securing their place at the top thus far. The Colts just got safety Bob Sanders back and have held opponents to the lowest points total in THE ENTIRE NFL. The good news: their schedule has been relatively easy (The Titans were not the test anyone thought they'd be and it's fair to say Miami was more of a struggle than some thought). Additionally, the four game stretch that lay ahead of them will likely deliver at least one loss. Texans (potential shootout match up), Pats (over-hyped match up), @Ravens (lingering abandonment hatred/potentially stabby match up) and @Texans again will not be a cake-walk. Still, The Colts have the inside track on a first round bye. I fully expect that they'll claim one.
Denver (6-1): Speaking of inside tracks, The Broncos still have one as a path to the AFC West title, though it did get a bit more bumpy Sunday. Orton was shown by the Ravens to be completely disoriented and incapable of delivering a big strike down the field. The running back situation here should not by a cause of opponents' concern, either. I'm tentatively optimistic about the Steelers' chances of snagging a win at Invesco, Monday. That being said, The Broncos' D will still keep them in most games (they only gave up two offensive TDs to Baltimore) and they have the Redskins, Raiders and Chiefs (twice) left on their slate. Pick up one additional win (especially against the Chargers) and the Broncos will be the weakest division winners in the AFC playoff picture.
"On a roll..."
Cincinnati (5-2): Possibly the most impressive thing about this team is that they're 3-0 on the road with wins in Green Bay and Baltimore. That's DEFINITELY not the old Bengals. Even in Carson Palmer's "WhoDey Hey-Day" they struggled away from the Queens City. The Bengals have won shootouts (Chicago & Green Bay) and tight defensive matches (Baltimore), they've won with the running game and passing game. It definitely seems as though their biggest obstacle is themselves as untimely turnovers essentially lead to their two losses. As far as I'm concerned, Cincy is legit and capable of a playoff run. The AFC North picture will come into focus in the next two weeks as the Bungles play the Ravens then Steelers to start November. With Oakland, Cleveland and Detroit on their schedule afterward, getting even one of those two divisional wins will put them a very good chance of making that run a reality.
New England (5-2): I just don't see any way around the fact that the Pats win the AFC East. Not with The Jets floundering. And certainly not with the Bills and Dolphins and their respective inconsistent offenses lead by garbage-heap QBs. What's more, Brady & Co. won't be underdogs in a single remaining contest, save slight ones at Indy. Dammit, I really don't want another year of Boston-based sports media pandering...
Houston (5-2): Um, if this Ryan Moats fella is even a little bit of the play-making threat he looked at Buffalo we may have our Wild Card front-runners, here. Then again, two of their next three are against Indianapolis (SEE: "Scheduling Anomaly"). Personally, I think it'll be a playoff miss, but a narrow one.
"Head Above Water..."
Baltimore (4-3): No getting around it: This team will have more to do with deciding how The Steelers' season plays out than any other on the list. Are they the league's best defense? Hardly. Should we expect to take both games against them? I wouldn't bet on it. The Ravens are gearing up for the Nov. 29th contest against Pittsburgh like it's the damn Super Bowl. Have been for months. But they'll be coming off what's sure to be a challenging contest versus Indy, while we BETTER be riding high off a win in KC. Every year, a teams' schedule is set with six divisional games, and eight "tied-in" games consisting of teams from a division within their conference and a division from the other conference. This leaves two games that are decided
*Fixed due to commenter "Luz" Thanks. I think.
San Diego (4-3): Let's not get excited about this team having beaten the Raiders and Chiefs - they're supposed to do that. A disappointing ground game (not a single 100-yard rushing game between either Sproles or LT) and literally one too many difficult remaining games on the schedule means The Chargers will make it interesting (they have the Titans and 'Skins to close out the season), but come up just a little short.
New York (4-4): Whoops. Swept by the Fins. It'll be a long bye week here. Pats, Falcons, Bengals and Colts all still left on the schedule for these guys. That's at LEAST seven losses and won't be good enough to get them in. Hope they aren't on our schedule next year, though, they'll be on the rise.
Miami (3-4): The only team from here down that has any legitimate shot at the post season, and an outside one at that. The Dolphins would have to at the very least split with the Patriots to make a postseason push. Given that, it could be done as they have a soft-ish schedule and a serviceable ground game. Then again, consider these numbers: 44.2, 92.0, 130.4, 45.0 and 87.8 - No, that's not the o-line's IQ stats, it's Chad Henne's QB ratings this season: The picture of inconsistency. Likely not good enough to get into the tourney, but fully capable of ruining another teams' chances. Here's hoping they're out of it come the last week for our sake.
"Juuuuust a Bit Outside"
Jacksonville (3-4): I feel bad for MJD. Languishing as a top-teir back on this squad. Honestly, I thought conditions were perfect for the Jags to make a run, but going to OT with the Rams and losing by three scores to the Titans put that idea to bed. Still a really weak schedule remains, but they missed their window.
Buffalo (3-5): See what kind of Karma you invite when you sign Terrell Owens? The offensive numbers here are just disgusting. The truly scary part? If they'd beaten the BROWNS they'd be .500
"Don't Get Comfortable, Coach"
Oakland (2-6): It would be great if the Raiders could get their act together enough to put up a fight agains the Bengals in three weeks. Ah, who am I kidding? They're more likely to make me lose my stuffing on Thanksgiving the following week.
Tennessee (1-6): Isn't there just a little part of you that thinks the Titans could make a run with VY only to see his mental state break down? Obviously it's too late for this year, but I bet they still have 4 or so wins in them.
Kansas City (1-6): Not a fan of having to play AT Arrowhead or knowing that Jamaal Charles is fully entrenched as their back now. Still, if we can't handle this team we don't deserve the playoffs.
Cleveland (1-7): Hopeless. No other word to describe this team, coach and franchise. Years away from competing.
Trying to predict the AFC North outcome is FAR more daunting than the Conference picture as a whole. As it stands now, ours is the only division with three winning teams in the AFC. I still feel like The Ravens are on the outside looking in as they have the home loss to the Bengals, but it obviously could move in any direction.
The Playoff Picture as I see it:
AFC NORTH: Steelers (11-5)
AFC SOUTH: Indianapolis (14-2)
AFC WEST: Denver (11-5)
AFC EAST: New England (12-4)
AFC Wild Cards: Cincinnati (10-6) and Houston (11-5)
NFC NORTH: Minnesota (13-3)
NFC SOUTH: New Orleans (15-1)
NFC WEST: San Francisco (10-6)
NFC EAST: Philadelphia (12-4)
NFC Wild Cards: Atlanta (12-4) and Dallas (10-6)