Tuesday, December 24, 2013

NFL Playoff Scenarios For Week 17

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Two items on the Denver Broncos: Von Miller is out for the season, and Peyton Manning broke the single-season TD record. Miller is a big loss, and this could open the door for an underdog in the AFC. Manning is the best quarterback I've ever seen, and I'm happy for him, but single-season passing records have gotten pretty meaningless. He'll probably extend the record in Week 17, maybe to the point that it lasts a while, but it's just not a big deal.

* Denver leads the NFL in points, yards, and a bunch of other offensive categories. The team only needs 18 points in the final week to set a single-season scoring record. The Broncos have done all this with Manning at QB, but can you imagine how great they'd be if they still had Tim Tebow?

* Steve Smith sprained his PCL and is doubtful for Week 17. Carolina is on track for a first-round bye in the playoffs, and Smith probably will be ready by then.

* Every team in the NFC West has outscored its opponents, and three of them have double-digit wins. Strongest division in football, easily.

* Farewell, Candlestick Park. The dramatic finish on Monday night was a perfect send-off for one of the NFL's most legendary stadiums.

* * *

Let's once again applaud NFL schedule-makers. The most exciting regular-season game is Week 17, division rivals, winner's in the playoffs, loser goes home. We have TWO of those this year. Sweet.

There are four playoff spots yet to be filled: the NFC North champion, the NFC East champion, and the final wild card in both conferences. There are a few other things to work out, but most of it is shuffling of teams who are already in. Homefield advantage and first-round byes are great, but not nearly as compelling as a simple IN or OUT.

AFC 6th Seed

Heading into the final week of the season, there are four teams still alive for this one spot. None can get in by winning a division, and the other wild card is already spoken for (Kansas City). Let's look at their chances, in ascending order of probability:

Pittsburgh Steelers — They're mathematically alive, but it's going to be really tough. Pittsburgh has to beat the Browns, but it also needs the Chargers, Ravens, and Dolphins to all lose. It could happen. The Steelers are 7-point favorites.

San Diego Chargers — They get in with a win over the Chiefs, plus losses by both Baltimore and Miami. The Chargers are double-digit favorites to beat Kansas City. The Chiefs are reeling, the game's in San Diego, the Chargers beat them in KC last month, and the Chiefs have nothing to play for — they're the fifth seed no matter what. San Diego needs the Ravens and Dolphins to lose, and should know by kickoff whether or not it still has a chance.

Baltimore Ravens — The only team that can lose in Week 17 and still get that last wild card. If the Steelers, Chargers, and Dolphins all lose, the Ravens are in. More realistically, they'll get in with a win and a loss by either the Chargers or Dolphins. They Ravens are 5½-point underdogs at Cincinnati. The Bengals are 7-0 at home, while the Ravens are 2-5 on the road. It's actually a pretty desperate situation. Baltimore is an underdog, and the Chargers and Dolphins are heavy favorites, so the Ravens need two upsets to make the playoffs.

Miami Dolphins — Right now, they're the best bet to get in. If they beat the Jets, and the Chargers win or the Ravens lose, Miami is in. The Dolphins are 6½-point favorites, and the game is in Miami. The Dolphins blew an opportunity in Buffalo on Sunday, but the December weather in Buffalo is frightful, and in Florida it's delightful. Ryan Tannehill got a little banged up over the weekend, but it doesn't appear to be a big deal. Miami crushed the Jets, 23-3, on the road earlier this month. If they win the rematch at home, they're probably in. The Chargers are favorites and the Ravens are underdogs, so if Miami wins, both upsets would need to go down for them to miss the postseason.

My pick: Miami. The Dolphins need to win, but the worst-case scenario is probably that they and the Ravens win, then the Chargers get all bummed out and lose at home, sending Baltimore the playoffs. I don't see it happening.

NFC's Final Wild Card

Five NFC teams have clinched playoff berths, but no one's position is secure yet. None of the divisions have been clinched, so no one's guaranteed of a first-round bye.

Carolina Panthers — The Panthers are in the playoffs, but if they lose in Week 17, and the Saints win, New Orleans will win the NFC South, the 2nd seed, and a first-round bye, while Carolina would get a wild card.

New Orleans Saints — They can still win their division (see above), but if they lose to the Buccaneers, and the Cardinals beat San Francisco, they'd be out of the playoffs. The Saints are 13-point favorites.

Seattle Seahawks — The Seahawks are in the playoffs, but if they lose in Week 17, and the 49ers win, San Francisco will win the NFC West and a first-round bye, while Seattle would get a wild card.

San Francisco 49ers — They're assured of a playoff spot, but it's not clear which one. If the Niners win, they can actually get the top seed in the NFC, and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, if both the Seahawks and Panthers lose. That is not likely.

Arizona Cardinals — If they beat the 49ers, and the Saints lose to Tampa Bay, Arizona would earn a wild card.

There are some further machinations as far as seeding and exact order, but that's the nuts and bolts of who gets in.

My pick: New Orleans. The Panthers win the South, Seahawks win the West, 49ers and Saints gets the wild cards. New Orleans would need to lose a massive upset, and the Cardinals win a tough game, for the Saints to miss out on that last slot. The one I'd keep an eye on, actually, is Carolina at Atlanta. Roddy White is healthy, Steve Smith is not, and the Falcons gave San Francisco a tough game on Monday night, plus the game's in Atlanta. If Carolina loses, it could end up having to play in the first round.

NFC North

Three weeks ago, the Lions had this thing. They had just beaten Green Bay, going a game-and-a-half up on the Packers, and they were a game ahead of the Bears, with a season sweep to win any tiebreaker. They had it. They looked even better halfway through the season. But after a 40-10 revenge win over Green Bay, the Lions have dropped three straight, including home losses to the Ravens and Giants. They're mathematically eliminated from playoff contention now.

Green Bay Packers — They win the division with a Week 17 victory at Chicago.

Chicago Bears — They win the division with a Week 17 win or tie.

No line has been released yet, because it's not clear whether or not Aaron Rodgers will start for the Packers. The Bears won their first matchup, in Green Bay, but Rodgers got hurt in the first quarter and was replaced by Seneca Wallace. Chicago's defense is awful, and the offense doesn't look smooth with Jay Cutler under center. If Rodgers is 100% and plays like it, you'd expect Green Bay to win. Eddie Lacy is questionable, too, but the early guess is he'll give it a go.

My pick: Chicago. I expect Rodgers to play, but it's his first game in two months, and he's got to be rusty. He's facing a bad defense, but in cold weather, on the road, and without some of the receiving weapons he's used to. The Bears just got embarrassed, and I suspect they'll bounce back.

NFC East

The big story here, suddenly, is Tony Romo. He has a herniated disk and is done for the season. He won't play against the Eagles in Week 17, and he won't play in the postseason even if Dallas wins. I understand that Romo has made a lot of mistakes at the end of big games, but this choker reputation, the idea that he's soft ... I don't get it. Remember a couple years ago when Romo led the Cowboys to a late win even though he had broken ribs and a punctured lung? This weekend, he led Dallas to a season-saving, last-minute victory, on the road against a major rival — while playing with a season-ending back injury. He's tough.

Romo is a gunslinger, like Jay Cutler or Brett Favre or Eli Manning. All of those guys have thrown some awful interceptions at critical moments. That style of quarterback, it happens. I don't get why Romo has been singled out.

The good news for Dallas is that it has a capable backup with playoff experience: Kyle Orton. Romo is a top-10 QB, and Orton is not, but he's got all week to prepare, the game's at home, and he and his teammates know he can play.

Dallas Cowboys — They win the division with a Week 17 victory over Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Eagles — They win the division with a Week 17 win or tie.

These teams met in Philadelphia in Week 7, and the Cowboys won 17-3. If they hold the Eagles to three points again, I will buy a hat and eat it. Since that game, every opponent has scored more than 20 points, two of them more than 40. Altogether, the Cowboys' last eight opponents averaged 31.5 points. The Eagles have scored at least 30 for three weeks in a row, including their 54-point romp against the Bears on Sunday night. The opening lines had Philly favored by 1, which jumped to 7 when Romo was ruled out, and I suspect it will go even higher before Sunday. The Cowboys are big underdogs.

My pick: Philadelphia. Neither of these teams has shown a huge homefield advantage, but the Eagles are the hotter team right now, and the Cowboys are minus their starting quarterback. This is the third straight season Dallas has a division title on the line in Week 17, and I'm betting it's the third in a row they lose, this time without any mistakes from Tony Romo.

NFL Week 16 Power Rankings

Top 10

1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Seattle Seahawks
3. Denver Broncos
4. San Diego Chargers
5. Arizona Cardinals
6. Carolina Panthers
7. New England Patriots
8. Cincinnati Bengals
9. Philadelphia Eagles
10. New Orleans Saints

These rankings are for right now, not a season summary, and the Saints have lost three of their last four — only one of the losses was close. The Rams beat them by double-digits, and the Seahawks positively humiliated them, 34-7 on national television in Week 13. It's probably just because four of their last five have been road games, but this is the wrong time of year to slump.

Bottom Three

30. Oakland Raiders
31. Cleveland Browns
32. Houston Texans

Washington has dropped seven in a row, but escapes the bottom three after back-to-back one-point losses. Moral victories are worth something in this part of the rankings. The Raiders have lost by double-digits three weeks in a row, while Cleveland has lost six straight, including this week's 24-13 defeat against the Jets.

Click here for the NFL Week 15 Report, focusing on the quarterback changes in Chicago (Josh McCown to Jay Cutler) and Washington (Robert Griffin III to Kirk Cousins).

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