There hasn’t been a year like this in the NFL in a long, long time.
That is, with just three weeks to go, there really is no clear-cut, bonafide runaway favorite for the Super Bowl.
A look at the AFC suggests that other than the East, it will be a dog fight to the end to determine the West, North and South champions.
In the North, Pittsburgh holds a slim one-game lead on Baltimore, with the two locking horns on Christmas Day in the Steel City. In the South, Houston and Tennessee are deadlocked at 7-6, with Indianapolis one game back at 6-7. Anyone’s ball game there, though the Titans are winners of two straight.
In the NFC, parity also reigns, with only Seattle looking near home and cooled West champs (they are 8-4-1 and second place Arizona is 5-7-1).
In the East, Dallas has some tough sledding with a two-game lead on the Giants, who just beat them last weekend. Detroit, winners of five straight, are two games clear in the North but hit the road for tough tilts in Dallas and New York. The NFC South is up for grabs, with both Atlanta and Tampa Bay knotted up at 8-5.
So, flip a coin on many division winners. However, there are 10 teams we think have a real shot at being Super Bowl champions, ranked in order.
Matt Ryan is on a heck of a roll heading into the final three weeks of the season. He is second only to New Orleans’ Drew Brees in passing yards with 4,050 this season and has tossed 30 TDs against just seven interceptions. The oft-sacked Ryan will continue his aerial assault against the woeful San Francisco 49ers this Sunday in Atlanta, however, the list of available targets has shrunk considerably. Wide receivers Julio Jones (toe) and Mohamed Sanu (groin), who are 1-2 in receiving, are questionable for Sunday’s tilt. Taylor Gabriel (504 yards, 5 TDs), will be a busy if those two sit out, as will the running corps. It’s a good thing the Falcons are entertaining the 1-12 Niners, since their home record is a mediocre 3-3 (they are 5-2 on the road). They finish out with a visit to Carolina on Christmas Eve (they are 5-2 on the road) and a home date with division rival New Orleans, which promises to be a real aerial battle. We say the Falcons are a long shot at this point.
The Steelers are one of the hottest two teams in the AFC, having won their last four in a row to push their record to 8-5. However, only two of those victories came against quality opponents (Buffalo, Giants) and the other two against horrible Cleveland and mediocre Indianapolis. So, with three contests to go, all against division opponents starting Sunday in Cincinnati, can the Steelers keep rolling and win the division? Pittsburgh did beat Cincinnati at home earlier this season, but the Bengals can’t be as bad as their record (5-7-1; 3-2-1 at home) so not a guarantee. Then the Steelers have to beat 7-6 Baltimore (who they lost to earlier this season) at home. The only “easy” game is the New Year’s Day game at home to Cleveland to close things out. The Steelers are contenders, and will need all of MVP candidate Le’Veon Bell’s powers just to win their division.
Not that long ago (2008, when they were 0-16), the Detroit Lions knew exactly how the 0-13 Cleveland Browns feel about being the laughingstock of the NFL. After five straight wins to pull into the NFC North lead at 9-4, ain’t too many people laughing now. In that streak, the Lions beat the 7-6 Minnesota Vikings twice, assuring themselves a division crown if both teams end up tied for the lead at the end of the regular season. After a 1-3 start that had everyone thinking Detroit was toast, they are 8-1 and tracking to their first NFC North title since 1993. But, we slated them the eighth best contender because they are the Lions and have two huge road games looming and tough home field finale. First, Matt Stafford and the Detroit offence have to solve the stout defence of the 9-4 New York Giants on Sunday. Then, on Boxing Day, they pay a visit to even more stingy Dallas to scrap with the 11-2 Cowboys. And finally, they will ring in the New Year at Ford Field to see if they can finish off rival Green Bay, who are also 7-6 and beat them in September.
The Raiders magical ride this season hit a nasty road bump last week, as they fell to AFC West co-leaders Kansas City 21-13. That loss bookended a six-game winning streak that was preceded by a 26-10 loss at home to those very same Chiefs. Thus, with both teams now 10-3, the Raiders could be a wild card team if the two finish tied. And these are the Oakland Raiders we’re talking about, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002, when they lost the Super Bowl. Nothing as of yet is a safe bet for Oakland, who have been great offensively with Derek Carr running things, but are the sixth worst team defensively in the AFC (320 points against). And their so-so defence is banged up heading into a key division match-up in San Diego Sunday. Leading tackler LB Malcolm Smith is questionable for Sunday’s tilt, as are safety Karl Joseph and LB Perry Riley. The Raiders entertain Indianapolis on Christmas eve, before ending the season with a visit to Denver to take on the 8-5 Broncos. A contender, with an asterisk.
The hottest team in the NFC (along with Detroit) has used a much-improved defence to stymie opponents during a five-game winning streak. The Buccaneers have surrendered just 64 points in those five wins, which included just 17 to quality opponent Kansas City on the road and 11 to the New Orleans Saints, who have the best QB in the league in Drew Brees. They also limited Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks attack to a measly five points at home. This defensive display is in stark contrast to the 232 points they gave up in their first eight starts. If the Bucs want to claim the NFC South division crown, however, they will need to find a way to limit Dak Prescott’s effectiveness when they visit 11-2 Dallas on Sunday. Then, they have to travel to New Orleans for a re-match on Dec. 24, followed by a New Year’s Day clash with Carolina. The Bucs have the ‘D’ to contend, but there is no easy path to the playoffs.
Any further confirmation that the New York Giants defence was among the elite came last Sunday, when it held the visiting Dallas Cowboys and Dak Prescott to a measly seven points in a 10-7 victory. The only Cowboy to have any kind of impact was nominally Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed for 107 yards, but no TDs. Otherwise Leon Hall and Janoris Jenkins picked off Prescott twice and three different Giants put him on the turf. The Giants D has been wreaking havoc on opposing offences all year, with the two-headed monster of Jason Pierre-Paul (seven sacks) and Olivier Vernon (eight sacks), leading the way. At 9-4 and two games behind 11-2 Dallas, the Giants are most likely headed to a wild card spot. They host the Detroit Lions this Sunday, but with the Giants’ 6-1 at home, the Lions are in tough. New York closes out the season with road contests against division rivals Philadelphia (5-8) and Washington (7-5-1). The only question here is can the Giants’ offence get it done in the playoffs?
We think the Chiefs have the inside track on the AFC West division title, even though they are tied with Oakland at 10-3. They have won three in a row and eight of their last nine games to surge into the lead. During this hot streak, they beat the rival Raiders twice (ensuring a division title if they tie), as well as quality opponents in the Denver Broncos (in Denver) and Atlanta Falcons (in Atlanta). The Chiefs have spread the offence around nicely this season, with RB Spencer Ware leading the ground game (790 yards, three TD) and TE Travis Kelce the receiving corps (916 yards, three TD). QB Alex Smith has been quietly effective, throwing for 2,831 yards in 12 starts, along with 12 TD (5 INT). Third-year LB Dee Ford has been a revelation on defence, leading a team that features Justin Houston and Tamba Hali with 10 sacks. K.C. closes out the regular schedule with home dates against Tennessee and Denver, followed by a New Year’s Day contest in San Diego. They will be tough to beat in the playoffs.
The reason we like the Seahawks chances can be summed up in one word: defence. Only two teams in the NFL have given up fewer points than Seattle’s 232 and with a three game lead in the NFC West the 8-4-1 Seahawks need only win one of three remaining games to clinch. And two are at home, where they are 6-0. Included in those games are a clash with the 4-9 Rams tonight and a Christmas Eve meeting with Arizona, who trail them at 5-7-1. Defensive player of the year candidate Bobby Wagner is the lynch pin of a defence that is eighth in total yards against (4,293), ninth against the pass (3,009) and 13th against the run (1,284). They are also third in tackles (924) and 10th in sacks (32). Offensively, the Seahawks haven’t been all that great, but have gotten key contributions from a host of players when they’ve needed it. A sign that this team is ready to contend came Nov. 13, when they beat New England 31-24.
The Cowboys are human, after all. After opening the season with a 20-19 loss to the Giants, the ‘Boys reeled off 11 straight wins, making them look more and more like Super Bowl contenders every week. Rookie pivot Dak Prescott made everyone forget that Tony Romo was out for the season, picking apart opposing defences for 19 TDs and just two interceptions. But, that impressive run came crashing down with a thud to the only team to beat them this season, the Giants. Prescott was picked off twice and New York prevailed 10-7. With that, the team Dallas needs to fear come the post-season, should they win the division, are those same New York Giants. The remainder of the schedule is no cake-walk either, as Dallas, which is 5-1 at home, hosts the 8-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday and then the 9-4 Detroit Lions on Boxing Day. They wrap things up with a visit to the unfriendly confines in Philadelphia to tangle with the Eagles on New Year’s Day.
With things so wide open this year, only one team gets our nod as nearly a sure thing to win it all is New England — even without TE Rob Gronkowski. The Pats were 6-2 with the Gronk in the line-up and are 5-0 without him, so any worry they can’t survive with Martellus Bennett at tight end is moot. Tom Brady, as usual, is Tom Brady, going 8-1 since coming back from a four-game suspension and sporting an astounding 113.6 passer rating, along with 2,876 yards passing, 22 touchdowns and just two picks. Defensively, the Patriots have allowed the second fewest points against at 230 and lead the NFL in tackles (958) and are second in forced fumbles with 19. As for the rest of their schedule, New England can put a serious crimp in Denver’s playoff plans — and gain a measure of revenge for last year’s playoff loss — by beating the Broncos (8-5) in the Mile High City this Sunday. They then host the Jets on Dec. 24 and finish up on the road against another playoff hopeful, the Miami Dolphins, on New Year’s Day.