Updated Nov 16, 2011 1:18 PM ET
No team better illustrates the wacky AFC playoff race than the New England Patriots.
At this time last week, the Patriots were being buried by some media members for having lost two consecutive games even though the opposition (Pittsburgh and the New York Giants) wasn’t exactly shabby. The “end-of-a-dynasty” theme became a hot topic as New England faced its first three-game skid in nine years entering last Sunday’s road game against the streaking the New York Jets.
If the Giants loss truly marked the end of a dynasty, it didn’t take long for a new one to have potentially sprung anew.
The Patriots (6-3) didn’t just rebound in a big way with a 37-16 rout of their AFC East archrival. Thanks to another inexcusable Baltimore loss to inferior opposition (Seattle) and the potentially serious foot injury suffered by Houston quarterback Matt Schaub against Tampa Bay, New England has moved back into the driver’s seat for the conference’s top playoff seed.
What about the Steelers you might ask? Yes, Pittsburgh (7-3) currently has the AFC’s best record and would enjoy the head-to-head advantage in a tiebreaker with the Patriots because of a 25-17 victory in Week 8. But it very well may never come to that.
While the Steelers enjoy a modestly easy remaining schedule on paper, New England has an absolute cakewalk. The Patriots — a squad rarely upset by losing teams during the Bill Belichick era — has just one game remaining against a team with a winning record. That’s a Week 17 home matchup against Buffalo (5-4), a squad that beat New England in September but is now fading with losses in three of its past four games.
If the Patriots run the table like I expect, the Steelers must remain perfect as well. Besides a potentially tough rematch at home against Cincinnati (6-3) on Dec. 4, the Steelers also must travel to San Francisco (8-1) for a monster Monday night game in Week 15.
The Steelers-49ers contest is also a potential preview of Super Bowl XLVI. But let’s not look that far ahead. Trying to forecast how the AFC and NFC playoff pictures will unfold is difficult enough.
I’m going to give it a whirl. Here’s my prediction of which teams from each conference will make the postseason and what seeds they will land:
1. New England (6-3)
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Remaining opponents winning percentage: .306 (19-43)
Potential fly in the ointment: Seven years ago, a 2004 Miami Dolphins squad even worse than this year’s 2-7 unit upset the championship-bound Patriots. The Dolphins are getting hot too late to make the playoffs, which makes this Dec. 24 matchup the equivalent of Miami’s Super Bowl. The good news for New England: The warm-weather Dolphins must travel to Foxborough.
Outlook: The Patriots are a flawed team, especially on defense, but still good enough to finish 13-3 against this caliber of opposition.
2. Pittsburgh (7-3)
Remaining opponents winning percentage: .481 (26-28)
Potential fly in the ointment: Already on the verge of clinching the NFC West, San Francisco will probably be playing for a first-round bye when hosting the Steelers on Dec. 19.
Outlook: A squad that has weathered injuries throughout the season gets time to heal with this weekend’s bye. Two remaining games against stumbling Cleveland (3-6) in a four-week span should also make the Steelers feel better.
3. Houston (7-3)
Remaining opponents winning percentage: .381 (21-34)
Potential flies in the ointment: Matchups against visiting Atlanta (5-4) and at Cincinnati (6-3) in Weeks 13 and 14 mark a tougher two-game stretch than anything New England or Pittsburgh is facing the rest of the season.
Outlook: The AFC South title that the Texans were cruising toward is no longer a sure thing with Schaub now being replaced by Matt Leinart. The key for Houston is to not stumble in upcoming games against inferior opposition like Jacksonville (3-6), Carolina (2-7) and Indianapolis (0-10). Victories would give the Texans at least 10 wins and probably guarantee the division title. The nightmare scenario: Having to host Tennessee (5-4) in a Week 17 game for the AFC South crown.
4. Oakland (5-4)
Remaining opponents winning percentage: .524 (33-30)
Potential flies in the ointment: Oakland still must play all four NFC South opponents. While they get to host Chicago (6-3) and Detroit (6-3), the Raiders have a Week 14 matchup in Green Bay. Dollars to doughnuts that footage of ex-Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell shivering on the Lambeau Field sideline from a 2007 game gets replayed regularly before this contest.
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Outlook: A 9-7 or 8-8 record will likely win the AFC West. The Raiders may stumble at times over the next month but should control their own destiny when finishing the season with games against Kansas City (4-5) and San Diego (4-5).
5. Baltimore (6-3)
Remaining opponents winning percentage: .469 (30-34)
Potential flies in the ointment: Facing the Bengals (6-3) and 49ers in a four-day span next week is brutal but at least both games are at home. The schedule eases afterward with two games versus Cleveland and a Week 14 matchup against visiting Indianapolis.
Outlook: If how this season has unfolded is an indication, expect Baltimore to lose against the bad teams and beat the good ones. How the Ravens can complete a season sweep of Pittsburgh yet lose on the road to Jacksonville and Seattle (3-6) in the past month makes no sense.
6. New York Jets (5-4)
Remaining opponents winning percentage: .429 (27-36)
Potential fly in the ointment: The Dec. 24 matchup against the New York Giants (6-3) is more than a hometown rivalry. It also marks the toughest remaining game on the Jets’ schedule.
Outlook: Sorry to Cincinnati, Buffalo and Tennessee — the three other AFC clubs that currently have winning records. The Jets are a more battle-tested team late in the season with better depth to withstand injuries.
1. Green Bay (9-0)
Remaining opponents winning percentage: .587 (37-26)
Potential flies in the ointment: The Packers play five of their final seven games against bona fide playoff contenders. Back-to-back road games against Detroit (Nov. 24) and the Giants (Dec. 4) are especially daunting. The Packers also finish the season at home versus the Bears and Lions.
Outlook: Green Bay is off to the first 9-0 start for a defending Super Bowl champion since the 1998 Denver Broncos. But not only is an undefeated season unlikely, the Packers actually risk ceding the NFC’s top seed if they stumble. That’s because San Francisco has a far easier remaining schedule.
2. San Francisco (8-1)
Remaining opponents winning percentage: .406 (26-38)
Potential flies in the ointment: Baltimore and Pittsburgh are the two obvious choices, but the 49ers face a potential trap game Sunday against visiting Arizona. The reasons: A) The Cardinals (3-6) have won two straight under new quarterback John Skelton; B) San Francisco may be ripe for a letdown coming off last Sunday’s emotional win over the Giants; C) Some 49ers might be looking ahead to the Thanksgiving night matchup against the Ravens in the Harbaugh Bowl.
Outlook: Forget about just winning the NFC West title — a feat once considered overachieving seeing how lowly regarded the 49ers were entering the season. Toppling the Giants validated San Francisco as a legitimate NFC threat and the NFL’s biggest surprise in 2011. A first-round bye is guaranteed with a 6-1 finish.
3. New Orleans (7-3)
Remaining opponents winning percentage: .406 (26-28)
Potential flies in the ointment: The Saints come off this weekend’s bye to face the Giants and Detroit. That is a tough challenge but both those games are at home just like New Orleans’ final two contests against Atlanta and Carolina.
Outlook: The Saints enjoy a significant home-field edge playing in the raucous Superdome. Having only two remaining road games against Tennessee and Minnesota in Weeks 14 and 15 gives New Orleans a legitimate shot at a first-round bye should Green Bay or San Francisco stumble.
4. New York Giants (6-3)
Remaining opponents winning percentage: .578 (37-27)
Potential flies in the ointment: There are five of them. Philadelphia (3-6) and Washington (3-6) are the only remaining opponents with losing records.
Outlook: For those still doubting whether he is an elite quarterback, Eli Manning can dispel more naysayers by guiding the Giants into the playoffs for the first time since 2008. New York will need Manning to carry the load with injuries mounting on defense and ongoing offensive problems rushing the football.
5. Chicago (6-3)
Remaining opponents winning percentage: .492 (31-32)
Potential fly in the ointment: A Christmas night rematch at Green Bay. The Packers have won three straight against the Bears, including a 27-17 victory in Week 3 at Soldier Field.
Outlook: With quarterback Jay Cutler receiving far better protection than earlier in the season, the Bears have emerged as one of the NFL’s hottest teams. A four-game winning streak could grow during an upcoming stretch of five consecutive non-conference matchups, including an unusual four-game gauntlet against all AFC West opponents.
6. Dallas (5-4)
Remaining opponents winning percentage: .429 (27-36)
Potential fly in the ointment: The Cowboys have two games left against the Giants, the only team with a winning record that remains on the Dallas schedule.
Outlook: The Cowboys are one of the NFL’s most rollercoaster teams and have a history of underachieving under pressure. Dallas, though, should begin to pull away from Detroit and Atlanta in the wild-card race thanks to a schedule that includes the next three games against Washington, Miami and Arizona.