Tuesday, November 22, 2011

If the NFL Playoffs Started Today (Week 11)

Let me be the first to welcome the Dallas Cowboys to the playoff field. By virtue of their win over the Redskins, and the Giant loss to the Eagles, Dallas has taken over first place in the surprising mediocre NFC East. I thought the Cowboys were the best team in the division last week, so it makes sense to me that they are now on top. They had to eek out their win over Washington, so I am not terribly confident about they chances. One could double that lack of confidence based on their recent playoff history. We welcome them nevertheless.

As the NFC East champion, the Cowboys would face the slowly sinking Lions in the first round of the NFC playoffs. Detroit reverted to their early season ways in falling behind Carolina before making a furious comeback on Sunday. This is not the pattern that can be repeated for playoff success, although the Lions did use it successfully in Week 4 against Dallas. Jahvid Best needs to return to add some balance to the Detroit offense. As you probably know, the Lions host the Packers on Thanksgiving, which should offer an interesting preview of what Detroit can do against a playoff team. They have been beaten by the last three teams that they faced that were in the playoff race (49ers, Falcons, and Bears). Dallas’ recent run of success has been helped by a healthy Tony Romo and an even healthier running game. DeMarco Murray was averaging more than six yards per carry before the Redskins stacked the line against him. The Cowboy offensive line has gelled nicely. Murray and Romo could be decent Fantasy Postseason picks.

While the other Round 1 match up in the NFC - the Saints hosting the Bears - hasn’t changed, the complexion of the game is completely new. As a Bear fan, I am saddened by the loss of Jay Cutler for the regular season. However, I actually think the Bears will be ok without him. He has proven himself to be a gutty quarterback, but his best asset – his rocket arm – is not used often in the Bear offense because the line is so shaky. After an adjustment period, my guess is that Caleb Hanie will be ok and the Bears still make the playoffs. I still don’t like their match up against the Saints because I think the weaknesses in the line – be they in front of Cutler or Haney – would be magnified again in the Superdome. The Bears would have a better chance against the Falcons, if Atlanta can pass New Orleans. That Week 16 game in New Orleans between the Falcons and Saints could be a key. The Saints still have four home games, including the next two weeks against the Giants and Lions. The Packers and 49ers continue to control the bye seeds in the NFC.

The top two seeds in the AFC fell out of their perches, despite neither one losing this week. The Steelers and Texans were on the late bye, while the Patriots and Ravens moved up via wins over Kansas City and Cincinnati, respectively. The Patriots now control their AFC fate and do not play another team that is currently in the playoffs. Baltimore faces San Francisco on Thanksgiving evening in their last true test prior to the postseason. I wish I received NFL Network just for that game.

Both first round games in the AFC are intriguing based on current standings. The Texans would host the Bengals and the Raiders would host the Steelers. One of my first NFL memories is the Raiders and Steelers facing off in the mid-1970’s. Oakland’s hold on the top spot in the AFC is tenuous as the Tebow-led Broncos have won three in a row, including a game at the Black Hole. The Raiders may be the beneficiary of Caleb Hanie as they get the first crack at the Cutler-less Bears on Sunday. They hit the road for a suddenly difficult game in Miami and then to Green Bay. Now that Pittsburgh has been swept by Baltimore, they are somewhat unlikely to win the AFC North (and how about all four wild card teams coming from northern divisions). They would still be heavily favored in a game against Oakland and have won five of their last six.

Houston is in a similar situation as the Bears. They have a much better running game than Chicago, but their defense is not as stout. They do not have to worry too much about their playoff lives because they hold a two-game and a head-to-head advantage over the Titans. The Texans would face their potential playoff match in Week 14 at Paul Brown Stadium. An Andy Dalton-Matt Leinart playoff pairing would be something to see. As proven in the last two weeks, the Bengals are not as good as the Steelers or Ravens, but they are likely better than the wild card teams that they hold a one-game edge on (Broncos, Titans, Jets, and Bills). The Bengals will have to take care of business against the Browns, and later the Rams and Cardinals because they face the Steelers and Ravens again and will be hard pressed to get to ten wins. My guess is the Jets pose the biggest threat to the sixth seed in the East. They face six non-playoff teams down the stretch.

Here are my top ten players for the playoffs. Last week’s ranking in parentheses:
1. Aaron Rodgers (1)
2. Drew Brees (3) – I like the Saints to beat the Bears more now.
3. Tom Brady (2)
4. Ray Rice (6) – he is the Raven offense
5. Ben Roethlisberger (5)
6. Arian Foster (4) – a game against the Bengals front seven worries me
7. Frank Gore (7)
8. Rashard Mendenhall (8)
9. Tony Romo (unranked)
10. Rob Gronkowski (unranked)

Fell out
Matt Forte (9)
Calvin Johnson (10)

Also considered
DeMarco Murray
Jordy Nelson
Jimmy Graham
Darren McFadden