One of the many interesting things about projecting the playoffs is that the teams and match ups change each week. There aren't seismic changes at this point of the season, but the landscape changes just a bit. Another interesting factor will be whether teams that clinch (i.e. the Packers very soon) will rest their players. The Packers won't clinch homefield advantage for a few weeks because the 49ers are just two games behind, but an Aaron Rodgers injury would destroy Green Bay's season.
Speaking of clinching, the 49ers have now clinched at least a share of the NFC West and will have to lose to division opponents to fall below 13-3. This is a gigantic achievement for Jim Harbaugh. I don't know how well the 49ers match up against the Packers. If everything went well, San Francisco would control the ball and keep the score low. A few Packer turnovers would help the 49er cause, but there are a lot of ifs and buts that would need to add up to a 49er win. San Francisco would need to beat either Dallas or Chicago in the divisional round.
The big news in the NFC is that the Falcons have moved past the Lions for the sixth seed. I watched Atlanta's victory over the Vikings and was not very impressed. Minnesota is not a good team and was playing without its best player (Adrian Peterson), but the Falcons hit a terrible second half lull. It looked like a pretty even game. Atlanta has the more favorable schedule, but if they happen to lose I think either Detroit or the Giants will slip past them. In the projected first round, Atlanta would head to New Orleans for the second time in three weeks. The Saints beat the Falcons in the Georgia Dome in overtime three weeks ago, when coach Mike Smith made the controversial call to go for it on fourth-and-one from his own 29-yard-line. I agreed with the call, even if it does cost the team a home playoff game. In the other Wild Card game, the Bears would travel to Dallas. Chicago won in Arlington last year, but will need to solidify the quarterback slot. Caleb Hanie was inconsistent in his first game, but he has a month to learn on the job. Jay Cutler could also be back, but he will have been on the shelf for six weeks. Dallas has won four straight against non-playoff teams and has needed last second field goals to beat Washington and Miami in the last two weeks.
In the AFC, the top two seeds are in flux. As it currently stands, the quarterback-less Texans are the top seed. Like San Francisco, they are the beneficiary of a weak division and have won five straight. Their game against Atlanta this weekend is intriguing. How quickly can T.J. Yates, a 24-year-old graduate from UNC, get up to speed. The Patriots appear to be the AFC's best team and own the second seed over the Ravens based on a better win percentage in conference games.
The AFC Wild Card games would be the Bengals and Ravens meeting for the third time as well as an old school Raider-Steeler battle. The Ravens beat Cincinnati in Week 11 in a fairly competitive game. The teams also meet again on New Years Day in Week 17. That game may be meaningful, even though the next four weeks for Baltimore include this run: Browns-Colts-Chargers-Browns again. The Ravens should be 12-3 at that point and may be able to rest their starters. The Bengals take on the Steelers next week followed by an important trip to Houston. They then have a two-week NFC West reprieve against the Rams and Cardinals in Weeks 15 and 16.
The Steelers did not look great on Sunday night against the Chiefs. Granted, Arrowhead Stadium is a difficult place to play and Pittsburgh did come through with a hard fought win. In addition to their game against Cincinnati this week, they head to San Francisco in week 15. They also face the Browns twice and the Rams in Week 16 on Christmas Eve. Oakland is going to have to hold off the Tim Tebows in the AFC West. Denver heads to Minnesota this week followed by home games against the Bears and Patriots. Meanwhile, the Raiders travel to Miami and Green Bay in the next two weeks. It is going to be a great race in the AFC West.
This week's top ten players:
1. Aaron Rodgers (1)
2. Drew Brees (2)
3. Tom Brady (3)
4. Ray Rice (4)
5. Arian Foster (6)
6. Frank Gore (7)
7. Ben Roethlisberger (5) - I'm worried about the Steeler offense after what I saw on Sunday.
8. Tony Romo (9)
9. Rob Gronkowski (9)
10. DeMarco Murray (unranked)
Rashard Mendenhall (8)