Five of the six NFC playoff teams have been decided. Four of the six in the AFC are locked up.
Two division showdowns remain: the AFC West and NFC East, the latter of which is game No. 256 to wrap up this fascinating season. But it feels like the playoffs will begin this coming week.
Of the teams that remain in the picture mathematically, some are akin to NCAA bubble teams — they're a good story in terms of getting in, but they have zero to little chance to do any real damage.
Here's my personal power ranking of the teams that have yet to qualify for the playoffs and their chances to go the furthest in the playoff derby. After all, we've seen No. 6 playoff seeds (2005 Steelers and 2010 Packers) and No. 5s (2007 Giants) win it all, so don't count out these late clinchers — some of them at least:
1. Giants: They have a hot quarterback in Eli Manning, the best defensive lineman in the postseason mix in Jason Pierre-Paul, an out-of-nowhere receiver who has no idea he shouldn't be this dominant in Victor Cruz and a veteran coach in Tom Coughlin with a Super Bowl ring and nothing to lose. That's a pretty good formula for success, even though the rest of the defense gives plenty of reasons for pause at times. The offensive line showed something after the first quarter against the Jets. And remember 2007 when you think about this team: As Chris Palmer (who was the QB coach on that team) told me earlier this season, the Giants' assistants that year were preparing to freshen up their résumés at season's end, fearing they might be fired. As it turned out, they went on to win a Super Bowl. Don't underestimate the power of a motivated coaching staff on a semi-warm seat.
2. Broncos: Tim Tebow might not be everyone's cup of tea, and his critics had been waiting for a game like Sunday's in Buffalo. But the guy has won at home, won on the road and has a unique set of skills that can tax a defense. That is ... if the Broncos' defense gets its act together. The past two weeks (cumulative score: opponents 81, Broncos 37) have been partly the defense's fault, partly to blame on turnovers. Tebow's 117-throw streak without an interception earlier in the season is more telling, in my eyes, than his four-pick game, much of which happened after he was down and trying to make a play late. Still, there's an ultimate bit of irony in Week 17, with the Chiefs' Kyle Orton getting a chance to keep the Broncos, his old team, and Tebow, the man he was benched for, out of the postseason. The Broncos need Von Miller to regain his midseason form so he and Elvis Dumervil can heat up the edge as it gets colder.
3. Bengals: Losses to the Steelers and Ravens had us chorusing, "Nice season." But don't underestimate this club. They're young, talented, resilient and fearless. Plus, no one is talking about them. The expectations are floor-low for them to do any kind of damage. But head coach Marvin Lewis — he might not win Coach of the Year, but he definitely should be considered — has the ear of his team. "We're playing for something special now," Lewis said. "It's all out in front of us." One win in the postseason might be their cap, and a good offensive team (especially one that throws it well) might not be held down for four quarters against them, but the Bengals have some pop. They just have to figure out what is going on with Cedric Benson and his five fumbles the past two weeks, two coming in the fourth quarter against the Cardinals.
4. Jets: Rex Ryan said after the loss to the Giants that he didn't set out to throw the ball 59 times. "We're really not built to play that type of game," Ryan said. "We were running the ball effectively, but we were behind a couple of scores. We thought we would be able to run the ball on them." So, why do they always seem caught up in games where they throw too much? The Jets don't strike me as dangerous. That's what they were the past two seasons. It took fearless Colts and Steelers teams playing at home to beat them the past two playoffs, but this season it feels like a lesser club could take these Jets down.
5. Cowboys: Their best asset right now, believe it or not, is Tony Romo. And he's hurt. This just isn't a team you should bet heavily on right now. They have some firepower, and a healthy Romo (word is, his hand is likely going to be fine) would be a tough matchup despite his shaky history after November. And maybe Rob Ryan's defense can catch a little lightning in a bottle. But are you going to count on that? Maybe Romo and DeMarcus Ware (two sacks vs. the Eagles) can carry the team on their backs. But what about Felix Jones and the rest of that defense? Too many questions for the long haul.
6. Raiders: There are some pillars of success for the postseason, including special teams, experience at quarterback and a defensive line that can dominate for stretches. But how bad is it when the head coach, Hue Jackson, essentially admits that giving up long drives and committing penalties is just par for the course these days? "That's Raider football right now. That's the way it's been," Jackson said. "I'm not going to make an excuse for that. Obviously, we don't want that to happen. Do I wish things were different? Yes, I do, but this game is about winning."
7. Titans: They've received some clutch performances when they have needed them, and if TE Jared Cook and DE Derrick Morgan supply some needed punch here, it's a slightly scary team. On his best day, Chris Johnson can beat almost anyone. More often than not, however, he has not been a best-day kind of player this season. Matt Hasselbeck had a great Week 16 performance, but he has been shaky in other recent games and had been trending downward. Getting into the playoffs is going to be hard enough. They need about a half-dozen things to happen just to get in. But remember your history: In 2006, the Titans needed a ton of help to get into the mix in Week 17 that season, they amazingly received it ... and then went out and were smashed by the Patriots. Mike Munchak was on that staff. You can be sure that topic will come up this week. Don't count out a desperate team that sneaks into the playoffs by the hairs of their chinny chins.
The wow factor
This week's edition focuses on one of the more phenomenal statistical achievements of the season:
The 49ers' run defense finally cracked. Guess you could say that. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch broke one of the season's most amazing streaks with 6:41 remaining in the Week 16 game against the Niners, authoring the first rushing touchdown against them this season. Earlier in the game, on a strange broken play, it appeared that Tarvaris Jackson was going to get in on a bootleg type of run. But CB Carlos Rogers came out of nowhere and stoned him.
These kind of performances have been the norm this season. How well has Larry Grant played in relief of Patrick Willis these past few weeks? His ball-jarring hit on Jackson turned the game in the Niners' favor late in the fourth quarter and allowed them to get a well-earned win up in Seattle, one that had all the earmarks of an upset. Tightly wound playoff-bound teams are prone to these types of slipups late in the season, especially for clubs that have not had a lot of success in recent seasons. But Jim Harbaugh has this team so focused and determined right now that, after Sunday, I expect no letdown, depending on your definition and expectations for success for this team.
I am working on a "tight lid" theory with the 49ers here. You know, when you have that gnarly pickle jar that just won't open and you hand it to a friend (usually female) to unscrew? Yeah, they usually pop it off without trouble and joke that you did all the loosening for them. I think that when this 49ers team goes down in the playoffs, it will come with considerable effort. Whichever team the Niners eventually lose to — and I believe they will fall short of making a Super Bowl — the Niners will scratch and claw and have every trick up their sleeves ready at their disposal. If a team like the Packers beats them, it won't come easy, and the next team to face their conqueror will be going up against a battered club. Teams that have faced the 49ers have gone 7-7 the following game, with five of the five wins coming by a combined 17 points and two of the victories coming against the lowly Rams.
That would leave a very beat-up Green Bay team left possibly to face the Saints. And if the weather — great point here made by my friend, ESPN1500.com's Judd Zulgad — stays as mild as it has been, that Green Bay home-field advantage might not be as significant as it otherwise would have been.
More on this working corollary as the playoffs draw closer ...
Entertainers and icons
Two AFC team heroes who made spectacular individual plays on Saturday to keep their teams alive:
If you did not like Bengals WR Jerome Simpson's flip touchdown, well, I don't know what is wrong with you. Usually, these types of highwire acts fail miserably when attempted. And Simpson did admit that he had dreamed up the scenario of pulling off such a move previously. But he claimed that the maneuver was a spur-of-the-moment act and a perfect storm of events. "It was one of those things that just came (on) instinct," Simpson said. "I just wanted to make a play for my team and get in the endzone. It seemed like (the defender, Cardinals LB Daryl Washington) was going to hit me, and I didn't want to get hit, and I used my athletic ability and my jumping ability." Simpson is now in the unofficial Youtube 15-minute Hall of Fame, but he hopes his legacy isn't hurt by something else that hangs over his head: Authorities found a mountain of pot at his house back in September, and though Simpson has not formally been charged yet, the case is still pending. If he is charged, the NFL could get involved, and it might be Simpson's final flip for a little while.
Raiders DE Richard Seymour wins the Good Hands Award for his two blocked shots (field goals) against the Chiefs, one at the end of the first half and one at the end of the fourth quarter when K.C. was looking to eliminate the Raiders from postseason contention. That might be the single most dominant special-teams performance of the season — on the road, his team teetering on the brink, a loss on the verge of happening. It's a story line that people have not talked about much recently, but you have to think that Bill Belichick regrets trading away Seymour for a future (a year in advance at the time) first-round pick. That pick turned into Nate Solder, who has fared well as a replacement tackle and third tight end and appears to be the future left tackle when Matt Light is gone. He was Sunday, a late scratch 90 minutes before kickoff, forcing Solder into the lineup, and the kid played well. But Seymour still appears dominant at times and really would have been unleashed next to Vince Wilfork in a 4-3 front when the team uses it. It's an interesting trade to revisit, and though the Patriots are honing in on the No. 1 seed, their defense appears vulnerable.
Ten takeaways of the week
Here are 10 things I took from Week 16:
1. Doug Baldwin got his revenge. And then lost it. The undrafted Seahawks receiver has been a revelation this season, having been passed up through seven rounds after a good career at Stanford and yet is on pace to lead the Seahawks in receptions and yards — the first-ever undrafted wideout to do so in the past 50 years, according to the team. And last week, leading up to the game against the 49ers, Baldwin felt he had a little score to settle. See, Jim Harbaugh should have known considerable about Baldwin from their time together with the Cardinal last season. And though the coach appeared ready to name his future grandchildren after Andrew Luck, he showed little love for Baldwin. "I was pretty sure, based on people I talked to, that (Harbaugh) was not going to draft me," Baldwin told me before the game. "That was my feeling." Baldwin didn't hide his disappointment about the fact, but he loves his new team and has a bright future in Seattle. And you know that the scoreless-tie-breaking touchdown Baldwin scored in the game had to feel really good. After all, Harbaugh said during the lead-up to the game that he should have drafted Baldwin. But Harbaugh and his Niners got the final say with the late victory.
2. I have said for weeks that the Lions would either be early playoff flameouts or the type of team that could scare the daylights out of a Super Bowl contender. I am starting to think the latter is their fate. The NFC appears to have the bulk of the firepower of the two conferences this season, which would make the Lions' trip a little tougher. But there is no doubt, after watching this team, that it has Super potential. Matthew Stafford is having his breakout season, the defense has big-play potential and Jim Schwartz is an excellent X's and O's coach who is not afraid to roll the dice in big situations. In what will be their first playoff appearance since 1999, the Lions will not be scared in any matchup in Round One.
3. The Panthers have something fun brewing. Forget the talk that they need another receiver to help Steve Smith and Cam Newton. They need defensive help, and maybe some special-teams reinforcements. And if they have a Texans-like offseason, adding two or three starters on defense, this could be a Lions-like turnaround team. Panthers historians also will remind you that they went from 1-15 in 2001 to 7-9 the next season to the Super Bowl in 2003. Can they have another ascent as quick as that for next season? Newton is special, and he has to avoid the trappings of his own rapid success. But the kid has nerve and sinful talent, and defenses have struggled to come up with foolproof plans to stop him. If the offensive line stays strong, that group could be Packers-like special next season.
4. The Dolphins are an attractive situation. They lost Sunday and fell to 5-10, but they have outscored their opponents this season and have pluck and might. A new coach, some stability at quarterback and a few upgrades in the playmaking department make this a team to watch in 2012. Is it enough to entice one of those high-priced, big-ego coaches to come to South Beach? You know that owner Stephen Ross is going to go hard after one of the big dogs to run his team, and there may be enough reason to encourage one of them to come.
5. WR Early Doucet is going to have a long offseason of thinking about that beautifully executed switch route the Cardinals had called and how all he needed to do was stay on his feet to tie the game and — in classic Cardinals style — head to overtime in Cincinnati. But the future also is bright in Arizona if the defense keeps maturing and Ken Whisenhunt can get Kevin Kolb (or John Skelton?) to play up to snuff. Kolb will get the first crack next season. For all of Skelton's ice-cold performances this past month, his turnovers have cost the team.
6. Leslie Frazier said that it is going to take a perfect series of events for Vikings RB Adrian Peterson to begin next season healthy. Following Peterson's torn ACL and MCL damage he suffered in Week 16, it appears he will be a candidate to open next season on the PUP list. At a minimum, he could be expected to miss a few games early — not the kind of news the Vikings hoped to hear, not with all the questions they already appear to be facing. There is the state of the offensive line, the leaky defense, Frazier being on the hot seat and — perhaps most concerning — the decline in the play of QB Christian Ponder the past month and a half since their victory down in Carolina. Peterson's injury makes all of those situations more worrisome. Look for the team to add a back next offseason to pair with Toby Gerhart (a back with more explosion) as a measure to protect against the injury.
7. The Steelers, despite their injuries, appear prepped to go back to the Super Bowl. They have the most balance of any AFC team not named the Ravens, and if the two teams meet head-to-head again, you just know how tough it would be to defeat the Steelers a third time this season. The Steelers can run, throw and play exceptional defense. Fans might be tired of their long run of success, but they are built to last and have a quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger who finds ways to get it done this time of year. The Patriots might be riding a win streak, but that defense won't carry them to a title.
8. The Patriots remain talented and resilient on offense, but the defense is another story. There is just no solution to what they face. If Bill Belichick hasn't been able to find the magic pill by this point, January won't change that. Personnel director Nick Caserio has hit on a theme that has been essential to their success, and it was at the forefront in Saturday's win over the Dolphins. With the O-line in tatters, the group boned up and turned in a great performance. "We have a lot of depth up there because we bring in guys that are multiple-position guys," Caserio said. "They're smart guys, they're tough guys and then (OL coach) Dante (Scarnecchia) gets them ready to play. When one guy goes down, it's really 'the next guy up' mentality." But that has not been the case on defense. They have rotated personnel generously, and it has led to a lot of subpar (by New England standards) performances. It will come back to bite them in the playoffs, almost no matter how well Tom Brady and the boys play.
9. Expect Andy Reid to stay. It might not be what dyed-in-the-wool Eagles fans want to hear, but even they can't deny that Reid has the Eagles heading in the right direction. The window to win a title is still open, and Reid knows it. If he can get DeSean Jackson in his corner and tweak a few spots on defense, the Eagles might reach "Dream Team" expectations next season.
10. The Texans have to be concerned. A few bad calls might have hurt them down the stretch in Indy, but their problems are bigger than one set of officials' whistles. Defensively, they have to be far more fine than ever, and offensively, the margin for error is even less now. T.J. Yates is hitting the wall a bit, and they now, more than ever, need Andre Johnson back, if for no other reason than to loosen up defenses and give them some kind of different look. They sorely miss his explosive dimension, even though he might not be able to pull a Superman performance and save this team now.