Are these NFL teams pretenders or contenders? - NBC Sports

Are these NFL teams pretenders or contenders?
Seven teams are playoff locks, leaving nine others that could play spoiler roles
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The Ravens and Steelers are yet again making playoff runs. But are they really Super Bowl contenders?
November 7, 2012, 1:11 pm

As we reach the midpoint of the season, things only get slightly clearer on which teams are the best. We know who the worst teams are - here's looking at you, Kansas City and Jacksonville - but that is the easy part.

How do we sort out the playoff picture halfway through the season?

Obviously the Atlanta Falcons (8-0) are in great shape as the last undefeated team and 25th team since 1940 to start 8-0. All of those teams went on to clinch a first-round bye.

The Chicago Bears and Houston Texans are both 7-1 and will meet in Week 10, but both of those teams are also in great shape with arguably the two best defenses in the league. Though the San Francisco 49ers (6-2) may have something to say about that, and you can bet they will be a contender in January too.

New England (5-3) has a considerable lead in the AFC East, though they have yet to play Miami (4-4). However, is anyone really going to bet against Bill Belichick's team not being a contender again?

The same must be said for Denver (5-3) with Peyton Manning. With one game left on the schedule against a team currently with a winning record, look for the Broncos to finish 12-4 or 13-3.

The NFC equivalent is Green Bay (6-3). They started slow, but Aaron Rodgers has warmed up and they have won four straight heading into a bye week to try and get healthy for the stretch run. This is a playoff team.

Those are seven teams you can pencil into the 12 playoff spots. After that, everyone else more concerns. Let's take a look at each conference. As always, paying close attention to the schedule will help guide us through.

AFC

No. 2 Baltimore (6-2, 1st in AFC North) vs. No. 6 Pittsburgh (5-3, 2nd in AFC North)

Baltimore's remaining schedule: OAK, @PIT, @SD, PIT, @WAS, DEN, NYG, @CIN
Pittsburgh's remaining schedule: KC, BAL, @CLE, @BAL, SD, @DAL, CIN, CLE

If the playoffs started today, the Ravens would have a first-round bye and the Steelers would have the final wild-card spot. Yet, they are only a game apart and have two critical games coming up soon that will most likely decide which team wins the AFC North.

Pittsburgh appears to have the advantage going ahead as they have already played the Broncos and Giants (AKA "The Mannings"), while the Ravens have swept Cleveland. The Steelers are 22-2 against Cleveland in their last two dozen meetings.

Baltimore has suffered key injuries with Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis, while the Steelers hope to get players like Troy Polamalu, David DeCastro and Rashard Mendenhall back this season.

Slideshow
Image: Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning and Clay Matthews are two easy choices as the top NFL players during the midway point.

It almost does not seem fair the two games will take place two weeks apart, but you can count on these games to decide your AFC North winner. The first-round bye will be much trickier as Baltimore is 1-1 against Houston and New England while the Steelers play neither team.

Both teams are well coached and have enough talent still healthy to be there in the end. Look for the Steelers to make a serious push for the division and more in the AFC.

The Verdict: Baltimore and Pittsburgh are both contenders.

No. 5 Indianapolis (5-3, 2nd in AFC South)

Indianapolis' remaining schedule: @JAX, @NE, BUF, @DET, TEN, @HOU, @KC, HOU

Hard to believe, but the Colts are right there in that first wild-card position. They have a favorable game this week, though that loss to the Jaguars at home could really come back to haunt the team.

Including that loss, the Colts have still been an incredible 4-1 in close games. The question is how much is it luck, and how much is it Andrew Luck?

The rookie has been incredible so far with four game-winning drives, but it does not take much to see the Colts have had their share of good fortune this season.

Should Mason Crosby make a field goal to put Green Bay in overtime, Cleveland's Josh Gordon not drop a touchdown bomb in the fourth quarter, Dwayne Allen not have his progress stopped before a fumble in Tennessee, and if Sean Smith did not drop a late interception for Miami, the Colts could just as easily be an afterthought at 1-7.

Last season the Colts struggled to win close games, and this year they have had the quarterback to put them in position for such wins. In this league, that goes a long way.

The schedule has five winnable games on it, which would mean 10-6. That only means losses at New England and a sweep by Houston. However, Houston could be resting in Week 17 with the top seed clinched, so the Colts could have an easier time that day.

They have a rookie quarterback wise beyond his years. They have an interim coach somehow pulling out a 4-1 start in place of Chuck Pagano. They have all the motivation to go out there and win, and just enough talent to do so. They also are getting better as the season moves along.

The Colts will not win a Super Bowl this year, but they sure can compete for the AFC playoffs, which no one expected to happen in this first year of the rebuilding plan.

The Verdict: Contender.

No. 7 San Diego (4-4, 2nd in AFC West)

San Diego's remaining schedule: @TB, @DEN, BAL, CIN, @PIT, CAR, @NYJ, OAK

The Chargers are 4-4, but with two wins over Kansas City, it is hard to take their record seriously. They also have wins over Tennessee and Oakland to start the season, but have looked putrid against Atlanta, and in stretches against New Orleans, Denver and Cleveland.

Slideshow
Dallas Cowboys v Baltimore Ravens

Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.

With eroding skill players, an average running game at best, and a defense you cannot trust when they're not playing the Chiefs, it is hard to see San Diego getting the 9-10 wins necessary for the playoffs.

Denver is in control of the AFC West, and can deliver more separation with a win in Week 11. San Diego could even lose their next game in Tampa Bay given how well that team is playing.

When you add them up, this looks like an 8-8 team at best, and that just will not make the cut once again in the AFC this year.

The Verdict: Pretender. You've been Norv'd for the last time, San Diego.

No. 8 Miami Dolphins (4-4, 2nd in AFC East)

Miami's remaining schedule: TEN, @BUF, SEA, NE, @SF, JAX, BUF, @NE

The last team in the AFC with a .500 record, the Dolphins lost a big game in Indianapolis in Week 9 to fall behind the Colts and lose the head-to-head tie breaker.

That means 9-7 at best, which does seem possible only because of the schedule. However, the Steelers, Colts and Ravens all look to be in better shape to get to at least 10 wins, leaving no room for the Dolphins outside of an epic collapse for the Patriots.

It's a numbers game, and the Dolphins just lack the firepower to crack the AFC playoffs this year. They still may have the second best defense in the conference, though that was heavily tested on Sunday when Andrew Luck dissected them with veteran poise, converting 12 of 17 third downs.

The Verdict: Pretender. It's not Miami's time yet.

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No. 4 New York Giants (6-3, 1st in NFC East)

New York's remaining schedule: @CIN, BYE, GB, @WAS, NO, @ATL, @BAL, PHI

The Giants like to take us on the same ride every year. They start out 5-3 or 6-2, then once November comes, cue the annual swan dive into a losing streak. Whether they recover and build any momentum in December determines if they make the playoffs, go one and done, or go on another improbable Super Bowl run.

It's the same script every year with those three alternate endings waiting to be called upon.

Eli Manning has not had a "complete" game since playing the Browns in Week 5. In his last four games, Manning has two touchdowns, four interceptions, and has been held under 200 yards passing in three games.

The Giants have played some tough teams, but these are numbers that draw some concern. Where there's not concern for the time being is their place in the NFC East. Washington's done at 3-6, Dallas is 3-5, and the Eagles are 3-4 pending Monday night.

The remaining schedule looks rather difficult, but the Bengals and Redskins should guarantee 8-8 at least, and the Giants will have to grind out a tough few wins to improve their seed.

But as we have seen, it really does not matter what seed the Giants earn. Their fate will be written in the postseason, which they should make just because of the state of the division.

The Verdict: Contenders. They are still the defending champions.

No. 6 Seattle (5-4, 2nd in NFC West)

Seattle's remaining schedule: NYJ, BYE, @MIA, @CHI, ARI, @BUF, SF, RAM

Slideshow
Image: Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning and Clay Matthews are two easy choices as the top NFL players during the midway point.

This team plays great at home (4-0), and who is going to expect Sanchez, John Skelton/Kevin Kolb, and Sam Bradford to go into that building and actually complete 60 percent of their passes and put some points on the board?

That should get them to 8-8 at least. The trips to Miami and Buffalo are long, but at least the Buffalo game is scheduled to start at 4:05 p.m. EST. Seattle will likely have to win one or two of those games.

This offense in Chicago will likely not be pretty, and we already seen what the 49ers can do (though the rematch will be in Seattle). Do not count on those as wins.

The Seahawks could certainly challenge for a 10-6 record and the sixth seed in the NFC. As long as they keep defending home field, the defense plays great against the pass, and Wilson continues to improve, then they are going to be a factor for the playoffs.

The Verdict: Contenders. Young, cocky, but can back it up (at home).

No. 7 Minnesota (5-4, 3rd in NFC North)

Minnesota's remaining schedule: DET, BYE, @CHI, @GB, CHI, @RAM, @HOU, GB

Slideshow
Dallas Cowboys v Baltimore Ravens

Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.

No matter how well Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin play, Ponder has been held to 58 ad 63 yards passing in two of his last three games. Those are unfathomable, Derek Anderson-esque numbers in this era of huge passing stats.

If the struggling quarterback is not enough, just look at that schedule. Four games against the Bears and Packers plus a trip to Houston? That sounds like 0-5 to me, which means a 7-9 season at best.

In fact, it would not be a surprise to see Minnesota end the season on a nine-game losing streak.

The Verdict: (Major) Pretender.

No. 8 Detroit (4-4, 4th in NFC North)

Detroit's remaining schedule: @MIN, GB, HOU, IND, @GB, @ARI, ATL, CHI

The NFC North is the only division with every team at .500 or better, which of course makes it hard on Detroit to return to the postseason when they are in last place.

The Lions have three comeback wins already against so-so competition. Imagine how things will go in these tough games. We have already seen how hard it was for the offense to score on the 49ers and Bears in losses.

Looking at that schedule, hard to predict anything better than 8-8 for Detroit. The only good news is their head-to-head win over Seattle, which could come in handy should Matthew Stafford get on a hot streak.

But that's assuming Calvin Johnson starts making frequent trips back to the end zone again.

The Verdict: Pretender. Stafford is 0-12 against teams who finish season with winning record.

No. 9 Tampa Bay (4-4, 2nd in NFC South)

Tampa Bay's remaining schedule: SD, @CAR, ATL, @DEN, PHI, @NO, RAM, @ATL

While you want to like this team for their offense with Josh Freeman's hot streak, Doug Martin's huge games, and the skill of Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, it is hard to look past that eyesore of a defense.

Carson Palmer nearly led an 18-point comeback Sunday in the fourth quarter until he remembered he was Carson Palmer. Quarterbacks have been roasting the Buccaneers for major yards all season.

What do you expect will happen when they play Matt Ryan twice, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees again? That should be at least three losses, even with respect to Atlanta being a Week 17 game, which you never know what you will get with playoff rest implications.

Other than maybe hosting the Rams in Week 16, there is nothing on the schedule that will come easy to Tampa Bay. They are building a nice offense and Freeman is having the rebound year many expected, but there's just not enough there defensively yet in Greg Schiano's first season.

The Verdict: Pretender. Young Bucs make some noise in 2013.

Second-Half Prediction

Putting it all together, here is what I expect for the postseason when it's all said and done.

AFC

1. Houston Texans
2. Denver Broncos
3. New England Patriots
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
5. Baltimore Ravens
6. Indianapolis Colts

NFC

1. Atlanta Falcons
2. San Francisco 49ers
3. Chicago Bears
4. New York Giants
5. Green Bay Packers
6. Seattle Seahawks

Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.

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