With three quarters of the National Football League regular season completed, a review of the divisional and playoff races seems timely. No team has clenched a playoff berth yet. Only a handful of teams have been mathematically eliminated from playoff possibility. The following is commentary broken down by divisions.
AFC East: New England is revving its engine as the finish line nears. In the process, the Patriots ran over the Jets to take the lead in the race. The damage will not last long. These two will both advance to the playoffs once again. The question is whether or not the Jets can overcome the Patriots one game lead with four left to play. If not, they will have to try to beat their incredibly stunning post-season performance of last season. On a side issue to ponder, are the Bills steadily creeping toward relocation to Toronto?
AFC North: With its win at Baltimore on Sunday, the Steelers are en route to claiming the division title. They hold a one game lead, both within the division and overall. Of the remaining games, only the visit by the Jets appears to be a possible loss. In contrast, the Ravens must sweep the final four games in addition to hoping for the Browns or Bengals to defeat the Steelers. We can expect to see the Ravens go to the playoffs but as a wildcard once again.
AFC South: What had been Indianapolis’ fiefdom to reign perennially has turned into a full-scale battle royale. Could the Colts actually miss the playoffs? How would the networks fill airtime reserved for adulation of Peyton Manning if his team is sitting at home in January? Considering that they trail the Ravens by two games and the Jets by three for the wildcards, the Colts must overcome Jacksonville to win the division and seize the automatic playoff berth. Their season hinges on winning the three remaining divisional games.
AFC West: After teasing their fans with stringing together the most wins in several seasons, the Raiders have slipped two games behind Kansas City. San Diego has failed to start its annual post-Thanksgiving Day blitzkrieg toward winning the division. That leaves Kansas City in position to wrap up the division assuming the Chiefs do not stumble more than once in the last four games.
NFC East: Philadelphia has a tie-breaker advantage over the other first place team, New York Giants, due to a win in their first meeting plus a superior divisional record so far. Michael Vick is a virtual lock to win “Comeback of the Year” awards. Jerry Jones has already fired its head coach to give Jason Garrett a long anticipated opportunity as a head coach. Fans would expect Daniel Snyder to do the same in Washington if this season were not Mike Shanahan’s first there.
NFC North: After sending envoys to beg Bret Favre to return this season and initiating a puzzling trade for Randy Moss, the Viking cruise back to the conference championship game ran aground soon after leaving port. Meanwhile, Green Bay has not disappointed the pundits who tabbed the Packers as the trendy pick to win the NFC’s spot in the Super Bowl. Chicago has awakened from its hibernation in mediocrity during the past three seasons. Both are slugging out the divisional race which should go the full sixteen rounds to determine the winner.
NFC South: This division has three of the strongest in the league. Any one of these would likely win any other division in the league. Atlanta possesses the most wins in the NFC. The defending Super Bowl champions trail Atlanta by one game. Third place Tampa Bay has more wins than anyone in the NFC West and as many as the AFC South leader. All three could conceivably advance to the post-season. Unfortunately for the Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers, only one will enjoy a home game for its first playoff game this season. The Falcons hold a game advantage over the Saints in addition to a win in their first meeting. The Saints must win their last four games and hope for a Christmas miracle in the form of a Falcons’ loss to Carolina or Seattle.
NFC West: Will the NFL ever consider revoking automatic playoff berths for division winners and giving them higher seeds than wildcards? If so, this year’s version of the NFC Worst will serve as a strong case for making the change. For not a single member of this division to hold a winning record in December is a disgrace. If the NFL has any sense of fair play, the team that has fewer losses than the other three should be forced to travel to the stadium of a wild card team for the first round of the playoffs.
Several exciting races remain for divisional titles and wildcard berths. The NFL could not have asked for a more compelling season in the race toward that date in early February in Jerry World. Will this season’s drama serve as motivation to settle lingering labor issues and avoid a cancellation or truncation of next season? The fans deserve a solution.
COPYRIGHT BY CHARLES KASTRIOT DECEMBER 2010