Playoff races become clearer and cloudier
NEW YORK—The playoffs races became clearer this weekend. And cloudier.
As if anyone ever doubted it would happen, the Packers earned a first-round bye and the Saints secured a postseason berth on Sunday. Green Bay (13-0) will own NFC home-field advantage with another victory as it pursues perfection. New Orleans will win the NFC South by beating Minnesota this week if Atlanta loses to Jacksonville.
Houston, for the first time since the Texans were born in 2002, made the parade, winning the AFC South -- a foregone conclusion almost since the day Peyton Manning had neck surgery and was sidelined in Indianapolis.
New England, as it always seems to be, is on the verge of capturing the AFC East. Baltimore and Pittsburgh might go all the way to New Year's Day to decide the AFC North and possibly AFC home-field advantage, but both have comfortable leads for a wild-card spot, too.
San Francisco grabbed its first division crown in nine years a week ago, then apparently celebrated too much and blew a game at Arizona on Sunday. Still, the Niners and Saints should battle for the other first-round bye in the NFC.
The rest of the picture is about as well-defined as the weather: one day, the Cowboys look good, the next day they are ugly. Same for the Giants or Raiders or Bengals.
In the chase for wild-card berths, there's no predicting what the Falcons, Lions and Bears might do in the NFC. Nor the Jets and Titans in the AFC. The best record among them is New York's 8-5, a shaky 8-5.
Even the Seahawks, Cardinals, Chargers and -- hold your breath -- Eagles remain alive.
"We played like men today," Eagles defensive end Jason Babin said after a 26-10 victory at Miami lifted them to 5-8, hardly a playoff pace in most years. "Do we have a chance for the playoffs? Maybe. We were kind of out of it, but guys in this locker room decided, `We're going to play and have fun and show you guys we love the game.' I think that really rang true the whole day."
One thing seems certain: When the NFL season concludes on Jan. 1, there should be plenty of meaningful games, both for division championships and wild-card slots. The Cowboys and Giants will face off in the Meadowlands, probably to decide the NFC East. Baltimore is at Cincinnati, with perhaps the division and a wild-card spot on the line. If Seattle and Arizona keep winning, they face off for what could be one of the most unexpected wild cards since the NFL implemented them after merging with the AFL. Detroit visits Green Bay, which could be going for 16-0 while the Lions are trying to squeeze into the postseason for the first time since 1999.
Not that everyone in the running deserves to be there. One or even both of the NFC's wild-card entries might be .500 or 9-7 teams, as compared to 10-6 being required in the AFC. That's what keeps such teams as the Cardinals (6-7), Cowboys and Giants (both 7-6) going. If Arizona can knock off Cleveland, Cincinnati and Seattle -- not exactly a murderer's row -- it could ace out an NFC East or North runner-up.
The Jets control the second wild-card spot in the AFC behind Baltimore or Pittsburgh. New York has become accustomed to being a wild card, using that route to make the last two conference title games. Win out and the Jets fly into the postseason again, but given the way they've performed this season, it's difficult to have confidence they can finish out with a six-game winning streak.
"We'll just do what we can do," cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "It's good to know we can get it done on our own."
More likely, none of the teams chasing wild cards will get it accomplished on its own, and each will be looking for kindness during the holidays. Just look at how the Lions struggled to hold off the wretched Vikings on Sunday.
"I don't know if you call it dodging a bullet," Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "You know, we got to win, so that's one down, we got three left."
Three wins might be too many to ask from them -- and assorted other "contenders."
Yet, as we learned in 2010 when Seattle became the first division winner with a losing record, then knocked off defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans in the wild-card round, a mediocre regular season doesn't preclude playoff success. Hey, Arizona was 9-7 in 2008 and nearly won the Super Bowl.
"It doesn't matter how you get there," Revis said. "Just got to get there."