Friday, December 18, 2009

NFL playoffs: Who's in, who's close and who's hopeful

by Bob McManaman
Dec. 18, 2009 02:55 PM
The Arizona Republic

A year highlighted by a pursuit of perfection, surprising success stories and setbacks, and some really bad football, too, is winding to an end.

With three weeks to go in the 2009 NFL season, several teams are already looking ahead to next year's draft, but many more have meaningful games left to play.

With their victory Thursday night over Jacksonville, the Indianapolis Colts joined the 1972 Dolphins (14-0) and 2007 Patriots (16-0) as the only teams in history to start a season 14-0. On Saturday, New Orleans (13-0) will try to become the fourth team to accomplish that when the Saints host the Dallas Cowboys (8-5).
Dallas has lost two consecutive games but holds one of the two NFC wild-card spots.

"I think we can and I think we will," Cowboys coach Wade Phillips told reporters when asked about his team's postseason chances. "I have a lot of confidence in these guys. This is part of a long season and coming down the stretch, we need to finish."

Here is a look at the sure bets, the teams with the inside track on a wild card spot, and those teetering on the brink:

The sure bets

The Colts have clinched the AFC South, a first-round bye and home-field advantage and now, must decide whether to rest some of their starters.

New Orleans has locked up the NFC South and a first-round bye and can clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win over Dallas and a loss by Minnesota to Carolina.

The Vikings (11-2) will win the NFC North with a win over Carolina or a tie, plus a Green Bay loss or tie against Pittsburgh. They're also in line for a first-round bye and once they get it, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them rest Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson, in addition to some starters nursing injuries such as cornerback Antoine Winfield and receiver Percy Harvin.

If not for those seven turnovers in San Francisco on Monday night, the Cardinals (8-5) could have won the NFC West. Now, they must beat the Lions in Detroit and hope the Eagles beat the visiting 49ers to clinch on Sunday.

Winners of eight in a row, the Chargers (10-3) have the inside track on the No. 2 seed in the AFC although they figure to be challenged by their final three opponents: the Bengals, Titans and Redskins.

Cincinnati (9-4) can cap its turnaround season and win the AFC North with a win over San Diego. If they don't get it done this week, they likely will when they close out against the Chiefs and Jets.

The wild cards

Given that the six aforementioned teams have clinched, or are about to clinch, their respective divisions, there are two division titles left up for grabs.

The Eagles (9-4) have the inside track on the NFC East and the Patriots (8-5) are holding off the Dolphins and Jets (both 7-6) in the AFC East.

New England's chances look good based on its remaining schedule: at Buffalo, home against Jacksonville, at Houston. Philadelphia's closing stretch is a bit tougher: home against San Francisco and Denver, and then at Dallas.

But both teams likely will get in.

The Packers (9-4) aren't likely to catch the Vikings in the NFC North, but they remain a solid wild-card team. They can make it official this weekend with a win over the Steelers plus a loss by the Cowboys or a loss or tie by the Giants.

Dallas is a game behind the Eagles and is battling its annual December fade. A closing stretch that includes the Saints, Redskins and Eagles could cause the Cowboys to lose their grip on a wild-card spot.

That could open the door for the equally up-and-down Giants (7-6), but New York would likely have to win out.

Denver (8-5) is holding firm to one of the two AFC wild-card spots and should seal it given that two of their final three games are at home against Oakland and Kansas City.

The hopefuls

With the Packers likely nailing down one of the NFC wild-card spots and the other almost certainly going to the NFC East runner-up, the real dogfight is in the AFC.

Besides the four division leaders, there are eight teams still in the hunt. But with the Broncos seemingly in control of the No. 5 seed, seven teams battle for the final playoff spot.

Jacksonville's loss to the Colts has temporarily given the inside track to the Ravens (7-6), but this could come down to a series of exhausting tiebreakers.

Baltimore holds a slight edge there over the Dolphins (7-6) and also has the more favorable schedule. The Jaguars' (7-7) chances are now slim.

The Jets (7-6) look like pretenders, too, having already been swept by the Dolphins with games looming against the Colts and Bengals.

Pittsburgh (6-7) remains alive, but just barely, and would have to beat the Packers, Ravens and Dolphins just to have a sniff.

Houston (6-7) has a better closing stretch and could make things interesting, but not as much as Tennessee can if the Titans (6-7) were to win out against the Rams, Dolphins and Patriots.

The Titans went 0-6 to start the season and if they get some help, could complete one of the more stunning in-season recoveries in NFL history.