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NFL playoff picture

   by Larry Ness - 12/15/2005

The NFL enters Week 15 and with only three games remaining for each team, just 18 teams still own Super Bowl aspirations. Last year at this time, a record-tying 27 teams had either already clinched a playoff spot or were still mathematically 'alive' for one! Amazingly, entering Week 16 of 2004, 26 teams still held Super bowl 'dreams.'

The total of 18 teams which have either clinched a playoff spot or are still alive for one, represents the lowest number of teams in any year since 1990 (the year the NFL adopted its 12-team playoff format). The previous-low came in 2000, when 19 teams entered Week 15 with Super Bowl hopes. So what's happened this year? Is there a bigger disparity between the haves and the have-nots?

Four teams have already won at least 10 games this year, led of course by the 13-0 Indianapolis Colts. The Seahawks are 11-2 while the Bengals and Broncos are both 10-3. Conversely, five teams have already lost 10 games or more, led by the 1-12 Houston Texans, who are threatening to become just the EIGHTH team to go 1-15 since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. The first team to do it was the 1980 New Orleans Saints, while the most recent to do it was the 2001 Carolina Panthers.

The Colts and Seahawks have already clinched playoff spots, while the Broncos and Bengals are almost assured of doing so. The Bengals are quite a story, as they entered this year with the league's longest current playoff drought, at 14 straight non-playoff seasons. Five more teams already own nine wins and six others have won eight games. In 2003, a record-high 13 teams won at least 10 games, making it possible that the 2005 season could end with that many 10-win teams, or at least very close to that many.

The 1998 season saw six teams lose at least 12 games, the most in any year since 1978. That season, three teams lost 13 games with three more losing 12 times. Joining the Texans as double-digit losers in 2005 are the 49ers (2-11), the Jets (3-10), the Packers (3-10) and the Saints (3-10). Three of the 10-game losers (Jets and Packers) made the playoffs last year. Of the 14 teams already eliminated from the 2005 playoff picture, the Eagles and Rams (both 5-8) join the Jets and Packers as 2004 playoff participants.

Philadelphia entered this year owning the NFL's longest current playoff streak, having made five straight playoff appearances, not to mention playing in the last four straight NFC title games, as well as last year's Super Bowl. The Eagles have already become the SIXTH Super Bowl loser in the past seven, not to make the playoffs the following year. One more loss and the Eagles will be the FIFTH team in that stretch to also finish with a losing record (how quickly things change these days in the NFL!).

Both the Packers and Rams have been regular playoff participants as well. Green Bay had made the playoffs 10 of the previous 12 seasons, including four of the last five. The team won the Super Bowl after the 1996 season and then lost to Denver the following year, in Super Bowl XXXIII. As for the Rams, the team's Super Bowl-winning season of 1999 began a run of five playoff appearances in six years, which included a loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.

With the Bengals just about assured of a playoff spot, the Arizona Cardinals will enter next year with the league's longest current playoff drought at seven straight. Buffalo and Detroit have now missed the playoffs for six straight years and will likely be joined by the 7-6 Redskins, before the year is out.

AFC playoff picture

The Bengals, Broncos and Pats should join the Colts as division-winners. The 9-4 Jaguars will likely end their five-year playoff drought by claiming one of the two wild card spots. Jacksonville's three remaining games are against the 49ers, Texans and Titans, teams which own a combined record of 7-32. That leaves only one spot for Kansas City, Pittsburgh and San Diego. The Chargers may have let too many opportunities slip away, having lost five games by a total of just 14 points. The Colts may begin resting starters the last two weeks but not this week, so San Diego faces a brutal finishing schedule with trips to Indy this week, KC in Week 16 and a home game versus Denver in Week 17.

Between Pittsburgh and Kansas City, the Steelers have the much easier schedule. Both teams have tough assignments this week, with Pittsburgh at Minnesota (Vikes have won six straight) and the Chiefs at the New York Giants (7-1 at home). However, Pittsburgh finishes at Cleveland (4-9) and home to Detroit (4-9), while the Chiefs host the Chargers and Bengals. I make the Steelers a small favorite to claim the sixth and final AFC playoff berth but if the Chiefs can win at the Meadowlands on Sunday, it could come down to tie-breakers.

NFC playoff picture

Only Seattle is assured of a playoff spot at this time and the Seahawks in all likelihood will also clinch home-field advantage as well. Unlike the AFC, the other three division races are still wide-open. For the Giants to hold off the Cowboys in the East, a win over the Chiefs this week in the Meadowlands would put them in good shape. New York finishes with road games at Washington and Oakland. The Cowboys will be in big trouble if they can't beat the Redskins this week in Washington, as they travel to Carolina in Week 16, before a Week 17 home game with the Rams.

The NFC South has the Bucs and Panthers tied at 9-4, with Atlanta one game back at 8-5. Like the Chargers, Atlanta has blown too many opportunities this year. With road games at Chicago and Tampa, plus a Week 17 home game with Carolina still remaining (all opponents currently are nine-win teams), the Falcons almost have to beat the Bears in Chicago Sunday night, or they'll be home for the holidays.

Carolina plays the Saints in San Antonio this week, then gets Dallas at home before finishing in Atlanta. Tampa Bay plays in New England on Saturday but finishes with home games with Atlanta and New Orleans. Chicago leads the red-hot Vikings by one game in the North and if the Bears don't beat the Falcons on Sunday, the team could easily lose road games at Green Bay and Minnesota the final two weeks. If the Vikings can beat the Steelers at home on Sunday, the team will be favored at Baltimore in Week 16 and at home versus Chicago in Week 17.

I'm not sure of anything in the NFC but the Cowboys and Falcons really need road wins, while the Panthers can't possibly afford to lose at San Antonio to the Saints. The Bears, Giants and Vikings are all at home, with the Bears and Giants all but clinching playoff berths by winning.

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