As we enter Week eleven of the NFL season, most teams already had their bye week and are now past the halfway point of the season. Things will almost certainly change between now and the end of the regular season, but so far there have been some interesting trends among teams in the league. Some of the teams that were expected to be successful before the season have lived up to expectations (the Denver Broncos), while some have failed to live up to the hype (the Seattle Seahawks), and others have been downright terrible (Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars).
In the NFL playoffs six teams from each of the league’s two conferences, the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC) will make the playoffs. Within each of the two conferences, there are four divisions based more or less on the geographical location of the teams in that conference. The team that holds the best win-loss record in each division automatically makes the playoffs while the remaining two wild card spots are given to the two teams with the best at-large win-loss record. So, even if a team such as the Pittsburgh Steelers fails to win their division due to how competitive it is, they can still grab a wild card spot if they possess a better record than other AFC teams. The first round of the playoffs is known as the wild card round, and it is in this round that the wild card teams will play each of the lower-seeded divisional winners. Each conference’s playoff teams are seeded one through six, so in this round the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth seeds will all play games while the top two seeds each get a week off. It is for this reason why even the teams that are locks to make the playoffs will continue to compete until the end of the season in order to secure a positionas a one or two seed. Having a higher seed also carries with it the benefit of home-field advantage against lower-seeded opponents.
Currently there are three teams that are guaranteed locks to make the playoffs. These teams include the 6-3 Indianapolis Colts,the 7-2 New England Patriots, and the 7-2 Denver Broncos. The Colts have a fairly reasonable schedule going forward with upcoming games against New England, Jacksonville, Washington, Cleveland and Houston. While New England will present a challenge to the Colt’s defense, the rest of those teams make for relatively easy matchups for the Colts who are led by third-year superstar quarterback Andrew Luck. New England’s road to the one-seed will be much more difficult since in the coming weeks they face off against Indianapolis, Detroit, Green Bay, San Diego and Miami. Each ofthese games will be incredibly difficult, and the Patriots division, the AFC East, is no longer as easy to win as it once was. The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins have emerged as legitimate threats with each team possessing strong defenses.
Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos and their impressive offense led by Peyton Manning have a fair schedule going forward with games against St. Louis, Miami, Kansas City, Buffalo, and San Diego. These are all winnable games for the Broncos whose star-studded offense is almost unstoppable and their defense that is ranked third in DVOA calculations (Defense-adjusted Value OverAverage). It is very likely that Denver, who entered the season, as the favorite for the Super Bowl will finish as the one-seed in the AFC.
The remaining three AFC playoff spots will go to the winner of the hotly contested AFC North division and two wild card teams. The AFC North is currently led by the Cleveland Browns with a record of 6-3 followed by the Cincinnati Bengals at 5-3-1 and then by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens who are both 6-4. This division is currently wide open, and it is possible that both of the wild card spots come from this division. Of course there are other AFC teams in contention for wildcard spots including the Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, and Buffalo Bills. Taking out the four divisional champions, there are eight teams in contention for two wild card spots. The rest of the season in the AFC will no doubt feature intriguing matchups between teams on the edge vying for playoff spots.
Things are simpler in the NFC where fewer teams are in contention for the two wild card spots. The NFC is currently being contested between the 7-2 Philadelphia Eagles and the 7-3 Dallas Cowboys. Philadelphia’s future will depend on the performance of backup quarterback Mark Sanchez since their usual starter, Nick Foles, will miss the next four to six weeks with a distal clavicle fracture. The Cowboys are betting their hopes on the health of quarterback Tony Romo and MVP-caliber runningback DeMarco Murray. Murray, who is known as a player to be susceptible to injury, currently leads the league in both total rushing yards at 1,223 and in yards-per-game. The competition for the NFC North has come down to the 7-2 Detroit Lions and the 6-3 Green Bay Packers. While either of these teams could take home the division, it is likely that the loser could still secure a wild card spot. The 8-1 Arizona Cardinals are currently in first place of what has been a shocking year for the NFC West.The perennial powerhouse San Francisco 49ers are currently 5-4 and have so far been lackluster on both offense and defense. The reigning champion Seahawks have looked mortal this season and currently sit at 6-3. Finally, the NFC South has been abysmally bad and is currently led by the New Orleans Saints at 4-5. No teams in this division will compete for a wild card spot, which means that in the NFC, only four teams are truly in contention for the wild card. The 2014 NFL season has so far been full of surprises and it is likely that more are to come. As teams prepare for the final stretch before the playoffs, there will no doubt be plenty of must-see matchups on television.