The division races in the NFC East & NFC West had seemed set in stone for a few weeks. The New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers would win, and the only question was whether either of them would get a #2 playoff seed and first-round bye, or perhaps chase down the Atlanta Falcons for homefield advantage. After road losses in Week 13, both divisions are not only back in play, but you can make a good case that the favorites are going to let them slip away.
New York, after losing 17-16 in Washington last night, is at 7-5 and one game ahead of the Redskins & Cowboys. The Giants still play road games with Atlanta and Baltimore. If we play the chalk and assume the home team will win, that drops Tom Coughlin’s team to 9-7. Then look at the Washington schedule—while they play Baltimore next week, it’s a home game. Then its two road games, but at Cleveland and at Philadelphia. Then they close the season at home with Dallas.
If Washington splits its next two against the AFC opponents, and then sweeps the two NFC East games—and those are eminently reasonable goals given the way Robert Griffin III is playing right now—then the Redskins also get to 9-7 and they would win the tiebreaker with the Giants. The teams split head-to-head, but this scenario presumes Washington would have swept the Eagles & Cowboys, while New York had their Week 1 loss to Dallas, meaning a superior division record gives the Redskins the division crown.
The Cowboys would still be a factor here as well, although I want to see them win at Cincinnati before taking a more positive outlook on their chances down the stretch. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they win home games with Pittsburgh and New Orleans in Weeks 15 & 16—but that’s a big benefit of the doubt and if you combine those two games with Cincinnati, Dallas would have to sweep them to be in position to win the NFC East in Washington for the season finale.
Yes, I am a Redskins fan and I’m seeing the world through burgundy-and-gold glasses, and I’ve sucking up all the RG3 Kool-Aid I can find. But I also think if you do the math on a week-by-week basis, it really does seem as though the NFC East is now Washington’s for the taking.
Before you immediately say the Giants always find a way to win when it counts, remember this—while that might have been the case in 2007 & 2011, it wasn’t the case in 2009 & 2010, both years they stayed home for the playoffs. This franchise has had two improbable January runs, but it’s not as though they’re an infallible machine in every big spot over the last five years. They’ve got to go at least 3-1 down the stretch and the schedule says that won’t be easy.
Now we move to the NFC West, with its two overtime upsets. St. Louis knocked off San Francisco, while Russell Wilson led Seattle to a win in Chicago. Neither was a shocker, but I don’t know that you’d have expected the parlay to come through. If you look at the standings, you still see the 49ers, at 8-3-1 with a full game and a half lead on the 7-5 Seahawks. But let’s dig a little deeper.
Seattle has a very manageable schedule the rest of the way. They play home games with Arizona and St. Louis and we know how good this team is at home. The road is a tougher sell, but the only road trip is to Buffalo. Is it unthinkable to suggest that a team which wins in Chicago can win in Buffalo? Then look at San Francisco—while we can concede the 49ers will take care of Miami & Arizona at home, are we ready to concede they’ll beat New England in Foxboro in two weeks?
If you assume Seattle wins out, while San Francisco loses in New England, that means the division comes down to a 49ers-Seahawks head-to-head battle in Week 16. Where’s that game at? Seattle. I’m not going against the Seahawks at home against anybody.
Maybe by this time next week, I’ll wonder what I was thinking, but right now I’m making the dramatic altering of my NFL playoff projections to say that Washington & Seattle are winning division titles—indeed, at 11-5, I’ve got Seattle taking a first-round bye, and New York is missing the playoffs. Here’s how I see the NFC shaking out…
NFC East: Washington
NFC North: Green Bay
NFC South: Atlanta
NFC West: Seattle
Wild-Cards: San Francisco, Chicago
1st-Round Byes: Atlanta (1), Seattle (2)
1st-Round Matchups: (5)San Francisco at (4)Washington, (6)Chicago at (3)Green Bay)
The AFC is a little tamer. I’m going to stick with Baltimore for the first-round bye behind Houston. Right now the Ravens are at 9-3 and tied with New England and Denver, and a head-to-head game between the Ravens and Broncos looms on the schedule. That game is in Baltimore, who has a home-friendly schedule and while I’ve never been sold on this team all year, I don’t think they’ll repeat their inexcusable showing on Sunday against Pittsburgh and Charlie Batch.
And as impressive as the Steelers were, I’ve still got Indianapolis and Cincinnati holding on to the two wild-card berths. The wins of the Colts & Bengals didn’t get the same kind of media attention and of themselves they weren’t as impressive. But Indy’s game at Detroit, and Cincinnati’s battle out west in San Diego were the kind of games that often sinks playoff hopefuls. They trailed on the road late and in each case rallied to win.
Indianapolis, at 8-4, has the manageable schedule, while Cincinnati has a home game with Pittsburgh in a race where both teams are 7-5. So for now, I’ll play it safe in this conference against the board. I can only roll the dice with so many projections and that’s all in the NFC right now.
AFC East: New England
AFC North: Baltimore
AFC South: Houston
AFC West: Denver
Wild-Cards: Indianapolis, Cincinnati
1st-Round Byes: Houston (1), Baltimore (2)
1st-Round Matchups: (6)Cincinnati at (3) New England, (5)Indianapolis at (4)Denver