Even though the calendar has turned over to December, in many ways it still feels as though the beginning of the NFL season did not happen so long ago. Perhaps this is a side effect of fans desperately wanting this final assured season of football to keep on going so that they don’t need to consider the possibility of a labor lockout and no 2011 season. In any case, Week 13 of the season is about to begin and there are only five more games for each team to play before the playoffs begin.
For some teams, these games will be part of positioning themselves for playoff seeding; other teams will be trying to make their case to play in the postseason at all, while the teams at the bottom of the pile will be trying to spoil their opponent’s season or maneuver into better draft position. This season, however, has seen an unprecedented number of teams within striking distance of their division leaders; no true surprise given the fact that no current division leader won that division in 2009, and three division leaders—the Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars, and St. Louis Rams—finished dead last in their respective divisions last year. Even teams that hosted a playoff game last year—the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys—have found that fortune can change in an offseason as they sit at the bottom of their own divisions.
Since it’s never too early to be thinking about who will take their divisions this year, I have put together some numbers for each of the NFL’s eight divisions in terms of current standings and then a statistic I’ve called ROWT. This acronym stands for Remaining Opponent Win Total and, while not a perfect gauge, can provide some insight as to how difficult the final five games of the schedule will be for each team. For each division I have also listed the final remaining opponents and whether the games are at home or on the road; this also plays a factor in making determinations of which team has the best chance to win their grouping.
Without much further ado, I’ll begin in alphabetical order with the AFC East:
The race for the AFC East is down to two teams—though Miami could be a dark horse here—and their final head-to-head matchup comes on Monday Night Football as the Jets visit the Patriots. The Jets technically hold tiebreaker right now because of their Week 2 victory over New England. New York’s schedule for the rest of the season is only slightly tougher in terms of ROWT; however, they also only have two games left at home while New England has three. It’s a real toss-up as to who will take the division, and this Week 13 result may be the deciding game. The Dolphins schedule is easier in terms of ROWT, but their home games—against the Browns, Bills, and Lions—come against teams which have played above their records. Even worse news for Miami is that their two road games come against the Jets and Patriots.
Flip a coin between the Jets and Patriots. Patriots have slight edge if they win over Jets in Week 13 and handle business after. Jets have good edge if they win in Week 13 due to season sweep of New England.
The AFC North also features two teams tied for the lead, though Baltimore holds the tiebreak due to their win over the Steelers earlier this season. And, much like in the AFC East, the two teams play their final matchup in Week 13. Each team has three home games remaining, but the Ravens face a tougher ROWT the rest of the way and have to travel to Heinz Field this week. The Steelers can put themselves in good position for the division title with a win, but a marquee game hosting the Jets in Week 15 could still provide trouble. As to the Browns and Bengals, Cleveland is still alive in the race but will be eliminated in a matter of weeks; Cincinnati has already been eliminated from the division race at 2-9.
Steelers, unless they lose to the Ravens in Week 13. A Baltimore win in this grudge match would put the Ravens in control of their own destiny for the remainder of the season.
Traditionally by this time of the year the Colts have already locked up the division and are merely playing to position themselves for home-field advantage; not so in 2010. Only one game separates the four teams of the AFC South, and the Jaguars sit in first thanks to a win over Indianapolis earlier in the season. The Colts do have the lowest ROWT of any team in the division—along with three home games remaining—but the Jaguars schedule is only slightly tougher. If both teams remain tied come their Week 15 meeting at Lucas Oil Stadium that will become a very important decision-maker for the race. No team can be counted out completely, but the ROWTs for the Texans and Titans are higher and the Titans have both of their games against the Colts still on the schedule. Houston only has two home games remaining, and must face three teams which are currently leading their divisions in the Eagles, Ravens, and Jaguars.
Even with a Peyton Manning meltdown in recent weeks, the safe bet is the Colts. We’ve seen this setup too often before—Indianapolis in a “down” year—to really buy that this might be the year that #18 isn’t in the postseason for the first time in forever. That said, the division is certainly too close to call, to use election parlance.
From rags to riches, the Chiefs hold a one-game lead in the AFC West after mildewing in the division basement last season. However, San Diego has made one of their patented second-half comebacks after a slow start to be right back in the mix of things. The Chargers hold the lowest ROWT in the division and play three straight home games—two against divisional rivals—before ending the year with winnable road games in Cincinnati and Denver. The Chiefs also have three home games remaining, but one of their road games sees a visit to San Diego. Oakland is still alive in the race—more so than the 3-8 Broncos—but they have road games against the Chargers and Chiefs on the schedule along with a Week 16 game hosting the Colts.
Kansas City is hugely improved over last season, but their schedule is less favorable than San Diego’s. Don’t be surprised at the end of the season if the Chargers have once again locked up the AFC West playoff berth.
With all of the divisions of the AFC covered, let’s move on to the NFC:
The records in the NFC East are nearly identical to those in the AFC West, only there are two teams at 7-4. The Eagles and Giants have a share of first, but Philadelphia holds the tiebreak by virtue of a head-to-head victory; the teams won’t play their second game until Week 15 when New Meadowlands Stadium hosts the showdown. There is a legitimate chance that each team will be 9-4 at that stage, making the game pivotal towards deciding the division winner. Washington is only two games out of first, but their ROWT is the highest in the division and includes both games against the Giants for the season. The Cowboys are mathematically alive in the race, but the firing of Wade Philips came too late to salvage a shot at repeating as division champions.
If Philadelphia and New York are tied for their Week 15 meeting, the winner of that game will have a leg up in the division race. That being said, the Eagles have a ROWT which is significantly less than the Giants; with home games against the Vikings and Cowboys to close the season, Philadelphia holds the inside track to the title on paper.
I took some flack in my preseason divisional predictions for not giving the Bears enough respect, and apparently I was wrong about Chicago’s chances to be a playoff team this year. It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Bears hold a one-game lead over the Packers along with a head-to-head victory. Those Packers have a slightly lower ROWT for the rest of the season—and they get to host the Bears at Lambeau Field in Week 17—but each team will have tough games to play down the stretch and that matchup could well be meaningless in terms of determining the division champion. Minnesota is mathematically alive and has a favorable ROWT, but it won’t be long before they are eliminated from division title discussion. Unfortunately for the Lions, even winning their final five games—a tough task with the division’s highest ROWT—would not be enough to take the NFC North.
I’ll take more flack for slighting Chicago again, but the Packers are still my favorite to win the NFC North. They have three home games to Chicago’s two, including home field advantage for a Week 17 game which might decide the division. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Bears were good enough to hold on, but I wouldn’t put money down on it.
One year removed from a disappointing season, Atlanta has been on-fire and is tied for the league lead in wins going into Week 13. They also hold the lowest ROWT of any current division leader in the NFL, which puts them in great position to win the NFC South even with only two home games left on the schedule. New Orleans’ ROWT is nearly 10 wins tougher than the Falcons, and they likewise only have two home games remaining; bigger still is a Week 16 road game at the Georgia Dome, where Matt Ryan has been nearly unbeatable. Tampa Bay is the only NFC South team left with three home games on the schedule, but they also have to play the Falcons and Saints before the season is up. The Panthers—with a single win on the season—have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
This is perhaps the clearest race, despite the fact that the Falcons only hold a one game lead over the Saints (with a head-to-head win in-hand). Atlanta has the easiest schedule in the division, including both of their games against Carolina. It would appear that a monumental collapse is the only thing that could keep Atlanta from a division title.
If there was any question about which division in the NFL was weakest, the 2010 season has answered it loud and clear: it’s the NFC West, where no team owns a winning record going into Week 13. Because of this, all three teams are still in the division hunt; even 3-8 Arizona has a chance since they have by far the lowest ROWT of any team in the league. The Rams have the highest ROWT of the division in first place, and they only have two home games remaining on their schedule. Seattle has a slightly lower ROWT than St. Louis and gets to host the Rams at Qwest Field in Week 17 to end the season; that said, Seattle lost to the Rams earlier this season. The 49ers—who began the season 0-5 after being NFC West favorites—are still in the playoff hunt, though they face two tough road games at Green Bay and San Diego. And finally, Arizona has three home games and a favorable schedule, but few would expect the Cardinals to repeat as divisional champions after this past Monday’s meltdown at home against the 49ers.
This is a real toss-up with five games left, as the NFC West teams are woefully inconsistent from one week to the next. Any pick here would be a stretch, so I’m going to just bite the bullet and go with the Rams because they would be a good rags-to-riches story after winning only one game last season.
If the 2010 NFL season has shown us anything so far, chances are more than half of these “Most Likely Division Winners” will be incorrect when the final game has ended for Week 17. All the same, consider this food for thought when it comes to figuring out which teams have the inside track for a division championship and home-field advantage in the playoffs, as well as which teams will instead be fighting for a Wild Card berth and the opportunity to stun the favorites come January.
Do you agree or disagree with these “picks”? Great! Be sure to leave some feedback in the comments about who you see taking each division and why you feel that way.