Thanksgiving is behind us, and now the real NFL season begins.
This is the homestretch, when the story is either the favorites maintaining their momentum, or written-off teams rising to the challenge, then getting hot in the playoffs, the way the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers have in recent years.
The playoff picture is just starting to come into focus, so here’s a division-by-division look through the fog:
AFC East: Can New England’s defense bottle up good running backs? Can that offensive line keep the heat off Tom Brady? Will elite quarterbacks surgically dissect that secondary? The Patriots have answered all the questions we used to have about them. In the last four weeks, they have gotten the better of quarterbacks Jay Cutler, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Matthew Stafford. The biggest test comes Sunday, against Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. The Patriots are scary good and at 9-2 are not only running away with the division but are the leading contender for another AFC crown. Everybody knows what Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski can do — they make the highlight package every Sunday — but the addition of corners Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner has made all the difference. They take away a team’s best two receiving options, so if Nos. 3 and 4 don’t come through, well.… Miami and Buffalo have six wins each and are just hanging on in the wild-card race.
AFC North: No division is knotted tighter, with Cincinnati at 7-3-1 holding a razor-thin lead over Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland, all 7-4. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the AFC North is the only division in NFL history with all four of its teams at least three wins over .500 at the same time. The Ravens are the only one of the four whose remaining opponents have a losing record (26-29), but the 1-10 Jacksonville Jaguars drag that number down. “This has always been a tough division, but now it’s starting to show because everybody’s in the race,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. “That’s going to make for a lot of fun these last few weeks.”
AFC South: At 7-4, Indianapolis has a middle-of-the-pack record relative to most of the AFC, but that’s good enough for a two-game lead in the AFC South. Only 5-6 Houston is in reasonable striking range, and the Texans just lost promising quarterback Ryan Mallett for the rest of the season. The Colts have Andrew Luck, and he’s been typically outstanding, so they’re likely to chug along and win the division. But they have shown a troubling susceptibility to blowouts, in the last four weeks, losing to Pittsburgh by 16 and to New England by 22.
AFC West: Denver, at 8-3, holds a one-game lead over Kansas City and San Diego, and already has home victories over the Chiefs and Chargers. Still, the Broncos aren’t the dominant team they were last year and in the last four weeks have alternated losses and wins. The heavy-hearted Chiefs, who play host to Denver on Sunday, have lost All-Pro safety Eric Berry for at least the rest of the season after doctors discovered what’s believed to be a cancerous mass in his chest. The 7-4 Chargers, who often find themselves playing from behind at this point in the season, are in a good spot record-wise but have a brutal finish: at Baltimore, New England, Denver, at San Francisco and at Kansas City (having already lost to the Chiefs in San Diego).
NFC East: Philadelphia’s victory at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day was huge, with the 9-3 Eagles taking sole possession of first place in the division. The Eagles finish with Seattle at home, and three consecutive NFC East games (Dallas, at Washington, at the Giants). Though it’s too early for Dallas fans to start fretting about the Cowboys missing the playoffs yet again, the team did suffer a big setback with the loss to Philadelphia. That dropped Dallas into a three-way tie with Seattle and Detroit for the two wild-card spots. Even though Dallas has a head-to-head win over the Seahawks, it would lose a playoff tiebreaker with them because, if everything holds, Seattle would clinch the No. 5 seed by virtue of a better win percentage than the Lions in common games. And the Lions have the edge over the Cowboys for the No. 6 seed based on a better conference record.
NFC North: Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Packers could be a Super Bowl preview, but a lot will happen between now and February. Green Bay has to worry about winning its division, and it need only glance in its rearview mirror to see the 8-4 Detroit Lions, who are typically irrelevant at this point of the season. After back-to-back losses in which their scoring consisted of a combined three field goals, the Lions got back on track Thursday with a 34-17 win over Chicago. The division title could come down to a Dec. 28 finale at Green Bay.
NFC South: This division is comically bad, with leaders New Orleans and Atlanta three games below .500 at 4-7. Even the 2-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers still have a mathematical chance of making the playoffs. It’s absurd. Still, if a team gets into the tournament, anything can happen. Remember Pete Carroll’s first season in Seattle? The 2010 Seahawks were the first losing team to make the playoffs, getting in at 7-9. Then, they shocked the defending Super Bowl-champion Saints in the first round, before losing to Chicago in the second.
NFC West: At this point, Arizona’s Bruce Arians is the runaway favorite for coach-of-the-year honors, having led the Cardinals to an NFL-best record of 9-2 despite having to juggle quarterbacks because of injuries to Carson Palmer. The team’s inability to generate points in a 19-3 loss at Seattle Nov. 23 was troubling, though, especially with the challenge of running the division gantlet in the last three games of the season. Seattle is coming on strong, with a convincing win at San Francisco on Thanksgiving. Clearly, that smothering Seahawks defense is back. The 49ers would probably need to run the table to make the playoffs a fourth consecutive year — at Oakland, at Seattle, San Diego and Arizona. And, although St. Louis is the longest of longshots at 4-7, nobody wants to play the hope-crushing Rams.