Top AFC seeds: Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens
Other AFC division champs: New England Patriots, Denver Broncos
AFC Wild Cards: Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins
Top NFC seeds: Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants
Other NFC division champs: San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers
NFC Wild Cards: Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles
• Your eyes do not deceive you, and no one mixed LSD into your cereal this morning. That is indeed the Miami Dolphins in the Absurdly Premature Playoff Picture. I'll do my best to explain.
• It pretty much boils down to the AFC being an indistinguishable jumble of teams that will finish between 7-9 and 9-7. There are precisely two teams with winning records, and they occupy the top two spots ‒ the Ravens and Texans. After that, if you eliminate the Browns, Titans, Jaguars, Raiders and Chiefs on the ground of being at two games or more under .500 already, you're left with the Chargers, Steelers, Bengals, and the scrap heap that is the AFC East. It's not an attractive list of options. I'll take you through how I landed on Miami.
• Of the eligible teams listed above, the Chargers have the best point differential on the season at +11 (only Pittsburgh at +1 and Miami at +3 are also on the positive side of the ledger). That works in their favor, as does the number of "should win" games left on their schedule: @Cleveland, KC, @Tampa Bay, Cincy, Carolina, @NYJ and Oakland.
• But with a great big Stephen A. Smith However … the unspeakable evens of Monday night happened. That was real. It was not some devastating football night terror. The Chargers are about as emotionally healthy right now as Ellen Burstyn character in "Requiem for a Dream." Losses like that are how people end up with the demeanor and mannerisms for Norv Turner. I don't know if they can recover emotionally, and even if they do, I don't know if Philip Rivers can right that thing. I'm going to need to see the Chargers come back after the bye week and do something against Cleveland other than ball themselves up in the fetal position and suck their thumbs. It'll be two weeks before I will even consider considering them again.
• Which means, if we give the Patriots the AFC East, that two teams from this group get Wild Card spots: Pittsburgh, who just lost to Tennessee, Cincinnati, who just lost to Cleveland, Buffalo, who has the worst rushing defense in the league, Miami, who is leaning on Ryan Tannehill and a bad secondary, and the Jets, who are the Jets. And I actually considered the Jets. I'm not kidding. I thought about putting the Jets in the Absurdly Premature Playoff Picture. I did this with full lucidity (maybe) and no firearm pointed at my temple.
• Pittsburgh got one spot, because even with its injuries, and even with its disgusting road collapses against bad teams, it still 1) has the best quarterback of the group, and 2) has the league's fifth-best defense in yards allowed per game. I'm not saying this makes Pittsburgh a good choice. I'm saying it makes Pittsburgh one of the least terrible choices.
• The other of whom is the Miami Dolphins. They're on a two-game win streak. Their remaining schedule is not overwhelmingly difficult. They get the Titans, Seahawks (who have been way less impressive on the road), Jaguars and Bills at home. They play the Jets, Colts and Bills on the road. They should be at least competitive in those games. It's not crazy to think the Dolphins can do this. I am not crazy, I tell you.
• Over in the refreshingly competent NFC, the Giants take the second seed away from the 49ers, just like they took their pride, manhood and dignity on Sunday. I like the 49ers' remaining schedule a little bit better, and it's not inconceivable that they'll switch back in a week or two, but that Giants' performance just can't be ignored. If their defense gives that kind of an effort consistently, they'll beat pretty much anyone.
• Green Bay will reclaim the NFC North, despite being a game and a half back of the Bears. Kind of like the Giants, if the Green Bay offense gives that kind of an effort consistently, they'll also beat pretty much anyone. We've seen the best of the Packers now, and if they can maintain it, they'll eclipse both the Bears and the Vikings, because they're simply better.
• Speaking of the Vikings … I'm sorry, guys. I liked having you here, and you earned your one-week appearance, but the Redskins clubbed you pretty well. I'm not writing you off Arizona-style. You're still in the mix. If you handle your business over the next two weeks, with Arizona and Tampa Bay at home, you'll be 6-2 and once again impossible to exclude.
• Chicago takes Minnesota's place. It's time. I'm not saying I'm sold long-term, and I'm not saying I believe in Jay Cutler, but with Minnesota having to drop out, Chicago's the obvious and more-than-worthy replacement. Before the bye, they'd won three straight by 16 points or more, and they've got the best rushing defense in the league.
• Philadelphia, Washington and Seattle were the contenders for that last Wild Card spot. I've been impressed with Washington, and they're a team that's improving, but I need to see a little bit more. Compete against New York and Pittsburgh, and then we'll revisit the issue. I'm closer to believing in Seattle, but I also want to see more ‒ specifically, an impressive road win or two. Fortunately, they'll get their chance as they're on the road the next two weeks against San Francisco and Detroit. That defense has me thinking that they're not far from challenging San Fran for the NFC West top spot, either.
- American Football
- Sports & Recreation
- Miami Dolphins
- Miami Dolphins
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- San Francisco 49ers
- Chicago Bears
- New England Patriots
- New York Giants
- Green Bay Packers