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With seven weeks left in the NFL's regular season, it's time for the annual glance into the crystal ball. Mathematically, we're looking at a wide-open race for the postseason. But realistically, the 17 teams with a winning record have all but eliminated any dark horses in the playoff race.
This year, elite level quarterbacks will play a major role in how the remainder of the season plays out. Indeed, I think 10 of the 12 playoff teams this season will be represented by a Pro Bowl-level quarterback, and the other two – the Ravens' Joe Flacco(notes) and Packers' Aaron Rodgers(notes) – are having upper-echelon seasons.
With that in mind, here is what the crystal ball sees for the postseason seeding, as well as a handful of teams that will narrowly miss out …
NFC1. New Orleans Saints (14-2)
No 16-0 for this team. Not with the number of troubling injuries starting to mount, or with New Orleans already having been seriously challenged into the fourth quarter of its last four games. The Saints will trip up against the Patriots and then one more time in the back-to-back games against Atlanta and Dallas. Drew Brees'(notes) 69.4 rating against three AFC East teams is the troubling stat that I just can't get past this season. His penchant for feast or famine games will bite the Saints eventually, but not enough to jeopardize the No. 1 seed. 2. Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
The three-game run against Arizona, Cincinnati and Carolina in early December is far tougher than it looked a month ago. The Vikings will slip up in there, and I have to believe there will be another fluky loss somewhere on the schedule, particularly with Adrian Peterson's continued ball security problems. And Bernard Berrian's(notes) hamstring issue is going to linger all season long. One more injury in that set of receivers and it starts to get extremely thin. 3. Arizona Cardinals (12-4)
So long as Anquan Boldin(notes) continues to improve from a health standpoint, I'm buying this team getting its act together in the second half. Steve Breaston(notes) is that X-factor who has finally started to click in a major way again in the last three weeks. And the emergence of Beanie Wells'(notes) big-play ability has the potential to make this an even better offense than it was one year ago at this time. Two road games at Tennessee and San Francisco are sandwiched around a home tilt against Minnesota. That's the stretch that will make or break a top seed for the Cardinals. 4. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
Dallas will complete the season sweep over Philadelphia in the finale and secure the division title via head-to-head. The Cowboys are the only team in the NFC East right now with a winning record at home and on the road, and that's more impressive than it sounds. The loss of right tackle Marc Colombo(notes) hurts, but Dallas made a very good decision to move Doug Free(notes) into the starting lineup rather than move guard Leonard Davis(notes) outside and endanger the line's chemistry. Other than the Colombo injury, this is actually one of the healthier playoff contenders right now, and that will pay big dividends in the second half. A 3-1 mark against the Giants, Chargers, Saints and Redskins prior to the finale would deliver the NFC East. 5. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6, wild card)
The Eagles will split back-to-back road games against the Falcons and Giants and drop the season finale in Dallas, but win everything else, including the Week 16 game against Denver. With Brian Westbrook(notes) out of the mix for a sustained period, rookie LeSean McCoy(notes) will finally be allowed to work into a groove. But it's the health in the back seven of the defense and the offensive line that will make the difference. The Eagles simply can't afford to lose any more linebackers, defensive backs or offensive linemen. Donovan McNabb(notes) has to improve his accuracy on the road, too. That 56.9 completion percentage away from Philadelphia is more troublesome than it looks. 6. Green Bay Packers (9-7, wild card)
Green Bay will qualify for the final wild card with a tiebreaker over Atlanta, thanks to a better record inside the NFC. The mercurial play of the defense is what is going to make the difference in the remaining seven games. The unit was abysmal in back-to-back losses against Minnesota and Tampa Bay, but it turned around with its best game of the season against Dallas. Gaining momentum in the next four weeks against San Francisco, Detroit, Baltimore and Chicago is a must. The Packers will also benefit from a season finale that will likely see the Cardinals resting some of their starters. Beyond the sacks and the defense, the health of linebackers Aaron Kampman(notes) and Brandon Chillar(notes) will be paramount down the stretch.
Narrowly missed: Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants
The Falcons' injuries and road struggles will ultimately be their undoing, while the Giants' offensive inconsistency and brutal remaining schedule will keep them from the postseason.
AFC1. Indianapolis Colts (14-2)
Colts fans may not want to hear it, but a loss is coming, likely in the next three games against Baltimore, Houston and Tennessee. Indianapolis has flirted with defeat three weeks in a row now, trailing at some point in the fourth quarter of all three of those games. The pass defense was spread out and exposed a bit against New England, and the running game is too fragile and inconsistent. At some point, Peyton Manning(notes) is going to struggle and Indianapolis is going to pay. And I have to believe there will be a second fluke loss in the there at some point, possibly in the short week when the Colts play at Jacksonville on a Thursday night in Week 15. 2. New England Patriots (13-3)
That's right: despite a bothersome 1-3 road record and a collapse against the Colts, I don't think the Patriots will lose again. And that includes the Monday night game against New Orleans on Nov. 30. I think the first three quarters of that game against the Colts were more representative of this team than what happened in the fourth quarter. And nobody responds better to a game like that than Bill Belichick and Tom Brady(notes). More importantly, this team has remained in good health through the first nine games of the season, and the schedule isn't overly challenging. A run to the postseason is definitely in the cards.
I nearly gave this team a 13-3 record and the No. 2 seed via tiebreakers, but the Cedric Benson(notes) hip injury is worrisome. The team and Benson are downplaying it, but an abductor strain can be a nagging, long-term problem without sustained rest. Atlanta's Jerious Norwood(notes) missed four straight games with the same injury. And I think Cincinnati tipped its hand a little by signing Larry Johnson(notes), who is certainly not fodder for the bottom of the depth chart. He's a potential playoff starter if Benson's hip doesn't hold up, plain and simple. Benson's hip is the only thing that scares me about this team. You take him out of the mix, and that offense becomes far more one dimensional. I think it trips up the Bengals in road games against Minnesota and San Diego. 4. San Diego Chargers (10-6)
The schedule isn't exactly cake, but all the Chargers need to do is beat Denver this week, and win home games against Kansas City and Washington, and a road game at Cleveland. With the way the Chargers are playing right now, and Denver's sudden spate of injury concerns (on top of a lagging offense), that shouldn't be a problem. And if the pass rush keeps steadily improving the way it has in recent weeks, the Chargers should have no problem competing in their three-game run against Dallas, Cincinnati and Tennessee. I like the Chargers a lot in the second half of the season, particularly with the way quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) has played on the road (a 99.4 quarterback rating with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions). 5. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5, wild card)
Getting swept by the Bengals hurt, particularly when the defense dropped some turnovers in last week's loss. But Pittsburgh's second half matches up well for the defense, which will face a litany of quarterbacks who are either inexperienced (Bruce Gradkowski(notes)), have been roughed up (Aaron Rodgers) or shown a penchant for making mistakes under a pass rush (Brady Quinn(notes)). With the Dolphins' injury situation, it looks like there is only one tough road game left: in Baltimore on Nov. 29. A series split with the Ravens is an absolute must. Perhaps the biggest plus going into the stretch run is back-to-back games against Oakland and Cleveland, which should allow the Steelers to build some momentum heading into the stretch run of Green Bay, Baltimore and Miami. Safety Troy Polamalu(notes) is expected to be back for that stretch, which will be a boost. 6. Baltimore Ravens (10-6, wild card)
The offensive struggles the last two weeks give me pause about this team, particularly a passing game that's not providing the vertical production that was so prevalent before the Ravens' bye. There are simply a lot of inconsistencies on both sides of the ball, from the cornerbacks and the occasional problems with the run defense, to the inconsistent nature of Ray Rice's(notes) workload. That said, I think the Ravens are capable of solving a lot of those problems. The key to the postseason will be the games against Indianapolis, Green Bay and Pittsburgh (twice). The Ravens have to split those games 2-2, and take care of business versus Detroit, Chicago and a season finale against an Oakland team that will likely have the vacation suitcases packed and the car running. The Ravens will pull it off.
Narrowly missed: Denver Broncos and Houston Texans
I think both Denver and Houston will manage nine wins, but that just won't be enough. Denver's offensive struggles since the bye, along with Kyle Orton's(notes) banged up ankle, will come back to haunt them in games against the Chargers, Giants, Colts and Eagles. For Houston, the loss of Owen Daniels(notes) and the lack of a reliable pass rush will spell doom in the second half.