A year ago, we never identified the sleeping giant at the end of the season. We looked past Pittsburgh because of injuries, inconsistency and a passing game that seemed to be struggling. Yet, the Steelers took home the Lombardi Trophy.
More than likely, there is another one lurking among the bunched up, good-but-not great teams mired in playoff fights in the AFC and NFC. Or, it might just be last year's Super Bowl loser – a Seattle team that has risen to 8-4 despite being dinged with problems from the first game of the season. But with running back Shaun Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck healthy again, the Seahawks look like as a good a candidate as any to catch fire and run through the playoffs this year. Of course, Dallas is the popular choice, but Seattle has an interesting wrinkle in its favor.
By virtue of scheduling, it looks like a distinct possibility Seattle could end up with the No. 2 seed in the NFC, while Dallas qualifies No. 3 and New Orleans No. 4. That would put Dallas in Chicago's playoff bracket – and given the Bears' penchant for blowing games at Soldier Field in the playoffs – could shift the NFC's road to the Super Bowl through Seattle. That is, if the Seahawks can actually advance to the conference championship game.
Just some food for thought as the playoff scenarios begin to materialize. Here is a look at how the league stacks up heading into Week 14.
THE TOP 12
1. San Diego Chargers (10-2) – The NFL is going to keep a close eye on this week's game against Denver, suspecting there might be some retribution over Broncos center Tom Nalen's hit on defensive end Igor Olshansky's knee the last time around. With the No. 1 seed in the AFC hanging in the balance, the Chargers would be foolish to try anything stupid.
2. Indianapolis Colts (10-2) – After seeing Titans quarterback Vince Young cause trouble for them twice this season, the Colts better hope they don't have to face a significantly mobile quarterback in the playoffs. Think they didn't miss wide receiver Brandon Stokley? Beyond Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, there isn't another wideout on the roster with double-digit catches.
3. New England Patriots (9-3) – It happened again: The Patriots came out looking uninspired and got themselves into a battle against what should have been an overmatched Detroit team. That said, the offense might want to consider going no-huddle a little more often after its remarkable success Sunday.
4. Chicago Bears (10-2) – With an offense that is lacking some explosion (beyond quarterback Rex Grossman just chucking it and hoping for the best, that is) it might be time to keep nudging up the workload of running back Cedric Benson. He has exhibited a nice burst in spots over the last few weeks.
5. Baltimore Ravens (9-3) – Their loss to Cincinnati on Thursday was a haunting example of this team's faults. It can't fall behind early and then have to rely on quarterback Steve McNair throwing 40-plus times to win a game. And that wide receiving corps never looked so lacking in explosiveness than against the Bengals.
6. Dallas Cowboys (8-4) – He's up and down from week to week, but it's hard to envision coach Bill Parcells leaving this team now that Tony Romo has taken over at quarterback. Parcells' relationship with Romo has almost seemed to reinvigorate him over the last few weeks.
7. New Orleans Saints (8-4) – Rookie Reggie Bush had some impressive moments against San Francisco, but it remains to be seen if he can be a complete running back. The more you watch him, the more he looks like Pittsburgh's Willie Parker with a better feel as a receiver.
8. Seattle Seahawks (8-4) &ndash The Seahawks dodged a major bullet with fullback Mack Strong's relatively minor ankle sprain, and center Robbie Tobeck should be able to return before the playoffs, giving the line some depth. One thing before the postseason: the Seahawks need to get wide receiver Deion Branch to find comfort as a consistent No. 2 to Darrell Jackson.
9. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) – This team is hot, but the remaining schedule (featuring road games at Indianapolis and Denver) is going to make it almost impossible for the Bengals to make the playoffs. And how embarrassing is the arrest of wide receiver Reggie McNeal, the seventh Bengal arrested this year? When it comes to their lives away from the football field, either coach Marvin Lewis hasn't sent a strong enough message or the players aren't listening to him preach anymore.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-5) – Coach Jack Del Rio isn't going anywhere, even if the Jaguars fail to make the playoffs. As for Byron Leftwich, he might not be right for this franchise, but there are still plenty of personnel people who think he can be a top 10 quarterback in this league.
11. Denver Broncos (7-5) – If quarterback Jay Cutler costs the Broncos another game this week, don't you have to consider switching back to Jake Plummer for the remainder of the season? Whatever happens, it falls squarely on the shoulders of coach Mike Shanahan from here on out.
12. Kansas City Chiefs (7-5) – Every time you think Kansas City's defense has crossed a threshold, something like Sunday's crummy performance against Cleveland happens. At this rate, running back Larry Johnson is going to get more than 450 touches by the end of this season. That's too much for a back who takes as much punishment as he does.
New York Jets (7-5) – As long as they don't get ahead of themselves, this should be a team that qualifies for a wild-card spot. Of all the 7-5 teams in the AFC, New York is the only one without a winning team left on the schedule.
THE MUDDLED MIDDLE (in alphabetical order)
Atlanta Falcons (6-6) – The coaching staff made the right move when it stuck to the running game despite Washington jumping out to a 14-0 lead Sunday. This team still has one of the better tracks to the postseason, but this still looks like a one-and-done playoff team. Then what?
Buffalo Bills (5-7) – If you thought the run defense was bad up to this point in the season, just wait until you see what It looks like without linebacker Angelo Crowell. Cornerback Nate Clements has been playing better, which is going to put Buffalo in a tough spot. All of a sudden, letting him walk doesn't look like it's an easy decision.
Carolina Panthers (6-6) – For all the talk about having an "elite" defense, Carolina sure fades in the fourth quarter (five losses this season in which the Panthers had a fourth-quarter lead). If that front four isn't getting pressure, the secondary is quite mediocre.
Cleveland Browns (4-8) – After watching backup quarterback Derek Anderson in his limited time against Kansas City, it's no surprise why Charlie Frye would want to hurry back from a wrist injury. The difference in arm strength between the two was pretty easy to see. And Anderson moved the team pretty well for a guy who had never thrown a live NFL pass.
Miami Dolphins (5-7) – Coach Nick Saban has been in Miami slightly less than two seasons, and owner Wayne Huizenga is already being asked to give his coach a vote of confidence? What about this relatively mediocre roster makes anyone think this team is underachieving?
Minnesota Vikings (5-7) – Quarterback Brad Johnson's arm is dead. This should be Brooks Bollinger's team the remaining four games. Tarvaris Jackson should get snaps, too, but it's not time to throw him to the wolves just yet. Considering the wealth of talent, this team has to be one of the biggest disappointments of the season.
New York Giants (6-6) – Well, Sunday is an example of what happens when quarterback Eli Manning gets good protection and his wide receivers don't drop passes: a 107.4 passer rating. And it's funny to hear that defensive end Michael Strahan says he's sick of seeing himself on the 5 o'clock news every day.
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7) – Give credit to coach Bill Cowher for sticking to his guns with Ike Taylor, who might end the season as the NFL's highest-paid nickel cornerback in the league. He'll get a chance to win his job back, but this subtle benching has become one of the motivational moves that's starting to get the Steelers right again.
St. Louis Rams (5-7) – Running back Marshall Faulk's assertion that he still wants to play football puts St. Louis in an awkward spot. The Rams haven't really had an adequate change of pace back this year and Faulk could fill that role again. But the last thing Steven Jackson wants is to go back to sharing carries with the future Pro Football Hall of Famer.
San Francisco 49ers (5-7) – The 49ers are still talking playoffs, but it's pretty far fetched at this point, particularly with road games at Seattle and Denver. But this team is ready to be competitive going forward. All it needs is some consistency at wideout and a playmaker or two on defense. Among the free agents that should be targeted: wide receiver Drew Bennett (Titans), linebacker Adalius Thomas (Ravens) and cornerback Asante Samuel (Pats).
Tennessee Titans (5-7) – They're almost certain to lose offensive coordinator Norm Chow to a head coaching job (probably in college) during the offseason. That's too bad. Who thought Chow would have Vince Young progressing this fast? Compare the game film of Young against Indianapolis last week to his first start of the season and he looks like a totally different player.
Washington Redskins (4-8) – Retaining coach Joe Gibbs and his entire staff next season is the right move. The Redskins have a lot of ground to cover, but if quarterback Jason Campbell can make some big strides in the last four games, and the defense can add depth in the offseason, this team could really jell offensively and rebound big in 2007.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
28. Houston Texans (4-8) – First the second-guessing with Reggie Bush, and now it's bound to start with Vince Young. The latter might be more sound. Quarterback David Carr has got the tools and the coaching to be successful, yet he continues to fail. He might not be back in 2007.
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-9) – Yes, coach Jon Gruden has a porous 26-34 regular season record since the franchise's Super Bowl triumph following the 2002 campaign. But it's not time to cut him loose just yet. This was a team that was going to hit a wall eventually with all the aging defenders. That Super Bowl should buy Gruden one more year.
30. Arizona Cardinals (3-9) – Guard Deuce Lutui has helped to solidify the offensive line a bit. When this team actually plays well, like it did against St. Louis, you realize this could be a wickedly good opportunity for whatever coach takes over.
31. Detroit Lions (2-11) – Word is that everyone advising the Ford Family has recommended dumping Matt Millen. But Philadelphia personnel guru Tom Heckert isn't going to end up with the Lions. And neither is Byron Leftwich.
32. Oakland Raiders (2-11) – The internal meltdown between coach Art Shell and executive Michael Lombardi is just a continuation of a team that is rotting from the inside out. Perhaps it's his declining health, but Al Davis appears to have lost his ability to control his team.