Top AFC seeds: Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens
Other AFC division champs: New England Patriots, Denver Broncos
AFC wild cards: Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers
Top NFC seeds: Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers
Other NFC division champs: Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles
NFC wild cards: New York Giants, Green Bay Packers
• Once again, we'll start in the NFC, because that's where we've got action. A hearty welcome goes out to the blonde gentleman with the ferocious mustache in the upper-right hand corner. Welcome, Minnesota Vikings, to the Absurdly Premature Playoff Picture.
• I'm buying the Vikings. They run the ball, they stop the run, and Christian Ponder is a poor man's Alex Smith. That used to be the kind of unspeakable insult that would drive a Tibetan monk to challenge you to a pit fight, but these days, it's OK. They both have a relatively low number of attempts, a high quarterback rating (Smith's at 108.7 and Ponder is at 95.5), the touchdown count is high and the interceptions are low. That, a two-game division lead, and an upcoming schedule without any top-shelf opponents (their next five are Washington, Arizona, Tampa Bay, Seattle and Detroit), and I'm in. Color me purple.
• Notable by their absence are the Chicago Bears, and maybe I'm crazy to be buying the Vikings and not them, but I just can't get myself to trust the Bears fully. It's not the defense, obviously ‒ they're a war machine. Easily one of the top five defenses in the league. I'm troubled by the fact that the one time they've been on the field with a good team (Green Bay, which happens to be the team they're going to have to hold off), they weren't even competitive. Also, there's Jay Cutler. Nothing goes smoothly for too long when Jay Cutler is involved. Green Bay hangs on to a Wild Card spot by a thread.
[Related: Pair of Chicago Bears make NFL history]
• Also hanging on by a thread: the Eagles. Despite a loss in Pittsburgh and a Giants loss to Cleveland, I'm leaving the Eagles in the position of NFC East champ. Two reasons: I think the Eagles have the better defensive unit right now, and their schedule is easier. The Giants remaining non-division games are: San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Atlanta and Baltimore. Philly's remaining non-division games are: Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati. It's an easier road for Philly.
• I was close to giving the Patriots the nod at the two-seed ahead of the Ravens, but their head-to-head victory over New England (narrow as it was) buys them a stay of execution. Let's see how they respond to their 9-6 pillow fight against the Chiefs. I'm curious to see if the Patriots can keep up their scoring orgy against that nasty Seattle Seahawks defense, too. So you're on notice, Ravens. We'll revisit this in a week.
• The Chargers might've lost their grip on a Wild Card spot, too, had the Cincinnati Bengals won that very winnable game against Miami. A loss like that might be more acceptable on the road, but not at home. Now, don't get me wrong, Miami isn't some pattycake-playing Girl Scout Troop that the Bengals should just maul, but if you want to be a playoff team, that's probably a game you have to win when you get them at home. It confirms for me that the Bengals aren't quite there yet.
• As for the Chargers and Broncos, after Monday night, much of the guesswork goes out of things. My current position, as it's been since about Week 1, is that the Broncos are the better team. They didn't look it against New England, but San Diego isn't New England. I think they'll be able to throw on the Chargers secondary, and yes, the Chargers have done well historically against Peyton Manning, but I think the statute of limitations on that has expired. It'll be a great test for an improved Chargers defense. It's a very interesting game.
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