Breaking down NFL division races
It’s December, which means every play, every coaching decision, every penalty — everything — will be squarely in the NFL spotlight.
“It gives everybody a chance here, right?” says Kansas City coach Andy Reid, whose Chiefs are among seven teams with a 7-5 record. “It gives everybody a chance and I think that’s a good thing. You’d love to be undefeated, but it gives you an opportunity.”
With all but six teams still in the running for postseason berths, here are a few wild guesses on how the division races will play out — barring major injuries that shift the dynamics.
AFC WEST: Denver (9-3) is in an odd position this week. It leads San Diego (8-4) by one game, yet probably should be rooting for the Chargers to beat New England (9-3), which has the overall AFC edge after beating the Broncos.
Of course, that could make next week’s matchup of Broncos at Chargers the decider for this division’s outcome.
San Diego closes with road games at San Francisco and Kansas City, both of whom also could be desperate for wins. Denver gets Cincinnati and Oakland.
WINNER: Denver. WILD CARD: Kansas City.
AFC EAST: Miami and Buffalo each are two games behind New England. Each gets another shot at the Patriots, but in Foxborough, where Tom Brady’s bunch is 6-0.
This division is over. Main question is if Patriots can win out to ensure not leaving Gillette Stadium in the playoffs.
Neither Miami nor Buffalo will get enough victories to squeeze into the playoffs, which means a 15-year drought for the Bills.
WINNER: New England.
AFC SOUTH: Indianapolis (8-4) would clinch this weekend by winning at Cleveland while Houston (6-6) falls at Jacksonville. Even if that doesn’t happen, the Colts will find their way into the postseason as division champion, but will be hard-pressed to do anything in January given their issues in the running game and in pass defense.
AFC NORTH: Ah, the mad scramble.
It’s a little less mad after Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland all lost last week to slip to 7-5, while Cincinnati (8-3-1) got past Tampa Bay. That tie with Carolina could wind up very beneficial for the Bengals.
But the schedule could work in Pittsburgh’s favor because the Steelers face the Bengals twice. Win both and the division flag could wind up in the Steel City.
Unlikely. And if these four teams beat up on each other down the stretch, only the division winner will get into the postseason.
Baltimore has a tough test at Miami this Sunday. After that, it’s Jacksonville, Houston and Cleveland. Big edge to the Ravens there despite Haloti Ngata’s suspension for the rest of the regular season.
WINNER: Cincinnati. WILD CARD: Baltimore.
NFC WEST: It’s a bit unfair what’s happening to the Cardinals, the NFL’s sensation of the first 10 weeks. Injuries didn’t slow them during that span, but as more and more players go down, so does Arizona’s stock. Believing the Cardinals (9-3), with so many second-stringers on the field, can prosper as they close against Kansas City, St. Louis, Seattle and San Francisco seems farfetched.
Instead, it’s the Seahawks (8-4) who already seem primed for the postseason as their defense looks fearsome again. But their schedule is no stroll to New Year’s Day, either: at Philly, San Francisco, at Arizona, St. Louis.
Nor do the 49ers (7-5) have anything easy after crossing the bay to play Oakland: at Seattle, San Diego and Arizona at home.
The Cardinals win over Dallas will be critical for the wild card.
WINNER: Seattle. WILD CARD: Arizona.
NFC NORTH: It sure seems as if Green Bay (9-3, top-ranked in the AP Pro32) already has clinched this sector, but it’s not true. In fact, Detroit (8-4) has beaten the Packers, and if the Lions can stay close until the finale, they visit Lambeau Field.
But Green Bay is peaking and Detroit has too many inconsistencies. The schedule, though, is very favorable for the Lions, who will grab a wild card.
WINNER: Green Bay. WILD CARD: Detroit.
NFC SOUTH: Who cares?
OK, we promised some analysis, so ...
The doomsayers fearing a team with five or six wins taking this division might be disappointed. New Orleans (5-7), if it can rediscover its way at the Superdome, gets Carolina and Atlanta (5-7) at home, goes to Chicago and Tampa Bay. All winnable, and anything worse than 8-8 would be disappointing even with the Saints’ struggles this year.
The Falcons have the edge right now because they beat New Orleans to open the season. Their closing schedule is more challenging, beginning with a trip to Green Bay on Monday night.
WINNER: New Orleans.
NFC EAST: It won’t come down to a fourth straight year of Dallas (8-4) losing a final-game matchup for the title this time. The Cowboys won’t get that far as the Eagles (9-3) finish off a sweep of them in a three-game period on Dec. 14.
Sure, Philly hosts Seattle on Sunday. But unless it stumbles when it hosts Dallas, it will take the division.
This time, the tiebreaker the Cowboys would lose is for the final wild card, to Arizona.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL