NFL playoff race heats up as season closes

John Henderson

There have been a lot of surprises this football season and a lot of unfamiliar faces could make their way into the postseason this year. Teams that rarely go to the playoffs are now leading their respective conferences, and some of last year’s division leaders are now struggling for a spot in the postseason.

We will start with the AFC. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the New England Patriots. After winning all 16 games last season, and going all the way to the Super Bowl, the Pats currently have a 7-5 record and have the seventh best record in the AFC, one spot away from a postseason bid. The loss of Tom Brady, surprisingly, isn’t the problem since Matt Cassel has played superb in his absence. However, the glitch in the Pats’ season has yet to be identified.

The Dolphins also gave everyone a shock, with a record currently standing at 7-5. Though they need some help to get in the playoffs, they are a big improvement over last year’s 1-15 regular season record. Quarterback Chad Pennington and head coach Tony Sparano should be given an encore for their efforts to try to get the ‘Fins into the postseason.

The Jaguars have let down a lot of people this year. Jacksonville managed to win 11 games in 2007, but will struggle to go .500 this season. Jack Del Rio and Co. currently are ranked 13 in the AFC, just above the Oakland Raiders.

The New York Jets have completely turned their organization around. After an ugly 4-12 season in 2007, they are now 8-4 and atop the AFC East. Give a lot of credit to Old Reliable Brett Farve, who was acquired from the Packers in a trade immediately following Farve’s return from a very short retirement. The Jets are only getting better as the season progresses, so they just might end up with a first round bye in the playoffs.

Overall, the AFC looks like this: on top are the Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets and the Denver Broncos. The Wild Card spots currently feature the Baltimore Ravens and the Indianapolis Colts. New England, Miami and the Buffalo Bills are all on the outside looking in, but have a chance to make it into the playoffs.

We now turn to the NFC. The biggest story of the NFC is the Arizona Cardinals, led by quarterback Kurt Warner. With only an 8-8 record last season, the Cardinals now sport a 7-5 record and are currently the No. 3 seed in the NFC. Arizona has been getting steadily better over the past few years, but their success this season was not predicted by even the best sports analysts.

The Minnesota Vikings, after just missing the playoffs in 2007, are currently 7-5 and in the No. 4 spot in the NFC. The Vikings have blown away the rest of the competition in the NFC North and have won four of their last five games. Minnesota needs a win and a loss from the Chicago Bears to officially lock up the NFC North and thus a playoff spot.

Green Bay is not the same without Brett Farve. Farve carried his team to a 13-3 record last season, but this year the Pack has a losing record. The 5-7 Packers mathematically could still make it to the playoffs, but with the other NFC teams fighting for a Wild Card spot and Green Bay’s remaining schedule, that is very unlikely.

Not many people can say that they expected the Atlanta Falcons to be in a playoff spot this year, but that is exactly where they are. The “Dirty Birds” are fending off talented teams such as the Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles to hold on to the remaining Wild Card spot. Credit the coaching staff with the Falcons’ success in 2008 because of the excellent job they did in the off-season. San Diego backup running back Michael Turner and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan both made their way to Atlanta and became stars for the Falcons.

The NFC playoff picture looks like this: division leaders are the New York Giants, Carolina Panthers, Cardinals, and the Vikings. Wild Card teams are Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons, both NFC South teams. Others with a chance to make it to the post season are the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Eagles, Chicago Bears, and the Saints.

Remember, it’s not over ’till it’s over, and there are four games left in the season. The playoff picture can change a lot in that time so don’t be surprised when teams who look to be in good shape end up sitting at home during the playoffs.