NFL Playoff Projections: AFC North Plays Its Way Down

The AFC North I was expecting to see all year long showed up in a big way on Sunday. This division has been better than I expected—I thought  9-7 would win it, and there wouldn’t be any wild-card teams. As it stands, it will likely be double-digit wins to take first place and in all likelihood the final wild-card spot comes from this division. But Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all managed to come up small in big situations.

*Baltimore lost in overtime at Washington 31-28 and in the aftermath fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. I’m almost always opposed to this kind of radical change at this point in the season. Almost always. In this case, the move had to be made and it’s better late than never.

Cameron consistently pulled Baltimore away from its core identity as a running team with Ray Rice and tried to get too cute with Joe Flacco throwing the ball all over the place. Instead of trying to pretend Flacco is Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, the Ravens would be better served letting him be Eli Manning—a quarterback who’s not really elite-level, but is still pretty good and when you surround him with a running game and defense, you can win Super Bowls.

I suspect the window for the Ravens doing the latter has shut, especially regarding the defense. But there’s only one way to find out and that’s to put an offensive coordinator in charge who will give Rice the ball, over and over again. The path will be tougher, as Sunday’s loss drops them out of control for the #2 seed and into the first round.

*Cincinnati missed a chance to take control of the race for the final playoff spot because Andy Dalton couldn’t get big plays made in the passing game against a Dallas defense that has “thrived” on giving them up. Dalton’s completion percentage, at 20/33, was respectable enough, but it only produced 206 yards and he still threw an interception. Consequently, Cincy kept settling for field goals, missed chances to put Dallas away and lost at home 20-19. My current projections have them missing the playoffs as a result.

*Pittsburgh was the worst of them all on Sunday, with a 34-24 loss to San Diego. The score is misleadingly close, as the Chargers led 27-3 in Pittsburgh. The Steelers’ problems with the running game were again made manifest and the return of Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t bail the team out.

The Steeler loss dropped them to 7-6 and has them tied with the Bengals for the #6 seed, and the Jets in pursuit at 6-7, although New York has lost to Pittsburgh head-to-head and their uninspiring wins over Arizona and Jacksonville the last two weeks leave doubt over whether they can continue on with three more wins in the coming weeks.

In spite of how bad Pittsburgh was, I think they’ll turn it around. Even though their loss was worse than Cincinnati’s strictly on its face, there’s a couple mitigating factors. The media was alive all week in San Diego with reports that owner Dean Spanos had finally decided to do the obvious and fire general manager A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner at season’s end. It’s typical  of the Chargers in the Smith-Turner era to rally to the cause after it’s too late, so while I’d have never predicted they’d come up big, I can’t say I’m shocked.

I also think we need to cut Roethlisberger a little slack on his first game back. The Steelers have a big game coming up in Dallas on Sunday, and while I reserve the right to change my mind, right now I think they’re going to have their own “rally-the-troops” kind of moment and win that game. I think Cincinnati is going to lose in Philadelphia on Thursday night. Then I think the Steelers are going to beat the Bengals in Pittsburgh in Week 16. Even if just the latter happens, that gives Pittsburgh control of the race in the final week. And if that entire sequence of three dominoes falls, the Steelers would clinch with a game to go.

If you’re not sold on either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati—and let’s face it, both teams have given you plenty of reasons not to be—then you can look at the Jets. They play a very winnable Monday Night game in Tennessee, then come home to play San Diego. The New York season ends at Buffalo. I think the Jets will lose at least one of the road games, and if I had to pick, I’d learn towards saying the finale against the Bills. But that’s also a manageable schedule, even for a team that can’t score.

Finally, if you think both the Steelers and Bengals will end up at 8-8, that opens up a whole new can of worms. The likeliest scenario for that is Pittsburgh losing to Dallas and Cincy, while the Bengals lose to Philadelphia and in the finale against Baltimore. This opens the door for any of the teams currently at 5-8 to run the table and see how the tiebreakers fall. Those teams are Buffalo, Miami, Cleveland and San Diego.

Cleveland would have the best shot at a tiebreaker because they’ve beaten Pittsburgh once and this scenario presumes they’d do it again, but the Browns also play at Denver. The Miami schedule is the most conducive—home games with Jacksonville and Buffalo and the Week 17 game at New England is a question mark since we don’t know if the Patriots will have any incentive to play. But the best argument against any of these teams is that regardless of schedule, any team that’s lost eight of thirteen to this point, is not likely to rip off three straight wins.

Here’s how I see the NFL playoff projections shaking out after three more weeks of games. I’ve moved New England up to the #1 seed in the AFC. It’s not so much because of their win over Houston last night, impressive as it was. I expected that last week when I still had the Pats playing in the first round. But the combination of the Baltimore loss and how impressive Indianapolis looks have changed the forecast. The Colts are relevant because they play Houston twice and I now think they’ll get at least one win, which opens the door for New England.

The notable parts of the NFC playoff picture are Washington and Seattle in division-winning spots. I laid out my reasons why as the lead in last week’s projections and those reasons all hold firm this week—even stronger in fact, given the Washington win over Baltimore and the fact Seattle’s coming on like “a beast” as ESPN’s Michael Wilbon put it yesterday on Pardon The Interruption, dropping a 58-0 beatdown on Arizona.

AFC EAST: New England
AFC NORTH: Baltimore
AFC SOUTH: Houston
AFC WEST: Denver
Wild-Cards: Indianapolis, Pittsburgh
Byes: New England (1), Houston (2)
1st Round Matchups: (6)Pittsburgh at (3)Denver, (5)Indianapolis at (4)Baltimore

NFC EAST: Washington
NFC NORTH: Green Bay
NFC SOUTH: Atlanta
NFC WEST: Seattle
Wild-Cards: San Francisco, Chicago
Byes: Atlanta (1), Seattle (2)
1st Round Matchups: (6)Chicago at (3)Green Bay, (5)San Francisco at (4)Washington