Friday November 9th, 2007

As we stare down the second half of the NFL's regular season, this much seems apparent from my vantage point: In most cases, a 2006 playoff trip portends little in the way of a repeat performance this year.

This season's 12-team playoff field still has eight weeks to fully take shape, but if the postseason were to open based on the current standings, among the interesting nuggets would be the following:

• Eight of the 12 teams that made the playoffs last year are playing no better than .500 ball at the 2007 midseason. That's San Diego, Baltimore, Kansas City (all 4-4) and the Jets (1-8) in the AFC, and Seattle, New Orleans (both 4-4), Chicago and Philadelphia (both 3-5) in the NFC.

Granted, the NFL playoff field turns over at about a 50 percent clip every year. In the past five seasons (2002-2006), 27 different teams have made the postseason, with only the Texans, Dolphins, Bills missing the cut in the AFC, and the Lions and Cardinals in the NFC. But this season, fully two-thirds of the playoff incumbents appear in jeopardy of missing out on a return invite to the dance. The last time the postseason featured eight new teams was 2003.

• An astounding six of the eight teams that won at least 10 games last year have slumped to .500 or below halfway through this season. Even more surprising, four of those six teams that dominated in '06 have already lost more games in the first half of this year than they did all of last year: San Diego (from 14-2 to 4-4), Chicago (13-3 to 3-5), Baltimore (13-3 to 4-4) and the Jets (10-6 to 1-8). And the Saints (10-6 to 4-4) and Eagles (10-6 to 3-5) are fast closing in on exceeding their '06 loss total. The list includes the AFC's No. 1-2 seeds of last year (Chargers and Ravens), and the NFC's top-seeded Bears.

• The only two exceptions to the what-goes-up-must-come-down rule will not shock you. New England (12-4 to 9-0) and Indianapolis (12-4 to 7-1) have maintained their level of excellence, proving once again that it's a Pats-Colts world and the other 30 NFL teams are just living in it. In the NFC, the only two '06 playoff qualifiers who seem well-positioned to return to the Super Bowl tournament are Dallas (7-1) and the Giants (6-2), who happen to square off this weekend in the Meadowlands with first place in the NFC East on the line.

So what do Weeks 10-17 in the NFL hold? Knowing now what we didn't know in early September, here's how we see the 12-team playoff field coming together, division by division:

NFC East: Dallas -- Despite a secondary that remains their glaring weakness, the Cowboys have more pieces of the puzzle figured out than any other NFC contender. But Dallas is far from home free in the East, with four division games remaining, in addition to showdowns with the NFC North's top two teams: Green Bay and Detroit. All told, six of the Cowboys last eight opponents are currently at .500 or better.

A win this week at the Giants would give the Cowboys what amounts to a three-game lead over New York with seven to play, and that would be a sizable cushion entering mid-November. But Dallas still has to play arch-rival Washington twice, and the Redskins could make it a three-team race in the East.

NFC North: Green Bay -- Dissect the Packers' second-half schedule and at worst I have them finishing 12-4 to win their first division title since 2004. They have Minnesota and Carolina at home the next two weeks, and given the quarterback problems that have plagued the Vikings and Panthers, Green Bay should be 9-1 when it embarks upon its tough, two-game, late-November road trip to Detroit and Dallas.

If the Packers stumble unexpectedly somewhere, they will have the opportunity to make amends and wrap up the North with a Week 17 home game against Detroit, the team they always beat at Lambeau (16 consecutive home wins in the series).

NFC South: New Orleans -- After that 0-4 start that shook them to their foundation, the Saints have stared into the abyss and survived. New Orleans and Tampa Bay should fight it out for the division lead until the very end, but the key game will be the Week 13 showdown against the Bucs at the Superdome. Tampa Bay is the only remaining Saints opponent with a current wining record, and beating the Bucs should put New Orleans in control of its own fate.

NFC West: Seattle -- Almost by default, the Seahawks should win this sad-sack division for a fourth year in a row. But it won't be easy, if only because Seattle is just 1-3 on the road and four of its final six games are away from Qwest Field. The game that should settle matters is the Week 14 visit from Arizona, which beat the Seahawks 23-20 in Week 2 in the desert. With the 49ers and Rams wholly uncompetitive, the Cardinals are the only team that could block Seattle's path to a fifth consecutive playoff trip.

NFC Wild Cards: Tampa Bay and Detroit.

The Bucs will be in the NFC South race the whole way, but will wind up settling for the conference's top wild-card slot and a playoff trip that should save coach Jon Gruden's job. Tampa Bay still has four division games remaining, but fortunately, two of them are against last-place Atlanta. The Dec. 2 showdown at New Orleans looms as the game that the Bucs will be pointing at in the season's second half.

Detroit's second-half schedule includes four games against teams with at least six wins, plus a trip to dangerous San Diego, so I'm not sure that Detroit is going to make it to Jon Kitna's predicted 10-win season. But I'm giving the Lions the NFC's second wild card berth based on what I expect to be a Week 11 home win over the Giants, the team that Detroit must beat out to make its first playoff appearance since Bobby Ross led the 1999 squad into January.

NFC Playoff seeds: 1. Dallas, 2. Green Bay, 3. New Orleans, 4. Seattle, 5. Tampa Bay, 6. Detroit.

Wild-card round: New Orleans defeats Detroit, Tampa Bay defeats Seattle.

Divisional round: Dallas defeats Tampa Bay, New Orleans defeats Green Bay.

NFC Championship: New Orleans defeats Dallas.

AFC East: New England -- You probably already know this by now, but I don't have the Patriots losing this season. At all. Ever. Seriously. And they should have the AFC East locked up before November is out. In order of the level of competition they'll get, the Pats' three toughest remaining games are at home against Pittsburgh in Week 14, at the Giants in Week 17, and at Baltimore in Week 13.

And no, I don't expect Bill Belichick to start resting starters en masse once the Patriots clinch homefield advantage throughout the playoffs by mid-December. That has not been his style in recent years, and taking his foot off the gas darn sure isn't his M.O. this season.

AFC North: Pittsburgh -- If the Steelers can cool off the surging Browns at home this Sunday -- and I expect they will -- they'll be in great shape to cruise into the final quarter of their schedule with a six-game winning streak, a 10-2 record, and all kinds of momentum. That's because after Cleveland, their next three opponents (at Jets, Miami, Cincinnati) have a combined record of 3-22 and pose little threat.

In our haste to coronate the Patriots and compliment the Colts, we've all been a bit guilty of overlooking the fine season the Steelers are assembling. But with Ben Roethlisberger having a great comeback season, Pittsburgh could be a force in the playoffs.

AFC South: Indianapolis -- Playing in the NFL's toughest division, the Colts don't have the waltz down Easy Street that the Patriots face in the second half. For starters, four of their next six are on the road, including this week's tough test at San Diego, with another trip to Baltimore (can that city's NFL fans just let it go?) looming in Week 14.

Not that I expect it, but wouldn't it be great if Indy still had to win its Week 17 home game against Tennessee to lock up the division title?

AFC West: San Diego -- It's not going to be particularly pretty at any point this season for the Chargers, but some how, some way, I see them piecing together nine or 10 wins and trumping the three mediocre teams they share the division with. But hey, we already know the 14-2, top-seeded playoff entrant wasn't the way to go for the Bolts, so maybe they'll be more dangerous in the January underdog role.

San Diego's second-half schedule features just two teams that are currently under .500, but if the Chargers get on a roll, they can beat anybody, anywhere.

AFC Wild Cards: Tennessee and Cleveland.

The Titans don't have much offense, but they don't need a ton of it to win. They've held six of their eight opponents to 14 points or fewer, and they're 5-1 in those games, with only a 13-10 loss at Tampa Bay ruining that record. Something tells me Vince Young is going to play far better in the second half than he did in the first, and you have to like a Tennessee running game that is starting to control the clock and complement the defense.

As for Cleveland, even if it comes out of the next two games with losses at Pittsburgh and at Baltimore, don't give up on the Brownies. At 5-5, they'd still be in decent shape to put four or five more wins on the board and make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Cleveland isn't getting it done on defense, but the Browns offense has something special building, and you can't help but be entertained by a team that has won its past three games 41-31, 27-20 and 33-30 (in OT).

AFC Playoff seeds: 1. New England, 2. Indianapolis, 3. Pittsburgh, 4. San Diego, 5. Tennessee, 6. Cleveland.

Wild card round: Pittsburgh defeats Cleveland, San Diego defeats Tennessee.

Divisional round: New England defeats San Diego, Indianapolis defeats Pittsburgh.

AFC Championship: New England defeats Indianapolis.

Super Bowl XLII: New England defeats New Orleans.

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