Four weeks remain in the regular season, and this is the time of year when we begin to convince ourselves that we see the 12-team playoff field taking shape in great clarity. But there are almost always developments and postseason drives that we didn't anticipate, and assumptions that get proven false as the final weeks of results roll in and upsets play havoc with our preconceived notions.
Like what? Well, like the following:
• In 2005, the Redskins were 5-6 and barely on the radar screen in late November, but then Joe Gibbs rekindled a little late-season magic and Washington won its last five games to finish 10-6 and beat out Dallas and Minneosta (both 9-7) for the NFC's final wild-card berth. The Redskins even won a first-round playoff game.
• In 2006, it was the Eagles' turn. They were 5-6 and playing without quarterback Donovan McNabb, who had suffered a season-ending knee injury in November. Jeff Garcia took over, but after a 45-21 drubbing at the hands of the Colts in Week 12, it looked like curtains for Andy Reid and Co. But then the Eagles took flight, winning their final five games, including three straight on the road against their NFC East rivals, and clinched an improbable division title at 10-6 with a win at home against Michael Vick and the Falcons on New Year's Eve. Philly too won its first playoff game.
• In 2007, the Redskins were 5-7, tied for last place, and reeling from the shocking death of safety Sean Taylor as Week 13 came to a close. The playoffs weren't even a thought, but Washington won its final four games and beat out three 8-8 clubs for the NFC's second wild-card slot.
• In 2008, the Eagles sat 5-5-1 and in last place in the NFC East through the first 12 weeks of the season, and McNabb memorably offered that he didn't even know there were tie games in the NFL. But that ugly tie againt Cincinnati saved Philly's bacon when it went 4-1 down the stretch to finish 9-6-1, barely nosing out 9-7s Dallas, Chicago and a slumping Tampa Bay team that had been 9-3 at one point. The Eagles stayed hot in the postseason, making it all the way to the NFC title game at Arizona.
• And proving this isn't just an NFC East phenomena, who can forget the 2009 Jets, who were declared dead and eliminated from playoff contention by none other than their big-talking rookie head coach, Rex Ryan, following a crushing Week 15 10-7 home loss to the Falcons? The only thing was, Rex's guys weren't done at 7-7, and once they beat the mostly Peyton Manning-less Colts and the sleep-walking Bengals, they were 9-7 and had won tiebreakers over Pittsburgh and Houston (both 9-7) to earn the AFC's final wild-card invite. They made the most of it, of course, pulling off two playoff wins before losing at Indy in the conference title game.
So where do our faulty assumptions and mistaken notions lie this year as the season's final month unfolds? Well if we knew that, they wouldn't be mistaken, would they? But you can be sure that some upsets will throw us curveballs in the coming days, changing and complicating the playoff races on a week to week basis.
At the moment, the AFC features a four-team clump of 9-3 teams in New England, Houston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and those look like the top three seeds in the conference in some order, plus the No. 5 highest-seeded wild card. Then comes a five-team grouping of 7-5 clubs, led by Denver and Cincinnati, which at the moment own the No. 4 and No. 6 seeds, respectively. The Titans, Jets and Raiders are all 7-5 and on the outside looking in, but all have reason to believe. The longest of the long shots are San Diego, Kansas City and Buffalo (all 5-7), but it doesn't seem like the kind of year to give a 9-7 finisher much hope.
In the NFC, Green Bay (12-0) and San Francisco (10-2) both already have clinched their division and have what appear to be hammerlocks on the top two seeds and first-round byes. But the South-leading Saints (9-3) might still chase down the 49ers for the No. 2 seed with a little help. That's the easy part. The rest of the NFC is a free-for-all, with Dallas (7-5), Chicago (7-5) and Atlanta (7-5) in seeds 4-5-6 currently, but Detroit (7-5), the Giants (6-6) and even Seattle (5-7) are still in varying degrees of contention.
Let's take a week by week look at the remaining schedule, and perhaps identify the potential upsets that could reshape the playoff races between now and end of play on New Year's Day:
Week 14 -- The fun might start as early as tonight, with the Steelers playing host to the 4-8 Browns in what could be a classic trap game for Pittsburgh. With a huge showdown looming next Monday night at San Francisco, the Steelers could ruin their chances of climbing over Baltimore in the AFC North if they're caught looking past Cleveland. The Browns could be due a stunner. After all, in each of their past three seasons they beat the defending Super Bowl champ (the Giants in 2008, the Steelers in 2009, and the Saints in 2010). I'm sure they'd settle for the defending AFC champs this time around.
The Jets are no doubt counting on beating the visiting Chiefs (5-7) on Sunday, because Kansas City has quarterback troubles. But that's probably what Chicago was thinking last week, too, and we know how that turned out. New York is just 1-2 against the AFC West this season, and needed a pretty good comeback at home against the Chargers just to get the one win. A New York loss would really aid the likes of Cincinnati and Tennessee in the wild-card chase, and it's not as if the Jets are beyond making things harder on themselves than necessary (see last-minute Week 11 loss at Denver).
Lastly, the Falcons face a very difficult game at Carolina (4-8). Atlanta wasn't able to handle T.J. Yates at Houston last week, so why should the story be any different against the quarterback (Cam Newton) who's likely to win the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year honor? The Panthers are coming off two road wins in a row (their first away from home since late 2009), and don't forget Carolina led the Falcons 17-14 after three quarters in Atlanta in Week 6, before losing 31-17. The Falcons are the NFC's No. 6 seed at the moment, but they could throw the Lions, Bears and Giants a life rope with a road loss this week.
Week 15 -- We know what San Diego can do when it gets on one of its late-season rolls, and if the Chargers can handle the reeling Bills at home this week, we should all go on spoiler alert for their Week 15 visit from Baltimore. The Ravens know what they have to do: Finish at least tied with Pittsburgh in order to win the AFC North and finally get at least one playoff game at home. But a trip to San Diego could be dicey for John Harbaugh's club if Philip Rivers stays hot, and Joe Flacco is off his game. The best thing the Ravens have going for them in Week 15 is that the Steelers face a tough test on the West Coast as well, playing in San Francisco on Monday night.
In the other Week 15 game that has plenty of upset potential, the Texans are home against Carolina. Houston seems like it's going to finally make it to the promised land, but closing the deal on a playoff berth might be the toughest hurdle of all to clear. Houston currently has a two-game lead over second-place Tennessee, plus the bonus of having already beaten the Titans once this season. But the Texans can't give Tennessee hope by letting the margin between them shrink to one game heading into Week 17, because the Titans play at Houston to end the season. That means taking care of business at home against the likes of the Panthers is imperative.
Week 16 -- There are numerous games that could upset the apple cart in the penultimate week of the regular season. The suddenly dangerous Dolphins could cause trouble in New England, San Diego could make things difficult for the Lions in Detroit, Philadelphia could exact some revenge for their lost season in Dallas, Buffalo could make a last stand at home against the streaking Broncos, and the Seahawks could give visiting San Francisco the same treatment they gave Baltimore and Philadelphia recently.
If there's a week that throws everyone's playoff travel plans into chaos, it's probably going to be Week 16. One ill-timed loss and the Patriots may be a No. 3 seed rather than a No. 1, with an extra playoff game to face and just one home game in the postseason. The same goes for the Texans, or even the 49ers, if they stumbled at home against Pittsburgh in Week 15.
The Broncos could lose their grip on the AFC West and give new life to the Raiders if they can't win at Buffalo, a feat Oakland couldn't manage itself way back in Week 2. Dallas, no stranger to December meltdowns of recent vintage, might face its must-win of the season at home against the nothing-to-lose Eagles. If the Cowboys come out of Week 16 tied with Giants in the NFC East, it's advantage New York as the two rivals prepare to meet in the Meadowlands on New Year's Day.
Even the Texans at Colts could be tricky for Houston, who beat Indianapolis at home to open the regular season in early September. Playing at home probably gives the winless Colts their last best chance to avoid the infamy of 0-16, and they can pull out all the stops against the team that's attempting to unseat them as defending AFC South champions. Plus, if it's T.J. Yates against Dan Orlovsky, the Colts for once this season won't face a significant disadvantage at quarterback.
Week 17 -- If the Jets need one more win to clinch their third consecutive wild-card berth, going looking for it at Miami in the season finale doesn't look like the blessing from heaven it once did, when the Dolphins were 0-7 and staggering to what looked certain to be head coach Tony Sparano's demise. If Miami can beat the sinking Eagles this week in South Florida, the Dolphins will take a four-game home winning streak into the Jets game, and the road has not been kind this year to New York (2-4 so far). When you factor in that Miami might be playing either to help make its final case for keeping Sparano, or perhaps sending him off with a victorious farewell, the Dolphins could be nobody you want to mess with as the new year dawns.
The other likely meaningful games that bear watching are Carolina at New Orleans, Tampa Bay at Atlanta, and Kansas City at Denver, but I can't really envision upsets occuring in any of those games, especially if the Saints, Falcons and Broncos have everything to play for.
Such is not the case, however, in the San Diego at Oakland matchup. It's still too early to determine which way both teams are trending as the season concludes, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Chargers were surging and the Raiders reeling by the time Week 17 arrives. These two AFC West combatants met in Week 10 in San Diego, with the Raiders prevailing 24-17 to help give Carson Palmer his first win since the blockbuster midseason trade to Oakland. It probably will be too late for the Chargers' playoff hopes at this point, but paybacks can be hell, and San Diego would love nothing more than to eliminate the Raiders and extend Oakland's postseason drought to 10 seasons. Indirectly at least, a Chargers win would represent one last display of Tebow magic: San Diego would have made the Raiders disappear.