Taking stock at the quarter pole of the NFL's regular season, 10 teams are sitting pretty with winning records and at least three wins, while 10 others already are in trouble, with losing marks and no fewer than three losses. But what about the 12 teams in the great unwashed middle, the 10 that have hit this year's first check point at 2-2 and those early-bye types (Pittsburgh and Indianapolis) at 1-2?
Absorbing two early losses doesn't inspire anyone to make playoff plans just yet, but it also doesn't doom a team to a lost season either. There's a pretty accomplished and select group in the two-loss club at the moment, including franchises that have accounted for nine of the past 11 Super Bowl titles (Giants, Packers, Steelers, Colts, Patriots), as well as a who's who list of elite quarterbacks: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.
Some of those familiar names and playoff perennials will dig out of their current so-so state and be there once again when January's Super Bowl tournament commences. Count on it.
Last season at this time, eight teams took a 2-2 mark into Week 5, and three of those wound up making the playoffs: Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the AFC, and Atlanta in the NFC (though perhaps tellingly all three were first-round losers). When you include Denver, which started 1-3 in 2011 and still won the AFC West, one-third of the 12-team playoff field had two losses or more at this point last year.
If the playoffs started today, the 2-2 Giants and Packers would miss the dance in the NFC, and the 1-2 Steelers definitely would be on the outside looking in at the AFC postseason field. As for the 2-2 Patriots and Broncos, they collide this week in Foxboro, so somebody's march back to the playoffs could take a significant step by early Sunday evening.
According to NFL research, teams starting 2-2 or worse have qualified for the playoffs 35.6 percent of the time (94 of 264) since the league's playoff field expanded to 12 in 1990, with five clubs from 2001 on reaching the Super Bowl after playing .500 ball or worse through the opening four weeks of the season. So it can be done, and often is, relatively speaking. It's just a matter of separating the contenders from the pretenders in the clump of two-loss teams.
As October begins, here's an assessment of where those 12 teams stand in terms of their playoff chances, with a totally subjective postseason probability factor tossed in to spice up the debate:
1. New England -- The Patriots have weathered their little September storm, and are just a field goal miss (Stephen Gostkowski against Arizona) and a field goal make (Baltimore's Justin Tucker, but just barely) away from being 4-0 and sailing to another AFC East title. In reality, how could any other team win this division? Anyone out there have a lot of faith in the Bills, Jets or Dolphins about now? Don't be shy. Speak up, Rex.
After drawing three road games in the season's first four weeks, New England is about to play four of its next six at home, with a fifth game at a neutral site (against the Rams in London in Week 8). In fact, the schedule doesn't turn challenging again until December, when both Houston and San Francisco visit Gillette Stadium for back-to-back primetime affairs in Weeks 14-15. But by then, the Patriots should have eight or nine wins and be well on their way to a 10th AFC East championship in the 12 seasons of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady starting quarterback era.
Playoff probability: 87 percent.
2. Green Bay -- It's been an interesting first month of the season for Mike McCarthy's guys, who somehow have scored fewer points (85) than anyone in the NFC North. Between the Monday Night Football debacle in Seattle and their inability to play at the up-tempo pace they prefer due to the inexperience of the replacement ref crowd, no team was more affected by the league's latest labor standoff than the Packers. But that's over now and Green Bay looked reasonably like itself at home against the winless Saints on Sunday, with a season-high 28 points and a four-touchdown game from Rodgers.
The Vikings (3-1) and Bears (3-1) already are a game up on the Packers and both division rivals look legit. For Green Bay, it'll be about weathering the season's middle two months, when it plays five of seven games on the road, and winning enough to stay within striking distance once December arrives. The Packers have four games in the NFC North in the final month, and three December home games overall. Those should prove pivotal in paving the way for a fourth consecutive playoff berth in Green Bay.
Playoff probability: 70 percent.
3. Denver -- Nothing settled the nerves and returned everyone to normal breathing patterns in Bronco-land quite like the sight of Peyton Manning ripping off that 30-of-38, 338-yard, three-touchdown passing day in the 31-point rout of Oakland in Week 4. Manning being Manning again should remind us all that his season's trajectory will be more of an upward curve as he continues to grow comfortable, and those struggles in Weeks 2-3 had plenty to do with facing the Falcons and Texans defenses. A lot of quarterbacks would have looked mortal facing that double whammy, six days apart.
Given San Diego's propensity to make things difficult on itself, it wouldn't be like the first-place Chargers to run away with anything in the AFC West. So Denver just has to stay close to San Diego and build momentum as the season progresses. The Broncos play four of their next five on the road, with tough trips to New England and San Diego just ahead. Challenging, but survivable. Especially given that Denver faces just one 2011 playoff team in its final eight games of the season, with a Week 15 trip to Baltimore.
Playoff probability: 62 percent.
4. Pittsburgh -- The stunning loss at Oakland in Week 3 dropped the Steelers to 1-2 entering their bye week, but I'm still willing to bet on Pittsburgh's well-deserved reputation for resiliency and perseverance through the rocky patches of the long NFL season. For Pittsburgh, it's about getting healthy again on defense, where Dick LeBeau's unit is giving up a very uncharacteristic 25 points per game.
Both safety Troy Polamalu and outside linebacker James Harrison are practicing this week and might return for Sunday's intra-state homefield showdown with Philadelphia. If Pittsburgh's running game gets a boost from the returning Rashard Mendenhall as well, the Steelers' outlook will brighten noticeably on both sides of the ball. Even with the Ravens and Bengals sitting at 3-1, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Steelers, counting Pittsburgh out this early in the AFC North would be foolhardy.
Playoff probability: 60 percent.
5. Seattle -- The Seahawks already trail Arizona (4-0) and San Francisco (3-1), and having a pair of division road losses (to the Cardinals and Rams) doesn't help matters one bit. But there's a lot to like about Seattle's defense (an NFC-low 58 points allowed) and that's going to keep the Seahawks in most every game they play. The next month could be a killer if Seattle can't get more going in the passing game, because trips to Carolina, San Francisco and Detroit loom, sandwiched around a Week 6 home game against the powerful Patriots.
If Pete Carroll's club can hang around in the NFC West until November, the schedule gets friendly and Seattle's effective Marshawn Lynch-led running game should prove even more valuable working in concert with that stingy Seahawks defense.
Playoff probability: 45 percent.
6. Dallas -- The Cowboys self-destructed Monday night at home against the Bears, blowing a chance to head into their bye at 3-1 and tied with Philadelphia for the NFC East lead. Dallas has been horrible on the turnover front in its two losses, with seven giveaways (two at Seattle and five against Chicago), and dropped passes have been a constant theme this season for quarterback Tony Romo to deal with.
After their Week 5 break, things get serious for the Cowboys: four road games in a five-week span, including three first-place opponents (at Baltimore, at Atlanta, at Philadelphia), plus a home game rematch against the Giants in Week 8. Dallas is the lowest-scoring team in the NFC so far (65), and if that trend holds, another playoff-less season is on the way.
Playoff probability: 33 percent.
7. New York Giants -- The defending Super Bowl champs have played just one complete game so far in the season's first month, that Week 3 destruction of the Panthers. Their two losses in the NFC East have been damaging, and the injury situation continues to be a major concern. Though New York's penchant for late-season hot streaks are a good history to fall back on, the schedule has no breathers, with tough trips to San Francisco, Atlanta and Baltimore still to come, as well as difficult home games against Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Philadelphia.
Add it all up and New York still looks like the first defending NFC champion to not make it back into the playoff field since the 2007 Chicago Bears.
Playoff probability: 30 percent.
8. Buffalo -- Having only one playoff-ready team to chase in the AFC East should help the Bills stay in the division race, but unfortunately that opponent is the Patriots club that just blew Buffalo's doors off at home, winning 52-28 after trailing 21-7 early in the third quarter. The Bills must again regroup after their latest embarrassment, much the way they did after getting shellacked by the Jets in Week 1.
The schedule, however, is not going to make the Bills' path to contention easy at all. In the span of its next five games, Buffalo travels to San Francisco, Arizona, Houston and New England, all of whom look to be playoff-bound in 2012. Buffalo's final seven games of the season seem winnable, but it will at least need to tread water in the deep end of the pool for a while to make those games matter come mid-November.
Playoff probability: 25 percent.
9. Washington -- The win at Tampa Bay was critically needed and keeps hope alive for a Robert Griffin III-led Redskins team that has both scored the second-most points in the NFC (123) and surrendered the second-most points in the NFC (123). Having proven they can compete on the road (where they're 2-1), the Redskins have to step it up at home, where they face Atlanta, Minnesota, Carolina and Philadelphia in their coming six games. It's a tall task to expect Washington and its gifted rookie quarterback to punch in a weight class its not quite ready for.
Playoff probability: 20 percent.
10. New York Jets -- The Jets are vivid proof that not all 2-2 records are created equal. No other two-win team in the league has been outscored by as many as 28 points this season, and Sunday's 34-0 egg-laying at home against the 49ers underlined just how far things have gotten off track already in Gotham. The offense is banged up and in disarray, and the defense is both underachieving and missing its best player (Darrelle Revis). Not a good confluence of events as New York prepares to welcome the NFL's best team to town next Monday night: the 4-0 Houston Texans.
Playoff probability: 12 percent.
11. St. Louis -- There's plenty to like about Jeff Fisher's plucky Rams to this point, like their 2-0 home record, their near-miss in Week 1 at Detroit, and the way rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein has never met a pair of uprights he can't split. But youthful St. Louis is also in the suddenly strong NFC West, and it has some stiff competition to climb over in the Cardinals, 49ers and Seahawks. When you factor in their talent gap and having one less home game to play with, courtesy of that trans-Atlantic trip to London to face New England in Week 8, the Rams face an uphill climb to stay near .500.
Playoff probability: 8 percent.
12. Indianapolis -- The news out of the Colts organization on Monday was both shocking and sad, with first-year head coach Chuck Pagano leaving the team to begin intensive treatment for leukemia. That has to set back a young club that was showing signs of competitiveness and progress under Pagano, and now offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will handle the challenging dual roles of interim head coach and playcaller, as he continues to develop rookie franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. Even in a weak AFC South, Indianapolis isn't in position to contend for the postseason.
Playoff probability: 5 percent.