Predicting how divisions will shake out with seven weeks remaining
Through Week 10, everybody has at least two losses and nobody leads a division by more than one game. Here's how I see the final seven weeks sorting out, division by division:
It's clearly a two-horse race now that the Dolphins are down to their No. 3 quarterback and on a short week. The Patriots impressed me the most in Week 10, putting themselves in the argument for best team in the league with a dominating win against the Steelers. The key going forward will be the play of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. We know what to expect out of so many established stars on the Jets and Patriots, but Sanchez is the one who still needs to prove himself. He should be able to deliver down the stretch if the last two weeks -- clutch wins in overtime -- are any indication. Still, I favor the Patriots' experience.
I'm sticking with the Steelers to win this division, even after Sunday night. Pittsburgh simply doesn't match up well with the Patriots, who have won seven of the last nine games between the teams (including the playoffs). That may be a problem for the Steelers in January, but they're still the class of the AFC North. Like the Jets, the Ravens will be fighting for a wild-card spot. And like the Jets, they have a young quarterback who needs to perform consistently in the final weeks to make the playoffs. The Browns aren't quite developed yet, but I'm buying into Colt McCoy's future as an NFL quarterback.
This division is starting to sort itself out, and it's looking very familiar. The Texans had an opportunity early in the year to take control and have failed, losing their past three games. They're out of it. The Colts really rallied from all their injuries and proved that they're the best team among this group, regardless of who's on the field for them. That's why I'm so impressed by Peyton Manning this season. Nobody else could have pulled off a 6-3 record losing all of those weapons. The Titans made an effort to challenge the Colts by bringing in Randy Moss, but after his one-catch effort in a loss to the Dolphins, I'm not convinced he will be enough for Tennessee to make the playoffs.
The Chargers might be the most exciting team to watch in the final seven weeks. They'll be pushing for the playoffs, Philip Rivers is going for an MVP award and playmakers Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd return to the offense. Rivers has been sensational under tough circumstances so far -- like Manning -- and now everything's coming together in San Diego. The Raiders and Chiefs are young, talented teams built well through the draft, but they don't quite have the talent to sustain their early success.
The Giants, Eagles and Cowboys have received the brunt of the attention in the NFC East, but I think the X factor in this division could very well be the Redskins. Many doubt Donovan McNabb, but he's shown an ability to take over games in the past. If he can do that in a couple division games, he can single-handedly change the landscape of the East. Until that happens, I still like the Giants and Eagles.
The Bears are bound to fall apart as the season draws to a close. Jay Cutler takes too many gambles and, as a result, makes too many mistakes. That will leave the Packers as the only team standing. Their offense has been outstanding, and I've been thoroughly impressed by Charles Woodson. Once again, he's been a shut-down, game-changing player with his ability to create turnovers. Clay Matthews has earned plenty of praise, but Woodson is the key to that defense.
The NFC South has three playoff-caliber teams. The Falcons belong in first place after beating the Saints in New Orleans and taking down the Ravens last week, showing they can win close games. They have the potential to be as good as anybody in the NFC, but their ultimate success rests on Matt Ryan's ability to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. I was critical of the Saints early in the season, but their recent play is indicative of a playoff team. That leaves Raheem Morris' Bucs as the odd team out. I like the way that team is developing, but they're still too young.
The 49ers are in position to make a big run now that Troy Smith is running the offense. Smith has provided the spark the team was missing while Alex Smith was under center. Luckily for the 49ers, they're playing in the weakest division in the NFL and have a feasible path to the playoffs. The Seahawks are weak in plenty of areas, and I'm still concerned about their level of play on the road. They'll be hard-pressed to win at San Francisco in December. I see similarities between the Rams and the Bucs. They're at least a year away, but they're on the right track.