Early middle-dwellers still have playoff shot, but who'll make it?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.