With five weeks left in the NFL's regular season, we confidently submit five bold predictions for the rest of the way. Crystal ball time...
1. The San Diego Chargers are running the table. Not only will they continue their late-season surge to a fifth consecutive playoff berth, but also they'll hit the postseason with a nine-game winning streak, an 11-5 record and the franchise's sixth AFC West title in the past seven years. And then they'll lose in the playoffs.
You've either seen this movie or read the book, right? Yeah, me too. The streakin' Chargers are the NFL's version of the Swallows of Capistrano: Somehow they always find their way back to the postseason, no matter how poorly they start. They won their final 11 games last season after starting 2-3. They won their final four games in 2008 after sitting 4-8 through the first three-fourths of the season. And they closed out 2007 with six straight wins after going 5-5 through 10 games. It's just what they do.
But usually the Chargers win the division going away, as their three AFC West titles by at least a four-game margin in the past four years would attest. Not this time. Not with improved and on-its-way-up Kansas City (7-4) offering real competition in the division San Diego has essentially owned since 2004. The Chiefs are going to make the Chargers work for it this time, and perhaps could even join them in the six-team AFC playoff field if some other contenders struggle down the stretch.
But after watching the Chargers pummel the Colts by 22 points Sunday night, I saw all I needed to see to know we can count on Norv Turner's club to once again be there in January, looking formidable and generating the kind of "team-that-no-one-wants-to-play'' buzz it always seems to carry into the playoffs. And why not? The Chargers will hit the postseason not having lost a game since falling to 2-5 with a Week 7 three-point loss at home to New England. You can book that side bet right now.
Of the Chargers' final five opponents, high-scoring Kansas City in Week 14 is the only one that has a chance to beat them, and with the game being in San Diego, it's not a good chance. Four of the Chargers' remaining foes are currently under .500, and their combined winning percentage of .382 (21-34) makes San Diego's Week 13-17 schedule the softest among all AFC playoff contenders.
In order, the Chargers play three home games in a row against the suddenly fading Raiders (5-6), the first-place Chiefs, and the less-than-intimidating 49ers">49ers (4-7). Then San Diego wraps up the regular season with a two-game road trip to Cincinnati (2-9) and Denver (3-8), two troubled teams that have long since given up the ghost in 2010. See what I mean? The Chargers' current four-game winning streak is destined for nine.
At that point, of course, the worm turns and everything changes for San Diego. Nothing matters but what happens in the playoffs for this Chargers team, and the postseason often has been cruel in San Diego. I can't see the Norv-men getting past the likes of New England, the Jets, Baltimore or Pittsburgh in the playoffs, and that means the bitter end of the Chargers season will be just as familiar to their faithful fans as this patented second-half run has been.
2. There's always at least one losing team that finishes strong and builds momentum for bigger and better things to come next year, and that team this season will be the ... Detroit Lions. That's right, the Lions, winners of a combined four games in the past three seasons.
Remember late in 2008, when the Bengals were 1-11-1, but then won three in a row to end the year and set up their AFC North championship season of 2009? How about last year, when the Bucs started 1-12, but won two of their last three games to presage their resurgence in 2010? Even the 4-12 Chiefs last year gave us a hint of what was to come this season with that 44-24 blowout win at Denver in Week 17, proving they might have something going on offense after all.
It takes a bit of projection, but I foresee a similar storyline emerging late this season in Detroit. The Leos are 2-9 and again own last place in the NFC North. But they have been oh so close this season to registering some pretty impressive wins, and my sense is their luck is about to change.
Detroit lost by five points at Chicago on the Calvin Johnson non-catch call, fell by three points to the Eagles, by two points at the Packers, and by three points in overtime at home against the Jets. That's four losses by a combined 13 points to four likely playoff teams. And that's not even counting a two-point defeat at Buffalo.
For a team that's a whopping seven games under .500, the Lions can still salvage some respect and have a sizable say in how things turn out in the NFC North over the course of the next five weeks. Mainly because they still have to play all three of their division rivals at Ford Field: This week against first-place Chicago (8-3), next week against Green Bay (7-4), and in Week 17 against Minnesota (4-7) and a Vikings team that looks good so far playing under interim head coach Leslie Frazier.
The Lions also have games at Tampa Bay and Miami in Weeks 15-16, and they won't be favored to win either one. But two or three Detroit wins between now and the end of the season will provide the boost the Lions need to make 2011 that long-awaited turnaround season. Let Detroit experience a little late-season success and we might be looking at Jim Schwartz's team -- and all its 2010 near-misses -- in an entirely hopeful light.
3. The NFC West co-leaders aside, the Titans are the 5-6 team that still has a pretty decent chance to make the playoffs.
I know, it sounds absurd. But the way this season has unfolded thus far, the absurd has to be accounted for. Sure, the Titans are in last place in the AFC South at the moment, having lost four in a row and seemingly been beset by turmoil, dysfunction and even the emotional burden of offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger's cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Tennessee doesn't have a viable starting quarterback until Kerry Collins returns to the lineup, is coming off a 20-point shutout loss at Houston, and still faces an impending showdown between head coach Jeff Fisher and franchise QB Vince Young this offseason.
But that's not enough to sink you in this year's AFC South, where all four teams have significant issues and find themselves separated by just one game, top to bottom. The Titans, believe it or not, are very much alive thanks to their schedule. In the next three weeks, Tennessee plays all three of its division opponents, all at home: Jacksonville this week, Indianapolis next Thursday night, and Houston in Week 15.
As crazy as it is to imagine, but with wins over the division-leading Jaguars (6-5) and Colts (6-5), the Titans could vault from last place to first place in the division between now and Dec. 9 -- a span of just 10 days. Getting those two wins are a big if, to be sure. But if Collins can return from his calf injury this week, as is hoped, the Titans' chances to beat Jacksonville will soar. Tennessee already routed Jack Del Rio's team 30-3 on the road in Week 6, a game in which Collins played and played well.
Beating the Jags would give the Titans a series sweep of Jacksonville and the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage in the division. Then Tennessee would have to take care of business against the injury-plagued Colts (who they also face in Week 17 in Indy) and the defensively-challenged Texans. But with four of their six division games still to be played, the Titans know their road to the playoffs remains there for the taking.
Tennessee reaching the playoffs after being 5-6 would be impressive, but hardly rare. It happens the same way almost every season. The Jets were 4-6 last season, and eliminated by their own head coach at 7-7. But they made the AFC title game. The 2008 Eagles started 5-5-1, then ripped off a 4-1 finish and wound up playing in the NFC title game. The 2007 Redskins started 5-7, but won their last four and made the playoffs, and the 2006 Eagles overcame a 5-6 start to go 10-6 and earn their way to the NFC's divisional round.
4. The Giants and Bucs will be the two best teams to miss the playoffs in the NFC. The postseason math isn't going to work out for everyone in the jumbled NFC this year. There are seven teams with records of at least 7-4 in the conference, but only five will advance to the playoffs because the NFC West winner will earn a berth -- whether anyone in the division finishes with more than six wins or not.
The teams ahead of the 7-4 Giants at the moment are the Falcons (9-2), Bears (8-3), Saints (8-3), and Eagles (7-4). New York holds down the No. 6 slot in the NFC, ahead of Tampa Bay (7-4) and Green Bay (7-4). But I don't like New York's chances of finishing ahead of the Packers, even though Green Bay has the tougher remaining schedule in terms of opponent winning percentage (.537 to .509).
The Giants struggled to beat Jacksonville at home on Sunday, needing 15 points in the fourth quarter to squeak out a 24-20 season-saving win. But their defense has been getting run on of late (the Jaguars rushed for 207 yards) and New York's offense has been turnover-prone and sluggish at times. Then there's this fact: Since head coach Tom Coughlin's arrival in 2004, the Giants have always been a shaky second-half team, winning fewer games in the back half of its schedule than the first half each year.
New York at least should have the ability to control its own fate. The Giants play at home against Philadelphia in Week 15, and at Green Bay in Week 16. The Eagles beat New York in Week 11, and the Packers are the team New York must hold off to protect its current No. 6 playoff seeding.
Tampa Bay occupies the No. 7 spot in terms of NFC seeding, just out of the money and just ahead of No. 8 Green Bay. The Bucs' remaining five opponents have a .527 winning percentage, but their key games are both in the division, where they trail the Saints by one game and the Falcons by two. They get Atlanta at home in Tampa this Sunday, and finish the season off with a trip to New Orleans in Week 17. If the Bucs' pattern holds this season, they'll lose both, because Raheem Morris's club is 0-4 this season against teams with winning records.
5. Brett Favre isn't the only big-name quarterback who's in the last five games of his tenure as his team's starter. Washington's Mike Shanahan is going to come to the conclusion that Donovan McNabb is not the answer.
McNabb's first season as a Redskin has been underwhelming by almost any measurement. His 11 touchdown passes are his fewest since he threw eight as an Eagles rookie in 1999, when he only started six games. His 13 interceptions are already tied for his career high, when he tossed that many in 16 starts for Philadelphia in 2000. His 76.0 passer rating is 27th among 33 qualifying quarterbacks in the league, and his lowest since his rookie season. And his 7.3-yard average attempt is down almost a full yard from 2009 (8.0).
After playing in the same system for 11 years under Andy Reid in Philadelphia, McNabb simply hasn't clicked in Shanahan's offense yet. His play has been hesitant at times, inconsistent, and mostly uninspiring. And when Shanahan benched McNabb in favor of Rex Grossman for the final two minutes of that midseason loss at Detroit, it provided a window into how he really feels about the franchise quarterback he traded for last Easter Sunday.
Recent contract extension or no contract extension, the Redskins have a relatively easy out clause built into McNabb's new deal, and I think they put it there because of the doubts that exist in the minds of Shanahan and his son, Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. If Washington convinces itself that it has any better options than No. 5 next season, and I believe it will, then the McNabb era in D.C. will wind up being a much-celebrated but largely disappointing one- and-done.