With the bye weeks over and the three-game pigskin feast that is Thanksgiving just a couple of days away from kickoff, watching the pieces fall into place with the 96 games that remain in the NFL's regular season traditionally makes this the best time of the year to follow the game.
But there is an unexpected twist involved this season, in that there's much more clarity than we're used to this early in regards to how the 12-team postseason field is shaping up. Perhaps you haven't noticed, but through 11 weeks, the division races in the AFC are all but non-existent, and the NFC only features two of its four divisions where the top two teams are within a game or less of one another.
In the AFC, New England, Houston and Denver all have built commanding three-game leads in their division, and the Broncos actually lead by four when you factor in their two-game series sweep of the reeling second-place Chargers. Only AFC North-leading Baltimore holds a lead as small as two games (over Pittsburgh), but the Ravens just beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh and have the chance to all but lock up the division next week when the rematch unfolds at M&T Bank Stadium.
The NFC division races are considerably tighter as we head down the season's backstretch, but not across the board. Atlanta has a comfy three-game bulge in the South, and San Francisco holds a much-less commanding 1 1/2-game edge over Seattle in the West, thanks to its Monday night rout of the Bears. But it's in the NFC North and the NFC East where things look decidedly undecided as crunch time approaches. In the North, Chicago and Green Bay now are tied at 7-3 with a game remaining head to head, and in the East, the top three teams are separated by just two games.
Having just two out of eight division races remain ultra-competitive at this point perhaps doesn't portend a bevy of December drama, at least compared to last season. Through 11 weeks in 2011, we still had four division races where the top two or three teams were either tied or within a game of each other, and two other divisions where the gap was only two games between first and second place.
Same goes for 2010, and even more so, when through 11 games all eight divisions had at least two teams separated by just one game at the top, with four divisions featuring co-leaders as Thanksgiving week arrived. Ten of the AFC's 16 teams were within a game of first place after 11 weeks that season, and the same went for nine of the NFC's 16 clubs.
And as we've noted before, there appears to be a great chance for this year's playoff field to look very familiar, given that the AFC field could include playoff perennials New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, with Denver and Houston both being repeat division champs making it back to the dance. In the NFC, Atlanta, the Giants and Green Bay have all been regular qualifiers for January action of late, and the number of playoff repeaters would grow if San Francisco, Chicago and even comeback-minded New Orleans makes the field.
Consider this: If the Bucs and Saints can stay hot and overtake the Seahawks and Bears to claim wild-card berths, the NFL's 2012 playoff field easily could include the clubs responsible for winning the most recent 12 Super Bowls, dating from 2000 on -- Baltimore, New England, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, the Giants, New Orleans, and Green Bay.
Of the 12 teams in playoff position at the moment, only three of them weren't in the 2011 postseason, and even in the case of the Bears, Seahawks and Colts, all three of them won their divisions as recently as 2010. While the NFL is understandably proud of its parity-infused streak of having at least five new teams in the playoffs every year since 1996, chances are it's ending this season unless the Bucs, Vikings and Cowboys win their way into the tournament.
But while we seemingly know plenty about this year's eventual playoff field even before Turkey Day, we probably don't know as much as we think, the NFL being the NFL, with late-season table-runners like the Giants and Packers winning the past two Super Bowls.
Many of the division races may not be eventful this season, but there are still plenty of teams fighting for their playoff lives, and that means there will be games of great importance between clubs with little margin for error. For the moment, let's set aside those teams with comfortable multi-game division leads and focus on the showdowns that feature contenders who will play out the rest of the season with their backs against the wall.
From my vantage point, that's a 10-team NFC contingent that takes in the Giants (6-4), Dallas (5-5), Washington (4-6), Tampa Bay (6-4), New Orleans (5-5), Minnesota (6-4), Green Bay (7-3), Chicago (7-3), San Francisco (7-2-1) and Seattle (6-4). In the AFC, where more seems set, we'll put Pittsburgh (6-4), Indianapolis (6-4) and resurgent Cincinnati (5-5) in that no-ground-to-give category.
While glamor match-ups like Houston at New England in Week 14 or Denver at Baltimore in Week 15 are not to be over-looked, we're more interested in the must-see games that will directly impact teams on the playoff bubble. While the playoff picture is constantly evolving, here's a current snapshot of today's reality in the postseason chase. With six weeks to go, here are the 12 games left in 2012 that have the greatest chance to determine who makes the 12-team playoff field:
The Redskins did it again in 2007, sitting 5-7 after 12 games, tied for last place in the division and still in shock from the shooting death of safety Sean Taylor as Week 13 ended. But united and focused in the season's final month, Washington went on a 4-0 run to finish 9-7 and nip three 8-8 clubs for the NFC's second wild-card slot.
For the Cowboys, who must travel to Washington in Week 17, the significance of Thursday's Thanksgiving visit from the Redskins is clear-cut: With a Dallas win and a Giants loss at home to Green Bay on Sunday, the NFC East would be a 6-5 tie with five games to go. And that's just four weeks after New York won in Dallas to improve to 6-2, dropping the Cowboys to 3-4 and 2 1/2 games off the division lead.
As if that's not enough juice, both teams are in dogfights in their division, with the Packers winning five in a row to pull into a first-place tie with the Bears, and the Giants trying to both hold off the Cowboys and end yet another second-half swoon. It looks like two teams headed in opposite directions, but nothing comes easily for the Packers against New York, and we've seen again and again what Tom Coughlin's team is capable of when it has the proper motivational fodder.
But the 2005 season is a good object lesson of what can happen if you keep your head down and work hard. The Bill Cowher-coached Steelers were 7-5, two games behind first-place Cincinnati and on a three-game losing streak that season entering Week 14. But they didn't lose again, winning four in a row to close the regular season as a wild-card qualifier, and four more in the playoffs, earning that long-pursued fifth Super Bowl ring for the franchise. Could similar magic unfold for Mike Tomlin's injury-depleted club?
Maybe there will be some surprise factor to this postseason after all, because if I told you in August that Tampa Bay and Indianapolis (combined record of 6-26 last season) could both be gunning for a playoff berth in Week 17, stunning might be the only description that fit.