by Jacob Pickle
Week 14 of the NFL season is underway tonight, and the playoff picture is starting to take shape. Like preparing for the majority of finals, predicting the future in the consistently erratic NFL is usually a hopeless shot in the dark.
So, like any test, the most reassuring place to start is with the question that even the kid unwrapping his textbook on Reading Day knocks out first.
Within professional football, that freebie can be found firmly planted at the top of the NFC. The Seattle Seahawks are far and away the most complete team in football right now and, unfortunately for the rest of the conference, the path to the Super Bowl will undoubtedly go through the Guinness record-holding CenturyLink Field.
If you haven’t heard, Seattle fans raised the bar for stadium noise last week by recording a 137.6 dbA level during a 3rd quarter defensive stand against the Saints.
For comparison’s sake, that’s louder than if someone held a running chainsaw next to Drew Brees’ head as he attempted to shout out adjustments to defensive alignments.
After dismantling the Saints 34-7, the Seahawks showed that they don’t really need any additional help to break down quality teams.
Coming into the season with the league’s most revered defense, the unit has more than lived up to its own lofty expectations. The Seahawks currently lead the league in a litany of defensive categories, including total yard and pass defense, even after losing a handful of key players.
With two of their top three cornerbacks lost to substance-abuse suspensions, the Seahawks plugged their secondary with a couple of no-namers and still managed to shut down one of the top ranked passing offenses in the league.
In its overhyped thrashing of the Saints, Seattle managed to hold Brees and New Orleans’ dynamic attack to less than 200 yards for the first time in 42 games.
For as good as the defense has been, it’s the complementary play of the offense that’s really beginning to worry the rest of the NFC.
After an offseason of questions concerning his consistency and a potential sophomore slump, Russell Wilson is playing just as well as a franchise quarterback is supposed to.
With the help of a strong ground game driven by Marshawn Lynch, Wilson finds himself in the top ten for nearly every passing statistic that actually matters.
If Seattle keeps up their quality of play throughout the rest of the season, there’s little doubt it’ll find itself at the Meadowlands come Super Bowl Sunday.
Even after their debacle against the Seahawks, the Saints are still poised to take hold of the second seed and first-round bye in the NFC after playing arguably their best game of the season against the red-hot Panthers at home on Sunday night.
New Orleans routed Carolina 31-13, a team that came into the matchup on an eight-game winning streak, to take a slight advantage in the race for the NFC South.
The two will meet again in their second-to-last game of the season and, considering how good they looked at home on Sunday, expect the Saints to reclaim division dominance.
This is where things in the NFC start getting hazier than a winter snowstorm. The Eagles and Cowboys are currently dueling it out for the NFC East crown in a fight that could very well go the distance (insert any additional Rocky clichés here).
Although there’s been new life to Philadelphia with Nick Foles at the helm, who has looked like the genetically engineered offspring of Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and Napoleon Dynamite on and off the field this season, Dallas essentially holds the fate of the division in their hands.
Even if they win out behind Foles, a much-improved defense and the league’s best all-purpose/all-weather back in LeSean McCoy, the Eagles could still walk into their season finale at Dallas with their playoff fate still on the line.
As poorly as the Cowboys have performed in December and January in the past, they look like a good enough team to pull themselves into relevance this year.
With Tony Romo throwing the ball just about as well as he has his entire career, look for Dallas to finally play winning football down the stretch and take the division title.
In the NFC North, even after stumbling their way through the Snow Bowl against the Eagles, the Detroit Lions should end up claiming the NFC North as long as they don’t continue shooting themselves in the foot.
An obscenely talented team with a knack for self-infliction, the Lions’ biggest opponent in the next couple weeks will be themselves.
If they manage to stop turning the ball over so consistently and start utilizing the matchup advantage Calvin Johnson gives them every week, they should be able to outlast the Packers and the Bears for the divisional crown.
Moving to the final two Wildcard spots in the NFC, things get even more convoluted. The loser of the NFC East race will need plenty of help finding their way into the playoffs, so it seems likely that the two seeds will instead come out of the NFC South and the NFC West.
While they struggled at the Superdome against the Saints this past week, for the better part of the season the Panthers have looked like one of the most dangerous teams in the conference.
If Cam Newton can continue playing at a solid level, the combination of a great running game and one of the most complete defenses in the NFL makes the Panthers a threat to any of the NFC’s top teams.
An even scarier playoff surprise could come from the San Francisco 49ers, the most likely candidate to take the sixth and final seed in the NFC.
In an era when wildcard teams have been making Super Bowl runs left and right, the Niners could potentially be one of the most dangerous sixth seeds the league has ever seen, having just beaten Seattle.
Although Colin Kaepernick hasn’t played his most consistent football this season, the Niners showed on Sunday against the Seahawks that they are still capable of beating any team in the NFL.
By returning to a style of play that has served them so well in the past, the 49ers were able to pull out a 19-17 win against the league’s preeminent team.
San Francisco established dominance in the rushing game on both sides of the ball and used a great performance from their front seven to keep pressure on Russell Wilson all day long.
If they can manage to tighten their grip on the last postseason spot, the road-savvy Niners could easily find themselves making a run through the NFC this January.
The AFC is a little more cut-and-dry, at least as far as the NFL playoff picture usually goes. The Denver Broncos look primed to take the AFC West and home-field advantage through the postseason, even following a slight sputter after their record-breaking start to the season.
Although Kansas City is still right on their heels in the division, an easier closing schedule and two earlier victories over the Chiefs have Peyton Manning and the Broncos set as favorites to take the one seed for the second year in a row.
With the offense clicking again, if Denver can manage to sure up their 29th ranked passing defense before the playoffs start they will undoubtedly be the hardest out in the AFC.
Like nearly every other season in recent memory, the New England Patriots are in position to claim the other top seed in the conference.
With a difficult next two games against strong wildcard contenders in Miami and Baltimore, the Patriots could find themselves with only the third seed to go along with their fifth straight AFC East title.
Although Tom Brady somehow managed another prolific season with essentially no offensive firepower, the loss of Rob Gronkowski to a torn ACL and MCL could throw a major wrench in the Patriots’ plans for another Super Bowl title.
The Cincinnati Bengals, who have all but clinched the AFC North title, could easily slide into the No. 3 spot instead. After an impressive demolishing of the Indianapolis Colts, the Bengals are starting to look even better than their 9-4 record suggests.
Although there has been questions concerning its toughness in close games, with two of their losses coming in overtime against Miami and Baltimore, Cincinnati has shown they can win in any way imaginable.
With one of the stronger defensive units in the league and an offense that has proved they can put up points in bunches, the Bengals have the ability to surprise plenty of people once the playoffs get underway.
In a weak AFC South, the Colts coasted to their first division title since the departure of Peyton Manning despite their various flaws.
Although they were considered to be a serious threat in the AFC when they knocked off the Broncos in October, Indianapolis is looking more and more like a team destined to be bounced from the playoffs in the first round.
The Colts haven’t beaten a team with a winning record since then and, with injuries, a flimsy defense and an inconsistent offense to blame, have plenty to fix if they want to make any noise this postseason.
With Kansas City likely taking the fifth seed in the conference with the first Wildcard birth, the real debate comes down to who will claim the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC.
As Baltimore, Miami, San Diego and even the New York football Jets vie for the second Wildcard, the Ravens look to be the only truly competent team of the group.
Although they are currently tied at 7-6 with the inconsistent Dolphins, who have the easier remaining schedule of the two, Baltimore is starting to show signs of life reminiscent of their Super Bowl run last year.
While it’s doubtful they have the personnel to repeat, the Ravens defense is looking good enough to anchor another late-season playoff push.