Simon Veness examines the NFL play-off picture
Simon Veness examines the play-off picture as the race for the end of season showdown heats up...
Last Updated: 20/12/12 5:36pm
There are just two games left and ALL the talk (unless you're from New York, where it is all about the quarterback situation at both the Giants and Jets; more of that later) is of who will be in and who will be out when the Regular Season dance stops - and the play-offs begin.
Here's the Story So Far. Back in Week 7, in the Just For Fun sign-off to this column, we looked at what would happen if The Post-Season Started Tomorrow and the knockout stage of the year kicked in. We've followed it week by week and charted the risers and fallers in the Play-Off Stakes but now we're pretty much there and, with seven teams already confirmed to dance on, there are still 11 battling to be one of the other five.
Amazingly, both Houston and Atlanta have held steady as the No 1 seeds through all nine weeks, with a few tremors here and there (the Texans getting broadsided by Green Bay and New England; the Falcons being brought to earth by Carolina and New Orleans) and one more win will be enough to confirm that the road to Super Bowl XLVII goes through Reliant Stadium and the Georgia Dome respectively.
The story of the No 2 seed is more intriguing, though, as we started off with Baltimore and Chicago and both looked nailed-on through Weeks 7 to 10. The Ravens hung on for another three weeks but the Bears' wheels were wobbling badly and now they are on the outside looking in, needing to win both their last two games and hoping at least two of Seattle, Minnesota, Dallas and the Giants stumble.
From being set for another long-term contract, Lovie Smith is now finding himself next to headlines that ask 'If' he will be back next year, following near-inexplicable losses to the Vikings, Seahawks, 49ers and Texans. Equally, the questions abound about Joe Flacco's future under centre with Baltimore, and, unless the Ravens finish strong and make a decent show in the play-offs, several pundits think there will be no long-term new deal for the five-year quarterback.
Into the second seeded spot have come Denver and San Francisco, making steady progress from Weeks 7 to 11, then solidifying their challenge with increasingly consistent, even effortless (in the case of the Broncos) outings in the last month or so. Win out and they will also earn a first round bye, while Peyton Manning and Co could even snatch the top seeding if the Texans falter.
New England have consistently held the third spot in the AFC, apart from a brief flirtation with No 2 after their Week 14 demolition of the Texans (which was, of course, followed by an immediate hiccup at home to the 49ers that allowed Denver to leap-frog them). The Grey Hoodie's men are firmly set for their 10th post-season appearance in 12 years and the only question will be if they can snatch the bye week from the Broncos, who would have to lose to either Kansas City or Cleveland.
Green Bay have snuck up to the NFC's third spot after just scraping in at No 6 back in Week 7. With the exception of a Week 12 mauling at the Giants, the Packers look like genuine contenders, and most pundits think it is between them and the 49ers for a trip to New Orleans (sorry, Falcons fans, there just isn't much consistent play-off love for your team).
For the fourth seed, and the other team that would guarantee a home game in the Wild Card round, both conferences have shown a similar pattern. In the AFC it was all about Denver, until Baltimore's fall from grace and now a less-than-firm grip on that spot. In the NFC, the Giants have been there from Week 9 to 14 - until that massive egg-laying at Atlanta that has thrown their whole season into turmoil.
Now Washington sit handily in the NFC's No 4 slot, having bounced straight in on the back of five straight wins and the dynamic play of rookie quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins. Considering they haven't figured in the top six at ANY stage this season, the Redskins are officially the Big Surprise of the year, and they could yet be more surprising still.
The Wild Card spots have given us the most intrigue, with Indianapolis and Pittsburgh (AFC) and Green Bay and Seattle (NFC) being the most consistent inhabitants, with the Colts and Seahawks solidifying their positions in recent weeks while the Packers and Steelers went in opposite directions.
San Diego, Miami and Minnesota were all early contenders who seemed set to fizzle out (clearly in the case of the Chargers, only just in the case of the Dolphins, and Not Yet We Don't in the example of the Vikings, who stand to be the biggest beneficiaries of the Bears' late-season meltdown).
For Pittsburgh, the story of our nine-week play-off journey is a true roller-coaster ride, or a Jekyll and Hyde act, depending on which simile you prefer. Certainly they have hit the highs and lows with great regularity, while also alternating between Houston-like brilliance and Philadelphia-esque awfulness. If they can just stop the bleeding of all those turnovers, you feel there is still a good team struggling to break out, but this week's showdown at home to Cincinnati, who have usurped their play-off place - possibly only temporarily - is absolutely unequivocal.
The upshot of all this post-season prognostication will be seen in full technicoloured detail in Sky's two featured games on Sunday, with the heavyweight Steelers-Bengals showdown followed by the Ravens-Giants battle. Two of these teams are going to feel awfully hollow and powerless come Monday morning and, while it may not be pretty, it should make for riveting viewing.
Neither Pittsburgh nor New York can afford to lose to have any Big Easy ambitions in February, but equally Cincinnati and Baltimore will be feeling mighty fragile if they finish up on the wrong side of the scoreline. It all serves to highlight the delicious do-or-die nature of the final weeks of the season - and ensures this rarefied race for the play-offs remains one of the best in sport.
So, for the final time, If The Play-offs Started Tomorrow: AFC - byes, Houston and Denver; New England v Cincinnati and Baltimore v Indianapolis. NFC - byes, Atlanta and San Francisco; Green Bay v Minnesota and Washington v Seattle.
Just For Fun
New York - and especially the green half of the city - has become the punchline to numerous jokes in the wake of the two teams' fairly miserable showings in Week 15, which left the Jets totally grounded and the Giants needing another big finish to keep their season alive.
For Rex Ryan's men, they achieved the near impossible - looking even WORSE than we thought they were. Whatever Mark Sanchez had been studying prior to the trip to Tennessee, it wasn't from the book marked 'Quarterback,' and the fact the Jets would rather start rookie Greg McElroy against San Diego on Sunday than Tim Tebow speaks volumes for the complete chaos in the team's offensive thinking, which is, quite frankly, offensive.
The word 'dysfunction' was bandied around about a billion times in the wake of what was a truly, deeply appalling game, and you have to think McElroy has inherited the most poisoned of chalices for the final two weeks of the season. Spring cleaning in the MetLife cannot come soon enough.
For the Giants, yes, the reigning champs might still come through with flying colours as division winners or even just as a Wild Card contender, as they did in 2007. And yes, Eli Manning is still at quarterback, with his near-mystical ability to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.
But this week's trip to Baltimore is more than a gut-check for both teams and the loser could well find their season ending a LOT sooner than they had imagined just a few weeks ago.
So, if the blue half of the city joins the green in sitting idly on the sidelines come January, there won't be much joy in the Big Apple this winter. And the joke will definitely be on the city that will actually host the Big Game in 2014.