A: Seattle, Carolina, Denver.
Enter la crème de la crème.
With last night’s trouncing of the New Orleans Saints, the Seattle Seahawks showed what kind of team they are at their best. Seattle dominated every phase of the game and now they’ve won seven in a row. There’s no turning back for them as they’re the first team to clinch a playoff berth; this is the top team in football. With games against the 49ers, Giants, Cardinals, and Rams to end the season, Seahawk supremacy should become even more apparent.
Carolina is a surprise "A" rank. I’ve kept my eye on them throughout the year and each week I’ve only found more reasons to believe in the Panthers. They’ve now won eight in a row. They’re top ten in rushing, top ten in pass defense, and second in run defense. Cam Newton has led the way with a 98 QB rating and 18 total touchdowns to only six interceptions over the eight-game streak. The two remaining critical games for the Panthers are against the Saints, who sit deadlocked with them atop the NFC South. If either team sweeps the division, it's theirs. It’s still likely, however, that we’ll see both of them make the playoffs.
The Broncos redeemed themselves in Kansas City after squandering a commanding half-time lead in New England. That game simultaneously exhibited one of the more alarming collapses and ferocious comebacks in recent memory. Consequently, many, including me, thought Manning wouldn’t be able to handle the KC cold and the crowd noise at Arrowhead. We were wrong. The Chiefs gave the Broncos a run for their money in the first half, but after that it was all Denver—though to the Chiefs’ credit they kept it close until the end. Manning ended with five touchdowns, four of which went to Eric Decker. I’m sure plenty of Fantasy Football owners rejoiced.
B: New Orleans, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New England, Kansas City, Cincy, Detroit, Arizona.
The Saints really had a poor showing last night. They were overmatched and outcoached by the Seahawks in every conceivable way. But Brees and the boys should bounce back; the offense is simply too dynamic. What really matters, as mentioned above, is Carolina. If the Panthers can beat New Orleans, they’ll be among the elite again.
The 49ers are staying afloat. But if they’re going to be championship contenders again, they need to figure out a way to strengthen the passing game. The upcoming contest against Seattle is a crucial litmus test.
It seems Philadelphia has turned things around in a nanosecond with Nick Foles at the wheel. After a poor 3-5 start the Eagles have won four in a row and jockeyed themselves in position to seize the NFC East crown, which, by all accounts, is practically being given away. A 2-2 record the rest of the way might even be enough, but only if one of those wins is against Dallas.
The Patriots are the kind of team that loses to the downtrodden Jets, has an incredible comeback against the league’s best in the Broncos, and barely beats the hapless Texans only a week later. I must confess, I can’t figure them out. They certainly aren’t elite, but their record doesn’t allow me to discount or discredit them.
Kansas City is on a three game losing streak, but two of these games were against the Broncos. This isn’t exactly call for alarm. The Chiefs are still a good team overall and will benefit from playing Washington and Oakland the next two weeks.
Cincinnati, Detroit, and Arizona fit the lower tier "B" grade football team description. I want to believe in each of these tormented franchises, but I can’t. Cincy has a manageable remaining schedule, but the week 10 loss to the Ravens may prove critical as the defending Super Bowl champs nip at the Bengals’ heels, poised for another run.
Detroit embarrassed the Packers on Thanksgiving with an impressive pass-run attack, but games against the burgeoning Eagles, Giants, and Ravens, and an @Vikings match-up make the playoffs less of a fait accompli. Still the NFC North is theirs for the taking.
Though the Cardinals have won four of their last five, they have the misfortune of being in the same division as the Seahawks and 49ers. It’s conceivable that the Cardinals could be 9-5 in two weeks, but that will be followed by games against the Seahawks and 49ers respectively. Their success to date, however, has been a pleasant surprise and earns them a "B."
C: Dallas, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Miami, Chicago, NYG, Indy.
Welcome to the land of the mediocre, except for Baltimore and Indy. The former has recovered rapidly from a bad start and is a threat in the division, while the latter, although struggling mightily of late, will unquestionably finish as the AFC South champion.
Otherwise, Dallas almost lost to Oakland on Thanksgiving, San Diego’s dropped four of the last five, Miami and Chicago always seem to win one and lose one, Mike Tomlin’s sideline follies, in conjunction with the bitter loss in Baltimore, have a dark cloud swirling over Pittsburgh, and the Giants are stuck in no man’s land.
D: Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland, Buffalo, Green Bay, Minnesota, St. Louis.
Each one of these teams can kiss the season goodbye. Talk of “tanking” should start soon as attentions shift to the 2014 draft. Green Bay remains the only wild card of this bunch. If Aaron Rodgers gets back soon, and I mean very soon, the Packers could overtake the Lions yet. If he doesn’t, Green Bay will be packing it in shortly.
F: Washington, Jacksonville, Houston, Atlanta, NYJ, Tampa Bay.
Horrendous. Just horrendous.
Washington, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta are the first three teams to be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Jacksonville, though they’ve managed to win three of their last four, is just as abysmal as always. Beating the Titans, Browns, and Texans who, believe it or not, have the worst record in football, doesn’t mean much.
After beating the Saints in surprising fashion five weeks ago and enjoying the ensuing bye week, the New York Jets have fallen off a cliff. They have not scored a touchdown since Buffalo three weeks ago and that one came in garbage time. In short, they haven’t scored a meaningful touchdown in five weeks. It’s gotten so bad that Geno Smith was benched for the second half of the Dolphins game. For some perspective, the Jets offense has had 664 total yards over the last three weeks combined. The Lions had 561 on Thanksgiving alone.