Deciphering NFL Contenders & Pretenders

If you look at the standings, there is a telling sign that can usually decipher the contenders and pretenders. Check out the standings here:

http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/standings

Look at the points for (PF) and the points against (PA) columns.
Here are the point differentials for teams in the playoff hunt:

AFC Division Leaders                              NFC Division Leaders

(7-3) Patriots  +90                                           (7-3) Cowboys +45

(8-3) Ravens +90                                              (11-0) Packers +155

(7-3) Texans +107 (lost Shaub)                  (7-3) Saints +85

(6-4) Raiders -19                                               (9-2) 49ers +101

AFC Wildcard Picture                               NFC Wildcard Picture

(7-3) Steelers +41                                              (7-3) Bears +61 (lost Cutler)

(6-4) Bengals +41                                               (7-4) Lions +70

(5-5) Broncos -42 (-8 with Tebow)             (6-4) Giants (even)

(5-5) Jets +11                                                      (6-4) Falcons +22

(5-5) Titans +8

(5-5) Bills -16

Numbers Aren’t Everything

Numbers may not lie, but they sure don’t tell the whole story. There are momentum shifts, injuries, and each season is a roller coaster. But when you are discussing the season and how the playoff picture will pan out, this is a very underrated statistic when making predictions and giving reasons for them. We have seen comebacks, miracles, and we assume we see it all until we witness the next great moment. “Any Given Sunday,” that is why they play the game.

AFC Scoop

The Raiders have been outscored this season, but they lead an AFC West division that has the Broncos, Chargers, and Chiefs with .500 records and all have been outscored. That division is up for grabs, with the winner making the playoffs. Most likely, only one team from the AFC West will get in. The Broncos have won 4 of their last 5 games since switching quarterbacks, so it’s hard to gauge what they are at the moment. They went from getting a top-5 pick in the draft to fighting for a playoff spot.

The Titans are lurking. They are in the hunt for the wildcard and most importantly, their division. The Texans have played outstanding football this season, with a good record and their point-differential shows dominance. They have lost their quarterback and although they have a 2 game lead over the Titans, the final 6 weeks should be exciting.

The Patriots will most likely win the AFC East, and their +90 point differential is amazing when you consider that they have the worst ranked defense in the NFL. The Jets are hanging on for dear life, but what they have going for them is that they are coming off consecutive AFC Championship game appearances. The Bills have nearly fallen off the map after a hot start. They still have 6 games to go in hopes of clinching their first playoff berth since 1999.

NFC Scoop

The Cowboys have a surprising point-differential because it seems that every one of their games goes down to the wire. They have taken advantage of an “easier” part in their schedule and have taken the division lead. On the contrary, despite impressive victories by the Giants, they hit a tough part of the schedule after feasting on a weaker first half of the season.

The Packers are recognized as the class of the NFL. It is for good reason, and they continue to do what they do, win football games convincingly. The Lions exploded at the beginning of the year and that keeps them in the hunt. Their point-differential suggests that they can continue their march to the postseason, and we will find out what this young team is made of. The Bears have the advantage over the Lions for being battle-tested in the big games playoffs. The downfall for the Bears though, they just lost their starting quarterback, so we can see them face adversity as well.

The Saints are quietly marching in. Anytime Drew Brees and Sean Payton are considered sleepers, you better take notice. They don’t look as strong as they did in recent years, and they have to hold off the surging Falcons. Atlanta had a rocky start and have also benefited from a lighter load on the schedule. They find themselves a game behind the Saints, as well as a game behind in the wildcard picture.

I’m sure everyone is aware of the 49ers and the remarkable season they are having. It would be a mistake to write them off after a tough loss on Thanksgiving, to a team similar to them. The Ravens are as physical as they come, and the 49ers appear to be the most physical team in the NFC. You may not like their quarterback, but the coach is maximizing the production and they have a recipe for success with the defense and running game.

Favorites

Who do I like at this point and time? Well, when we are discussing contenders and pretenders, the terms refer to the odds of winning a Superbowl. Obviously you have to put Green Bay at the top of the list, but my concern is that if they don’t lose and “come back down to earth” before the season is over, that they may face a harsh reality if they are upset on the frozen tundra for their first and only loss of their incredible run. The odds are heavily against a 19-0 season, although this team is arguably better than the Patriots were the year they went 18-1 with a Superbowl loss to the Giants.

With cutler, I like the Bears chances of a 2011 Superbowl shuffle. If they can still manage to win games and make the playoffs, I see them as being the team with the best chances to knock off the Packers. They just have to get there and get their quarterback back.

I had the Texans ranked as the 2nd best team, but unfortunately I scratch them off the list because Matt Leinart has become a backup for a reason. Hey, this young quarterback has won before and could very well jump start his career and it would be a nice comeback story. With that said, I’ll put my money on the Steelers in the AFC. The Ravens, in my eyes, want to be heard and aren’t good enough to be seen as legitimate contenders. I believe their Superbowl aspirations are premature, and they treat the games against the Steelers in that fashion. Baltimore plays to their level of competition and I’m calling their bluff. That’s how I feel about Dallas, and I don’t trust Jason Garrett. He strays away from the run and Romo is a better game-manager that can win the close games in the 4th quarter. If they stick to their obvious blueprint, they have a real opportunity.

The Patriots are not the same team we are used to watching blow out other teams. Their offensive line is older and the protection is shaky. The defense is improving, but they are dead last in all of football. When Welker is taken out of the game they struggle to move the chains. They are a contender because of their Hall of Fame coach/quarterback duo, but they need to play better all around and I don’t think they will.

The Lions are fun to watch, the Saints have their moments, the Giants are predictably inconsistent, the Falcons have an identity crisis, all NFC pretenders in my book. Whoever represents the AFC West (Raiders/Broncos/Chargers), AFC East (Jets/Bills) and AFC South (Texans/Titans), pretenders. The Bengals, if they can even out the matchups against the Steelers AND ravens, meaning beat both of them down the stretch, I will put them at #2 behind the Steelers as contenders. Yes, ahead of the Ravens and the Patriots. As of right now do I think they will win those games and will be contenders…I really want to say yes. I’ll go as far to say they are my dark-horse pick to represent the AFC, but I cannot depend on a team with so much youth and inexperience as opposed to these other teams that have been there.

So right now, I do think the Bears can keep winning football games. I do think Green Bay will lose a game and get their reality check they need. I like the Steelers because their defense is the “Steel Curtain,” Big Ben is a clutch quarterback, and the running game has not been on all season and I think it will catch on as the weather gets colder and the games are more urgent. Those are my 3 contenders. It would be easy to double that number and give you 6, but that wouldn’t be much of a prediction nor separate the field of pretenders. Plus it’s gutsier! I still hold hope for my Eagles to win out after a disappointing season thus far, but realistically the odds detour my bias as a fan of the game!

Good luck to your teams. Thee rest of the see is “must-see” and the postseason will be memorable!