Expert NFL Handicapping: Playoff Contenders and Pretenders
We are only 11 weeks into the NFL season, so there isn't a team that has a playoff spot clinched yet - at least not mathematically. But there is a lot that we know by this point, and we are getting a clear sense of which teams will certainly be playoff teams, which ones could be, and which ones have no hope. And of those playoff contenders, we are getting a good sense of the true contenders and the pretenders. Here's a look at how the contenders break down (odds to win the conference are from Bovada ):
The real deal
Kansas City (+215) is a video game come to life. Ridiculously talented offensively, and with an absence of fear, this is a well-coached team that will be tough. Some will be afraid of a first-year starter in the postseason, but this is not your typical first-year starter - and we have a lot of time before we have to worry about that. New England (+235) is New England, and if you don't think that they are a real contender then I congratulate you on finally waking up from the coma you have been in for the last 15 years. Pittsburgh (+375) seems to be a step behind the top two, but they just keep winning and are doing so despite the drama off the field. Big Ben looks stronger than he has in a while, and that keeps them among the top contenders.
Legitimate, but with questions
It's amazing the difference just one game can make in the perception of a team. Coming into last week the Chargers (+750) had won six in a row. It was a weak schedule - Seattle and Tennessee were the best opponents they faced - but three of the six wins were by more than two touchdowns, and they were looking strong. But then at home against Denver in a game in which they were heavily favored and leading by double-digits in the second half, they collapsed. And it's not like Denver is an impressive team on either side of the ball. And now it's harder to trust this team. A playoff team almost certainly, but it's tougher to see them as any more than that than it was a week ago - and they were fringe contenders even then.
Houston (+1100) also fits into this category. Seven straight wins earns obvious respect, but it has been against a very weak schedule. The schedule remains weak going forward, so there is a good chance they will go into the playoffs with a nice record. But you have to play real teams in the postseason, and I doubt they are ready.
One of the Dolphins (+12500), Ravens (+2500), Bengals (+5000), Titans (+3300) or Colts (+2000) are going to be a playoff team. Maybe two of them if things really get crazy. But none of those teams has any chance at all of winning two playoff games. They would have to win three just to make the Super Bowl as a wild-card team.
The real deal
It felt like the NFC was incredibly deep as we got ready for the season to start. Now it seems like it is just a two-team conference. New Orleans (+155) and the Rams (+165) are playing chess. And it's not like the rest of the teams are even playing checkers. If these teams stay healthy and one of the two don't win the conference, it would go down as the biggest upset in recent memory.
The best of the rest
The Bears (+800) are going to win their division and have really taken massive strides forward this year. The defense is sound, but it's hard to imagine them being good enough to handle the Rams or the Saints, and they would very likely have to beat both to win the conference.
The Vikings (+1300) lost to the Bears to make it very tough for them to win the conference, and they have not looked great all year. But on paper they should be the third-best team in this conference. And if they can find another gear down the stretch, they could make things a little interesting. But probably not.
Three NFC East teams - the Redskins (+4000), Cowboys (+2500) and Eagles (+4000) - are still in contention to win the division. But when you win by default, it's hard to get excited. Each of these teams have more issues than we could cover in 20,000 words. Horrible, horrible division. Carolina (+2200) feels like a better team than their record, but they just can't get out of their own way, aren't improving, and just don't match up with the top two. Green Bay (+2000) and Seattle (+2200) are once-great programs just barreling towards coaching changes. With their quarterbacks and their experience, they could have a trick or two up their sleeves, but just not nearly enough.
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