by Mike Hayes - 11/18/2005
With the NFL schedule just past the mid-point the playoff picture is beginning to take shape and it appears the road to Super Bowl XL in the AFC will run through Indianapolis where the Colts are near certain to gain home field throughout the playoffs. The NFC path is not yet as clear as six teams find themselves just a game behind the conference-leading Seahawks.
At 9-0 the only real question facing the Colts is whether they can finish with an undefeated record -- an unlikely outcome when you consider home field could be locked up before the end of the season. The Colts are also faced with three tough road games beginning with the Bengals this week and later on at Jacksonville and Seattle.
In the AFC East it appears that nine wins will take the division crown and the Patriots, who at 5-4 are a game ahead of Buffalo and two games ahead of Miami, have to be considered a heavy favorite to do just that and gain a fourth seed and home game in the playoffs.
Working in the Pats favor are two games remaining against the lowly Jets and winnable home games against the Saints, Dolphins and Bucs.
The Bills on the other hand have the Chargers and Bengals remaining on their road schedule and tough home opponents in Carolina, Denver and the Pats.
For the Dolphins to make a run they would have to win their three remaining home games against Buffalo, the Jets and Titans and likely win three of four on the road against Cleveland, Oakland, San Diego and New England.
The biggest battle in the AFC will be in the North, where the Bengals and Steelers sport identical 7-2 marks and similar schedules over the final seven games. The Bengals do have to travel to Pittsburgh but the Bengals have an extra home game.
The Broncos, with a two game advantage over the Chiefs and Chargers, are on their way to a Division title and will fight it out with the Bengals or Steelers for the two seed.
The loser of the Bengals-Steelers race appears to be a lock for a Wild Card berth with the 6-3 Jaguars left to battle the 5-4 Chiefs and Chargers in the race for the final spot. Although they have one less home game than KC and San Diego the Jags find themselves in pretty good shape with four road games against teams with a combined mark of 8-28 - Tennessee, Arizona, Cleveland and Houston.
About the only thing certain in the NFC is that the 7-2 Seahawks will win the NFC West and make the playoffs. After that it's a crap shoot with 10 teams in the running for five spots.
This includes the 4-5 Philadelphia Eagles, who would need to defeat the Giants in New Jersey this week to revive their fading playoff hopes. While this might be a tall task without Terrell Owens and Donavan McNabb, the Eagles have perhaps the easiest remaining schedule in the East and could make things interesting with a win this weekend. Even with a win it is more likely the Eagles fall short and look to last week's loss against the Cowboys, in which they blew a 13-point lead with less than 4 minutes to play, as the reason why.
The Giants had home-field throughout the playoffs in their sights before last week's debacle against the Vikings. With a brutal schedule down the stretch Big Blue must focus on overcoming its 1-16 second-half record over the past three seasons and simply make the playoffs.
In addition to the Eagles this weekend the Giants will host Dallas and Kansas City and play at Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington and Oakland.
The schedule is not much kinder to the Cowboys, who at 6-3 find themselves tied with the Giants. Dallas has Denver at home on Thanksgiving and will also host the Chiefs and Rams. Road games include the Eagles, Redskins, Panthers and Giants.
At 5-4 the Redskins find themselves a game behind but still very much in the race. Like the Eagles, Washington has a favorable schedule down the stretch with three winnable road games against the Rams, Cardinals and Eagles.
The most intriguing race is in the NFC North, where somebody has to win the division and as a result play a home playoff game. It appeared early this season that six wins might win the division but then the Bears rattled off five straight wins to move to 6-3 and within striking distance of the top record in the conference.
With a brutal schedule that begins this week when they play host to the Panthers, the Bears resurgence could come to a screeching halt and pave the way for the 4-5 Vikings or Lions to win the eight or nine games it will likely take to win the Division.
If the Vikings can continue to rally around Brad Johnson they could pull this off considering they have home games against the Browns, Rams and Bears (in addition to the Steelers) and road games the Packers, Lions and Ravens.
The Lions don't have it nearly as easy as they will play host to the Falcons and Bengals in addition to the Vikes and travel to Dallas, Green Bay, New Orleans and Pittsburgh.
After hosting the Panthers this week the Bears will play road games against the Bucs, Packers, Vikes and Steelers and home games against Atlanta and the Pack again.
The 7-2 Panthers will battle the 6-3 Bucs and Falcons for the NFC South title with the losers figuring into the Wild Card race with the losers of the NFC East race.
The Bucs appear to have the most favorable schedule with two games left against the Saints.