King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Just how bad are all those good teams? Handicapping the NFL playoff race after a wild Sunday.

By Salon Staff
Published December 11, 2006 5:00PM (EST)

Who saw all that coming on Sunday? Yeah, that guy over there knew the Saints would rout the Cowboys in Dallas, and this fella saw the Chargers routing the Broncos and you, over there in the corner, you just felt it that the Jaguars would take a tire iron to the Colts, right?

But all of it. Who saw all of it? Those games plus the Dolphins shutting out the Patriots and depositing Tom Brady on the bench, the Panthers getting hammered by the New York Dysfunctional Giants, the Seahawks laying an egg against the Cardinals, the Bills drilling the Jets or even the Packers springing to life and beating the 49ers, for what that was worth.

Too much can be read into one week of games, especially in the NFL, where it's common for last week's gods to be this week's -- Dallas, Seattle, Jets -- dogs. And vice -- Baltimore, Miami, Giants -- versa.

But with playoff teams and hopefuls hitting the top of the stretch, let's do it anyway. Three games to go -- four for the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams, who play Monday night -- and here's a snapshot of the view from here of every playoff team and contender, in order of current seeding.


1. San Diego Chargers (11-2) The consensus best team in the NFL after pounding Denver for their seventh straight win. LaDainian Tomlinson is preposterous, but it's a mistake to think he's this whole team. He's just the whole part of the team that makes it the best in the NFL. Anything happens to him and the Chargers will be OK, but OK doesn't win Super Bowls, or even playoff games.

Quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, those guys playing wide receiver and a decent defense are good enough to take San Diego all the way as long as Tomlinson keeps the cape and red S in working order.

Having said that, please note this important caveat: Never underestimate the ability of a Marty Schottenheimer team to lose in the playoffs.

2. Indianapolis Colts (10-3) Once the consensus worst 9-0 team since at least the 2003 Chiefs and probably since way before that, the Colts are working hard to ensure their final record better reflects their true quality. These guys can't tackle anybody. Opposing quarterbacks should carry a stack of little cards they can hand to Colts ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis that say, "Congratulations on getting to me with that creative spin move or upfield speed rush. This was a running play and the ball is now 30 yards downfield, but have a nice day."

3. Baltimore Ravens (10-3) That loss to Cincinnati last week might just have been a hiccup. The Chiefs are only a middle-of-the-pack team, but it's still no small thing to go into Kansas City and win with relative ease. This punishing-defense, just-enough-offense approach may be more dangerous than San Diego's L.T.-or-bust gambit.

4. New England Patriots (9-4) Everybody knows how to beat the Patriots. Get Tom Brady out of rhythm. Trouble is, not too many teams can do it. The Dolphins did it. Someone should tell the Dolphins the season starts at Labor Day, not Halloween. In the last two years they're 5-11 in the first half of the season, 10-3 in the second half.

But anyway, the Patriots are banged up on both sides of the ball, and the "we don't need receivers anybody's ever heard of" approach isn't working as well in Foxboro as it is in San Diego. Still dangerous -- ask the Bears -- but this probably isn't their year.

5. Cincinnati Bengals (8-5) They're playing defense in the four weeks since they gave up 49 to the Chargers. Let's see how they play it against the Colts next Monday.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-5) The Colts were just waiting to get routed by somebody, but still, if the Jaguars are going to run the ball and play defense anything like they did Sunday, you can put them in the conversation with the Chargers and Ravens. Or you can wait till they lose at Tennessee next week and rethink everything.

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7. New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos (7-6) How's changing quarterbacks when you're 7-4 and holding down a wild-card spot working out, Mike Shanahan? The schedule isn't doing any favors for the two current wild-card teams, so there's still hope here among the three teams one game out. But the schedule's not a real friend for any of these guys either. Just looking at them on the field, the Jets look like the ones with the best hope, despite that loss to Buffalo Sunday.

10. Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans (6-7) Two games and four spots from a playoff berth is too much to overcome in three weeks, but these teams are worth mentioning because, as a group, they're smoking. In the last four weeks, they've combined to go 13-3, with all three losses coming against playoff teams. Too little, too late, barring a strange series of events.


1. Chicago Bears (10-2) The other least respected 10-win team in the league, along with their neighbors the Colts, and it's because of the offense. People will be feeling a lot better about Rex Grossman and Co. if they put a beating on the Rams Monday night. They probably will do that, and people probably shouldn't feel much better because of it.

2. New Orleans (9-4) Well, then. I guess that 42-17 clubbing pretty much answers the question of whether the Saints or the Cowboys are the clear No. 2 in the NFC. If LaDainian Tomlinson's the clear MVP, Drew Brees is the clear runner-up and Sean Payton -- who made his old boss Bill Parcells look like the game had passed him by Sunday -- is the clear Coach of the Year. That onside kick with the score 35-17? The kids call that getting pwned, Bill.

Hey, Houston Texans, how's that pick of Mario Williams over Reggie Bush looking now? Actually, I thought at the time that it wasn't a terrible idea, and in the long run it may turn out not to be. But, uh, you see that last cutback on the 61-yard touchdown Sunday?

3. Seattle Seahawks (8-5) And we start to see how weak the NFC still is. The Seahawks would be struggling to hang with that No. 10 group in the other conference. This team, starting with a nonexistent offensive line, is a mess, and if it wasn't in such a weak division it might miss the playoffs. The Seahawks do still have a chance to live up to part of their Super Bowl-loser destiny by finishing with a worse record than the champs, the hot Steelers.

4. Dallas Cowboys (8-5) Exposed as pretenders or just one of those nights? I suspect a little of both. The Cowboys really had been playing well of late, and their defense is better than it looked Sunday. But yeah, Mike Vanderjagt wasn't the big problem.

5. New York Giants (7-6) Things are getting better, Eli Manning hitting the occasional receiver now, but I wouldn't read too much into that win over a faltering Carolina.

6. Philadelphia Eagles (7-6) I'm still not ready to buy the Jeff Garcia-led Eagles as a playoff team, any more than I was ready to buy the Donovan McNabb-led Eagles as a serious contender.

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7. Atlanta Falcons (7-6) The Falcons are hanging around by beating bad teams. Next they play a home game against Dallas, who will either bounce back or keel over. (I think the former.) After that it gets easier -- Carolina, at Philadelphia -- but the Falcons just seem like a team that's going to lose its way down the stretch.

8. Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers (6-7) Yeah, still in the picture with a losing record. I believe the Panthers are done, and still having to play the Steelers and at New Orleans will be too much for them to get undone, even if they win at Atlanta in between. If the Vikings can win a home game against the Jets -- how good are the Jets again? -- Sunday, they'd just have to win at Green Bay and home against the Rams to finish 9-7 and almost certainly take a wild card. They could even lose to the Jets and get in at 8-8.

Betting on the Vikes in December has been foolish of late, but I think they'll do just that: Lose to the Jets, beat the Packers and Rams, and take the last wild-card spot with an 8-8 record because of a better conference record than the Falcons and Eagles. I think the Giants will get the first wild-card spot at 9-7, losing the division to the Cowboys.

Then again, if I could see into the future, I'd have seen Sunday coming.

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