Play­off pic­ture com­ing into fo­cus in AFC, but much is un­clear in NFC

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - SPORTS - By Barry Wil­ner AP Pro Foot­ball Writer

Sep­a­ra­tion in the AFC, a jum­ble in the NFC.

Clos­ing in on De­cem­ber, fans can ex­pect New Eng­land to grab a bye in the AFC, as well as who­ever emerges from the NFL’s best di­vi­sion, the AFC West. Two wild cards out of the West wouldn’t be a sur­prise ei­ther, while the North is a two-team crawl and the South likely be­longs to Hous­ton if it can find a way to win a road game.

The NFC has pow­er­houses in Dallas and Seat­tle, and, well, who knows?

No team in the North is par­tic­u­larly in­spir­ing, and At­lanta keeps com­ing back to the field in the South. The East is in­trigu­ing with no teams un­der .500, and there re­main five head-to-head matchups among the Cow­boys, Red­skins, Giants and Ea­gles.

Maybe the surest bet in the en­tire league is that the Browns and 49ers will bum­ble it out for the top over­all draft pick. Imag­ine open­ing with a win and then los­ing 15 straight — and not get­ting the first se­lec­tion next spring. Could hap­pen to San Fran­cisco.

A look at the di­vi­sion races with Thanks­giv­ing be­hind us.

• AFC EAST: The only un­ex­pected item here might be that the Pa­tri­ots (8-2) haven’t clinched yet. They went 3-1 with­out the sus­pended Tom Brady, and he’s come

back with a vengeance, among the league lead­ers in pass­ing. But New Eng­land has shown some vul­ner­a­bil­ity on de­fense — not that Mi­ami (6-4), Buf­falo (5-5) nor the Jets (3-7) have shown a pen­chant for do­ing much with the ball.

The Dol­phins, rid­ing a five-game win­ning streak, are in the wild­card mix, with their only op­po­nent that cur­rently owns a win­ning mark be­ing the Pa­tri­ots in the fi­nale.

• AFC NORTH: A two-team slog be­tween banged-up Pitts­burgh and in­con­sis­tent Bal­ti­more. As long as the Steelers have their of­fense on track, they are dan­ger­ous. And the Ravens, who beat Pitts­burgh ear­lier, have a solid de­fense.

This one could come down to Christ­mas Day in the Steel City, though Bal­ti­more must nav­i­gate suc­ces­sive matchups with the Dol­phins, Pa­tri­ots and Ea­gles be­fore then.

• AFC SOUTH: No one out­side of Hous­ton seems to want to be­lieve in the Tex­ans, yet they have a rel­a­tively sim­ple path to the di­vi­sion crown. They have no one on the up­com­ing sched­ule that cur­rently has a win­ning record, and have three of their fi­nal four con­tests within this weak sec­tor.

Tennessee might be the team of the fu­ture in this di­vi­sion, but seems too frag­ile to steal the AFC South ti­tle this year.

• AFC WEST: The league’s best group — yeah, we know that ev­ery­one in the NFC East is at or above .500.

Oak­land (8-2), for the first time since it went to the Su­per Bowl in 2002, seems headed for a win­ning record. Who knows, the Raiders could chal­lenge the Pa­tri­ots for home-field ad­van­tage through­out the AFC post­sea­son.

But they need to get stingier on de­fense, and they have to nav­i­gate games at all three di­vi­sion ri­vals.

That not only makes for an in­trigu­ing De­cem­ber in the AFC West, but per­haps a wild scram­ble with the de­fend­ing NFL cham­pion Bron­cos (7-3) and the usu­ally study but cur­rently in­jury-prone Chiefs (7-3).

And don’t dis­count San Diego (4-6) play­ing a spoiler role.

• NFC EAST: How ‘bout them Cow­boys? At 10-1, with a dy­namic of­fense led by rookie stars Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott and the league’s best line, they seem des­tined to win this highly com­pet­i­tive di­vi­sion. The stum­bling block could be the Giants (7-3), whose five-game win­ning string pales com­pared to Dallas’ 10-gamer. Of course, that open­ing loss for the Cow­boys was at home to the Giants.

New York will need some­one else to knock off Dallas, a ma­jor chal­lenge right now, and also must beat the Cow­boys in prime time on Dec. 11.

Wash­ing­ton (6-4-1) and Philadel­phia (5-5) would be in the mix any­where else in the NFC and might fin­ish on the out­side de­spite be­ing bet­ter than some play­off qual­i­fiers.

• NFC NORTH: Green Bay’s col­lapse, due to in­juries, poor block­ing and some strange coach­ing de­ci­sions, opened the path for Detroit (7-4) and Min­nesota (6-5). The Lions’ big win on Thanks­giv­ing — yet an­other come­back suc­cess — gave them a sweep of the Vik­ings, and a clear path to their first di­vi­sion crown since 1993.

The Pack­ers (4-6) have dropped four in a row and don’t look ca­pa­ble of any sort of surge.

• NFC SOUTH: The Fal­cons (6-4) got off to their sec­ond straight fast start. They faded badly to 8-8 in 2015 and they haven’t looked great in drop­ping three of their last five. They sure can score — a league-high 320 points — and are well coached. But their de­fense, like Oak­land’s, needs shoring up.

Carolina’s plum­met to 4-6 has been al­most shock­ing, leav­ing Tampa Bay (5-5) as the clos­est chal­lenger. Sim­i­lar to the Ti­tans, the Bucs need more nur­tur­ing, but are get­ting closer to true con­tention.

New Orleans (4-6) plays lots of tight games, usu­ally los­ing them. As long as Drew Brees is around, the Saints will scare op­po­nents, though their de­fense never does.

• NFC WEST: Seat­tle (7-2-1) has a habit of com­ing on as the mer­cury de­creases, and seems to be do­ing so again de­spite a long line at the in­fir­mary. Rus­sell Wil­son has the look of an MVP can­di­date, and the Sea­hawks’ pass­ing of­fense is for­mi­da­ble. They need to find a run­ning game, and Thomas Rawls’ re­turn to health is es­sen­tial.

That de­fense is as phys­i­cal as they come and will keep Seat­tle in ev­ery game.

The rest of the West is hard to look at, es­pe­cially the Car­di­nals (45-1), a club many called the most tal­ented in the NFL back in Septem­ber. All that tal­ent has wilted in the desert this sea­son.


New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots quar­ter­back Tom Brady passes against the San Fran­cisco 49ers dur­ing the first half of the Pa­tri­ots’ 30-17 win in Santa Clara, Calif., last Sun­day. At 8-2, the Pa­tri­ots are ex­pected to earn a bye in the AFC play­offs.


Seat­tle Sea­hawks cor­ner­back Richard Sher­man re­acts with the crowd af­ter a play against the Philadel­phia Ea­gles dur­ing the team’s 26-15 win in Seat­tle last Sun­day. De­spite in­juries, the Sea­hawks hold a com­mand­ing po­si­tion in the NFC West.

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