With the NFL season just past its midway point, and the playoff future of many teams still left uncertain, I thought I'd make some predictions. Here's what I expect to see come January:
New England Patriots (11-5)
If I've learned anything from this decade in football, it's that you can never count out a Bill Bellichek coached team. Even in the absense of stars Tom Brady, Rodney Harrison, and now Adalius Thomas and Laurence Maroney, I still think the Patriots will win their division. Matt Cassell has been up and down at times, but in the last few weeks he has demonstrated an ability to lead. The Patriots have also managed to keep the running game going in the absense of Maroney. They rank 7th in the NFL in rushing, and the recent emergence of BenJarvus Green-Ellis (I know, that's a lot of first names) shows an indication that their ranking may only get better. The Patriots have also shown they are confident enough in Cassell to take chances down the field. As Moss and Welker continue to gain confidence in their quarterback, the only place the Pats can go is up. Oh and right, they're already in first place in the division.
AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
This division will come down to one game. December 14th, Steelers vs. Ravens, at Baltimore. While the Ravens defense may be thriving once again, its the Steelers that hold the NFL's top defense. Combine that with a more experienced quarterback and a Pro-Bowl running back's return, and its easy to see why the Steelers should prevail. Both teams face a tough road ahead, but the Steelers are just a little bit better.
AFC South: Tennessee Titans (13-3)
This one isn't that difficult. At 9-0, the Titans are pretty much a lock for the division title. Their final 7 games are fairly tough though. I expect their undefeated season to come to an end in the near future, and with a comfortable division lead in the final weeks, I expect to see some more losses to teams vying for playoff spots.
AFC West: Denver Broncos (9-7)
The AFC West has really fallen off this year, huh? Even so, someone has to win the division. I think Denver will squeak it out in the last game of the season against the Chargers. I haven't given up on Jay Cutler, and I think RB Ryan Torrain should be the surprise sensation that vaults the Broncos into the playoffs.
AFC Wild Cards:
Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
Manning and the gang have looked like anything but the Colts of recent years this season, however, I think we'll see a late season surge from them. They seemed to be back on track these past two weeks, and they've successfully made it through a brutal schedule. The road ahead matches the Colts up with five, below .500 teams. If the Colts maintain their current groove and avoid lapses against inferior opponents, they should coast into the playoffs.
New York Jets (10-6)
Well, as I predicted on the day of the trade, Brett the Jet should propel the Jets to the playoffs. Although lately it doesn't seem like Favre deserves the credit. The Jets have a great running attack, in Thomas Jones & Leon Washington, and their defense has really bailed them out as of late. With a schedule as weak as they have ahead, it would be sad for Brett and company to miss the playoffs.
NFC East: New York Giants (13-3)
Even with the toughest schedule to close out the season (remaining opponents have a combined .621 winning percentage), I still see the Giants taking the NFC East. They've put themselves in a good enough position to withstand the tough road ahead. The division should continue to beat each other up. Barring injuries, I think the Giants will continue to show the league why they are the defending Super Bowl champs.
NFC North: Chicago Bears (10-6)
I should hold my breath when saying this, but in honor of my dear friend Christoph Schoenbeck, I'm taking the Bears. Minnesota came through with a big win last week versus Green Bay, but they face a difficult schedule to close the year. Even though Chicago has blown games I didn't think were possible to, I just have a feeling they're going to pull it out. Their defense is strong, Orton's playing great and should return from injury in a few weeks, and Matt Forte has been all that Cedric Benson was not.
NFC South: Carolina Panthers (11-5)
Carolina has really impressed me over the last few weeks. I doubted them early in the season, but they've proved me wrong, week in and week out. Delhomme has been consistent as always, and young backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have been great compliments to star wideout, Steve Smith. They also have a strong defense to sweeten the pot. Look for them to edge out the division title from the Bucs.
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
Who needs a young franchise quarterback like Matt Leinart, when you've got 37 year-old Kurt Warner? The Cardinals certaintly don't. Warner's looking young as ever these days, and Anquan Boldin seems unstoppable. Even after a near career-ending play that sidelined Boldin for two games, he still leads the NFL in TD receptions with 10. He sure is making a case for himself in a contract year. When Boldin is covered, Warner has Larry Fitz, speedster Steve Breaston, and RB Tim Hightower to look to. Ironically, the team oddly resembles "the fastest show on turf", Warner's old supporting cast.
Washington Redskins (11-5)
Expect the NFC East's surprise team of the year to hold off both Philadelphia & Dallas for a WildCard spot. The offense has come together under Jim Zorn more quickly than anyone would have ever expected. Portis has been having an MVP-like year, Santana Moss is torching defensive secondaries, and Jason Campbell isn't making mistakes. Expect a big win for Washington versus Dallas or Philly to secure a second place finish in the competitive NFC East.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)
From Day 1 it was considered a lock for three NFC East teams to make the playoffs, but I don't think its going to happen anymore. The NFC South has surprised everyone with three teams at 6-3 or higher right now. I think the NFC East will continue to beat each other up, opening the door for Tampa Bay to steal the last playoff spot. Dallas could turn it around and take the spot, thanks in part to their 13-9 win over Tampa earlier in the year, but I can't see it happening right now. Yes, Dallas does have Romo back, but I expect problems in their defensive secondary to prevent them from redeeming themselves for last years unexpected loss in the playoffs. Tampa Bay's schedule isn't much easier, but it should be just easy enough to get them into the playoffs.
Image taken from Yahoo! Sports