The NFL playoff picture is finally crystalizing -- or is it?
If there is one truism to this season, it is this: The more we know, the less we know.
Be honest, how many of you wrote off the Colts when they were 1-4; the Dolphins when they were 1-7; the Raiders when they lost their head coach, leading deep threat and five of six games; the Vikings when they lost to the 0-10-1 Lions; the Titans when they lost two-time rushing champion Derrick Henry and, later, three out of four games?
And raise your hand if, at some point in the last few weeks, you had the Cardinals as a lock to win their division, the Patriots as a favorite to reach the Super Bowl, the Chargers as having forgotten how to Charger or the 49ers as a team no one wants to see in the playoffs.
Me? Guilty on all counts. But if there's one prediction I feel at least fairly confident in, it's that the regular season won't shed its capricious coat over the final two weeks.
With that, I take one more look into my murky crystal ball.
1) Are the Packers a lock for the NFC's No. 1 seed?
Yes. They have two regular-season games remaining: home against the Vikings and away versus the Lions. While neither is a given, I don't see the Packers losing either. Minnesota beat them last month with a field goal as time expired and is 1-1-1 in Green Bay the previous three seasons, but the Packers should be healthier and more rested after playing at home Saturday. This year's Vikings are talented, but wildly inconsistent. In fact, they haven't had a winning streak or losing streak in excess of two games. As for Detroit, it's a team that plays hard and is competitive each week, but it lacks the overall talent to close out games against an opponent playing as well as Green Bay, which has been the most consistently high-performing club this season.
2) Will anyone catch the Chiefs for the No. 1 seed in the AFC?
No. Kansas City has won eight in a row and is playing with tremendous confidence and efficiency. Many will focus on the offense coming around after early-season struggles -- the Chiefs have scored 34 or more in four of the last six -- but the key is the defense, which has held all but one opponent to 17 points or less during the winning streak. The Chiefs close at Cincinnati and Denver, but it's hard to see either beating them at this point, particularly with Kansas City knowing it would lose a tiebreaker with Tennessee for the top spot based on its earlier loss to the Titans.
3) Which of the five NFC teams that have secured playoff spots do you trust the least?
The Packers, Cowboys, Rams, Buccaneers and Cardinals have all clinched postseason spots. Arizona -- which has lost three in a row, including a blowout defeat at lowly Detroit -- is definitely playing the worst of the bunch. On Dec. 5, the Cardinals looked like a lock to win the NFC West and were holding onto the top seed with a 10-2 record. But little has gone right since then. And with QB Kyler Murray struggling, wideout DeAndre Hopkins out until the playoffs, the defense giving up big plays with surprising frequency and even a potential playoff home game not an advantage (they're 3-4 at home), it's hard to believe in Kliff Kingsbury's team.
4) Which Chargers team will we see in the final two weeks, and will it be enough to get in?
Who knows? How's that for analysis? No team excels at losing winnable games like the Chargers, who thought they had shed that label last month when they hung on to beat the Steelers after squandering a big lead. But every time we buy in -- OK, every time I buy in -- the Bolts revert to form. They beat the Chiefs and Browns en route to a 4-1 start, then lost two in a row. They won in a prime-time game against the Steelers, then got embarrassed at Denver. They routed the Bengals and Giants, then fell to the Chiefs and Texans. And please don't tell me they were missing a handful of starters Sunday at Houston. Lots of squads have been without key starters and won against bad teams. At this point, they're on the outside looking in, with a number of outsiders doubting them. Which can only mean one thing: They will find a way into the playoffs. They have too much talent not to make it, right? Or is that just something we say every year?
5) How much should we trust Matthew Stafford in the playoffs?
The Rams have no choice but to trust him after pushing all their chips to the middle of the table to acquire him, but it's hard for me to have faith in Stafford when I see him do rookie things when confronted with pressure. He threw a horrible interception against the Titans when hurried, and Sunday he had another against the Vikings that was equally bad. Stafford is a veteran who knows the importance of ball security, and how it's better to take a sack than panic and throw the ball up for grabs. He has the talent and personnel to erase those mistakes against lesser teams, but not against the clubs he will face in the playoffs -- which happens to be where Stafford is 0-3.
6) Which NFC team that hasn't clinched is the most dangerous?
Part of me wants to say the Vikings, who have been in 14 one-possession games. But the correct answer is the 49ers, who, prior to the loss in Tennessee, appeared to have found their rhythm. QB play is heightened in the postseason, which means Jimmy Garoppolo will face even greater scrutiny than he has to date, and San Francisco will go only as far as he takes it. It's no secret the 49ers made the blockbuster trade to acquire Trey Lance in the draft because they didn't think Garoppolo had the goods to stay healthy and win them a championship, but he's the most NFL-ready of the two at this point. And he did help them reach the Super Bowl two seasons ago, so there is that.
7) Which AFC bubble team is the most dangerous?
I'm going to eat the cheese again and say the Chargers. When you have six Pro Bowlers -- which is more than any team but the Chiefs and Colts -- the talent is there to make a run. And when you have a QB as talented as Justin Herbert, the talent is there to make a run. And when you have defensive standouts such as Joey Bosa and Derwin James, the talent is there to make a run. So, Chargers, how about it?
8) Why no love for the Dolphins?
I came really close to selecting them as the AFC's most dangerous bubble team, but I need to see more. Their rally from a 1-7 start has been impressive, but the wins were against the Texans (4-11), Giants (4-11), Jets twice (4-11), Panthers (5-10) and Ravens (8-7). That will never be confused as Murderers' Row. I don't hold that against them; the Dolphins didn't make the schedule, which, by the way, will be working in their favor Monday night with the Saints likely starting their third-string quarterback. Again, not their fault. But ... (shoulder shrug).
(UPDATE: Miami won its seventh straight on Monday, prevailing against New Orleans, 20-3.)