Every team in the NFL has now played at least half of its regular-season schedule. At this unofficial midway point, a few things are clearing up:
» Arizona has a two-game lead in the NFC West, and looks sound enough to hold onto it.
» Indianapolis has only a half-game lead in the AFC South -- with Andrew Luck now set to miss two to six weeks with a lacerated kidney and a partial tear of an abdominal muscle -- but the Colts still look like the class of that hapless division.
» The NFC East and NFC North might be the only division races to go down to the wire.
With that kind of intense stratification in the standings, we become more aware of the league's de facto ninth and 10th divisions: The AFC and NFC wild-card races. With so many divisional derbies potentially wrapping up early, the wild-card chase will move to the forefront sooner than usual.
I know we are a league dedicated to the mantra of "one game at a time," but sometimes it serves a purpose to poke your head up and take a peek at the longer view.
Around this time in the 2003 season back in Baltimore, we were 5-5, and I felt I needed to make sure my players did not relinquish our future to those who already had determined what our fate was going to be. When I showed them the path we could still take to the playoffs, I know it opened some eyes. We ended up going 10-6 on the year and winning the division.
The one caveat to what follows: It only takes one injury to turn a season upside down, even for those who seem in total control of their destiny. (Dallas, which looked like the class of the NFC East -- and maybe the conference -- after two games, had its season wrecked by Tony Romo's broken collarbone. The inability to find a competent backup now has the Cowboys in the midst of a six-game losing streak.)
Here's a quick overview of where teams stand moving into the second half of the regular season:
AFC playoff picture
New England ranks among the best in several categories that are prime indicators for success in this league (turnover differential, third-down and red-zone efficiency). No one matches the Patriots' offensive versatility; they can morph from a 50-throw team to a 40-rush team seemingly overnight. That said, their Achilles' heel -- a constantly-changing and inexperienced offensive line -- has not been fully exploited yet.
Both the Bengals and Patriots play Denver (7-1), but not each other -- and home-field advantage looms large. We know the Patriots are tough at home during the playoffs -- having won six of their last seven postseason games in Gillette Stadium -- but not so much on the road. Or at least we don't have a lot of examples to draw from. Since the 2007 season, the Pats have only played one AFC playoff game on the road, and that was a loss at Denver in the 2013 conference title game.
Indy was beginning to look like itself over the past five quarters of play. With a healthy Andrew Luck, the Colts would win the division with room to spare. Without him for the next two to six weeks, they leave the door open for another team to get it together. But who among Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee looks like a team that could win eight or nine games? Yeah, slim pickings. So even without Luck for the time being, the Colts remain AFC South favorites.
And the top-heavy nature of the AFC means more teams than usual are in the wild-card race. Pittsburgh looks to be the biggest threat in the "AFC Wild Card Division," as long as the Steelers get Ben Roethlisberger back soon after their Week 11 bye. Clearly, they boast one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL -- even after the loss of Le'Veon Bell -- and if they can get past Cleveland on Sunday, they'll stand at 6-4 going into their off week.
We will know more about the Bills and Jets after their Thursday night throwdown. Both teams have good rushing attacks and talented defenses, though the Jets have shown a little more balance. New York has an easier path to a wild-card spot -- though Gang Green doesn't want to go into the regular-season finale at Buffalo needing a win. The Bills start a three-game road trip in New York on Thursday -- with visits to New Englandand Kansas City on tap -- that will be telling for the remainder of their season.
NFC playoff picture
After this past Sunday, it is hard to see the NFC championship going through anywhere but Carolina. The Panthers have the NFL's No. 1 rushing offense and a defense that is as punishing as any in the league. Carolina's downfall has been a lack of explosiveness on offense -- though the Panthers did flash some of this in the big win over Green Bay -- and the concern that Cam Newton won't be able to finish the season carrying as much of the rushing load as he does right now.
Arizona looks solid at 6-2. The Cardinals boast admirable differentials in turnovers and explosive plays. They do play Seattle twice in the next eight weeks and have to travel to Philly. But if Carson Palmer can stay healthy, the Cards appear likely to win the division and contend for a first-round bye.
We've all assumed the NFC North belongs to the Packers (6-2), but if the Vikings (6-2) hang around, the division title might very well come down to the Week 17 game where Minnesota has to travel to Green Bay. The Vikings have the tougher path to making the playoffs via the wild card. Road games at Oakland, Atlantaand Arizona -- as well as a home contest vs. Seattle that could carry huge tiebreaker implications -- will be crucial for Minnesota. Mike Zimmer's team ranks in the top 10 in defenseand rushing. But obviously, it's hard to see Teddy Bridgewater outdueling Aaron Rodgers at this stage of their respective careers. On the other hand, the Packers are starting to miss Jordy Nelson -- their explosive plays have dwindled -- and the defense has become a liability.
In the NFC East, the Giants have the inside track. But if the Eagles, winners of three of their past four games, have indeed righted the ship -- and if they can survive the latest costly injury, to standout rookie Jordan Hicks -- they'll be in the playoff mix. It's probably too late for the Cowboys to get back in the postseason race.
The Falcons still have a good shot at one wild-card spot, but after a 5-0 start, they've lost three of four -- most recently suffering an ugly defeat to a 49ers team in disarray. Atlanta probably needs to win four of its remaining seven games -- a stretch that includes two bouts against the undefeated Panthers -- to secure a playoff berth.
Seattle has to win six of its next eight to reach the 10-6 mark, but five of those contests will take place in the comfy confines of CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks have made consecutive trips to the Super Bowl, thanks in no small part to very strong turnover differentials. This year? Seattle's TO differential sits at a very pedestrian minus-1. Still, the 'Hawks have grit. I wouldn't bet against Russell Wilson in a playoff push.
Even the Saints, at 4-5, are still on the periphery of the playoff picture. If their defense doesn't improve, though, they might wind up closer to the periphery of a top-10 draft choice.