As we hit the mid-point of the season, the playoff picture is starting to take shape in the NFL. As usual, teams can be divided into three main categories — serious contenders, rank outsiders, and the most sizeable constituency of everyone else that’s somewhere between the two.
As the great Sam Seaborn said in The West Wing, on another of America’s favourite pastimes: “There are 162 games in a Major League Baseball season and the players have a saying: ‘every team’s going to win 54 games, every team’s going to lose 54, it’s what you do with the other 54 games that counts.’”
Even over the last few weeks, teams that we thought we understood have flattered to deceive.
In the AFC, the Buffalo Bills, who were cakewalking to a mediocre AFC East for much of the season and seemed to possess one of the most complete and balanced rosters in the league, have stumbled, including a shocking 9-6 lost to the Jaguars last week. The Bills now find themselves in a fight for the division with the improving Patriots. I’ve been contending for much of the season that New England will sneak a playoff spot, which 11 wins will almost certainly guarantee, and 10 offers a fighting chance. Their offense has started to find identity even with the standard rookie limitations of quarterback Mac Jones. Coach Bill Belichick continues to work wonders defensively, the team slugging out attritional wins like it’s 2002.
Miami is as disappointing as the sequel to Meet The Parents, and remain linked to a deal for Deshaun Watson five minutes on from spending a number one pick on Tua Tagovailoa, who should be given more time to demonstrate if he’s the real deal. The Jets will spend the next eight or so weeks trying to work out if they’ve just blown the second overall pick on a bust and Zach Wilson’s absence through injury will only further cloud that decision.
The South seemed to be officially the weakest division in football, until Tennessee did what they’ve been doing for a few seasons now — confounding the critics who write them off as one-dimensional. When superstar Derrick Henry — who makes the game look like it’s been permanently set to easy-mode — went done, so did their playoff chances, supposedly. Instead, quarterback Ryan Tannehill — who may just be the most underrated player in football — led them to a big upset win over the LA Rams, where the much-maligned Tennessee D dominated. The Titans now control the division.
Indy may just be the best team with a losing record in the league, whilst Houston and Jacksonville are firmly in the race for the number one draft pick, despite the latter’s Hollywood ending in London a few weeks back and their aforementioned win over the Bills. The Jags will be fine because Trevor Lawrence is the real deal and they’ll spin out a few more wins to comfortably take them above the Texans (and Detroit). Houston will bounce back, because they’ll have about 17 top round draft picks to play with, given how much they’ve offset.
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The AFC West remains the most intriguing — all four teams can stake a viable claim to win the division. The Chiefs are in better shape than the haters would have you believe. At 4-3 they could suddenly find themselves in control of the division after this weekend with a win over the Raiders. Vegas, despite all the turmoil — another recent first round pick, Damon Arnette, was jettisoned this week for off the field issues — remain a dangerous side, with Derek Carr on point for his best season ever. His offensive line begs to differ, and they’re fallible defensively — aren’t we all?! — but I still like them to contend for a Wild Card. Denver, my hipster pick pre-season, also keep surprising with a legit defense keeping them in the reckoning. I’ve never been hip though, so this may remain the kiss of death for the Broncos. The LA Chargers remain most people’s favourite to win out — and their offense is, for the most part, humming under sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert. I still back Mahomes & Co to come good in the second half of the season.
Baltimore may still be the best team in the AFC right now — former Patriot and Super Bowl winner Shane Vereen suggested on my podcast recently that they are — but they’ve had their noses bloodied this season against the upstart and highly entertaining Bengals, who in turn were blow away by Cleveland last weekend. Welcome to the 2021 NFL, where nothing much makes any sense. Still the Bengals are moving from out-of-control speedboat status to a team we have to start taking seriously. Cleveland, despite being so banged up for much of the season, and now without the Odell Beckham distraction, are right in it. Baker Mayfield, whilst far from the top-tier level of Mahomes, Allen & Co, continues to improve and is a viable NFL starter. When nearer to fully fit, the Browns will be a dangerous team to face in the postseason. They’ve just got to make it.
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Over in the NFC, the Cardinals were the only unbeaten team left in football until running into the Packers a few weeks ago. Since then they’ve pulled off a remarkable performance against San Francisco despite seemingly missing about 94% of their offensive playmakers, including quarterback Kyler Murray who is on MVP pace. Murray should be back against the Panthers this weekend, where Arizona should cement their credentials as the number one seed in the conference.
The West is most likely a two-way shootout between them and the Rams, who have that Hollywood shuffle about them despite their shock loss on SNF. They should cruise into the playoffs with ease, even if they don’t take the division. Seattle have been undone by the injury to Wilson, who is so influential that his absence exposes a shortcoming in a team that he otherwise masked. San Francisco are like the sports car you see pulled up in a layby on the motorway, hazards on, thoroughly disgruntled driver looking into their phone, perplexed. They shouldn’t be out of it, but their season is pretty much done.
Of course, the Packers are inevitably rolling, given how dysfunctional their off season was, and Aaron Rodgers seemed to be in the mix for back-to-back MVPs until all the Covid controversy of the last 10 days (he should return for them this weekend against Seattle). In the North they have no realistic contenders for the division. The Bears intrigue, not least due to a highly capable rookie quarterback (Justin Fields) nevertheless presiding over a rather anaemic offense. It’s not possible to get a .500 record anymore, but the Bears are an MOR, Jeff Fisher-style 8-8 unit.
Minnesota is the embodiment of their quarterback Kirk Cousins — good enough to be a long-time starter in the NFL, but not quite good enough to be much more. Detroit is freefalling to 0-17 but playing hard, and could sneak an upset win on their way, possibly this weekend against the Steelers.
Dallas — despite their blowout against the Broncos — will cruise the East in the same way the Packers will the North. Washington’s much vaunted D has been disappointing, and their sluggish start has left them too much ground to cover. The Giants seemed to be fast becoming a wreck but have shown some fight in recent weeks, in the spirit of their Head Coach Joe Judge, a no no-nonsense character whose future will almost certainly be determined over the next two months. Philly were supposedly one of the teams in the Deshawn Watson sweepstakes, which shows you how much they rate their starter Jalen Hurts, and they’ve been running the ball to such a degree in recent weeks that they may even hit Urban Meyer-level rushing targets.
The South is where the champs reside, and Tampa Bay, despite a depleted secondary, are just fine, full of big-time playmakers. Tom Brady is quietly having a superb season, the 44-year-old reigning Super Bowl MVP in simultaneously sensational and cerebral form. They represent the team to beat in the conference, and indeed the league. The Saints are fascinating — Jameis Winston better than advertised but his injury has slowed their pace. Credit to Sean Payton for keeping them in the mix. Carolina started deceptively well but are now reverting to type, whilst Atlanta improbably remain in the playoff hunt, with flashes of brilliance in an otherwise mediocre mess.
|Bucs to win the Super Bowl|
|11/2 with Betfair (Mobile)|
|11/2 with Betfair (Desktop)|
|Odds correct at time of publication.
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Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season.