Schedules big key to playoff push
John Clayton takes a look at the second-half schedule and breaks down each division, predicting who will make the playoffs.
One thing is clear as the NFL reaches its midseason point. The league is clearly divided into the haves and the have-nots.
The winning teams are the ones with the quarterbacks. Look at the seven winning teams in the AFC. Those teams are directed on the field by Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Jake Plummer, Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, Drew Brees and Trent Green. Tom Brady is a great quarterback on a struggling 4-4 Patriots team.
New York Giants
The NFC has improved at quarterback and has made great strides in catching up to the AFC in 2005 after going 20-44 against the AFC last year. The NFC East is the league's most improved division, with three winning teams whose successes are directly tied to quarterback improvements. Eli Manning is developing into a top quarterback with the Giants. Drew Bledsoe is putting up Pro Bowl numbers with Bill Parcells and the Cowboys. Mark Brunell, behind by a great offensive line and maximum protection, has brought the Redskins back into playoff contention.
Except for a few teams that have struggled with their starting quarterbacks, such as the Texans, Titans, Packers and Saints, the rest of the league is struggling with backup signal callers. Backup quarterbacks, for the most part, aren't going to take teams to the playoffs. Nick Saban thought he could patch up the spot for a year with Gus Frerotte, but his Dolphins are 3-5. Trent Dilfer made the Browns more competitive but not a winner. The biggest surprise may be how Kyle Orton is doing as a rookie, leading the 5-3 Bears.
As much as quarterback play determines winning teams, so does the schedule. No one can minimize the value of schedules. Dick Vermeil has always stressed the importance of not having a lot of games against winning teams. Teams such as the Bengals and Jaguars will have around 10 games against losing teams, and can parlay that into 11-5 seasons or better.
With that in mind, here's a division-by-division look at what teams face in the second half of the season. How will schedules impact the playoff races and who will ultimately still be playing after Week 17 has come and gone? With the AFC playoff picture pretty clear, most of the drama is in the NFC.
AFC West: This is the conference's best race, with the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers perhaps needing tiebreakers to figure out a division winner. The schedule is a problem for all three teams.
The Broncos had the break of having their toughest games at home during the first half of the season. They beat five playoff contenders at home during their 6-2 start. Now, they actually have the easiest closing schedule of the three teams. Included in their remaining schedule (against teams with a combined 28-36 record) are winnable games against the Raiders (twice), Jets and Ravens. They have road division games against the Chiefs and Chargers, but the San Diego game is Dec. 31, and the Chargers could be out of the race by then.
The Chiefs trail the Broncos by a game, but if they can win road games in the next two weeks against the Bills and Texans, they should put pressure on Denver. Their season comes down to home games against the Patriots and Broncos after Thanksgiving, if they can win these next two road games. What the Chiefs can't afford to do is lose to the Bills or Texans and give the Broncos a two-game lead. That might be hard to overcome.
The Chargers need a break to make the playoffs. With four losses already in the books, it's going to be almost impossible to get a wild card in the AFC. Those berths appear to be going to the Bengals and Jaguars, with at least 11 wins. The Chargers have to go 6-1 to get to 11, and that will be very hard with road games still left against the Redskins, Colts and Chiefs.
The Broncos have the best and maybe only chance to get to 11 wins in this division. The Chargers need to win a big road game just to get to 10 wins and not be doomed to a 9-7 season. The Chiefs are likely headed to a 10-6 season, but that could include a win over the Broncos. If that's the case, and the Broncos and Chiefs end up tied at 10-6, it could come down to common opponents in the tiebreaker. The Raiders probably are going to top out at 7-9, but losses in the next two weeks to Denver and Washington could ruin their focus and send them into a 10-loss season or worse.
Prediction: Broncos win division.
AFC North: The two-way race between the Steelers and Bengals should stay interesting. The Steelers have the upper hand because of their 27-13 win over the Bengals, but they have to be cautious. The Bengals are destined to win 11 or 12 games because of an easy schedule. If the Steelers slip up or if Roethlisberger misses more than two games, they could lose the division and a possible second seed to the Bengals.
The Bengals' schedule is one of the easiest in football. Like the Chiefs a couple years ago during their 13-3 season, the Bengals will likely end up acing 10 teams with losing records. They've built a 7-2 record against teams with a combined 28-45 mark, losing to the Steelers and Jaguars. The 5-3 Bears are the only team with a winning record the Bengals beat. The Bengals' closing schedule (against teams with a combined 30-26 record) has some tough challenges: a home game against the Colts and road games against the Steelers and Chiefs. At worst, though, Marvin Lewis should have the Bengals in the playoffs as a wild-card team, posting their best regular-season record since 1990.
The Steelers have a great chance to get to 12 or 13 wins. Their toughest stretch is Weeks 10-11 when they travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts on Monday night and then host the Bengals the next Sunday. A December schedule that includes three NFC North teams -- Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit -- should give them a chance to head into the playoffs with confidence.
Ravens coach Brian Billick could salvage a 6-10 season with a 4-4 finish if Kyle Boller can take control of the offense. They get Green Bay, Minnesota and Houston at home, which could be three winnable game. The Browns appear to be heading to a 5-11 or 6-10 season. At some point, they will give Charlie Frye some playing time, and he can be expected to have some growing pains.
Prediction: Steelers win division, Bengals grab wild card.
AFC South: The only knock on the Colts during their 7-0 start was that they beat only one winning team, the Jaguars, and put up impressive defensive numbers against teams with a combined 19-38 record. Monday night's 40-21 victory over the Patriots ended any of those doubts. The Colts are for real. They have a three-game lead over the Jaguars in the AFC South race and aren't expected to be caught. If they beat the Jaguars at the RCA Dome Dec. 11, they could officially clinch the division. Heck, if the Jaguars lose a fourth game and the Colts continue unbeaten, even that game could be meaningless. The Colts still can't lose focus because their schedule is much tougher than that of the Jaguars, who should make the playoffs as an 11-5 wild-card team. The Colts face the Bengals, Steelers, Jaguars, Chargers and Seahawks in the second half of the season, and three of those games are on the road, making an unbeaten season pretty remote. Still, they should be able to go 14-2 or 15-1.
The Jaguars have a 22-43 closing schedule, and the Colts are the only team with a winning record they face down the stretch. Jack Del Rio's team would have to really blow some games to not end up winning 11. It's not out of the question for the Jaguars to be a 12-win wild-card team. A three-game road stretch against the Titans, Cardinals and Browns could leave them at risk for a loss heading into the Dec. 11 showdown against the Colts, but the wild card is theirs for the taking. The Titans, on a bye at 2-9, should finish stronger in the second half. They have the youngest roster in the NFL and have two or three winnable games. They are looking like a 5-11 or 6-10 team. The Texans at 1-7 have a pretty easy closing schedule (29-36) and could get to four wins if they are lucky.
Prediction: Colts win division, Jaguars grab wild card.
AFC East: The worst is over for the Patriots. They didn't have the depth on defense to handle an opening schedule that featured teams with a combined record of 43-22. Their closing schedule should be better suited for a strong finish. They face teams with a 25-40 record, including five games in the AFC East. The Patriots should win the division because their defense should do well against the quarterbacks (Kelly Holcomb, Brooks Bollinger and Gus Frerotte) who are starting in the division.
Figuring the Patriots might have trouble winning at Kansas City on Nov. 27, they should have a 5-5 record outside the AFC East. Their record and seeding in the playoffs will depend on how they do in the division. If they go 6-0, they will finish 11-5 and have a chance for the No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye if the Steelers slip. But even that appears to be unlikely. The Patriots appear destined to be a third or fourth seed, needing three playoff wins -- two on the road -- to have a chance at their fourth Super Bowl title.
New England Patriots
As long as the Patriots take care of their division games, nobody else will have a chance. The Bills had a chance a week ago and lost 21-16 in Foxborough. The Dolphins have a chance Sunday in Miami, but if the Patriots win, they will start to run away with the division. The Bills and Dolphins appear to be heading to 7-9 seasons. That's great for the Dolphins and horrible for the Bills. Nick Saban could gain a lot of momentum with a 4-4 finish. They will spend the offseason looking for a quarterback to upgrade from Frerotte. Their closing schedule of 26-40 could lead to a strong finish. The Bills' closing schedule of 36-28 is much tougher and should promote a move to get J.P. Losman some playing time. The Jets are playing out a miserable season. The best they can hope for is 5-11, but they've already started four different quarterbacks. Jay Fiedler could be back soon, and that could give them a better chance to win a few games down the stretch.
Prediction: Patriots win division.
NFC West:The Rams can make this a two-team race if they can beat the Seahawks in Seattle on Sunday, but if they don't, they are probably destined for an 8-8 season. A Seahawks victory Sunday would give them a three-game lead and a chance to clinch the division title by the first or second week of December. Neither team has a particularly tough schedule. The combined records for Seattle's remaining foes is 29-36, and that features only two teams with winning records: the Giants and Colts. Both of those games are at home. The Rams have to play the Seahawks, Redskins, Eagles and Cowboys, but they are set for a little bit of a mini-run. They have the Cardinals and Texans after the Seahawks game. If the Rams can win against the Seahawks, they have a chance to be 7-4 heading into December.
The Seahawks have a great chance to be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the playoffs, but beating the Rams is one of the keys. Everything is in their control. They own tiebreakers against the Falcons and Cowboys after beating them both. They still have to play the Eagles and Giants. The odds favor an 11-5 record, but it's not out of the question for the Seahawks to go 12-4 if they stay hot in the second half of the season.
The Cardinals and 49ers are each 2-6 and figure to select in the top five of the 2006 NFL draft. The Cardinals had a favorable schedule in the first half of the season. They face four teams with winning records in the second half, but the presence of veteran quarterback Kurt Warner gives them a better chance at winning some of those games. The 49ers have been through four quarterbacks and things likely won't get much better down the stretch.
Prediction: Seahawks win division.
NFC North: Don't hand the division to the Bears yet. Though the NFC North is theirs to lose at 5-3, they could lose it. They still have three tough games against better NFC teams: against the Panthers and Falcons at home, and at the Bucs. They have to go to Pittsburgh. They have divisional road games in Green Bay and Minnesota in the final two weeks of the season. Lovie Smith has done a great job with his defense and the running game, but it still might be a fight for Chicago to get to 8-8.
The Vikings are still a threat. The 30-34 record of their remaining foes is the same as the Bears', but home games against Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Chicago could get them to six or seven wins. They need to win a game or two on the road. That's been tough, but this team still has talent. Brad Johnson doesn't have Daunte Culpepper's arm, but he's a savvy leader who can be effective if he is given a solid running attack. The defense has been successful with a 3-4 and 4-3 and gives opponents problems in preparation. The key for the Vikings will be the next two games. They have to play at the New York Giants and at Green Bay. If they can win both of those games, they have a chance to close some ground on the Bears. The Bears have home games against the 49ers and Panthers in the next two weeks. If the Vikings can't handle the road games and the Bears sweep the home games, Chicago could wrap up the division pretty quickly. But this is the NFC North. Non-divisional games are dangerous. NFC North teams are 6-14 out of the division.
The Lions have a chance, too, but they haven't played well enough for anyone to give them much hope. They have quarterback issues. The receiving corps is underachieving. Their best defensive players (Dre' Bly and Shaun Rogers) are hurt. In the final eight games, they face four teams with winning records, so they appear to be set for another 6-10 season. The Packers will be lucky to get to 4-12.
Prediction: Bears win division at 8-8.
NFC South: Even though the Bucs are just a game behind the Panthers and Falcons at 5-3, it doesn't look as though they will hold up as a contender. They just don't have the offensive line to be able to stay with Atlanta and Carolina. Plus, their second-half schedule is tough. The Bucs got off to a 5-1 start thanks to an easy opening schedule. In addition, Carnell Williams was running hard and Brian Griese was an efficient 66 percent passer. Chris Simms still might have a decent future as a quarterback, but he's not going to cover for the problems. The Bucs didn't face a winning team until they were blown out by the Panthers last week. Six of their next eight games are against winning teams. It's not out of the question for the schedule to put this team on a losing streak that takes them back to .500. Still, the Bucs made a lot of progress this season.
The division comes down to how the Falcons do against the Panthers. The Panthers historically have not been able to stop Michael Vick, and if they lose both games against the Falcons, they will have to settle for a wild-card spot. The schedules for both teams are pretty similar. The Panthers have four division games left. The Falcons have five division games remaining. Each team has four home games. Both teams are on pace for a 10- or 11-win season. Each team faces five games against winning teams.
The Saints are finishing out the schedule that could lead them to a 10- or 12-loss season. Five of their last seven games are against teams with winning records.
Prediction: Falcons win division, Panthers grab wild card.
NFC East: Based on the schedule, the Redskins might have the best chance to pull out the division. This four-way race, though, should go down to the last two weeks. The Redskins' remaining foes have a combined 34-31 record, and the biggest challenges should come within the division. The two games against winning teams outside of the NFC East are vs. the Bucs and Chargers. They have winnable games against the Raiders and Cardinals. That's a far cry from what the Cowboys face.
The Cowboys have the toughest closing schedule in the division, against teams with a combined 39-25 record. Six of their next seven games are against winning teams, and they close with a tough one against the Rams. The other problem is location. They have three division games remaining, all on the road. They were 2-1 in the division home games. To make up that loss to the Redskins earlier this season, they have to win one or two divisional road games.
The Eagles' season could be determined in the next two weeks. They face the Cowboys Monday night and the Giants the following Sunday. If they lose both games, the season is pretty much over. They're already in last place, and they would lose their chance to catch up to the other winning teams in the division. They are already 0-2 in the NFC East and will start losing the tiebreakers if they can't make up ground over the next two weeks.
The Giants have a great chance to win the division or get a wild-card berth. They get the benefit of playing the Chiefs at home in December, but their other three December games are all on the road, and that could be tricky. All the teams in this division will have a tough time getting to 11 or 12 wins because they have to play too many good teams. Each team could end up playing a dozen games this year against teams with records of 8-8 or better. Plus, they will be beating up each other so much, the losses from those games will affect their seedings.
Prediction: Redskins win division, Giants grab wild card.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.