Playoff picture comes into focus
A few spots are still fuzzy, but resolution in the AFC is all but here
The NFL playoff picture is in HD quality.
Except for the disappointing races in the AFC South and NFC West, the mystery of the playoff lineup is all but over. If the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Diego Chargers, five of the six AFC spots are all but locked up. In fact, the New England Patriots, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers can lock up half of the AFC playoff spots if they win and get a little help. (Explore scenarios with our NFL Playoff Machine.)
The Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints are racing to clinch either the No. 1 seed or the top wild-card spot in the next couple of weeks. Overall, though, the NFC has seven teams with winning records fighting for five spots -- the NFC West being excluded. At 7-5 and with four lost starters over the past two weeks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are fading out of the picture.
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What commissioner Roger Goodell must study for the future, though, is the strategy of saving 36 divisional games until the final four weeks of the season. The nondivision games separate good teams from the average ones because -- unlike division games -- players don't have the benefit of knowing their opponents from two regular appearances a year.
Eight teams have at least six nondivision wins, and most of those teams are close to locking up playoff spots. The teams with the easiest nondivision schedules can set themselves up to take away the drama of the final weeks by positioning themselves for playoff spots.
1. A punch in the gut to clinching the AFC West: After beating the Denver Broncos and hearing the San Diego Chargers lost to the Oakland Raiders, the Kansas Chiefs knew they were one victory over the Chargers from all but locking up the AFC West. But Kansas City had a setback Wednesday when quarterback Matt Cassel underwent an emergency appendectomy. On Saturday, Cassel was ruled out of Sunday's game against the Chargers. Kansas City hopes Brodie Croyle, 0-9 as a starter, can outduel Philip Rivers in a critical road game. With Cassel, the Chiefs are a tough matchup for the Chargers. Even though the Chargers have the No. 1-ranked defense, they don't match up well against running teams. They've only played five games against top-10 running attacks.
3. Figuring out the right Smith to start: Mike Singletary benched Troy Smith after five starts because he must have believed defenses had figured him out after a couple of good starts. That happens to backup quarterbacks who play more than three games. But Singletary's decision to go with Alex Smith came at a curious time. The 49ers play the Seahawks in a game that could all but end the 49ers' playoff chances and could eventually cost Singletary his job. Have the Seahawks figured out Alex Smith? He has lost his past four starts to the Seahawks, not beating them since his two wins against them in 2006. He got off to a good start in the season opener in Seattle, but Pete Carroll made a few adjustments and made him look lost. In games against Seattle, he has completed only 56 percent of his passes and has generated only 26 points against them in the past four starts.
4. Adjusting the time clock: After being blown out 73-16 in early Sunday road starts in Nashville and Pittsburgh, Raiders coach Tom Cable hopes to readjust the body clocks of his Raiders for Sunday's game against the Jaguars. He moved up practice time this week by three hours, getting his players on the field at 9:45 a.m. and starting meetings at 6:25 a.m. Getting off to slow starts in early East Coast games is a problem for West Coast teams. Often it takes West Coast players until the third quarter to feel normal. By halftime, the Raiders trailed the Titans 24-6 and trailed the Steelers in the first half 21-3. The Raiders-Jaguars game is a big one. The Jaguars are 7-5 but have to be worried about this game being a trap. Next week they play the Colts in a game to determine who might win the AFC South. The Raiders are 6-6 but trail the Chiefs by two games in the AFC West.
5. Outside the pocket: The challenge facing Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is keeping Rams quarterback Sam Bradford in the pocket. Though Bradford has the tall look of a great pocket passer, he has receivers without speed who take some time to get into routes. It has forced him to be a little like Roethlisberger. Bradford must move to buy some time to complete passes. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Bradford has a league-high seven touchdown passes and no interceptions on throws in which he's outside the pocket. From the pocket, Bradford has 10 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions and a 76.2 quarterback rating. Don't minimize Bradford's success inside the pocket, though. He has completed 61.8 percent of his passes from inside the pocket.
6. Albert, you should have taken Tampa Bay's money: People tend to forget that defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth almost went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before accepting his $100 million contract from the Washington Redskins. The Redskins play the Bucs on Sunday, but Mike Shanahan suspended Haynesworth for the final four games for conduct detrimental to the team. Without Haynesworth, Raheem Morris put together a young team that features 16 rookies and is building a defense around first-round pick Gerald McCoy, a defensive tackle. The Redskins are falling apart. They've lost their past two games. The offense has tried to max protect Donovan McNabb with extra blockers, but that isn't working. The Bucs, meanwhile, must worry about injuries catching up to them. They've lost two of their best blockers -- Davin Joseph and Jeff Faine -- Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback Aqib Talib and defensive end Kyle Moore in the past two weeks. As for Haynesworth, he has a $21 million signing bonus in the bank and is getting ready to fight his suspension next week.
8. Divisional haves and have-nots: Of the remaining divisional games, the Dolphins have the most to prove against the Jets. Dolphins coach Tony Sparano has his team riding a stationary bike. They don't appear to be going anywhere. They are 6-6 and three games behind the Jets for second place in the AFC East. QB Chad Henne was horrible last week with three interceptions. A loss seals the Dolphins' fate. The other three games are for padding the record. The Green Bay Packers play the Detroit Lions, who will start Drew Stanton at quarterback. The Atlanta Falcons play the Carolina Panthers, who will start Jimmy Clausen at quarterback. The Steelers play host to the 2-10 Cincinnati Bengals that will start Carson Palmer at quarterback. University of Pittsburgh fans are wondering whether Bengals coach Marvin Lewis will stick around to take over the Panthers job.
9. Interim job bank: Eric Studesville of the Denver Broncos might be one of the most surprising names to emerge as an interim coach in many, many years. Studesville takes over for Josh McDaniels, who was fired after a 3-9 start. Believe it or not, Studesville has a decent chance to follow the early success paths of Vikings interim Leslie Frazier and Cowboys interim Jason Garrett. The Broncos play a 3-9 Arizona Cardinals team that will start rookie quarterback John Skelton at quarterback. Unlike Garrett and Frazier, Studesville doesn't stand much of a chance of getting the full-time gig. Pat Bowlen is expected to hire a general manager and a new coach after the season. As for Frazier and Garrett, they have combined for a 5-1 record as interims. The Minnesota Vikings play host to the New York Giants, which will be tough. The Cowboys play host to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night, which will be tougher. Garrett, however, has been averaging 33 points a game during his reign as interim coach, and he has been doing it with Jon Kitna at quarterback.
10. Bottom feeder: The Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills are going in different directions. The Browns and Eric Mangini have stayed competitive for longer than people expected and have a chance to get to 7-7 if they can beat the Bills this week and Bengals next week. The Bills had been more competitive than anyone expected until last week, when they broke down against the Vikings. Injuries have destroyed the middle of their offensive line and have stripped away a good portion of their defensive front seven. At 2-10, the Bills can start looking ahead to the draft.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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