The fourth quarter of the NFL season begins tomorrow night, as all teams have four games left, and here’s how the Notebook projects the final weeks shaking out amongst the contenders…
NFC East: Dallas (9-7), NY Giants (8-8)
These teams play each other twice and I’m assuming a split. The Cowboys have a one-game lead at present and hold the tiebreakers. Their two-game sequence with the Eagles and Buccaneers offers three of the most combustible teams in the NFL. I’ve projected Dallas having one of their off-days and splitting these two games, but in the end as long as Dallas doesn’t lose both to New York they win the NFC East. Round One is Sunday Night in Big D.
NFC North: Green Bay (16-0), Detroit (8-8), Chicago (8-8)
I’ve made the assumption that Green Bay is going to go for perfection rather than rest starters and with their final two games being home dates with Detroit and Chicago it’s a decision that has huge implications for the playoffs. The Lions also have to visit Oakland. Chicago should really make the call to Brett Favre. Both runner-ups will lose three of their last four.
NFC South: New Orleans (12-4), Atlanta (9-7)
Atlanta’s key swing game is a road date in Carolina and I’ve projected them getting caught for an upset. New Orleans wins a head-to-head battle between the rivals on the Monday after Christmas.
NFC West: San Francisco (13-3), Seattle (7-9), Arizona (7-9)
Seattle and Arizona are both 5-7 right now, so if I’m right about the Giants, Bears and Lions, the two West runner-ups will have shot at sneaking in at 8-8.
This sets up Green Bay and San Francisco with the first-round byes, Dallas hosting Atlanta in a 4-5 game and New Orleans taking who emerges out of the crackup at the bottom. Because a lot of my projections are generic (i.e., looking at a couple games and just figuring a split), I can’t do the tiebreakers and with this many teams and this many variables I don’t know how valuable that would be anyway. One important thing t note is that the Detroit/Chicago tie is broken before anything else, as final division standings are always set first. If I’m New Orleans, I’m hoping that I play the Bears, presuming Cutler is still out of the playoffs.
AFC East: New England (12-4), NY Jets (10-6)
It’s looking like the Jets’ playoff chances come down to a road game in Miami in Week 17, what now looks like a terrific matchup given how well the Dolphins are playing.
AFC North: Pittsburgh (13-3), Baltimore (12-4), Cincinnati (11-5)
Why the Steelers? How about two games with Cleveland and one with St. Louis as we hit the homestretch. The keys to this division are Pittsburgh’s road date with San Francisco, which I think they find a way to win, and Baltimore’s Week 17 game in Cincinnati. I’ve projected the Bengals, due to Baltimore’s ability to get close to the prize and then let it slip away. If the rest of the Notebook projections hold that means the game settles the AFC North, homefield advantage and the final wild-card berth all in one fell swoop.
AFC South: Houston (11-5), Tennessee (10-6)
Terrific job by the Texans defense in getting it done against Atlanta last Sunday. This is another team that should be dialing up Favre to at least see if he can get in good enough shape to get them to the Super Bowl, but the defense and running game can hold off the Titans.
AFC West: Denver (9-7), Oakland (9-7)
This division probably comes down to whether Oakland can sweep a pair of AFC West games at home against San Diego and at Kansas City. I’m betting it’s a split, which hands the divisional tiebreaker to Denver (each team currently has two AFC West losses). If the Raiders sweep those two it likely gets them in.
Projections here make Pittsburgh and New England the teams with the byes and send Baltimore to Denver for one wild-card game, with Cincinnati visiting Houston for another.