With five games left for each team, I can’t think of a later time to debut the NFL Ladder!
Similar to the UFC Ladder, there are different levels by which I use to judge the league’s best. Where it differs from the UFC one is that this time there are five and all of the teams are included in the ladder. Plus there are rungs…I really like the ladder analogy.
The first rung is the teams that are essentially locks to make it to the postseason. If any of them don’t make it, it will be a topic of great discussion following Week 17.
The second rung is the teams that aren’t in yet, but are trending in the right direction. If they continue their solid play, they’ll get in.
The third rung is full of teams that are just too tough to call. Understandably, it’s the largest besides the fifth rung. This is reserved mostly for the fringe playoff contenders that can’t seem to capitalize on their good playoff positioning. Some of them will make it in, but most of them will not.
The fourth rung is teams that aren’t out of it yet, but could be after Sunday. All three are 4-7 and in the AFC, which has a more open playoff race than the NFC.
The fifth rung is for teams that are done. Even if they won out, they’re planning for the offseason and the coaching staff is probably on the hot seat.
Many different factors go into a team’s placement on the ladder. Not only does record play a large part, but I pay much attention to upcoming schedule, division standing, and simply how they’ve looked all season.
First Rung (January Locks): Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco, Baltimore, New England, Denver, Chicago
There isn’t much to debate here. I’m 99% certain that these teams will are playoff-bound. Atlanta and Houston are at the top of their conferences and sporting 10-1 records. I don’t expect either of them to win out (Houston still has New England plus Indianapolis twice; Atlanta has the Saints tonight, plus the Giants, and Bucs again), but they could drop their remaining five and still win division titles.
San Francisco is 8-2-1 and in the midst of a quarterback, well, I’m not sure what to call it at the moment. But Colin Kaepernick has proved that they can win with either him or Alex Smith under center. Baltimore has a final stretch against all-playoff contending teams, but they just need a win or two to wrap up their division.
New England and Denver started out slow, but have won five and six straight, respectively. New England has been flexing its muscles the past two games, averaging 54 points. That’s not a typo.
Chicago is 8-3 and only a game ahead of Green Bay for the division lead, but their three losses have come to teams in the fist rung. As long as Cutler stays healthy, they’re golden.
Second Rung (On the Right Track): New York Giants, Green Bay, Indianapolis
It doesn’t sound right this late in the season, but the Giants have an important game against Washington on Monday night. They follow it up with a home game against New Orleans – another team still vying for a playoff spot. Then they go on the road to face Atlanta and Baltimore. Yikes. If they can escape with a win or two, they can take a deep breath as they face Philadelphia in the finale. Judging by how they played against Green Bay last week, they are more than capable of winning a few of those.
Speaking of Green Bay, the Giants loss was a step back in their chase of Chicago at the top of NFC North. Luckily, their final five games (aside from Chicago again) make 12-4 seem like a real possibility.
If Andrew Luck leads the Colts to the playoffs, it won’t matter what Robert Griffin III does this season; he has to win MVP in my book. They’re currently 7-4 and have three winnable games against Detroit, Houston, and Kansas City remaining. But if they drop one or two of the three? Their two remaining games against Houston will be a tough way to get in.
Third Rung (Jury’s Still Out): Washington, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Dallas, Tampa Bay
RGIII has been lights out the past two games. But put their opponents into perspective (Dallas is right here with them; Philadelphia is fifth rung), and you’ll understand why I see them finishing 8-8 at best. Dallas won’t be that easy the second time around and they also have the Giants and Ravens upcoming. 5-6 vs. 6-5 makes a world of difference this late in the season.
Seattle’s home-field advantage is both a gift and a curse at times. They’re tough to beat in Seattle, but they can’t seem to win on the road. And with one of their remaining home games against San Francisco, they’ll also hope that 8-8 is enough to get them in.
If it seems like Pittsburgh is rushing Ben Roethlisberger back on the field, it’s because they are. And that’s because they need him. With a semi-healthy Ben, they have a shot at the playoffs. Without Ben, they have none.
The past two Bengals games have been pretty one-sided, but wins against Oakland and Kansas City aren’t impressive. Put another way: they win the games that they’re supposed to. The problem has been the other games. Their last five opponents have plenty of fight in them.
The Cowboys have to win this week against Philadelphia. All signs point to them doing so, but if they don’t, they’ll be 5-7 and on life support against Cincinnati, the Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Washington again. Did we really expect them to make it easy?
Tampa Bay is right in the thick of the playoff hunt, but they’ll have to pull out wins against the league’s best in order to get there. Beating Denver or Atlanta (or both) would do them wonders down the stretch.
Fourth Rung (On Life Support): Buffalo, New York Jets, San Diego, New Orleans, Miami, Minnesota
Buffalo is 4-7 and hasn’t shown flashes of anything this season, but their schedule sets up pretty favorably (one remaining teams over .500). Their chances are slim to none, but I’m not ready to write them off this week. Same goes for the Jets. They don’t have any opponents left over .500, but it’d be crazy to think that team is running the table.
San Diego has their next two games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. One will be angry, both will be fighting to stay in the AFC race. The silver lining is that it gets easier, should they pull out wins against both (Oakland, Carolina, and the Jets).
I know it’s a bit of a surprise to see New Orleans here instead of third rung, but the truth is that if they lose tonight, they’re planning for the offseason. Their remaining schedule is daunting and their margin of error is zero. Miami is in a similar boat. They’re coming off of a win against Seattle, but they still have New England twice and San Francisco. Anything’s possible, but I’d be shocked if they won any of the three.
Minnesota is right with Seattle and Tampa Bay for the 6th playoff spot. But they need Percy Harvin back this week, because their schedule is getting bad in a hurry. Their coming off of a loss to the Bears and they finish with Green Bay, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, and Green Bay. Can you say 7-9, at best?
Fifth Rung (Planning for April): Kansas City, Jacksonville, Carolina, Oakland, Cleveland, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Arizona, Tennessee
Do I really need to explain this? We won’t be seeing any of these ten in the playoffs.