Week 14 found a host of playoff favourites in trouble and it is not inconceivable that another big name could join the likes of New Orleans in missing the playoffs. Richard O'Hagan looks at what happened and picks the Super Bowl pairing for good measure
One of the great things about the NFL is that you can never be quite sure what is going to happen next. The Draft system is designed specifically to stop a domination of the league by one or two teams, as happens in some other sports. Similarly the way that money is split between the 32 teams and the salary cap mean that, in theory, all teams are as equal as they can be. Rarely has that been more obvious than over the weekend just gone. If Week 13 clarified the playoff picture, the events of Week 14 made it somewhat cloudier again.
Atlanta and Houston each losing for only the second time this season would, in itself, be a story. Look behind the defeats, though, and the outlook becomes a more troubling one for backers of both sides.
The Falcons were downed by a Carolina side which had only won three games all year. They failed to score in the first half and only really roused themselves when the game was beyond them. Running out of steam towards the end of a season has been something of a malaise for Atlanta in recent years and it is an oft-repeated statistic that they have never won a post-season game with Matt Ryan at quarterback. At 4.47/2 they are still a decent bet to be NFC Champions, but only because the NFC itself is full of equally inconsistent teams and you should certainly think about looking elsewhere (such as the 4.216/5 Packers) if last weekend's slip becomes this weekend's full-blown stoop.
For the Texans' supporters the most concerning aspect of Monday night's defeat was not the loss but the manner of it. Losing to the Patriots is nothing to be ashamed of but Houston's much vaunted defense allowed Tom Brady & Co to run up 21 unanswered points by half-time and then double the score in the second period. That included a 67-yard touchdown from a man - Donte Stallworth - who hadn't caught a pass in the league all season and who injured himself so badly in doing so that he will miss the rest of the competition.
Houston have stuttered badly in the past few weeks - remember the two consecutive overtime games in Thanksgiving week? - and it seems that they might be running out of gas just when they need it most. They now risk losing the number one spot in the AFC to their conquerors and could easily fall behind the Denver Broncos before the season is out, too.
Denver currently rank behind New England because of an inferior record against AFC opponents but they would put that right in taking the conference anyway. At 3.7511/4 they are my tip to become AFC Champions.
Tumbling just as fast are the Ravens. Two weeks ago they held the number two spot in the AFC but defeat to the Redskins in overtime last week means they will probably end up as fourth seed overall and face a tricky tie against Indianapolis. Baltimore reacted to that defeat by sacking offensive co-ordinator Cam Cameron (who presided over Miami's disastrous 1-15 season in 2006) and replacing him with Jim Caldwell, who coached the Colts to a 2-14 season last year. There's a definite sense of shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic about that move and it isn't impossible that both Pittsburgh (who have Ben Roethlisberger back behind centre) and Cincinnati could overtake them. The Bengals would have been no-one's favourites for the AFC North a month ago but winning their final three games could give them that title. They can be backed at 21.020/1 to do that.
The team in the biggest trouble though are Chicago. After losing to Seattle a week ago they went down to Minnesota with a performance so feeble even new-born kittens were embarrassed by it. To top matters off nicely, quarterback Jay Cutler was again injured, whilst kicker Robbie Gould - one of the few reliable parts of the whole team - suffered a season-ending injury. There is every possibility that the Bears could drop out of the playoffs altogether. They are now at 8-5 and with three teams behind them on 7-6 (including the Vikings) it is entirely feasible that they could slip out of contention completely.
Of those three sides, my bet would be Dallas at 4.57/2 to make the playoffs. Minnesota rely too heavily on running back Adrian Peterson and have no other offensive threat to speak of, whilst Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III suffered a knee injury on Sunday which, if nothing else, will hamper the speed of movement which his teams whole offense is built around.
With just three weeks of the regular season left, now is the ideal time to start trying to pick the likely Super Bowl contenders, as once the field is narrowed to just a dozen sides after Week 17 the odds will drop sharply. Looking at the form teams of the moment my bet would be a New England v Green Bay final, currently on offer at the (rather generous, given their recent performances) price of 9.9n/a.
Back a New England/Green Bay Super Bowl at odds of 9.9n/a