We're getting close to crunch time in the NFL with the final six regular season games deciding which teams get a shot at Super Bowl glory and which teams must start planning for 2013/14. Richard O'Hagan reports...
Thanksgiving week is an important one in the NFL. Not only is it a national celebration which in many ways eclipses even Christmas itself, but it marks the point at which parity is restored in the league. The bye weeks are over and that means that every team has now played ten games, making the play-off picture much clearer.
First of all, a recap. The winners of each of the eight divisions go through to the playoffs, which begin on January 5 next year. Along with them go the two teams from each conference, the NFC and the AFC, with the best records from the regular season. The two divisional winners from each conference with the best records are then handed a bye into the following week's games, so there is an incentive not just to win your division but to win it well.
This is, therefore, the time of year when we begin to seriously consider not just who is playing well, but who is playing well enough to make it into the post-season.
The AFC looks like a seven horse race towards those six play-off places. At 9-1 the Houston Texans not only lead the way, they are the only side in the entire NFL not to have dropped a game to a member of their own Conference. Having got this far on the back of their defense, this weekend their offense finally joined the campaign as quarterback Matt Schaub turned in the second greatest number of passing yards in a game in NFL history. That they needed overtime to beat the 1-9 Jacksonville Jaguars doesn't matter, they're still in the driving seat and are now 6.611/2 favourites to win the Super Bowl itself on February 3.
Behind them sit the Baltimore Ravens, seemingly over their mid-season blip and at 8-2 with a game lead over the rest of the pack. Victory on Sunday night over Pittsburgh could also have ruined the play-off hopes of one of their biggest rivals. The Steelers are still in the hunt at 6-4 but were woeful without Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. There's a rumour that Big Ben could be out for up to five more weeks. Another month of either Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch behind center might just finish them off and let in Cincinnati, who are only a game behind at 5-5 and have a much easier run in. Pittsburgh are odds-on to beat Cleveland this weekend and while they make get past the 2-8 Browns, they remain one to avoid and possibly even take on, while Big Ben is out.
In last weekend's battle of two Super Bowl contenders, New England duly thrashed Indianapolis, but at a cost after their main offensive weapon, Rob Gronkowski, who suffered a broken arm towards the end of the game. That's probably not going to hamper their run-in too much, but the situation with the Colts is now an interesting one. That they are even in contention after finishing last year bottom of the entire league is remarkable, that they have done so with a rookie quarterback even more so. The question has to be, though, just how much further they can go. The NFL record number of wins for a rookie quarterback is seven, so even if Andrew Luck equals that the Colts will still finish 7-9. Only one team - Seattle two years ago - has made the post-season with such a record and it won't be good enough to make it through this time. The Colts could start to fade with the playoffs in sight and may be one to oppose in the latter stages of the season.
Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos hold the final spot and of all of the contenders you would have to think of them as the surest bet. Manning's nous and a dominant defense have seen them through this far and barring Number 18 suffering another serious injury you have to think that they are pretty secure. At 7.613/2 they look a good bet as second favourite for the Super Bowl.
The situation is a little cloudier in the NFC, where although Atlanta hold a 9-1 record they had to overcome five interceptions from Matt Ryan to get past the stuttering Arizona Cardinals at the weekend. Behind them, three teams are vying for the second position. San Francisco hold it at the moment by virtue of having lost fewer games than Chicago and Green Bay, a situation they reinforced by destroying the Bears on Monday night. For the second year running an injury to Jay Cutler seems to have derailed Chicago's season and with his return currently only estimated at 'before season end' they could slip far out of play-off contention before then, so lay them now at 2.01/1 in that market.
In fact, the whole situation in the NFC North is pretty enticing, with the Bears and Packers at 7-3 and the Vikings only a game behind at 6-4. The irony of pipping Chicago to the playoffs will not be lost on Minnesota's head coach, former Bears great Leslie Frazier, and despite a difficult second season for quarterback Christian Ponder they seem to be getting by simply on the back of resurgent running back Adrian Peterson.
The other two teams in the mix are in very different positions. For Seattle, three wins from their remaining six games should suffice, which would be worse than they have been doing. Coach Pete Carroll's faith in rookie quarterback Russell Wilson seems to have been justified and many believe that in the undersized sixth round pick he has found the next Drew Brees.
The Giants, by contrast, are also struggling, with no touchdown passes in their last two games and the 5-5 Cowboys only a game behind in the NFC East. Unless Eli Manning can get their offense going after their bye week he will not be joining his brother in the post-season shake-up, so back the Cowboys at 2.68/5 to win the NFC East.
Back the Dallas Cowboys to win the NFC East at 2.68/5