The NFL enters week 14 with the playoff picture much clearer. Over the last weekend the Patriots, Falcons and Broncos all won their respective divisions, whilst the Texans at least assured themselves of a post-season berth. That means that, with four weekends to go, a third of the playoff places are filled.
This isn't the bad news it might appear to be, though. For a start, there never was much mileage in backing any of those four sides anyway. In the three divisions that have been decided, only one side other than the winners does not have a losing record (the 6-6 Buccaneers) and it was pretty clear a long time ago who would end up as divisional champions. In addition, the odds on Atlanta and Houston dropped like a Hail Mary pass once they both started the season 4-0, whilst the presence of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in New England and Denver meant that there was never a really good price on offer for either side.
More importantly, though, all of this means that the other four divisions remain very close, with at least two teams in each still contending for the right to carry their season on into January.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the NFC East. The division was supposed to be a cakewalk for reigning champions the New York Giants, but it has been far from that. A three game winning streak for the Washington Redskins has brought them just one game behind Eli Manning's side, culminating in a hard fought victory over the Giants on Monday night. With the Giants at 7-5, the Redskins at 6-6 and the 6-6 Cowboys only in third place by virtue of a worse record against the other two this season, the division is anyone's to take and it is not inconceivable that last season's champs could miss this year's playoffs altogether. At 3.814/5 the Redskins are the form bet to win this division.
Whoever wins that division looks likely to find themselves playing the winners of the NFC North on the first weekend in January. Chicago's overtime loss to Seattle on Sunday handed the initiative in that division to Green Bay. We flagged up last week that you should consider laying the Bears if a key defensive player went down and in fact they lost two in the closing minutes of that game. With star linebacker Brian Urlacher admitting that he will miss the remaining four games now looks to be the time to get behind the Packers at 1.528/15.
For the last three seasons the NFC West has been an open contest up to the final couple of weeks of the season and this year looks to be no different. San Francisco holds a one game lead over Seattle, but the 49ers' skittish defeat to St Louis at the weekend, combined with the intelligent and assured way that the Seahawks came from behind to beat the Bears, suggests that the smart money is on Russell Wilson and co at 4.1
The AFC North is slightly less tight, but the Ravens' loss to the Steelers on Sunday means that there is now only a two game gap between the two rivals, with Cincinnati level with Pittsburgh, too. That gap should close further on Sunday, with Baltimore facing a tough trip to Washington whilst the Steelers host a San Diego side who are on a four game losing streak already. In 2011 both AFC wild card teams came from this division and it is not inconceivable that it could happen again. With all of this in mind bets on Pittsburgh at 3.8514/5 to win the division and Cincy to make the playoffs would be justified.
Back Seattle Seahawks at 4.1 to win the NFC West