December is indeed the cruellest month, at least in the NFL. Pretty much every game sees a teams playoff hopes dashed and, since last week, a couple of big names have slipped out of contention.
If the season ended now, then San Francisco would be the second seeds in the NFC, their tied game against St Louis giving them the edge over Chicago. They cemented that position on Sunday with a resounding win in New Orleans which pretty much ended the Saints' chances of making the playoffs. Drew Brees' men were aiming to become the first team since 1992 to make the post-season after starting 0-4 but were completely outplayed by a 49ers side who seemed rejuvenated by the introduction of new starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
While it is not inconceivable that they could win their remaining five games to finish 10-6, that would mean beating the 10-1 Falcons in Atlanta tonight, plus beating other teams with better records than theirs, the Giants and Buccaneers.
Even further back than the Saints are the Eagles, who slipped to 3-8 after a Monday night loss to Carolina, who registered their third win of the season in the process. It was an awful night for Philadelphia, with rookie quarterback Nick Foles looking completely out of his depth, key running back LaSean McCoy still missing with a concussion and star wide receiver DeSean Jackson then knocked out for the year with a rib injury.
Also in trouble are Pittsburgh, after another loss played out without the injured Ben Roethlisberger which featured no fewer than eight turnovers, including five fumbles from their four man committee of running backs. With their two main rivals floundering the AFC North is Baltimore's to lose. With Houston seemingly tiring and having to resort to overtime to win their last two games, the Ravens look a good bet at 6.86/1 to be AFC Champions come January.
As the Steelers slip back, the Bengals - who have the same win/loss ratio at 6-5 - are getting stronger, with Sunday's 34-10 thumping of Oakland showing the sort of ruthlessness that a team needs to make it through the regular season. Last year Cincinnati made the playoffs despite having only one real offensive threat in AJ Green, but this year he is complemented by rookie Mohamed Sanu and the pair of them are now causing real problems for offenses everywhere.
Last week the NFC North was the tightest division in the NFL, but with Chicago winning easily over divisional rivals Minnesota and Green Bay surprisingly losing to a Giants side who had hardly scored a point in their previous two games, the Bears now hold the whip hand with an 8-3 record.
Chicago must still play both the Packers and the Vikings during their run-in, but also welcome Seattle (great at home, ropey on the road) to Solider Field, go to Arizona and face a Cardinals side who have lost their last seven games. The regular season ends at home against Detroit, who are simply rubbish.
A word of warning, though. The Bears are basically a three man team at the moment and lost no fewer than five players to injury last week, including the NFL's all-time leading kick returner Devin Hester and star cornerback Charles Tillman. If you have backed them in the divisional market (where they are currently 1.855/6) then look to lay them off if either Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall or one of the defensive stars like Brian Uhrlacher or Lance Briggs goes down.
One game behind the Packers and with the same record as the Seahawks are the Buccaneers. Coach Greg Schiano has somehow taken last season's disparate bunch of individuals and turned them into arguably the most feared side in the league right now. Significantly, their poor form over the past three seasons has left them a comparatively easy final five games, including a final game against Atlanta where, assuming the Falcons to already be assured of top seed in the NFC, they can bank on not facing a full strength opponent.
There's no reason for them not to end this season at least 10-6 and at 2.747/4 they look a solid bet to reach the playoffs.
Back Baltimore Ravens at 6.86/1 to be AFC Champions