Analysis: NFL parity gives facelift to playoff picture

MIAMI (BestGrowthStock) – In an NFL season where parity has reigned supreme, a fresh crop of Super Bowl contenders emerged while some perennial favorites have left themselves plenty of work in the coming weeks to even book a playoff spot.

The Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears, teams that did not make the playoffs last season, have already surpassed their win total from 2009 and lead their respective divisions.

The Falcons (10-2) have the NFL’s best record and bullied their way into the discussion of the league’s best team with a potent offense that includes quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner and wide receiver Roddy White.

Atlanta has won five straight games, are unbeatable at home this season and close out their schedule with two games against the last place Carolina Panthers, a mediocre Seattle Seahawks team and division rival New Orleans Saints.

A much more confident Jay Cutler, who threw a league-high 26 interceptions last season, has helped Chicago (9-3) to five straight wins and a one-game lead over a Green Bay Packers team many experts expected would run away with the NFC North.

While the Bears may be well positioned to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2006 season, they have to endure a tough finish to the schedule with games against New England, at Minnesota, versus the New York Jets and at Green Bay.

The surprising Jacksonville Jaguars (7-5), who finished at the bottom of the AFC South last season, are poised to complete the transformation from worst-to-first and enter the playoffs as division champions.

The Jaguars, who had one of the worst attendance records in the league last year and face questions about their future as an NFL franchise, will close out the regular season with four games against teams not currently above .500.

RAMS RENAISSANCE

The St. Louis Rams, who matched their combined win total of the previous three seasons with Sunday’s win over the Arizona Cardinals, are tied atop a weak NFC Division with the Seattle Seahawks at 6-6.

The .500 records would not earn the Rams or Seahawks any better than third place in five other divisions, but either club could become the first NFL team to win a division with a losing record in a full season.

The NFC East division could come down to the final weekend of the regular season with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles tied with 8-4 record.

Among other teams, the New York Jets, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints are all currently positioned to make the playoffs.

STRUGGLING COLTS

The Indianapolis Colts (6-6) got off to a fast start this season and looked like they would easily contend for another AFC title. But last season’s Super Bowl runner-up have lost three straight and are in danger of missing the playoffs.

The Colts, coming off an overtime loss to Dallas on Sunday after a Peyton Manning interception set up the game-winning field goal, have won at least 12 games in each of the past seven seasons but need to run the table to finish with 10.

San Diego were another pre-season favorite to be among the top teams late in the season, but the Chargers had a four-game winning streak snapped by the Oakland Raiders on Sunday that put a major crimp in their playoff plans.

The Chargers (6-6) are two games behind Kansas City (7-4) in the AFC West but host the Chiefs next week. A loss against the Chiefs, one of the NFL’s most impressive young teams, would all but eliminate the Chargers from playoff contention.

The Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals saw their playoff hopes dim over the weekend with losses that left them poised to join bottom feeders like the Cincinnati Bengals and Carolina.

(Writing by Steve Keating in West Palm Beach, Florida, Editing by Frank Pingue; To query or comment on this story email [email protected])

Analysis: NFL parity gives facelift to playoff picture