A late-season look into the crystal ball

8:24 AM, Dec 11, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Just three weeks remain in the NFL regular season, but so many things have yet to be decided.

Only three of the eight division champions have been determined, and eight of the 12 playoff berths are still up for grabs.

The league can be quite unpredictable, but let's take a stab at figuring out how the rest of the month might play out.

WHO WILL WIN THE NFC EAST TITLE?

Not all that long ago, it looked like the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants were going to run away with the division crown. Now they hold just a one-game lead over both Washington and Dallas, and the Giants would lose a tie-breaker to either team based on record within the division. New York has split the season series against both squads.

Because they're still in first place, the Giants remain in the driver's seat. They close the season with road games against Atlanta and Baltimore before returning home for a season finale against Philadelphia.

Dallas hosts Pittsburgh and New Orleans before visiting Washington in the final week. Washington visits Cleveland and Philadelphia before returning home to meet Dallas.

Washington arguably has the easiest remaining schedule, although the uncertain status of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, who sprained his knee in Sunday's overtime win against Baltimore, could make things a little murky for the Redskins.

Dallas probably has the toughest remaining schedule of the three NFC East contenders, since the Cowboys and the Steelers will both really need to win their head-to-head battle this week, and New Orleans is, even at 5-8, mighty dangerous. Making things even more difficult for the Cowboys is the uncertain status of star wide receiver Dez Bryant, who has a fractured finger.

The smart money seems to still be on the Giants, especially now that injuries have forced them to put explosive rookie David Wilson on the field more. It adds an exciting dimension to their offense.

Atlanta is 6-0 at home, but with the NFC South title wrapped up, the Falcons don't have nearly as much to play for as the Giants do. Baltimore seems to be in a late-season swoon, so New York's upcoming visit there doesn't seem quite as daunting as it once did. The Giants have a pretty good chance to win out and claim the NFC East crown again.

WHICH TEAMS CURRENTLY IN LINE TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS ARE MOST IN JEOPARDY?

Baltimore opened the season 9-2, but it's still possible for the Ravens to miss the postseason.

They've lost two in a row, and their final three games are home against Denver and the New York Giants, then at Cincinnati. It's unlikely to happen, but Baltimore could still close with five consecutive losses and get eliminated from the postseason. Monday's firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron could be evidence that Baltimore is beginning to panic.

Meanwhile, if the season were to end right now, the four wild-card teams would be Indianapolis and Pittsburgh in the AFC and Seattle and Chicago in the NFC. It's not a slam dunk that any of them will get to the postseason.

Indianapolis only needs to win one of its three remaining games, and it will almost certainly be favored to prevail at Kansas City on Dec. 23. If the Colts lose that one, though, they could be trouble because their other two remaining games are against division-leading Houston.

The Colts are a nice story, bouncing back from a 2-14 season and winning nine games so far behind rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. They've done it without the presence of head coach Chuck Pagano, who has been undergoing treatment for leukemia.

Indianapolis will probably hold on, but it would almost unquestionably be the weakest playoff team if it qualifies. Despite a 9-4 record, the Colts are minus-37 in point differential and they've lost to Jacksonville and the New York Jets.

Pittsburgh is 7-6 and closes with games against Dallas, Cincinnati and Cleveland. The big one will be the Dec. 23 meeting with Cincinnati, which is also 7-6 and lurking. The winner of that game will likely gain one of the wild- card spots.

Chicago looked like a playoff lock not all that long ago, but it has lost four of its last five games to drop to 8-5. Now, quarterback Jay Cutler's status is up in the air for this week because of a neck injury he suffered in Sunday's loss to Minnesota.

The Bears host Green Bay, then visit Arizona and Detroit. If they don't win two of those games, they could be in trouble because so many six-loss teams (Dallas, Washington, Minnesota and St. Louis) are breathing down their neck.

It looks like Seattle is going to get into the playoffs, but it does have one potential problem. Starting cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman both received four-game suspensions late last month for testing positive for performance-enhancing substances. Both appealed and remained in the lineup for the Seahawks' crucial win over Chicago on Dec. 2.

Browner withdrew his appeal and began serving the suspension this past Sunday. He will miss the rest of the regular season. Sherman's appeal is scheduled to be heard Friday, although his attorney is trying to have it delayed. If the hearing is held as scheduled and Sherman loses, Seattle will be without its top two corners for the final three games, including meetings with division rivals San Francisco and St. Louis.

WHICH FOUR TEAMS ARE MOST LIKELY TO RECEIVE FIRST-ROUND PLAYOFF BYES?

It appears quite possible (maybe even likely) that Atlanta and Houston peaked a bit too early this year. Nevertheless, they should be able to do enough to nail down two of the first-round byes.

For the other two spots, let's go with New England and Green Bay. The Patriots own a head-to-head win over red-hot Denver, which would give them the edge in a possibly necessary tiebreaker.

San Francisco is currently one-half game ahead of the Packers, but Green Bay (at Chicago, home against Tennessee and at Minnesota) has the easier remaining schedule. It's looking like the Packers will finish 12-4 after their 2-3 start.

WILL 49ERS COACH JIM HARBAUGH REGRET HIS QUARTERBACK CHANGE?

Before leaving San Francisco's ninth game of the season with a concussion, quarterback Alex Smith, the former No. 1 overall draft pick, had been enjoying the finest year of his career. He had completed 70 percent of his passes, thrown for 13 touchdowns against just five interceptions and had compiled an impressive 104.1 passer rating.

Most coaches would be thrilled to have such an efficient starting quarterback. Jim Harbaugh, however, decided to replace Smith in the lineup with 2011 second- round pick Colin Kaepernick. The team has gone 3-1 with Kaepernick behind center.

Kaepernick has been fine, but not really spectacular. The move will really prove to be a controversial one if the 49ers lose the next two games - at New England and at Seattle. If that happens, Seattle could move past San Francisco into first place in the NFC West.

If that scenario plays out, then Harbaugh might regret the decision. The guess, however, is that San Francisco will hold on and win the division.

Essentially, Harbaugh realized that Smith was never going to be more than a game manager, albeit an effective one. He chose to move forward with Kaepernick because of his big-play capability. If this season ends with Kaepernick holding the Lombardi Trophy, it will go down as one of the most successful in-season moves in NFL history.

Either way, it was a bold decision and one that should be appreciated by 49ers fans because it showed that Harbaugh is not content to just play it safe. He's doing what he thinks will give San Francisco its best chance for a championship.

Whether it works this year remains to be seen, but at least Harbaugh didn't allow a 6-2-1 team that played in the NFC championship game last season to rest on its laurels.

WHICH TEAMS WILL REACH THE SUPER BOWL?

Get ready for two weeks of Manning vs. Manning hype. A Denver vs. New York Giants Super Bowl looks like a strong possibility.

Peyton Manning has led Denver to eight consecutive wins, and it looks like the Broncos are poised to remain on a roll. They're not perfect, but all the other AFC teams seem to have bigger issues; Baltimore has been struggling, New England can't slow down most teams' passing attacks, and injuries have had an adverse effect on what had previously been an impressive Houston defense.

The NFC is just as wide-open. Green Bay is starting to look good, and San Francisco has an impressive defense. Either of those teams could easily represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, but it would be tough to pick either of them over the Eli Manning-led Giants, because New York has posted one-sided wins over both of them.

Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.

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