Thanksgiving is around the corner, which signifies there is a concentrated dose of meaningful football headed our way. Usually, this is the time of the season where very good teams separate themselves from mediocre teams.
Divisions like the AFC and NFC North (52-35-1, .597 win percentage) thrive, because although the teams in those divisions are close in the standings, they have been in playoff-type games for many weeks now.
Teams in the AFC and NFC South (28-59-1, .324 win percentage) are just not that good, but due to the NFL’s current playoff structure, every division winner gets to host at least one playoff game. As a matter of fact, it’s quite possible that the winner of the NFC South will host a playoff game against a team that has twice as many wins as them.
Although a major goal of any team is to “get in the tournament,” these five teams have their eyes set on the ultimate goal, and so far, have put themselves in position to attain it.
1. New England Patriots (9-2)
Next game: at Green Bay (8-3)
Dallas, Arizona, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and New England are the only teams in the NFL to have winning road records. Most teams excel at home, and the Patriots are no different. But New England has the formula to win anywhere, and it does so convincingly.
The Patriots are on a 7-game winning streak (the next best streak is three games), and lead the league in point differential (+130). They’re as solid as any team out there, and while they are beatable, if they get a lead, don’t expect them to surrender it.
2. Green Bay Packers (8-3)
Next game: vs. New England (9-2)
If not for how well New England was playing, Green Bay would be the clear No. 1 team on this list. They showed last week at Minnesota they can win a close game on the road, which is a prerequisite for any team that wants to compete for a Super Bowl.
In their five home games this season, the Packers have outscored their opponents, 219-85. What’s more, Eddie Lacy has begun to heat up. From Weeks 9-11, Lacy rushed 37 times for 178 yards and one touchdown. Last week, he rushed 25 times for 125 yards and one touchdown. When defenses have to account for a locked-in Lacy, it makes defending Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, and Randall Cobb all the more problematic.
3. Dallas Cowboys (8-3)
Next game: vs. Philadelphia (8-3)
The Cowboys won last Sunday the way they’ve been winning all year: pounding the rock with DeMarco Murray, Tony Romo making plays in and out of the pocket, and Dez Bryant sealing the game late with a touchdown.
Speaking of Romo, he led the Cowboys on a game-winning drive for the 27th time in his career (6th best mark among active players). When the Cowboys are undefeated on the road, their offensive line is gashing people, and Tony Romo is playing clutch football, there aren’t many teams that can beat them.
4. Denver Broncos (8-3)
Next game: at Kansas City (7-4)
Denver is entering their usual late-season mode of winning close games against inferior teams. The reason why that’s cause for skepticism is because they were regularly blowing out good teams earlier this year. Now, they’ve started to waver a bit.
The first thing John Fox needs to figure out is who his kicker will be going forward. Broncos kickers have converted nine of their 13 attempts this season (69.2 percent). That’s horrible. Whether or not Peyton Manning is your quarterback, you need to have a reliable kicker in the playoffs.
Secondly, the Broncos need to be prepared to win games when their offense has an off day. Each of Denver’s three losses this season have come when it has scored 21 points or less. The law of averages (and history) suggests Manning is going to have a bad game within the next two months, and if someone else doesn’t step up, the entire team could be watching the playoffs from home.
5. Arizona Cardinals (9-2)
Next game: at Atlanta (4-7)
A loss to Seattle doesn’t impact Arizona’s playoff hopes that much on paper, but whenever a team with a lot of momentum stumbles, that team usually either bounces back resoundingly or folds like a cheap suit. Because of the entire Cardinals roster, coaching staff, and the fact that they play the Falcons on Sunday, I think Arizona will bounce back with a win in Week 13. That would put them at least two games up on every other NFC West team with four games remaining.
Last week, for the first time in seven years, Larry Fitzgerald, the unquestioned leader of the Cardinals, missed a game (due to a sprained left knee). It’s unknown how much time he will miss. If Fitzgerald can’t return soon, that will be a big blow to Arizona’s chances of advancing in the playoffs.
Game of the week
New England Patriots (9-2) at Green Bay Packers (8-3)
Sunday, November 30 at 4:25 P.M. ET on CBS
Vegas line: Green Bay -3
Forecast: Cloudy, 31 degrees, 20% chance of rain, wind NW at 11 mph
Ravens current playoff position: No. 7 seed in the AFC. The Chargers (also 7-4) are currently the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff race, and they will play at Baltimore on Sunday. With a win this week and a Bengals loss at Tampa Bay, the Ravens will be atop the AFC North with four games to play.