MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 23: Ragnar, mascot for the Minnesota Vikings, shakes hands with Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers after the Packers defeated the Vikings on October 23, 2011 at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

NFL Playoff Picture 2011: Can Anyone Take Down The Pack?

The NFL season is hitting the midway point which means we're starting to get an idea of the 2012 playoff picture. Here are SB Nation's predictions for each division, along with the 2012 Super Bowl winner.

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NFL Playoff Picture 2011: Division-By-Division Predictions And Your Super Bowl Winner

The NFL playoff picture for the 2011 season is slowly but surely coming into focus. We're nearing the midpoint of the season with eight weeks down and nine to go. Some divisions, like the NFC West, are essentially decided but others, like the AFC East and NFC South, have no clear leader right now.

Who's going to the playoffs in 2011? Here are SB Nation's predictions at the midpoint.

AFC East: Patriots. New England has some issues on defense this season but they've shown over the last decade that they can consistently win games and that won't change this year. I can see 11 wins out of New England this year.

AFC North: Steelers. Pittsburgh or Baltimore could win this. It seems like they're the exact same team but Pittsburgh, the defending AFC champs, ultimately pull it out. Baltimore gets in with a Wildcard.

AFC South: Texans. This is just as much about the Texans as it is their competition in the AFC South. Last year, the Jaguars and Colts were involved in the division title race but this year both teams are nowhere near the AFC South title talk. The Texans and that offense win enough to finally put themselves in the playoffs.

AFC West: Chargers. There's a three-way tie in the AFC West between the Chargers, Chiefs and Raiders but we think Philip Rivers eventually gets his act together and leads the Chargers to an AFC West title.

Wildcard: Ravens and Bills. The Wildcard teams mean that the Jets miss out on the playoffs for the first time in the Rex Ryan era. They clearly have the talent to make a run but their inconsistency this season comes back to bite them while the Bills keep on winning.

NFC East: Eagles. This is a tough pick because the Eagles, while clearly talented, haven't been the best team in the first half of the division. They're 3-4 while the Giants have a two-game lead at 5-2 through the first eight weeks of the season. Philly has enough talent to come back and take the division, though.

NFC North: Packers. Despite the Lions' resurgence, this is almost the easiest pick of them all. The Packers are head and shoulders the best team in the league. The question is who, if anyone, beats them.

NFC South: Falcons. Another somewhat surprise pick in the NFC. The Saints are another choice here, as are the Bucs, but at this point you're just flipping a coin. We'll take Atlanta.

NFC West: 49ers. We said the Packers' winning the NFC North was almost the easiest pick. We say almost because the 49ers are the easiest division winner pick of the year. They have a four-game lead and, if things fall right, they could have the division wrapped up by Thanksgiving.

Wildcards: Saints and Lions. Detroit makes it at 6-2 right now and they'd probably win the division if they were anywhere but the NFC North with the Packers. The Saints and Falcons will battle it out in the NFC South and both teams will make it into the playoffs. 


AFC Championship: Ravens over Steelers. A Wildcard team makes the Super Bowl as Joe Flacco and the Ravens finally make it through the AFC to reach the big game. The Ravens offense will continue to come into their own and topple the Steelers.

NFC Championship: Packers over 49ers. Indeed, the 49ers making the NFC Championship game by limiting their mistakes and playing excellent defense. Ultimately, though, you can't pick against the Packers making the Super Bowl. They're in another world compared to the rest of the league right now.

Super Bowl: Packers over Ravens. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers win two in a row. Can you pick anyone else to win the Super Bowl right now?


NFL Playoff Picture 2011: 49ers Should Take NFC West Crown With Ease

Written by SB Nation's Ryan Van Bibber.

Raise your hand if you laughed at an NFC West joke anytime since January. Now, put them down before everyone in your suburban office complex sees you acting as foolish as the teams you so enjoyed mocking. And how could you not? The NFC West sent a de facto representative to the NFL playoffs last year, the Seattle Seahawks, with a 7-9 record. Predictions of another season chocked full of laughs have come to fruition. One team was supposed to run away with it, and it was not supposed to be the San Francisco 49ers with Alex Smith running the offense. So much for predictions.

Arizona made the biggest move of the lockout shortened offseason trading for quarterback Kevin Kolb. Unfortunately, they failed to address other needs around him, like an offensive line. Seattle made a big offseason move of their own, signing free agent wide receiver Sidney Rice. They also spent a bevvy of draft picks to upgrade their offensive line, a serious weakness in their de facto playoff run last year. However, Sidney Rice and the line are working with the terrible twosome of Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst, poor answers at quarterback even for a team just needing a seat filler this year. Disappointment reigns in St. Louis, where the Rams were supposed to dominate their division and stand tall in the face of a tough first-half schedule. A big upset over New Orleans last week could be a good sign, or it could be a fluke. 

Here's what the NFC West looks like entering Week 9:

1. San Francisco, 6-1

2. Seattle, 2-5

3. Arizona, 1-6

4. St. Louis, 1-6

Seattle, Arizona or St. Louis could all be sitting on winning lottery tickets for the 2012 NFL Draft. It would be something of a major upset if all three of teams combined for 15 wins. Arizona and Seattle can point toward rebuilding efforts. St. Louis, despite a rash of injuries, still has the talent to compete, and a deadline deal for wide receiver Brandon Lloyd was a good indicator that they don't plan on playing for Luck. If their win over the Saints last week really is real, they could at least be competitive in the second half, saving jobs for Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo and General Manager Billy Devaney. 

Predicted Division Winner: San Francisco has this thing locked up. Nothing short of Rapture is going to change that. In fact, Jim Harbaugh's team should have it mathematically locked up by Thanksgiving. Because they play in the NFC West, the 49ers will be seriously overlooked heading into the playoffs. 


NFL Playoff Picture 2011: NFC South Includes Three Contenders In Saints, Bucs, Falcons

Written by SB Nation's Ryan Van Bibber.

The road to the NFC South title was supposed to go through Atlanta. Following a humbling loss to the Packers in the playoffs last year, Atlanta made a blockbuster draft day trade, swapping a sizable chuck of their future to move up and draft Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones with the first pick. New Orleans, just a year removed from winning it all, retooled their high octane offense, swapping out Reggie Bush for Darren Sproles and first-round pick Mark Ingram. It made their running game an even more dynamic part of an explosive offense, centered around quarterback Drew Brees.

Tampa Bay entered the season expecting a great leap forward from quarterback Josh Freeman, after showing real promise in his rookie year. Carolina made the biggest change of all, drafting Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick. Most definitely an entertainer, Newton promises to make the Panthers' offense the most exciting in the division. No surprise then that this is the most schizophrenic division in the NFL. Unfortunately, the three teams at the top have failed to dominate opponents the way each envisioned leading up to the season. 

Here's how the NFC South looks heading into Week 9:

1. New Orleans, 5-3

2. Tampa Bay, 4-3

3. Atlanta, 4-3

4. Carolina, 2-6

Defense is the biggest flaw for each of these teams; each one has glaring weaknesses within the unit. The dog fight between the Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers should be among the more entertaining division races of the season's second half. 

New Orleans leads now simply because both Atlanta and Tampa Bay had the week off. A lopsided loss to the St. Louis Rams, previously winless, sowed the seeds of doubt among the Saints and their true believers. The Saints figure to get a wild card berth because they can still score points by the bunch and they have the savviest group of coaches in the division, a group of leaders quite capable of disguising the team's flaws. 

Tampa Bay probably has to wait another year. Despite a talented young quarterback, they just don't have the kind of offensive skills players the Falcons and Saints do. Their defense ranks among the bottom the third of the league, which will make those division battles even tougher, especially with such a weak pass rush. 

Keep a close eye on the Panthers. Despite winning just two games, they've only lost by more than a touchdown twice. Ron Rivera's team will spoil playoff hopes for more than one team before the season ends; mark it. A good draft and smart offseason moves should put them in the mix for the division title next year. 

Predicted Division Winner: A Week 10 game between the Falcons and the Saints could go a long way toward deciding the winner but we'll take Atlanta. The Falcons look dialed in after winning two straight, including one against the Lions, in pretty convincing fashion. Julio Jones should be back in action this week against the Colts and really hitting his stride the week after this one. 


NFL Playoff Picture 2011: Packers And Then Everyone Else In NFC North

Written by SB Nation's Ryan Van Bibber.

After their Super Bowl win, many noted that the Green Bay Packers were built to make a run at the title every year for a long time. That's proven to be more than talk radio fodder as Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have jumped out to a 7-0 start. They look mostly unstoppable. Detroit thinks otherwise, and a Thanksgiving Day matchup between the two teams has all the makings for an instant classic. Chicago is technically alive in the division race, four games behind Green Bay and two behind the Lions, their week 10 opponent. Meanwhile, Minnesota rebuilds, but rookie quarterback Christian Ponder and all-world running back Adrian Peterson are more than capable of playing the spoiler. 

Here's how the NFC North looks through eight weeks:

1. Green Bay, 7-0

2. Detroit, 6-2

3. Chicago, 4-3

4. Minnesota, 2-6

Detroit can definitely give Green Bay chase. If Matt Stafford can stay healthy, they should have a wild card ticket to the postseason for the first time since 1999. 

Chicago will be fighting for a wild card of their own, but the first half of the season has exposed serious flaws with this team. Clubhouse distractions simmer beneath the surface too. Over their next three games, they play Philadelphia, Detroit and San Diego, leaving them no margin for error. 

Minnesota will have to wait for next year. 

Predicted Division Winner: Green Bay is the class of the NFC, and nothing short of an extreme circumstance is likely to change that. Even if they do end up dropping a game or two, Aaron Rodgers and Co. can plan on watching the first round of the playoffs from the comfort of home. 


NFL Playoff Picture 2011: Giants, Eagles Among NFC East Contenders

Written by SB Nation's Ryan Van Bibber.

After a wild free agency period, pundits handed this division to the Philadelphia Eagles. All the Eagles did was go on a player spending spree becoming the norm for professional teams in the mid-Atlantic region. The feather in their cap was cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Of course, winning in this division is nothing to be taken for granted, and the lockout had the strange effect of putting the normally well-prepared Andy Reid Eagles behind the eight ball, most notably on defense with a converted offensive line coach running the show and little power and speed up the middle. Now, it looks like things are finally starting to gel in Philly. 

The New York Giants hold the division lead, but a comeback win over the Dolphins last week signals an upcoming free for all in the second half of the season. Give the Giants credit, injuries hit them unusually hard this year, but they've managed to play their way to a 5-2 start.

Erratic has become the norm in Dallas, and the return of Tony Romo this season has only fueled more controversy and strange play. Prime time games, something the networks continue to demand from Dallas, seem to be a real problem. Washington fell back to Earth after a strong start to the season. Injuries at skill positions have hampered the offense, along with Rex Grossman and John Beck, neither or whom are capable of taking this team any further. 

Here's how the NFC East breaks down heading into Week 9:

1. New York, 5-2

2. Philadelphia, 3-4

3. Dallas, 3-4

4. Washington, 3-4

The NFC East can always be counted on for a good wild card battle, and with the exception of Washington, all three teams in this division have a shot at one of those extra playoff berths. Dallas is probably too shaky to make it happen, but their unpredictable nature makes them paradoxically easy and hard to write off at the halfway point. 

Predicted Division Winner: Like I said above, Philadelphia seems to be coming together, after failing to meet unreasonable expectations early in the year. New York travels to New England and San Francisco before a Week 11 home game against the Eagles. Philly plays at home against the Bears and the Cardinals, setting up a showdown with the Giants for control of the division. 


NFL Playoff Picture: AFC West Is Crowded With Three-Way Tie Between Chargers, Raiders, Chiefs

Posted by SB Nation's Jason Garrison.

The AFC West is usually the worst division in the conference but that title probably should go to the AFC South this season. The West is filled with talented quarterbacks, especially now that Carson Palmer is a member of the Oakland Raiders, and each one is capable of leading his team to the post season, but this is the most muddled division in the AFC.

Here is how the AFC West breaks down as they head into Week 9 of the 2011 season.

1. San Diego Chargers (4-3)

2. Oakland Raiders (4-3)

3. Kansas City Chiefs (4-3)

4. Denver Broncos (2-5)

The Chargers have struggled offensively more than usual through the first half of the 2011 season, mostly thanks to interceptions thrown by Philip Rivers. They have a tough defense but it wouldn't be surprising to watch them drop important games in the second half of the season.

The Raiders, who were one of the teams involved in the biggest trade of the year, have a new franchise quarterback in Carson Palmer and they feel that he's the guy that can lead them into the playoffs. They may be right. Even though their new signal caller threw three interceptions in his debut with the Raiders, they'll be coming out of the bye in Week 9 and Palmer should have a firm grasp of the offense by now. Palmer's arm and experience could combine with Darren McFadden's legs to make the Raiders the team to beat in the division.

After starting the season with an 0-3 record, the Chiefs have won four straight games, including a huge Monday Night Football overtime win over the Chargers. If the Chiefs continue this hot streak and Matt Cassel and Dwayne Bowe continue to make the highlight reals, the Chiefs could win the division.

The Broncos started with Kyle Orton and then turned the ball over to Tim Tebow. Tebow helped the team with their second game of the season over the Dolphins in Week 7 but he also played terribly in the team's 45-10 loss to the Detroit Lions. This team won't succeed until they turn Tebow into a starting quarterback or until they pay a new one.

The Chargers, Chiefs and Raiders are all equally able to win the division. It will all come down to how each team does within the division and which teams win the important non-division games. Right now the winner could practically be decided by a coin toss.

The Denver Broncos either need a new quarterback or they need to turn Tim Tebow into the quarterback that they want. Until they do, the Broncos don't have a chance.

Predicted Division Winners: Right now it would be hard not to say that the Raiders or Chiefs aren't the division favorites based on the Chiefs recent win streak and the Raiders' new quarterback. However, you still have to pick the Chargers at this point. I wouldn't expect any wildcards out of this division either.


NFL Playoff Picture 2011: Best AFC South Prediction Is Texans Over Titans

Posted by SB Nation's Jason Garrison.

The AFC South is not dominated by the Indianapolis Colts as usual in 2011 because of the absence of Peyton Manning. Without Manning, the Colts have shown that they are one of the two worst teams in the league. The slack was supposed to be picked up by the Houston Texans or the Tennessee Titans, but each team has had injury problems and trouble throughout the season, especially the Titans, who can't seem to get Chris Johnson moving.

Here is how the AFC South breaks down after the first eight games of the 2011 season.

1. Houston Texans (5-3) 

2. Tennessee Titans (4-3) 

4. Indianapolis Colts (0-8)

Thanks to the running of Arian Foster, the Texans are poised to be the winners of the AFC South. Even though Andre Johnson has been injured through the last couple weeks, the Texans have been able to get the job done, especially within the division in which they're 3-0.

The Titans, surprisingly, have the worst rushing offense in the NFL despite having Chris Johnson in the backfield. Johnson has been terrible but the Titans have still managed to have a winning record at the half-way point of the 2011 season thanks largely to the play from veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.

The Jaguars have had trouble, especially at the quarterback position. After cutting David Garrard just days before the season opener, the keys to the offense were handed to Luke McCown. However, after poor performances by McCown, the Jaguars decided to hand the reins to rookie Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert has played like a rookie and it's going to take some time for the Jaguars to start winning consistently.

Not having Peyton Manning has shown how many holes this team has and they have a lot. They're bad defensively and they're even worst on offense. Quarterback Curtis Painter has shown some flashes early in the season but not enough to lead the team to a win.

The Texans are Titans are the only two teams that have a legit shot at winning the division. It will come to these two teams' head-to-head record and how they play against the rest of the division. If Chris Johnson doesn't get thing going, though, expect Arian Foster and the Texans to win the division.

Both the Jaguars and Colts are pretty much done with the season. They don't have a chance to make the playoffs and they'll have to help rebuild their teams in the draft before next season.

Predicted Division Winner: It'll be the Texans that will win the division, especially if Andre Johnson comes back to the team soon and helps boost the team's pass offense. The Titans have a shot but in order to really get to the post season, I think Chris Johnson's going to need to come out of his hibernation and run the ball like he has over the past couple years.


NFL Playoff Picture 2011: AFC East Picks Range From Bills To Patriots To Jets

Posted by SB Nation's Jason Garrison.

After the AFC North, the AFC East has been the second best division in the conference. It's not the Patriots and Jets that have been supplying the division with most of the wins, though. It has been the Bills and the Patriots. With their high-powered offense led by Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills have the lead in the division with the Patriots nipping at their heels.

Here is how the AFC East breaks down as we head into Week 9 of the 2011 season.

1. Buffalo Bills (5-2)

2. New England Patriots (5-2)

3. New York Jets (4-3)

4. Miami Dolphins (0-7)

The Bills have one of the top offenses in the league and a very opportunistic defense which they were able to put to use in their Week 3 upset win over the New England Patriots. The Bills are in the drivers seat of the division thanks to Fitzpatrick's arm and Fred Jackson's legs.

The Bills have one more division win than the Bills but the Bills win over them is holding them in second place, for now. The Patriots have one of the highest powered offenses in the NFL but they have been cursed with the absolute worst defense, especially against the pass.

The Jets started off a going 2-0 but then fell into a three-game losing streak before winning again in Week 6 and Week 7. They are led by a strong defense and even though they have one of the worst defenses in the league, they still find a way to win games.

The Dolphins are by far the worst team in the division and are one of the two winless teams in the league. They started with Chad Henne behind center, which is bad enough, but when he got hurt they turned the reins over to Matt Moore, which is even worse.

The Bills and Patriots are the two most likely candidates to win the division but you can't really leave the Jets out of the conversation either. If they really turn it on and go on a hot streak, they could find themselves in the post season too.

Of course the Dolphins are out of the running to make their way into the playoffs this season. Even if they won out, which won't happen, they'd finish with a 9-7 record, which probably wouldn't be enough to win a wildcard.

Predicted Division Winner: Even though the Bills have the lead in the division and they have already beat the Patriots once this year, I don't think they can do it twice. I expect the Patriots and their high-powered offense to go to the playoffs as the AFC East winners. It wouldn't surprise me if the Bills or the Jets made it to the playoffs as well as wildcard teams. Right now I'd put my money on the Bills as the Jets can be fairly unpredictable and inconsistant.

If the Patriots do win the division and go to the playoffs, I don't expect them to make it too terribly far because of how bad their defense is.


NFL Playoff Picture 2011: Steelers, Ravens And Bengals Battle In AFC North

The AFC North is arguably the best division in the NFL at the halfway point. Will it be the Steelers, Ravens or Bengals coming out on top at the end of the year?

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