Thearon W. Henderson
The NFL playoff picture is changing rapidly, and the 49ers look like the team to beat in the NFC these days.
The NFL playoff picture is an evolving thing. Each week some forgotten team or unknown player steps up and erases last week's certainties. On Monday night, San Francisco 49ers second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick destroyed the assumption that the Chicago Bears were the second-best team in the NFC.
San Francisco didn't just squeak by the Bears in what many expected to be a defensive showdown with each team's starting quarterback sidelined with a concussion. Instead, Kaepernick threw a pair of touchdown passes and led an offense that left such defensive luminaries like Brian Urlacher and "Peanut" Tillman guessing. The 49ers took a 20-0 lead into the locker room at the half. By the end of the game, the NFC playoff picture was as muddled as its been all season.
Let's try and sort this out.
Atlanta still leads the field in the NFC, overcoming Matt Ryan's icy five-interception performance on Sunday to hang on for a win over the Cardinals. Suddenly, Mike Smith's team doesn't look like such a lock for the top spot on the pole in the NFC.
The 49ers and the Packers are each hitting stride when it matters most. Green Bay now has the third spot in the NFC and leads the NFC North thanks to Chicago's loss and holding a tiebreaker from a Week 2 win. Chicago now has a Wild Card and drops to the fifth seed.
Circle Week 15 on your calendar. That week claims a number of marquee matchups featuring the teams mentioned above, setting up a crucial pivot point in the playoff race. Take a look at the next three games for each of these teams:
Atlanta: at Tampa Bay, vs. New Orleans, at Carolina
Chicago: vs. Vikings, vs. Seahawks, at Vikings
Green Bay: at NY Giants, vs. Vikings, vs. Lions
New York: vs. Green Bay, at Washington, vs. New Orleans
San Francisco: at New Orleans, at St. Louis, vs. Miami
Look at the Week 15 games for these teams:
Green Bay at Chicago
New York Giants at Atlanta
San Francisco at New England
Of all the NFC teams listed above, San Francisco has the easiest path to the top of the conference, especially if Atlanta continues to play like it did over the last two weeks. Games against the Buccaneers and Saints are not free rides for the Falcons these days.
And, of course, don't forget that there are still two weeks left to play after Week 15.
The NFC East probably deserves an article of its own, but that division all hinges on how the Giants play over the next three weeks. Dallas and even Washington could stumble into the division race there if sad Eli doesn't go away soon.
What about the AFC?
Over in the other conference, Houston and Baltimore have an edge for the top two spots in the playoff picture. Nearly losing to the Jaguars -- yes, that really happened -- will leave the world to wonder whether or not Houston can be knocked out of the top spot.
Injuries have left Baltimore's defense vulnerable, but the Steelers' quarterback injuries have removed one potential challenger for the AFC North title. Theoretically, the Bengals could keep winning and jockey for position, but that would also require the Ravens to struggle through games against the Chargers, Steelers and Redskins over the next three weeks.
The teams to watch in the AFC are the Patriots and the Broncos, two that are separating from the rest of the conference. Denver plays the Chiefs, Buccaneers and Raiders over the next three weeks. New England has the Jets, Dolphins and Texans.
Week 15 is a pretty good one in the AFC too. Besides the previously mentioned 49ers-Patriots game, the schedule includes these hot tickets as well:
Houston at Indianapolis
Denver at Baltimore
If I were a betting man, I'd suspect that Houston and New England could be sitting in the top two spots when the shooting ends that week.