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Road to North Jersey: Ten questions as NFL playoff chase heats up

11.29.13 at 7:56 pm ET
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Now that Thanksgiving is in the rearview mirror, the NFL playoff picture is starting to come into sharper focus. (For the latest playoff scenarios, bookmark this page.) Here are 10 questions we have about what might happen down the stretch and into the postseason:

1. WHO IS GOING TO NAIL DOWN THE SIXTH SEED IN THE AFC PLAYOFF RACE?

After seeing how they were able to hold off the Steelers Thursday night at home, it’€™s awful hard to discount the Ravens’€™ (6-6) chances to land that final playoff spot in the AFC. It’€™s not going to be easy — Baltimore faces a handful of challengers for that No. 6 seed, including the Jets, Dolphins, Titans, Chargers (all 5-6) and Steelers (5-7). In addition, three of the five games left on their schedule are against plus-.500 teams, including the Patriots and Bengals. While they’€™re not the same team that got on an epic roll last year ‘€“ rising up out of the four spot to win the Super Bowl — there are still plenty of mentally tough individuals on both sides of the ball who know how to navigate through December and into January.

2. PROVIDED THEY GET THERE, WHICH TEAM IS BEST SUITED TO WIN A COLD WEATHER SUPER BOWL?

There are some good cold-weather teams who have an excellent shot at reaching North Jersey in February, but based on what we’€™ve seen to this point — as well as previous seasons — you would have to think the Patriots have an excellent shot at winning a bad-weather/cold-weather Super Bowl. Tom Brady‘€™s ability to operate in sub-zero temperatures was again evident in last Sunday’€™s win over the Broncos. Brady is now 25-5 as a starting QB when the game-time temperature is 32 degrees or lower, throwing 51 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. In addition, Brady improved his record to 40-6 when the game time temperature is 40 degrees or colder (including playoffs). Brady has thrown 85 touchdowns and only 30 interceptions in such games, including a three-touchdown, no-interception performance against Denver. That, combined with the fact that New England has a sturdy running game that can help provide some offensive oomph in bad weather, should be a boost when/if the Patriots get to MetLife in February.

3. WHICH TEAM HAS THE POTENTIAL TO SURPRISE AND SNEAK IN TO THE SUPER BOWL?

In the NFC, the Panthers probably have the most potential to surprise the field and pull off the upset, providing Cam Newton doesn’€™t turn into a pumpkin, their defense continues to play solid against the run and pass and Riverboat Ron Rivera doesn’€™t overplay his hand. When it comes to the AFC, there are a handful of surprise possibilities, including the aforementioned Ravens and Bengals. Given what they’€™ve done to this point in the season, it wouldn’€™t be a big surprise if the Chiefs can make it through, but when you consider the big picture and how far the franchise has come from this point last year, it would be a remarkable turnaround.

4. IN THE NFC, CAN ANYONE STOP SEATTLE?

The biggest game of the year in the NFC is Monday night in Seattle, when the 10-1 Seahawks meet the 9-2 Saints, a contest that will have major implications when it comes to determining who gets home-field advantage in the NFC playoff race. If Seattle can hold serve and win at home, that could effectively wrap up the No. 1 seed, giving it at least a two-game lead on the rest of the field with four to play. Given their dominance at home, that would make it awful hard for anyone to get past Seattle in the postseason. But if New Orleans can find a way to win, that would open it up for the Saints, or maybe even the 8-3 Panthers depending on how each team handles its business the rest of the way.

5. WHICH TEAMS ARE GOING TO HAVE THE BIGGEST BEEF WITH THE PLAYOFF SYSTEM THIS YEAR?

In the NFC, the Cardinals have been a really pleasant surprise — Bruce Arians has gotten that franchise turned around and headed in the right direction with a 7-4 record through the first 11 games. Unless everything collapses, they should be a pretty good bet to finish with at least nine wins. (Their schedule down the stretch includes games against the Rams and Titans, both of whom are 5-6, as well as the 6-5 Eagles.) That would stand in serious contrast to the dumpster fire in the NFC East, where a nine-win team (Dallas? Philadelphia?) could end up walking away with the division title. In the AFC, all six of the playoff teams deserve to make the postseason (with the exception of whoever sneaks in and grabs that No. 6 spot). The biggest complaint will likely come from whoever finishes second in the AFC West — because of the playoff positioning, that team (either the Chiefs or Broncos) will be relegated to the No. 5 seed and top wild-card spot.

6. CAN ONE OF THE SIX SEEDS THIS YEAR A SIXTH SEED GO ON A RUN AT THE RIGHT TIME?

The 2005 Steelers and 2010 Packers were able to win it despite the fact that they came into those postseasons with a sixth seed, winning three straight road games on the way to the championship. This year, a surprising sixth seed could come in the form of the Niners (7-4), who currently sit at No. 6 in the NFC playoff picture. Like the Ravens, San Francisco is a team that’€™s been there before, and they remain one of the mentally tougher teams in the league. (For what it’€™s worth, a top seed isn’€™t necessarily a precursor to a Super Bowl crown: Three of the past eight Super Bowl champions — the 2010 Packers; 2008 Giants; 2005 Steelers — were No. 5 or No. 6 seeds. And in that same discussion, it’€™s also important to note that only one No. 1 seed ‘€“ the 2009 Saints ‘€“ has won a Super Bowl in the past nine seasons.)

7. WHICH SUPERSTAR’S PLAYOFF LEGACY HAS THE MOST TO GAIN AND MOST TO LOSE THIS YEAR?

It’€™s still a quarterback-driven league, and so when you talk about legacies, it comes down to the star signal-callers. In the NFC, despite the fact that it appears to be something of a long shot at this point, if Tony Romo is able to break through and lead the Cowboys to a title he’€™ll be able to silence critics who have maintained that he can’€™t perform in the postseason. In the AFC, Peyton Manning already has a ring, but given how the season started for the Broncos — as well as his advancing age — if Manning and Denver fall short, it would represent a disappointing end to what started as a remarkable season. However, if he does lead the Broncos to a title, it would validate his decision to come back following his recent neck surgery and again inject him into the conversation as one of the best all-around quarterbacks of his generation.

8. IS THERE A ROOKIE OUT THERE CAPABLE OF MAKING AN IMPACT IN THIS YEAR’€™S POSTSEASON?

Most of the impact rookies this season are on teams who are on the fringes of the postseason chase or out of the playoff picture altogether. However, there are a few high-profile rookies on potential playoff teams who have become important parts of their franchise, and could play a role down the stretch and into the postseason. In the NFC, Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu (two interceptions, eight passes defensed), Packers running back Eddie Lacy (822 rushing yards, six TDs, 4.0 yards per carry) and Saints receiver Kenny Stills (22 catches, 470 yards, four TDs) are all candidates to make a postseason splash. In the AFC, Bengals running back Gio Bernard (110 rushing yards, 42 catches, 345 receiving yards, 3 TDs), Chargers receiver Keenan Allen (50 catches, 73 yards, 3 TDs) and Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson (3.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 59 tackles overall) are all possible first-year players who could make an impact down the stretch and into the playoffs.

9. IS THERE A QUARTERBACK CAPABLE OF FLIPPING THE SWITCH AND GOING ON A JOE FLACCO-LIKE RUN IN THIS POSTSEASON?

We’€™re going to preface this answer by noting who shouldn’€™t be on this list — if you’€™re a quarterback who has already established his postseason bonafides like Brady, Manning or Drew Brees, you wouldn’€™t necessarily qualify. In this case, we’€™re looking for a younger QB who could potentially make the leap to greatness with a special playoff run. With that in mind, our leading candidate right now in the NFC might be Newton. (Russell Wilson is a candidate, but given what he’s accomplished to this point in his career with the Seahawks, winning a title this year might be more of a natural arc of his career than a surprising Flaccoesque run. And Colin Kaepernick has already enjoyed a postseason run of success, which fundamentally disqualifies him from our list.) There’€™s a lot to like about where Newton is at this stage of his career, particularly because it’€™s clear that he doesn’€™t feel the need to do everything, but instead rely on the offensive options that have been placed around him while being lifted by a talented defense. In the AFC, the only candidate might be Alex Smith with the Chiefs, but that’€™s with the understanding that Smith has already tasted a small measure of playoff success when he was with the Niners in 2011. (Cincy’€™s Andy Dalton has a chance to be that guy, but based on what he’€™s done to this point in the season, there’€™s not much to suggest he’€™ll be able to make that leap, at least not this year.)

10. ENOUGH WITH THE QUESTIONS, PRICE — WHO’€™S GOING TO MAKE THE POSTSEASON?

In the AFC, it’€™s going to be: 1) Broncos. 2) Patriots 3) Colts 4) Bengals 5) Chiefs 6) Ravens.

In the NFC, it’€™s going to be: 1) Seahawks 2) Saints 3) Cowboys 4) Lions 5) Panthers 6) Niners.

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