Thanksgiving is a day when families and friends in the United States gather together and enjoy each other’s company; consume a feast with a turkey and watch some football. Football is just as much a Thanksgiving tradition as the President ‘pardoning’ a turkey.
Thanksgiving is the unofficial beginning of the playoff push where contenders emerge and the pretenders fall flat. As is tradition, the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys hosted a home game last Thursday against the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins respectively while the New England Patriots visited New Jersey to play the Jets. Unfortunately for all of the home teams, there was not a lot to be thankful for.
With six weeks to go until the playoffs begin, the New England Patriots are hitting their stride at exactly the right time. Following an uneven 3-3 start to the season, the Pats have won five straight and sit comfortably atop the AFC East.
Their offence is among the league’s best and opposing defences not only have to worry about Wes Welker or dynamic tight-ends, but New England’s running game is proving hard to contain. Head Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady will be looking to add to their three Superbowl rings and it would be a foolish man who bets against them, should their young defence hold up.
New England’s biggest threats in the AFC are the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens. The Texans are 10-1 and should wrap up the AFC South crown soon. Houston will have their eyes on the number 1 seed and the all-important home-field advantage.
Running back Arian Foster is integral to their offence and with the Wade Phillips-led defence, the Texans are a dangerous team. Still, shaky overtime victories in recent weeks against Detroit and Jacksonville, not to mention their playoff inexperience, will cause some to doubt their credentials.
Baltimore will be looking to avenge their AFC Championship defeat to New England last year, but they too lack the elite level of quarterback play. Baltimore pride themselves on defence and it will be interesting to see if the season ending injury to linebacker and leader Ray Lewis, as well as the on-going injury problems for safety Ed Reed, can be overcome.
Peyton Manning’s new team, the Denver Broncos, look certain to make the postseason. Manning has shaken off the rust of missing the entire of last season and dispelled any doubts about how he will cope with a new team and a new system, especially considering multiple neck surgeries and his advancing age. The future Hall of Famer has made his new franchise a Superbowl contender.
In Indianapolis, first-round draft pick Andrew Luck has inherited Manning’s former team and is just as good, if not better, as Manning was back in 1998 after he too was drafted number one overall. The Colts and Cincinnati Bengals will fight it out for the last playoff spot in the AFC.
The NFC is just as tight. The defending champion New York Giants have stuttered so far, but still lead the NFC East at 6-4, mainly due to their rivals’ inconsistency, while in the South, the Atlanta Falcons look set to at least claim a first-round bye with their excellent performances this season.
Matt Ryan was posting MVP-like numbers up until a few weeks ago, and he will need to reach these heights once more in the playoffs as Atlanta won’t survive another five interception showing against a playoff calibre team.
Up North and the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears are tied at 7-3, but both should make the postseason. Led by excellent quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, the Packers and Bears each have opportunistic defences and will be a difficult opponent for anyone in the playoffs, especially at home.
Jim Harbaugh has proved his rookie season was no fluke and has coached his San Francisco 49ers to the second best record in the NFC to date. Despite missing starting Quarterback Alex Smith against the Bears, the 49ers flexed their championship muscle on Monday Night Football with an impressive victory and have a quarterback controversy on their hands with the talented Colin Kaepernick shining in Smith’s absence.
The 49ers’ main challengers for the NFC West crown are the Seattle Seahawks and Pete Carroll has coached his team to play mistake-free football. This is all the more surprising as Seattle did not start big money free-agent acquisition quarterback Matt Flynn, but rookie Russell Wilson; a third-round draft choice.
The wildcard places are still up for grabs, and the explosive New Orleans Saints will be fighting hard to get in to the playoffs. The Saints sit at 5-5 and are shrouded in controversy following ‘Bounty-gate’ where their Head Coach Sean Payton has been suspended for the year. The Saints will have to hit an extra gear to jump ahead of the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the hunt for the NFC’s last place.
While the NFC is arguably more talented, it is difficult to predict who will be their representative on February 3rd. New York and Green Bay should never be discounted, yet Chicago and San Francisco are playing good football too. In the AFC, one might look at Houston or Baltimore but smart money would be on the two wily veterans, Tom Brady’s Patriots and Peyton Manning’s Broncos, who both seem to be hitting form at just the right time.
Regardless of who gets there, it should be an exciting game, with the NFL’s talent pool deeper than ever.