With the exception of the Vikings, the NFC North has featured several of the most intriguing teams and storylines in football. The Detroit Lions sit at 6-4 and have an excellent chance at earning a rare division title. Detroit notched signature wins over the Cowboys and Bears in recent weeks and has the incomparable Calvin Johnson at receiver. Chicago is tied for the division lead, but concerns about a pedestrian defense and Jay Cutler’s health make the Bears a flawed contender. Amazingly, the Packers trail both teams at 5-5 and have lost three straight since Aaron Rodgers injured his collarbone, but if Rodgers returns soon, the Packers can conquer the NFC North.
Many people expect the 49ers and Panthers to capture NFC wild card berths, but several teams could spoil these plans. Since the Saints and Panthers are legitimate teams, I expect the division loser to earn a wild card berth. That means the 6-4 squads (Niners, Cardinals, Bears, Lions) will fight for the other spot. My Niners must be considered with their favorable schedule and experience. Nonetheless, the Arizona Cardinals must be acknowledged thanks to their relentless defense and improved offense. If Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu continue to buoy Arizona’s elite defense, a Week 17 home clash with San Francisco may determine a playoff berth.
The sixth and 14th place AFC teams are separated by just 1.5 games, so prepare for a wacky finish and plenty of tiebreaker scenarios. The Jets and Dolphins are 5-5, while a seven squad peloton has four wins each. Nine wins will be enough to clinch the sixth seed, but I’m not sure if anyone in the bunch will do that. The Jets have two games against the Dolphins and home games against the Raiders and Browns, so they have the best chance to reach nine wins. Of the four-win bunch, I expect the Ravens, Bills and Steelers to finish strong while the Chargers, Raiders and Titans fade away.
I leave you with my regular season predictions. Aaron Rodgers will return on Thanksgiving and rally the Packers to the NFC North crown. Nick Foles will lead the Eagles to the playoffs. The Panthers and 49ers will get the NFC wild cards and the Ravens will edge the Jets and Steelers for the final AFC spot.
— Dominic Kearns