Separating Playoff Contenders From Pretenders

We all know that NFL records are not always created equal, and life isn't fair.

That explains why the 11-5 Patriots are sitting at home while the 8-8 Chargers are preparing for the playoffs. But now that the playoff pairings have been set, it is pretty easy to get a quick and dirty look at which teams were tested during the regular season and which teams skated into the playoffs thanks to very forgiving schedules.

To get a better look at how the playoff teams matched up, I compiled each playoff team's record against the other playoff teams. It's a look that has some flaws--a win against the 8-8 Chargers counts while a win against the Patriots doesn't, but it is a very good, and quick, way to see how many tough games each team played during the regular season.

So which teams earned their way and which ones snuck in? Well, the Dolphins shouldn't be too proud, while the Eagles didn't exactly back their way in, even if they had to win on Sunday to snag the NFC's last wild card spot.The AFC

Records Against Playoff Teams
San Diego05
N.Y. Giants52

No. 1 Tennessee (13-3)

Playoff opponents (4-1). Non-playoff opponents (9-2).

There's a lot of thought that the Titans are a 13-3 imposters, but it's hard to say that Tennessee isn't tested. Tennessee has beaten the Colts, Steelers and Ravens--arguably the three other top teams in the AFC.

There are several impressive wins this year, but the best may be the Week 16 win over Pittsburgh. The Steelers could have swiped the No. 1 seed with a win, but the Titans dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage despite the fact that Albert Haynesworth was standing on sidelines in street clothes.

And beyond that, Tennessee has no really awful losses. The Titans lost by one to the Texans at the point of the season where Houston was playing outstanding football. They also lost to the Colts in a meaningless Week 17 game, and were blown out by the Jets. The loss to New York was the team's worst performance of the season, but even that wasn't a complete debacle, and it was a loss to a team with a winning record.

No. 2 Pittsburgh (12-4)

Playoff opponents (3-4). Non-playoff opponents (9-0).

The Steelers came into the season with a schedule that looked to be one of the toughest in the league. It proved to be every bit as hard as expected.

With the exception of two games against the Browns and two more against the Bengals, every game on the Steelers schedule was against a team who finished with at least seven wins. The Steelers' late-season schedule that included New England, Dallas, Baltimore and Tennessee in a four-week stretch gave Pittsburgh plenty of playoff-style pressure to help prepare for January.

The Steelers' best wins are a pair of victories over the Ravens. Those wins wrapped up the division title for Pittsburgh, but also proved that the Steelers can be as physical as any team in football.

That's the good news for Pittsburgh. There is also some bad news: the Steelers lost to the Titans, Colts and Giants, three of the teams they could face in the playoffs.

No. 3 Miami (11-5)

Playoff opponents (1-2). Non-playoff opponents (10-3).

If any team managed to skate in with few playoff-caliber tests, it's Miami. The Dolphins took advantage of a fourth-place schedule, combined with the AFC East's good fortune of facing the NFC West and AFC West, which ensured plenty of easy wins. The absolute bare minimum number of playoff opponents a team could face in a season is two, so the Dolphins didn't exactly find themselves battling the cream of the NFL on a consistent basis.

Miami's best win against a playoff team, by default, is a Week 5 17-10 win over the Chargers, as it was the only win Miami had against a playoff team. In order of importance, the Dolphins' wins over the Jets and Patriots may be the team's best argument that they deserve this playoff spot.

The Dolphins trip from league joke to playoff team is impressive, but there are a whole lot of reasons to be skeptical that they are more of a creation of an easy schedule than a team that can make a deep run through the playoffs.

No. 4 San Diego (8-8)

Playoff opponents (0-5). Non-playoff opponents (8-3).

Ladies and gentlemen, take a look at your 2008 playoff imposters, the San Diego Chargers.

In a year where the 11-5 Patriots are sitting at home, the Chargers have to sheepishly slink into the playoffs. Sure you can give them credit for going 4-0 down the stretch, but those wins came against the Raiders, Chiefs, slumping Bucs and collapsing Broncos.

It's hard to find what was the Chargers' best win of the season. They didn't beat a playoff team all year, but the 41-24 win over the Bucs in Week 16 was the team's only win over a team with a winning record.

No. 5 Indianapolis (12-4)

Playoff opponents (4-1). Non-playoff opponents (8-3).

If you're looking for a wild card team that could make a Steelers/Giants' style run this year, you have to point to the Colts.

Indianapolis has proven they can beat the league's top teams--they beat the Steelers, Ravens, Vikings and Titans, although the Titans' win comes with an asterisk since it was a meaningless Week 17 game. They also beat the 11-5 Patriots and the Texans' twice.

The most impressive Colts' win was a 31-3 win over the Ravens. Baltimore's defense was one of the league's best this year, but Indianapolis shredded them as Peyton Manning threw for 271 yards.

But not everything is perfect for Indianapolis. Some of their early season losses can be explained away by Peyton Manning's knee injury and offensive line injuries, but Indianapolis has the most losses to non-playoff teams of an AFC team in the playoffs. And much of their late-season run to the playoffs came against the league's weakest teams. Beating the Browns, Bengals and Lions in November and December doesn't really get a team ready for the playoffs.

No. 6 Baltimore (11-5)

Playoff opponents (2-5). Non-playoff opponents (9-0).

The AFC North was paired with the NFC East and the AFC South this season, which ennsured plenty of tough games for the Steelers and Ravens. Baltimore did just as well as Pittsburgh against the toughest teams on their schedule, but a pair of losses to the Steelers explain why they are the No. 6 seed while Pittsburgh is taking the week off as the No. 2 seed.

The Ravens do know that they can compete with the league's best--they embarrassed the Eagles 36-7 in Week 12 to send Philadelphia into a tail spin that may have eventually helped the Eagles make the playoffs as well.

The big concern is that the Ravens' dominating defense has looked much less impressive against the league's best. Baltimore gave up 31 points to the Colts and 30 points to the Giants, although three-point losses to the Titans and Steelers don't look that bad.

It's also a credit to the defense and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco that the Ravens went 9-0 against non-playoff teams.


No. 1 New York Giants (12-4)

Playoff opponents (5-2). Non-playoff opponents (7-2).

The Giants are not only the No. 1 seed in the NFC, they also have the best record in the NFC against playoff teams, and they've played as many playoff teams as any team in the playoffs. And their 5-2 record is really better than that--the David Carr-led Giants lost to the Vikings in Week 17 in a game that meant nothing to the Giants.

It gets even better. Even the Giants' non-playoff opponents were generally among the best of the teams left out of the playoffs. New York's final 10 games came against teams that finished the season at .500 or better. The Giants best win is probably their Week 16 34-28 win over the Panthers that wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the NFC. It helped stop a two-game losing streak, and also reinforced that the Giants are the team to beat in the playoffs.

But the Giants do have at least one unexplicable loss. The Browns ended up being one of the worst teams in football, but for one Monday night, they were much better than the defending Super Bowl champions.

No. 2 Carolina Panthers (12-4)

Playoff opponents (3-3). Non-playoff opponents (9-1).

Carolina beat three playoff teams during the first half of the season, but they are 0-2 since then. It's not as bad as it sounds, as the Panthers were a grim reaper for other teams' playoff hopes as wins over the Bucs and Broncos helped ensure they are staying at home.

Carolina's best win of the season is the 24-9 win over the Falcons in Week 4. The Panthers only other wins over playoff teams were against the playoffs' two weakest teams: Arizona and San Diego, so there is reason to be skeptical about Carolina's ability to beat the league's best.

No. 3 Minnesota Vikings (10-6)

Playoff opponents (3-3). Non-playoff opponents (7-3).

One of those wins against a playoff opponent comes with an asterisk--the Giants didn't really give their full effort in a meaningless Week 17 game. But the Vikings did beat the Panthers in Week Three, and they went 2-1 in a season-ending stretch that saw them face three straight playoff teams.

The Vikings are 7-2 in their last nine games, although not many people have noticed. Minnesota has taken advantage of getting to face the Lions twice, but there aren't really any awful losses on the Vikings schedules. Even with some inconsistency at quarterback, the Vikings' combination of Adrian Peterson and defense keeps them in every game.

No. 4 Arizona Cardinals (9-7)

Playoff opponents (1-4). Non-playoff opponents (8-3).

If it wasn't for the Chargers, the Cardinals would win the title of the worst playoff team in recent memory. It's nice to see Arizona make the playoffs for a change, but Arizona was 6-0 against the rest of the NFC West, and 3-7 against everyone else.

In the past five games, Arizona has lost by more than 20 points three times, including a 40-point loss to the Patriots two weeks ago. Their only win against a playoff team came way back in Week Two when they beat the Dolphins. The Cardinals have given up more than 35 points in five different losses. The Buzzsaw may figure out a way to beat the Falcons, but nothing in their schedule indicates that they will.

No. 5 Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

Playoff opponents (3-2). Non-playoff opponents (8-3).

You may think the Falcons snuck their way to an 11-5 record thanks to an easy schedule, but considering how tough the NFC South was, that's not entirely true. All six division games were against teams who finished at .500 or better, although the rest of the schedule was easier since the NFC South matched up against the AFC West (where no one finished better than 8-8) and the NFC North (where Green Bay and Detroit combined to go 6-26).

Atlanta has also shown signs it is playing it is peaking at the right time. The Falcons have won five of their last six with three of those wins coming against playoff teams. Their 45-28 win over the Panthers in Week 12 stands out as an especially impressive win. Both of the Falcons losses to playoff teams came in the first half of the season

No. 6 Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1)

Playoff opponents (4-2). Non-playoff opponents (5-4-1).

Want to find a playoff sleeper? The Eagles are well tested after escaping from the NFC East. And as we saw against the Cowboys, Philadelphia is definitely playing some good football as the playoffs arrive.

Philadelphia has beaten the Giants, Steelers, Cardinals and Falcons this season. The 15-6 win over the Steelers in Week 3 was especially impressive, as the final score doesn't fully explain how dominant the Eagles were.

But there's a big warning sign with the Eagles as well. They have not been able to show any consistency of effort. In addition to beating the NFC's No. 1 seed and the AFC's No. 2 seed, Philadelphia also tied the Bengals, lost to the Redskins twice and lost to the Ravens by 29 points. If Philadelphia can match their Week 17 effort against the Vikings they'll get a third game against the Giants in two weeks, but this is a team that no one can figure out whether they'll show up from week to week.

Separating Playoff Contenders From Pretenders originally appeared on NFL FanHouse on Tue, 30 Dec 2008 08:30:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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