The typical assumption that only the cream of professional football can hope to land in the NFL playoffs stands in danger of quaintness as the majority of contending franchises struggle to establish even their mediocrity. No team has escaped its first 11 games without at least two losses, and the teams still sniffing the playoffs — due to the lack of clear front runners — still numbers higher than two dozen.
Thanksgiving Day displayed the two most important developments in this year's NFL, going by the names of Tony Romo and Joey Harrington. They're among the keys to unlocking the mystery of this year's playoff entrants, strengthening their teams since coming off the bench.
Harrington, as the Miami Dolphins quarterback, is influential in the AFC, which is distinguished by four certain divisional leaders and a scrum of nine teams within three games of playoff position. The list is extended that far because one of the leaders (Denver) has frozen with two straight losses, one of the back trailers is the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the other trailer (Tennessee) is on the rise with two straight victories.
If the season ended today, the AFC wild cards are Denver and Kansas City, both 7-4. Next in line are the Bengals, Jets and Jaguars at 6-5. The Dolphins and Buffalo Bills both are 5-6. Pittsburgh and Tennessee are 4-7.
But the majority of those teams might be eliminated by sensible calculations.
Denver hasn't beaten a good team since a 13-3 win against Baltimore Oct. 9. Now the Broncos are changing quarterback to rookie Jay Cutler. Rather than assume a true rookie is going to finish the job, expect the Broncos to continue struggling.
The Jets entered their game against Houston Nov. 26 ranked 29th in total defense and 26th in total offense. The Steelers have shown no signs of bringing themselves together. Buffalo has beaten only one team with a winning record, nudging Jacksonville Nov. 26. Tennessee would need to win the rest of its games, which no one is going to manage.
Of the remaining teams, Kansas City appears an almost certain playoff qualifier with five wins in its past six games. The Chiefs were good enough to actually prosper after the Bengals knocked quarterback Trent Green out of the season opener, going 5-3 behind Damon Huard while scoring at least 30 points in four of those games. The Chiefs face a uniquely soft schedule among the contenders in that two future opponents, Oakland and Cleveland, are out of the playoff race.
So we're down to the Bengals, Miami and Jacksonville for the final playoff position. Presumably, the Bengals and Jacksonville hold the upper hand in that they're both a game ahead of Miami. But that can change this weekend.
The Bengals play 9-2 Baltimore Thursday, while Jacksonville goes to Miami Sunday. If both the Dolphins and Ravens win, the three teams are even. The Bengals play the easiest remaining schedule, which includes Oakland, Pittsburgh and Denver. But they've all got work to do.
We shouldn't overlook the Bengals in all this. Chastened by that fiasco against San Diego, they seem to have straightened up a bit. Two weeks ago, they let New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees throw for 510 yards but came through with three interceptions and held the Saints to two touchdowns. On Nov. 26, they pitched a shutout for the first time since 1989 while allowing only 203 yards in their 30-0 win at Cleveland.
Should the Bengals prevail against Baltimore, a 10-6 season becomes a distinct possibility, and there's no way two other wild card contenders finish 10-6. If the Bengals beat Baltimore, they'll hold the upper hand for the final wild card position. A Bengals loss and a Miami win this weekend move the Dolphins to the inside track. A Bengals loss and a Jacksonville win make Jacksonville the favorite.
Of the three, Miami is the best defensive team as well as the hottest outfit, winning four straight after a 1-6 start. Harrington remains an erratic and inconsistent passer who throws more interceptions than touchdowns, but he's not losing games. On a Miami team that runs the ball just a tiny bit better than the awful Detroit team he left behind, he's just good enough to support a strong defense.
While Harrington sat on the bench and Daunte Culpepper played quarterback in Miami, the Dolphins lost two games in which they allowed fewer than 20 points. When the Dolphins give up fewer than 20 and Harrington is quarterback, they win.
Harrington has figured in two Miami victories against likely playoff teams, Chicago and Kansas City. On Thanksgiving, playing in Detroit against the franchise that demonized him, Harrington put together his best passer rating of the year (107.4) and turned the tables on an organization that went out of its way to introduce him pregame, along with the Miami defense, just so the crowd could boo him.
Antics of that sort have moved the Lions into the position of ridicule once occupied by the Bengals. It all began when a suit in the Lions' front office thought Matt Millen would make a good team president because he sounded smart as a TV commentator. The institutional stupidity has not abated since.
The Dolphins beat Detroit 27-10. Harrington has given the Dolphins a talented hand at quarterback, if not always a steady hand. He's been the difference bringing the Dolphins from the bottom of the standings to the middle, where they've found themselves on the fringe of a playoff race. And he might be just the kind of redemption story to stoke the AFC playoffs.
Of course, the Bengals wouldn't be such a terrible redemption story either. After all the turmoil to which they've subjected themselves and the tough slate of games to which they've been subjected, they would be a threat in the playoffs.
The Bengals won't go all the way, though, because teams that can't stop the run never go all the way. This year, just going to January is a victory.