Philadelphia, PA – We're 10 weeks into the NFL season and contenders are starting to separate themselves from pretenders.
Let's take a crack at answering some key questions before we get into the stretch drive.
WHICH TEAM WILL GAIN THE FINAL AFC PLAYOFF BERTH?
For purposes of this exercise, we need to assume that New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Houston and Denver all make the playoffs. That would leave the second wild-card spot available, and essentially, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, San Diego and Miami as the teams battling for it.
The Colts are in the driver's seat, thanks to their 6-3 record. They still have two meetings with Houston and one with New England on the schedule. If they lose those three, which would be expected, they'd need to go no worse than 3-1 in the other four games (home against Buffalo and Tennessee, at Detroit and Kansas City). It seems likely to happen, so the Colts ought to end up no worse than 9-7, which would be a remarkable turnaround from 2-14 a year ago.
Cincinnati is just 4-5, and it closes the season with games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The key will be how well the Bengals do in the next five games, which are all winnable (Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia).
The Chargers already have five losses, and the remainder of their schedule features road trips to Denver and Pittsburgh and home games against Cincinnati and Baltimore. That's not a particularly easy slate.
Miami would lose a tiebreaker to the Colts, based on Indianapolis' head-to-head win in Week 9. So, if the Colts finish 9-7, the Dolphins would need to be no worse than 10-6 to get to the postseason. They already have five losses, and two future meetings with New England, plus a visit to San Francisco and a home game with Seattle. It sounds more like an 8-8 or 7-9 finish than 10-6.
WHICH TEAM WILL GAIN THE FINAL NFC PLAYOFF BERTH?
As we did above, we need to start off with five teams we assume to be in the postseason: Atlanta, Chicago, Green Bay, San Francisco and the New York Giants. If so, the teams in the fight for the second playoff spot would be Seattle, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Detroit and Dallas.
Minnesota's win over Detroit on Sunday was crucial, and the Vikings' turnaround has been a great story, but having an NFC North schedule is going to come back to bite them. Following this week's bye, Minnesota's final six games feature two meetings against Green Bay, two against Chicago and one against Houston. This won't be a playoff team.
The Seahawks' remaining schedule isn't too harsh, with the toughest games being the ones at Chicago and Miami and at home against San Francisco. If Seattle gets to 10 wins, it's going to be nearly impossible for the likes of Minnesota, New Orleans or Dallas to nudge the Seahawks out for a playoff berth. Call Seattle the favorite for now.
Tampa Bay has road games upcoming against Denver, New Orleans and Atlanta, as well as home games against Atlanta and Philadelphia. It's going to be tough for the Bucs to do much better than 9-7, which might not be good enough.
Detroit dug a big hole for itself by losing to the Vikings on Sunday. The Lions won't be a playoff team, mostly because of a remaining schedule that features games against Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, Indianapolis and two against Green Bay.
The Saints have five losses and still have road games against Atlanta, the New York Giants and Dallas on the docket. They also host San Francisco and Tampa Bay. If they need to go 6-1 the rest of the way to get to the playoffs, it's not going to happen because the Saints' defense isn't good enough.
Dallas has a better chance than the rest of the long shots, thanks to a more favorable schedule. The Cowboys have the next three at home, against Cleveland, Washington and Philadelphia. If they win those three, they get right back in the race.
WHICH COACH WILL MOST LIKELY GET FIRED BEFORE THE END OF THE SEASON?
The biggest disappointment in the NFL has arguably been the Kansas City Chiefs, who were expected to challenge for the AFC West title. Those dreams are over, thanks to a 1-8 record through 10 weeks.
The Chiefs fired Todd Haley late last season and handed the job to Romeo Crennel. A year later, Crennel is on the hot seat. There's virtually no chance Crennel will be back next year, and it's pretty unlikely that general manager Scott Pioli will survive what could be a complete front office and coaching staff purge early this offseason.
That purge could easily begin in the final month of the regular season. It would give the Chiefs a slight jump on the competition if they'd like to pursue a high-profile candidate, such as Bill Cowher, for instance.
HOW MANY CURRENT HEAD COACHES WILL BE FIRED AT THE END OF THE SEASON OR EARLIER?
Seven sounds about right. Figure that the Chiefs will let Crennel go. Cleveland, with new ownership and a new man in charge in the front office (chief operating officer Joe Banner), will mostly likely hire a general manager who will choose to replace Pat Shurmur.
Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said prior to the start of the season that an 8-8 record would be unacceptable. It would take a fantastic finish for the Eagles to do better than that, so figure that Andy Reid - the longest- tenured head coach in the league - won't be back.
The Carolina Panthers' Ron Rivera has two big strikes against him. With a 2-7 record, the Panthers have taken a step backward in his second season. Also, the general manager who hired Rivera, Marty Hurney, was fired earlier this year. Perhaps a new GM will prefer to hire an offensive-minded coach to try to more effectively develop quarterback Cam Newton.
Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams ripped his team after a one-sided loss to the Chicago Bears two Sundays ago, saying, "We were grossly outcoached and outplayed from start to finish." That can't make Mike Munchak feel good about his job security, even though Sunday's win over Miami eased some tension.
Norv Turner has been on the hot seat in San Diego almost perpetually. This looks like the year that he won't survive.
That's six, assuming none of those coaches dramatically turn things around. Others who could be on the hot seat include the Dallas Cowboys' Jason Garrett, the New York Jets' Rex Ryan and the Jacksonville Jaguars' Mike Mularkey. Perhaps one of them won't survive, raising the number to seven.
WILL THE CHICAGO BEARS' DEFENSE SCORE MORE TOUCHDOWNS THAN ANY NFL OFFENSES?
The simple answer is no, but the Bears' defensive unit's ability to force turnovers and turn them into scores has still been nothing short of remarkable. They've scored eight defensive touchdowns through nine games, while Jacksonville has scored just 12 touchdowns on offense.
Some other notable stats:
* The Bears have eight defensive touchdowns, and 21 NFL teams have fewer than eight rushing touchdowns.
* Their eight defensive touchdowns are just two shy of the single-season NFL record, shared by the 1961 Chargers and 1998 Seahawks.
* The 1961 Chargers have the most takeaways in a single season (66). They scored on 10 of them, or 15.2 percent. The Bears have forced 30 turnovers and returned eight of them for scores, for a percentage of 26.7.
WHICH CURRENT SUB-.500 TEAM HAS THE BEST CHANCE TO REACH THE PLAYOFFS?
It's getting late in the season to have a losing record if you have playoff aspirations, but it's hardly unheard of for such teams to turn things around. The 1970 Cincinnati Bengals opened at 1-6 before rallying to get to the postseason. The 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars began 4-7 and still reached the AFC Championship Game.
By contrast, this year's 4-5 Dallas Cowboys are hardly buried in the standings. However, there aren't many more polarizing teams in sports than the Cowboys. It seems that the majority of NFL fans either love or hate Dallas.
Plenty of national media members and NFL fans began writing this team off a couple of weeks ago. The Cowboys have been portrayed as dysfunctional and declining, starting quarterback Tony Romo has been considered to be overrated, coach Garrett has been perceived to be on the hot seat, and owner Jerry Jones has been depicted as being a meddling idiot.
Let's try to look at the facts: Yes, the Cowboys have lost four of their last six games, but the last three setbacks were a two-point loss to the Ravens (when Dan Bailey missed a field goal in the closing seconds), a five-point loss to the New York Giants when Dez Bryant's apparent winning touchdown catch was reversed by replay because his fingertips landed beyond the end line, and a six-point loss to then-unbeaten Atlanta.
In other words, most of the Cowboys' losses have been games that could have gone either way.
The rest of the schedule isn't so bad for Dallas, which plays its next three consecutive games at home (Cleveland, Washington and Philadelphia).The Cowboys' last four games feature road trips to Cincinnati and Washington and home games against Pittsburgh and New Orleans.
If they can go 5-2, it could be enough to snag the final wild-card berth. They'd have to start winning the close ones, though.
WHICH TEAM WILL GET THE FIRST PICK IN THE 2013 DRAFT?
This seems likely to come down to two teams: Jacksonville and Kansas City. Those teams' remaining schedules are about equal, so the nod here goes to the Jaguars.
Kansas City is probably the league's biggest disappointment this season, buried in last place in the AFC West with a roster that arguably should have contended for the division title. The guess is that with its superior talent, Kansas City will find a way to get to three or four wins.
Jacksonville doesn't really have a whole lot of impact players. The most prominent one, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, figures to miss another week or two with a sprained foot.
Should the Jaguars gain the first pick, they would have to think about finding a franchise quarterback. Incumbent Blaine Gabbert is only in his second year, but he hasn't taken the kind of big step forward that Jacksonville would have liked.
Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.