No NFL coach would ever talk about clinching a division before the task was at hand.
So we’ll make up for that.
There’s a pretty good chance the Patriots , Steelers and Vikings could do the deed in early December, particularly if Minnesota wins at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. The Eagles have such a big lead in the NFC East, four games with five left after demolishing Dallas, that they are odds-on to be the first team owning a playoff berth.
Ask about the postseason right now, though, and you get the kind of silence usually associated with Marshawn Lynch.
Why do coaches and, by extension, players refuse to look too far ahead? For one, they are trained — some might say brainwashed — into having tunnel vision from the first time they suit up in high school.
There’s also the argument that looking ahead damages preparation for the immediate job at hand; Kansas City’s loss at the Giants on Sunday might prove that theory.
Plus there’s the “control what we can control” mantra, which translates to “all we can do is win one game at a time.”
But don’t believe for a second that those same coaches (and many players) aren’t acutely aware of who’s ahead on their schedule as they head into the stretch drive the NFL soon will reach.
“The first thing you have to do is punch your ticket to the dance and get into the tournament,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith says. “Till you do that, you should be focused on every single one of these games. You have to have a sense of urgency.
“Plenty of teams started out hot. You have to continue to grow and get better. Certainly these games get bigger and bigger as the season goes on and we’ve got to find a way to win.”
Kansas City (6-4) remains in control in the AFC West despite its mediocre play since starting 5-0, in large part because the rest of what was projected as the league’s toughest division has fallen apart. That badge of the best now belongs to the NFC South, which just might have a three-team race between New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta right down to the wire — very refreshing.
If you combined the best of the rosters of the other three AFC East teams, that conglomerate probably couldn’t beat New England (8-2). The Patriots have a three-game lead on fading Buffalo as they cruise toward yet another division crown and quite possibly another Super Bowl berth.
With two matchups with the Dolphins and one with the Bills upcoming, Tom Brady can look forward to some rest before Christmas time. The only obstacle to that could be a game at Pittsburgh in Week 15.
Considering the lack of contenders in other divisions, that also carries a strong likelihood of being the conference championship matchup. The Steelers don’t figure to have as easy a time securing the AFC North — they lead Baltimore by three games, but the Ravens’ defense can make things interesting — but they still should be ordering playoff tickets well before Christmas.
While New England and Pittsburgh have benefited from weakness around them, Minnesota was playing well enough even before Aaron Rodgers went down with a collarbone injury. That ended Green Bay’s pursuit, and the Vikings did such a number on the NFC West-leading Rams on Sunday that they look vastly superior to second-place Detroit.
A Vikings win on Thursday would provide a three-game cushion with remaining games against weaklings Cincinnati and Chicago. Detroit, though, has the far easier remaining schedule.
“I think every game is a statement game for us,” says Adam Thielen, who has developed into a top receiver for Minnesota. “I think we got to keep going because we got a tough schedule ahead of us. That was a really good football team today, and we’re going to get a really good football team and a really good defense next week. We got to forget about this win fast and just move on because we got four days until Detroit.”
We could have told you those comments were coming.
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