AFC + NFC Playoff Preview - Week 12, featuring Thanksgiving

Note: this post is a long one.  Save this read for a lunchbreak, a lull in the workday, your morning trip to the bathroom, or some downtime during the holiday.

Football is all about preparation.  Sure, you can go out there and try to wing it, relying on your freakish athleticism and overall talent, but when you're faced with an opponent who has done his homework and knows your weaknesses, you'll regret not working harder beforehand.  In the spirit of the holiday, allow me to share my most recent experience with preparation.

Realizing that we would once again be spending Thanksgiving apart, my girlfriend and I, along with her/our roommate, decided to host a "Pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving" dinner this past Sunday.  Now, I have some experience preparing meals, through both my old job at St. Luke's South Shore in Cudahy and just being a person who likes to cook in general.  But let me tell you, there are few things more difficult than preparing a Thanksgiving dinner.

First of all, it takes enormous amounts of forethought.  Did you know that the turkey has to roast for anywhere between 2 and 7 hours?  And you have to figure that out based on the weight of the turkey, the temperature of the oven, which seasonings you use, and everything else that you put in the pan.  And you have to baste the thing every 10-15 minutes so it doesn't dry out.  Thankfully, I wasn't alone in the turkey preparation, otherwise I would have gotten lost in the forgotten Thanksgiving battle: preparing the side dishes.

You have to wash things, peel things, chop things, stuff things, boil things, mix things, and any other kitchen-related verb things.  It's crazy.  And it's time consuming.  No wonder people who try to do this alone go insane.  Partially because of the stress, but I suspect is has something to do with the heat.

The heat.  Holy Moses, the heat.  When you have an oven going at 375, four burners boiling pots with various contents, the steam created by those contents, hot water from the faucet used to wash things, AND the fact that you were stupid enough to wear a long-sleeved T under a polo shirt, it's unbearable.  It's like going into a sauna fully clothed.  Now I understand the saying "If you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen."

On top of all that, you have to entertain people, right when you're finishing up every single dish that's going to be served.  I highly recommend that, if you're lucky enough to be working with two other people, everyone takes turns distracting the guests while you scramble to finish the stuffing, rolls, two kinds of potatoes, vegetables, and get the table set.  There are few things more annoying than having people come into the kitchen while you're furiously mixing and chopping and setting, and they ask questions like "Is it hard?" or "What're you doing that for?" or my personal favorite "Can I help?"

(No.  You cannot help.  That's why we invited you to come at 6:00.  If we wanted you to help, we would have invited you at 1:00 when we were starting the whole process.  You know what would help?  Not showing up at 5:00.  Oh, you always get to places early?  Well thirty minutes is just a bit too early.  Oh, you brought wine?  Here, allow me to bash you over the head with it.)

But, when it's all said and done, when the table was set and everyone sat down and looked over the bountiful feast we were about to consume, it's a pretty good feeling.  Because you made that, and you get all the leftovers.  Awesome.

Now that I have broken my personal record for unnecessarily long introductions, onto the rankings!

First off, here's the NFC, ranked by their likelihood of making the playoffs based on record, remaining schedule, and overall performance.  Starting at the top...

1. New York Giants (10-1) (last week: 1)

They did not destroy the Cardinals, but they didn't have to.  All the Giants have to do is keep playing their game, which is run the football until your opponnent keels over in exhausted agony.  The 'Skins and 'Boys are 3 games back each, so the Giants have smooth sailing between now and playoff time.

Thanksgiving dish: The incomparable Turkey!

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Is there a better type of meat to gorge yourself on?  Especially when it's been covered in an herb and butter glaze and roasted for hours?  And the feeling you get right before you take your post-meal nap?  It's tryptophan-tastic!

2. Arizona Cardinals (7-4) (last week: 2)

Did you know that the Cardinals actually led the Giants at the end of the first quarter 3-0?  Neither did I.  Too bad they gave up a 17-point 2nd quarter.  Larry Fitzgerald has already broken the 1,000 yard marker, and Anquan Boldin has 11 of Kurt Warner's 21 touchdowns, but their rushing offence is ranked 30th in the league.  They're definitely making the playoffs.  Too bad they're making the playoffs by the craptasticfullness of their division rather than their own considerable merits.

Thanksgiving dish: Mac and Cheese!

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I don't know about you, but I simply didn't know that mac and cheese was a popular side dish for our fair holiday.  But it is.  And it's delicious.

3. Carolina Panthers (8-3) (last week: 3)

A surprising loss to Atlanta by 17 showed flaws in this Panthers team, especially giving up 10 and 28 points in the first and fourth quarters, respectively.  But their schedule for the next three weeks is as follows: @ Green Bay, Tampa Bay, and Denver.  You could definitely get worse teams, but you could get better ones, too.

Thanksgiving dish: Spice Cake!

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Sure, you could do better dessert-wise than spice cake.  But you could do worse, too.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3) (last week: 4)

They've managed to work into a tie with Carolina for the division lead.  Why are they below the Panthers?  Well, Earnest Graham is gone for the year, leaving the Bucs to rely on Warrick Dunn and Cadillac "I thought he was dead" Williams.  Which is not necessarily a good thing, considering the Bucs start a stretch of games exclusively against their divisional counterparts: New Orleans, @ Carolina, @ Atlanta.  That's a rough stretch by any standard, and it's certainly is much harder than Carolina's next three game schedule.

Thanksgiving dish: Puppy Chow!

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Okay, so it may not be a Thanksgiving dish per se, but it's one of those things that people put out for snacks while the actual food cooks.  And it's hands-down my favorite part about Thanksgiving.

This has nothing to do with the Buccaneers, I just wanted to mention Puppy Chow.

5. Washington Redskins (7-4) (last week: 5)

A 3-point win against Seattle is far too close a margin for any team taking itself seriously in the playoff race.  Seriously, Seattle has more problems than the people responsible for taking "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" off the air on FOX.  But as long as Clinton Portis keeps up that 4.9 ypc average and Jason Campbell keeps his interception total unusually low, the 'Skins can keep pace with the Cowboys for the inside track at the first wild card spot.  Games against the Giants and Ravens will make this order significantly taller, though.

Thanksgiving dish: Turducken!

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You could compare owner Dan Snyder's teambuilding approach to a turducken.  You like a bunch of things, but they don't necessarily work together.  But screw it, you've got money, you're gonna stuff them together whether they like it or not.

6. Dallas Cowboys (7-4) (last week: 6)

Adam Jones makes his triumphant return (read as: barely managed to avoid a lifetime ban) against the lowly Seahawks on Thanksgiving day.  It's good that they get a cupcake opponnent this week, because after that they face Pittsburgh and the New York Giants.  Yeesh, that is an unenviable stretch.

Thanksgiving dish: Apple Pie!

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There's nothing more American than spending an excessive amount of money on commodities, including new stadiums, disgruntled wide recievers, and law-breaking cornerbacks. 

7. Atlanta Falcons (7-4) (last week 8)

I know they beat the division-leading Panthers and that Michael Turner is outperforming LaDanian Tomlinson something fierce.  But both Carolina and Tampa Bay have a game up on the Falcons, and this doesn't even consider the Dirty Birds' remaining games against New Orleans (always dangerous on offense), Tampa Bay and Minnesota (two dominant run defenses...unless Kevin and Pat Williams get suspended.)

Thanksgiving dish: Brussels Sprouts!

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Gross and unlikely to make it down without incident.  Just like the Falcons to the playoffs.  Sorry guys, not this year.

8. Chicago Bears (6-5) (last week: 10)

One week after being held to 3 points, the Bears decided to turn the tables and hold their opponnents to 3 points.  Which is probably a good thing, since Chicago goes into their own divisional showdown with Minnesota this week.  If Chicago wins, the only meaningful game they have left is against the Packers, who will be the last challenger for the NFC North title.  If they lose to Minnesota, they will have split their series with the Vikings, who have split their series with Green Bay, who may or may not end up splitting their series with Chicago.  I swear, if all three of these teams end up 9-7 or 8-8 and we have to use some crazy tiebreaking mechanism, I will start a petition that prevents any division champion from making the playoffs without a respectable record.

Thanksgiving dish: Carrots!

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Whether you like it or not, you need to have a vegetable with your meal.  The Bears are the carrots of the NFC Playoff Thanksgiving feast: you need to have someone from the NFC North, it might as well be the carrots.

9. Minnesota Vikings (6-5) (last week: 9)

The good news: Kevin and Pat Williams haven't gotten suspended yet, which means that they will likely be available for this week's game against Chicago.  The bad news: They're still in the Wedgie Division.

Thanksgiving dish: Green Beans!

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Whether you like it or not, you need to have a vegetable with your meal.  The Vikings are the green beans of the NFC Playoff Thanksgiving feast: you need to have someone from the NFC North, it might as well be the green beans.

God, I hate this division.

10. New Orleans Saints (6-5) (last week: 11)

Drew Brees is a human-cyborg sent back from the future to destroy us.  He alone gives the Saints a shot at a wild card spot, especially since they're last in the NFC South.

Thanksgiving dish: Car Patties!

...Car patties?  Well, it's not really a dish, but it's hilarious, and includes a  reference to ex-Packer Najeh Davenport.  Kudos to Deadspin for the story.

10. Green Bay Packers (5-6) (last week: 7)

Green Bay's showing against New Orleans could have been worse.  How, you ask?  Well, let's see.  A cyclops could have come and bashed in the Superdome, an outbreak of cholera could have struck, the Reggie Bush/Kim Kardashian feature could have lasted longer (::shudder::), or they could move on from this loss with a game against a really good team that has a solid running game.  Oh, wait...

Thanksgiving dish:  Green Bean Casserole!

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You spend days convincing people that it's good.  Seriously, try it!  It's delicious!  The french onions give it a mouth-watering crisp!  But then after dinner's over, there's invariably over 3/4 left in the dish.  Because it's really not that good, is it?  But you need to have a vegetable with your meal, just like you need to have an NFC North team in the playoffs.

Did I mention that I hate this division?

12. Philadelphia Eagles (5-5-1) (last week: 12)

Donovan McNabb got benched for Kevin Kolb.  There really isn't much more to say about the Eagles.  Mainly because I don't want to say anything else about the team that's last in the NFC East.

Thanksgiving dish: Halibut!

Lbf_pacific_halibut_medium 

Halibut?  What?  That's not Thanksgiving-y at all.  Get the hell out of here.

Officially removed from consideration due to dangerous amounts of suck: Seattle, San Francisco, St. Louis, Detroit.

If the playoffs started today, here's how the NFC looks.  Any questions?  Consult the tiebreaking procedures:

Division - Team [seed (last week) - ranking by record(last week)]

NFC East - New York Giants [1(1) - 1(1)]

NFC West - Arizona Cardinals [3(3) - 4(3)]

NFC North - Chicago Bears [4(unranked) - 6(unranked)]

NFC South - Tampa Bay Buccaneers [2(5) - 2(4)]

Wild Card - Carolina Panthers [5(2) - 3(2)]

Wild Card - Washington Redskins [6(6) - 5(5)]

And now, here's the AFC, ranked by their likelihood of making the playoffs based on record, remaining schedule, and overall performance.  Starting at the top...

1. Tennessee Titans (10-1) (last week: 1)

No one is surprised that Kerry Collins couldn't win the game himself against the Jets, not even Kerry Collins.Their recent lack or proficiency in the run game disturbs me, almost as much as giving up 34 to the New York Favres.  Lately with Tennessee, something just feels a little bit...off...doesn't it?

Thanksgiving dish: Tofurkey!

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It's just not the same...

2. New York Jets (8-3) (last week: 2)

Well, they did it.  They felled the Mutant Flesh-Eating Zombies from Tennessee.  They can run the ball, pass the ball, stop the run, they can do everything a team needs to do to win.  But I would argue that the most important part of their team is the jack-of-all-trades RB Leon Washington.  He just has a knack for big plays at important times.

Thanksgiving dish: Stuffed Sweet Potatoes!

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I do not like sweet potatoes.  I have never liked them.  When it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, I am a traditionalist: everything for dinner should be some variety of salty, and everything for dessert should be some variety of sweet.  Adding a sweet dish to the dinner course?  Preposterous!

But then I tasted them.  Good golly, Miss Molly.  That was a delicious bite.  It was like a thick cinnimon streussel, but orange.  After a few tries, though, I decided to save them for last,  because then I get to have a pre-dessert dessert.  How awesome is that?

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3) (last week: 3)

Beating the Ocho-Cinco-less Bengals last Thursday is not something to brag about, but an 8-3 record in the AFC North and a 1 1/2 game lead over second-place Baltimore is.  The next three weeks will be a test for the Steelers, as they travel to New England, come home for a game against Dallas, then travel to Baltimore for what just might end up deciding the AFC North title.

Thanksgiving dish: Cornbread Stuffing!

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Often overlooked but never unappreciated, the mighty Cornbread Stuffing always leaves your palate satisfied and your stomach uncomfortably full.  Try it mixed in with your mashed potatoes and vegetables.  It's like a starch-party.

4. Denver Broncos (6-5) (last week: 5)

I broke an oath to myself today.  Long ago, when I first started making these previews, I vowed to never rank a team that had lost to Oakland in the top-5.  (Oh, wait.)  So why are they here?  Because the AFC West has to send somebody, and the Raiders (3-8), the Chargers (4-7), and Chiefs (1-10) certainly don't look like they're up to it.  So I guess we get to see Denver lose to a 6-seed (Indianapolis or New England are my bets) that will use their January victory at Formerly-Known-As Mile High as a platform for a Steelers-esque improbable Super Bowl run.

Thanksgiving dish: Canned Cranberry Sauce!

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We serve it because we have to.  But we sure don't like it.

5. Indianapolis Colts (7-4) (last week: 4)

Their next three games are @ Cleveland, against Cincinnati, and against Detroit.  One word: yummy.

Thanksgiving dish: Pumpkin Pie!

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Mmmmm...

6. New England Patriots (7-4) (last week: 8)

Matt Cassel certainly is loading up his resume for his inevitable free agency bidding war in the offseason.  The Patriots will, of course, set him loose and let some other poor team overpay for a mediocre quarterback who simply ran a successful system.  I hope it's Minnesota.

Thanksgiving dish: Mashed Potatoes!

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You're not allowed to have the NFL Playoffs in the 21st century without the Patriots.  Likewise, you're not allowed to serve Thanksgiving dinner without a pillowy mound of mashed potatoes.

7. Baltimore Ravens (7-4) (last week: 6)

Thanksgiving dish: Cheesy Onion Casserole!

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It's just onions and cheese.  That's it.  Looks kinda gross, doesn't it?  That's probably because it is.  You can't have a dish that consists of just onions and cheese.  There's no substance.  You need a meat or a starch or SOMETHING else in there.  This isn't to say that I dislike the Ravens, but given the quasi-top-heavy nature of the AFC, I can see them missing out.

8. Buffalo Bills (6-5) (last week: 9)

And BOOM goes the Bills' offense.  54 points against the Chiefs is expected from a good team, but it's encouraging when it happens for a struggling team like Buffalo.  Let's see how they handle San Francisco and Miami before travelling to NYC to take on the Jets.

Thanksgiving dish: Anything containing Cauliflower!

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I used to think that cauliflower looked like popcorn.  I was told by a family member who shall remain nameless that it tasted like popcorn, too.  Never have my tastebuds been more disappointed.

9. Miami Dolphins (6-5) (last week: 7)

Their leading reciever Greg Camarillo is out for the remainder of the season.  This is a bad sign for the surprisingly adept Dolphins' playoff chances.  That and they're still fighting with the Bills to avoid last place in the division.

Thanksgiving dish: Gravy!

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The Dolphins completely and utterly sucked last year.  Any success they had this year was considered gravy.  And boy, oh boy, did they pour on the gravy.

Officially removed from consideration due to dangerous amounts of suck: Oakland, Kansas City, Cincinnatti, Houston, Cleveland, Jacksonville, San Diego.

If the playoffs started today, here's how the AFC looks.  Any questions?  Consult the tiebreaking procedures:

Division - Team [seed (last week) - ranking by record(last week)]

AFC East - New York Jets [3(3) - 3(3)]

AFC West - Denver Broncos [4(4) - 6(4)]

AFC North - Pittsburgh Steelers [2(2) - 2(2)]

AFC South - Tennessee Titans [1(1) - 1(1)]

Wild Card - Baltimore Ravens [5(6) - 4(6)]

Wild Card - New England Patriots [6(unranked) - 5 (unranked)]

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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