Rex presumably "said" that because, while his Jets are one of three 8-2 teams at the top (New England and Atlanta are the others), they haven't exactly been dominant, with wins in the final seconds or in overtime each of the last three weeks. In fact, they'd had games handed to them by teams with losing records, including one in Detroit because the Lions missed an extra point that was tried by Ndamukong Suh after Jason Hanson, the kicker, was hurt. The Jets never would have gotten to overtime without it.
The NFL's happy-face people also soft-pedal the two westernmost divisions.
In the AFC, while Kansas City leads at 6-4, the likely winner is 5-5 San Diego, which is making its annual late run after its also-annual snooze through the first half of the season. In the NFC, Seattle is at 5-5 in a division that still could be won by a sub-.500 team -- in two of their last three games, the Seahawks lost at home, 41-7 to the Giants after trailing 35-0 at halftime, and last week lost 34-19 in New Orleans.
In any event, here are what the real standings might look like in each conference -- likely playoff teams ranked 1-6.
1. New England (8-2): These are not the 2007 Patriots, who breezed unbeaten through the regular season. They are more like the building Patriots, with three and sometimes four rookies in the defense on many downs. And the offense has no deep threats, not even a Randy Moss to suggest to defenses that Tom Brady might throw the ball over them.
|If the Playoffs Started Today ...|
|AFC||1||New York Jets|
|3||Kansas City Chiefs|
|5||New England Patriots|
|5||New Orleans Saints|
|6||Green Bay Packers|
Well, don't bet against them going back to another Super Bowl. Brady and Belichick practically can do that on their own.
2. New York Jets (8-2): Now if the Jets win that game ...
Look, the bluster has been justified to a point. Mark Sanchez has matured in his second season, into a quarterback who wins games in the clutch. LaDainian Tomlinson has been reborn. The problem is that Sanchez shouldn't have to be pulling out late wins over the likes of Detroit, Cleveland and Houston -- the Texans came back from 16 points down in the fourth quarter against what is supposed to be an immovable defense. Braylon Edwards and especially Santonio Holmes have been coming through under pressure, but ...
Maybe it's that Holmes and Edwards are Jets because other teams didn't like their demeanor. That suggests there's an implosion coming somewhere along the line. Still, if they can beat the Patriots ... well, they have to finish at the Steelers and Bears. But they'll get to the party, which gives them a shot to fulfill their predictions.
3. Pittsburgh (7-3): The Steelers should be the best team in the AFC. But they've lost Aaron Smith again, which makes them vulnerable to the run, and Roger Goodell's edicts seem to have taken some of the starch out of James Harrison. They're at the Ravens the same day the Jets and Patriots meet, and like the Pats, they lost the first meeting with their chief division rival. Only they lost it at home. Nonetheless, they're at No. 3 and the Ravens are at No. 4 (coming up), so maybe it's the history that's the pull.
4. Baltimore (7-3): Like New England and Pittsburgh, Baltimore isn't quite as dominant this year as it has been in the past. It's little falloffs by big players (other than Ray Lewis): Joe Flacco isn't quite the elite QB we thought he'd turn into this year; Ray Rice isn't having quite as good a season this year as last; Ed Reed isn't quite back from his injuries. Yeah, the Ravens have allowed the second fewest points in the AFC, one less than the Jets. But the defense just doesn't seem as dominant. Doesn't mean they won't get to the Super Bowl (picked 'em there) but ... something small is missing.
5. San Diego (5-5): Here they come. If Philip Rivers breaks Dan Marino's records, it probably will have more to do with the current pass-happy NFL than the superiority of Rivers over Marino. Look, A.J. Smith plays hardball with his players, which -- theory -- leads to early season resentment and early season losses. But as long as the special teams stop messing up, the Chargers should blow by the Chiefs in the AFC West, because even if they lost in Indianapolis this week (and they usually beat the Colts), they should win their other four games. Once they get to the playoffs, they're on their own.
6. Indianapolis (6-4): This might have been the year the Colts lost the South. (OK, Tennessee won it two years ago). Enough injuries to excuse it, even with Manning, whose game-losing interception demonstrated he's ... like his brother? (No, I'm not an Eli-basher.) But this also is a season in which the competition in the division has its own troubles -- sorry, can't get into Jacksonville. So Peyton gets the Colts to the playoffs. If they're there, maybe he can get them farther.
1. Philadelphia (7-3): In many ways, Michael Vick's performance Sunday night against the Giants was better than the one against Washington the week before. That's because he was playing a good defense that was ready for him, got after him and shut him down for long periods. And he still won. With help from New York turnovers, yes, but he won. This is not a great Philadelphia team. The defense has holes at linebacker and in the secondary and can be run on. But it can also strike quickly in a watered-down NFC (no, a watered-down league, enough of the NFC-bashing), and Vick may be enough.
2. Green Bay (7-3): Like the guys in Baltimore, some of the stars (Aaron Rodgers) aren't quite what they were supposed to be -- perhaps because we always expect too much from someone we designate a "star.'' On the other hand, Clay Matthews has already been chosen defensive player of the year (Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth say so), and the overall defense may be the NFL's best. Going into the Meadowlands and shutting out the Jets was impressive, but they need a couple more like that -- they're at Atlanta this week and at New England on Dec. 19. Not the easiest schedule for a team that's only tied for first with the (inferior?) Bears.
3. New Orleans (7-3): They're the champions. They know how to win. They're getting healthier. They have three tough road games -- at Dallas, at Baltimore and at Atlanta, one they have to win after losing to the Falcons at home.
But they are the defending champions, they have Drew Brees and ...
They now seem over the "We're the champions'' hubris.
4. Atlanta (8-2): This may be downplaying the Falcons. Why not? Everyone does. But they seem to get their toughest games at home, where Matt Ryan has lost only once in the last three seasons. The toughest road game is in Tampa, which despite its record, still seems a year away from being a team good enough to get on this list. To put it another way, no one really took the Falcons seriously in 1998, which is the only year they went to the Super Bowl. And Ryan is better than Chris Chandler, the QB that season.
5. Chicago (7-3): No, the Bears will not win it all. No, no. no. Yes, the defense has been playing well. And the offensive line is better than it was the night it let Jay Cutler get sacked nine times in the first half by the Giants. Still ... no.
6. New York Giants (6-4): People knock Tom Coughlin because his teams fade. His teams have faded the last three years because: He lost Plaxico Burress in 2008; he lost his entire secondary and defensive line last season; and he's losing parts of his offensive line and his entire receiving corps this year. If the defense can hold up until Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks get back (if they do), maybe they have an outside chance. There is talent here and they have winnable games, including one at home against Philadelphia that can get them right back in the division race. If they get in and get healthy ...
6a. Someone from the West will be in the playoffs. Probably Seattle. Of course we dismissed Arizona when it got in two years ago. But Seattle doesn't have Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald.