Both the NFC and AFC have compelling races for the two first-round byes that will be awarded for the 2012 NFL playoffs.
As it currently stands, the Atlanta Falcons (7-0) and Chicago Bears (6-1) would get the NFC's top seeds, while the Houston Texans (6-1) and Baltimore Ravens (5-2) hold the AFC's top slots.
Here's a quick look at the contenders for each bye spot at the midway point:
American Football Conference (AFC)
Houston Texans (6-1)
Save for one hiccup, the Texans have been the class of the AFC. In terms of balance, both on offense and defense, few teams can match what the Texans offer week-in and week-out. Difficult games against Chicago and New England remain, but the second-half schedule is very favorable for Houston. 13 or more wins is certainly in reach.
Baltimore Ravens (5-2)
The Ravens have some soul-searching to do, and it starts this weekend in Cleveland. However, a two-game stretch against the Browns and Oakland Raiders could help this team get back on its feet following a 43-13 destruction in Houston. Injuries (especially on defense) and a difficult final stretch make the Ravens a risky pick for a bye slot.
New England Patriots (5-3)
Inconsistency has cost the Patriots this season. However, New England's three losses have come by a combined four points. This is still an elite team, with an elite quarterback and coach leading the way. The up-and-down swings may steal away another win or two down the stretch, but New England has the look of a top seed.
Denver Broncos (4-3)
Peyton Manning is the Broncos trump card. And the way he's playing right now, anything is possible for Denver, including a return to the Super Bowl. Three early losses (including to New England and Houston) put the Broncos behind the eight ball for a bye, but things have tighten up considerably in the AFC. The conference's easiest final nine games is a big plus for the Broncos.
Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3)
You can never count out the Steelers for a first-round bye, but this doesn't feel like one of those Pittsburgh teams that is going to put together a long stretch of wins. The defense isn't the rock it used to be, and injuries have the offense mixing and matching players. Still, Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin have two cracks at Baltimore left on the schedule, so anything's possible.
Prediction: Houston, Denver
Barring injury, the Texans feel like a lock to secure one bye slot. Denver is an ascending football team capable of winning eight of its last nine.
National Football Conference (NFC)
Atlanta Falcons (7-0)
The wins haven't always been pretty, but there's no debating a perfect 7-0 record. Undefeated teams this late in the season secure a bye spot nearly without fail, so the Falcons should be in good shape. A late game against the Giants and two matchups with the New Orleans Saints could put some pressure on Atlanta in the second half.
Chicago Bears (6-1)
The Bears may be the quietest 6-1 team we've seen in awhile. No one talks about these guys, yet Chicago continues to play smothering defense and win football games. And while the offense isn't a great unit, a healthy Jay Cutler, Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall are more than enough to get by. Big games at home against Houston and on the road in San Francisco loom large.
New York Giants (6-2)
The Giants have a murderers' row of teams left on their 2012 schedule. Over the last eight, New York faces Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Baltimore and Philadelphia. To be perfectly honest, the Giants could realistically go 13-3 or 9-7, but we'll lean somewhere in the middle. New York is too good on both sides of the football to slide out of the picture.
San Francisco 49ers (6-2)
A loss at home to New York hurts their chances, but the second-half schedule isn't ridiculously difficult. Games against Chicago and New England will be challenges, but there's no doubt San Francisco can end 13-3 or 12-4. The combination of passing defense (second in NFL) and rushing offense (first) will take the 49ers far.
Green Bay Packers (5-3)
Early losses, especially to San Francisco in the opener, hurt the Packers' chances of getting another first-round bye. However, this team has won three in a row despite a laundry list of injuries. Green Bay needs to get healthy considering their final stretch, which includes games against New York and Chicago. Don't count out Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers just yet.
Prediction: Atlanta, San Francisco
At 7-0, the Falcons should cruise to the bye. The second slot is more difficult to forecast, especially with so many capable teams in the NFC. San Francisco gets the nod here, as its ability to both run and stop the run will play dividends as the weather becomes more hostile late.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!