With 12 weeks gone in the 2012 NFL season, the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons remain atop their respective conferences at 10-1. The playoff picture is becoming clear, with seven of the eight divisions all but wrapped up. The lone exception is the NFC North, which is still hotly contested by three teams.
The wild-card spots are more up in the air, especially in the deep NFC, where 12 of the 16 teams still have legitimate playoff hopes.
Here is what the NFL playoff picture currently looks like, with analysis of each seeded team and their remaining schedules.
The Pittsburgh Steelers—now 6-5 and dropping—are in the shakiest position of any AFC playoff team. They are technically in playoff position, owning the head-to-head tiebreak against the 6-5 Cincinnati Bengals.
But the Bengals have been on the rise, and the Steelers have been struggling as of late.
Third-string quarterback Charlie Batch was not effective in his 2012 debut. Against a Cleveland Browns team that had only two wins on the season, Batch threw for 188 yards and three interceptions in a 20-14 loss. With seven fumbles (five lost) to go with the three interceptions, the Steelers became the first team with eight turnovers in game since the 2001 St. Louis Rams.
The Bengals—as a division rival and the only above-.500 team chasing the Steelers—are the most important team to watch. The Week 16 rematch will almost certainly have playoff ramifications. Pittsburgh also must travel to Baltimore to face the Ravens who beat them in Pittsburgh two weeks ago.
The Steelers are on a slippery slope. They have plenty of reasons to be optimistic come playoff time, assuming Ben Roethlisberger can return for the playoffs. But first, they have to qualify.
Other teams still giving chase in the AFC include the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets.
With the drop-off of the Pittsburgh Steelers and many other AFC teams, the Indianapolis Colts (at 7-4) are primed to clinch to No. 5 seed. The Colts bounced back from a 59-24 loss to the New England Patriots with a win over a different AFC East team—the Buffalo Bills—20-13.
With quarterback Andrew Luck making a solid case for Rookie of the Year and with an abnormally weak wild-card field in the AFC this season, the Colts have everything falling into place for them. Their remaining schedule is relatively easy, with the exception of two games against division-rival, the Houston Texans.
The way the AFC is playing out, a 9-7 finish would be almost guaranteed to earn a playoff berth. If the season were to end today, the Colts would travel to Denver to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the first round of the playoffs.
Odds are, either the Broncos or the New England Patriots will be Luck's first playoff opponent. Either way, it makes for an interesting quarterback showdown.
The Denver Broncos are a great example of why you always look at the schedule. After the hardest opening schedule in the NFL, the Broncos fell to 2-3 at the end of Week 5. Now on a six-game winning streak against a much easier schedule, they are 8-3. With the AFC West essentially locked up, the Broncos are chasing a playoff bye.
The only losses the Broncos have this season are against the New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, three of the best teams in the NFL. They have been extremely consistent against weaker teams.
On the other hand, those losses to the Patriots and Texans will be problematic when it comes to tiebreakers at the end of the season. The last key tiebreaker will be determined in Week 15 when the Broncos travel to Baltimore to play the Ravens.
If Denver wins in Baltimore, they will be in great shape for a playoff bye. The rest of their remaining schedule is winnable, and 13-3 would not be out of the question if the Ravens can be dispatched.
The New England Patriots picked up in 2012 where they left off in 2011. They are all offense and no defense to a historic level. They put up 59 points on the Indianapolis Colts, 49 on the New York Jets, 45 on the St. Louis Rams and 89 points (over two games) on the Buffalo Bills.
Yet this same team lost ugly games against the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.
The Patriots game plan is to run a fast-paced and efficient offense. If they can blow teams out early, they are in good shape. If the games stay close, their soft defense becomes a problem.
At 8-3, New England has the AFC East locked up and are playing for a playoff bye. They already have a tiebreaker over the Denver Broncos. They get to host the Houston Texans and San Francisco in the coming weeks. These will be good tests of where they stand among the NFL's elite.
After an extremely close call on Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens are 9-2 and alone in second place in the AFC. It took a wacky 4th-and-29 conversion by Ray Rice to get the game into overtime and eventually defeat the 4-7 San Diego Chargers.
The Ravens are dealing with major injuries on their defense and inconsistent play on offense from quarterback Joe Flacco and his offensive line. Yet the Ravens have demonstrated their depth by continuing to win games.
With a win in the books over the New England Patriots and a loss at the hands of the Houston Texans, the Ravens' tiebreakers are likely to keep them wedged in the No. 2 seed.
The Ravens have one of the hardest remaining schedules. They play the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, then the Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals. All five of those teams are likely to finish their seasons above .500.
The 10-1 Houston Texans are keeping things interesting lately. After needing overtime to survive a career performance from Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne, they went deep into overtime on Thanksgiving against the Detroit Lions. They are the first team in NFL history to win two overtime games in a five-day span.
While they are undefeated against the AFC, the Texans seem to have trouble with the NFC North. They lost to the Green Bay Packers, barely survived the Chicago Bears and then went into overtime against the Lions.
The Texans' season is somewhat reminiscent of the 2007 New England Patriots and the 2011 Packers. They started out hot and are winning games, but one has to ask if they are as good now as they were in September.
Nonetheless, Houston is in great shape. They are 8-0 against the AFC and already have wins over the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens. Their Week 14 game in New England may be the last game that matters for them in the regular season.
Despite a 28-10 loss at the hands of the rival Chicago Bears on Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings are in the best position to get the last wild-card spot in the NFC.
Running back Adrian Peterson is having another MVP-caliber season, and the Vikings have beaten quality opponents, such as the San Francisco 49ers.
Nevertheless, the Vikings will have to survive a challenging end-of-season schedule. They still have to play the Green Bay Packers twice, the Chicago Bears and the Houston Texans. If they are not careful, they might find themselves below .500 before the year is out.
The biggest threats to the Vikings for the No. 6 seed in the NFC are the Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions.
Fortunately for the Green Bay Packers, you can only lose once on any given Sunday. The Packers were blown out, 38-10 by the New York Giants but remain in a strong playoff position. They won the Super Bowl in 2010 with a wild-card spot; clearly they are still contenders.
At 7-4, the Packers are chasing the Chicago Bears—who they have already beaten once—in the NFC North. They are also the only team that has beaten the Houston Texans. Their rematch against the Bears is the key game remaining on their schedule. They still have an outside shot at a playoff bye if they can win it.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is having another stellar season. Things only look to get better when wide receiver Greg Jennings returns to the lineup. Packers fans can hope that the defense will get back into shape when cornerback Charles Woodson returns as well.
The Packers also have two games to play against the division-rival Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings—currently the No. 6 seed—are no pushovers. Green Bay can still win the division, but they could potentially also fall to third place.
Neither the supposed November slump nor Eli Manning's supposed tired arm hindered the New York Giants on Sunday night, as they creamed the Green Bay Packers 38-10. The Giants ended a two-game losing streak and solidified their lead in the NFC East. Manning threw for 249 yards and three touchdowns against a Packers secondary that was without cornerback Charles Woodson.
The defending champions will need to win most of their remaining games if they want a shot at a playoff bye. To do so, they will have to handle a nasty schedule, which includes games in Atlanta and Baltimore.
Of course they have not needed the bye in recent history. Their Super Bowl wins in 2008 and 2012 both came without the help of a bye.
After a 32-7 train wreck of a loss in San Francisco, the Chicago Bears got back to solid complementary football with a 28-10 win against the Minnesota Vikings.
Quarterback Jay Cutler—who remains underrated—is the barometer for the Bears this season. When he plays well, they win. The Bears are chasing the 49ers now to earn a playoff bye. Tiebreakers do not matter, because the 49ers have an actual tie in their column of the standings.
The most important game remaining for the Bears is at home against the rival Green Bay Packers in Week 15. That win could determine who wins the NFC North and possibly who gets a playoff bye. The Packers won the first match-up 23-10 at home in Week 2.
The San Francisco 49ers are now 8-2-1 after a dominating win over the New Orleans Saints. Their defense—arguably the best in the NFL—scored two more touchdowns in the game.
The 49ers owe at least some of those wins to star quarterback Alex Smith, who has had a career year thus far. Yet due to a concussion, he has been replaced by second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
This is a dangerous move for head coach Jim Harbaugh. Smith is a known entity, a quarterback who has led his team deep in the playoffs and is one of the most reliable players in the NFL. Kaepernick has obvious physical talents, but no one knows yet whether or not he can succeed at the highest level.
The quarterback controversy in San Francisco will continue week-to-week and will be worth following.
At 10-1, the Atlanta Falcons have the best record in the NFC. Yet they are making too much of a habit out of winning ugly games against weak opponents. With a one-point win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and narrow victories over the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys, the Falcons' last three wins have all looked poor.
Yet they have been winning games, and that is always cause for optimism.
This core of players has also made a habit out of winning in the regular season and losing in the playoffs. They have not won a playoff game since the playoffs following the 2004 season. With a relatively soft remaining schedule, there is little doubt that the Falcons will win the NFC South and have a high playoff seed. The real question is whether or not that will translate into playoff victories. If quarterback Matt Ryan loses his next playoff game, he will tie Y.A. Tittle for the worst record by a quarterback in NFL playoff history (0-4).
The biggest remaining test for Atlanta comes in Week 15 when they face the New York Giants. With a win then, they can potentially wrap up the top overall seed. They currently hold a game-and-a-half lead over the San Francisco 49ers.