As the NFL season winds to a close, the playoff picture is starting to clear up.
We already know that the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots and Denver Broncos have clinched their respective divisions, while the Houston Texans have clinched a playoff spot and are almost assuredly going to win the AFC South.
But after that, it's a crapshoot. Half of the NFC is still vying for a playoff berth, while the AFC North is up for grabs and could send three teams to the playoffs.
The last three weeks of the season are going to be fun. Let's break down each division and the teams still in the hunt for a playoff spot.
As always, the NFC East is incredibly competitive and likely to come down to the wire. While the New York Giants (8-5) are currently in first place and famous for playing well down the stretch, it might just be the Washington Redskins (7-6) that have the best chance of winning the division.
Take a look at the schedules remaining for the Giants, Redskins and Dallas Cowboys (7-6):
- Giants: at Atlanta Falcons, at Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles
- Redskins: at Cleveland Browns, at Eagles, Cowboys
- Cowboys: Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints, at Redskins
Right now, you would want to be the Redskins—currently on a four-game winning streak, by the way—wouldn't you? Remember, the Redskins also have the best divisional record at 3-1 and already beat the Cowboys, so they could also hold the edge in any tiebreakers.
Don't look now, but Washington could feasibly close the season with seven straight wins and earn a division crown. Who saw that coming?
The Green Bay Packers (9-4) sit in first place and have won seven of eight. Plus, with a win over the Chicago Bears (8-5) this week they'll wrap up the NFC North. I would expect the Packers to come out on top in this division and earn a first-round bye.
Speaking of those Bears, is there a potential playoff team reeling more than Chicago right now? The Bears have lost four of five and could be in serious trouble in the wild card if the Packers beat them this weekend.
Let's not forget about the Minnesota Vikings (7-6), still alive as well. Well, barely—the Vikings would likely need to win out to make the playoffs, and with games still to play against the Texans and Packers, that seems unlikely.
The Atlanta Falcons (11-2) have already won the division, so we don't have much drama to speak of in that regard. At this point, it's all about securing home-field advantage for the Falcons.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) probably eliminated themselves from playoff contention with a loss to the Eagles this Sunday, while the New Orleans Saints (5-8) doomed themselves with three straight losses.
The San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1) should win the division, but with games against the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks (8-5) remaining, it's hardly a foregone conclusion. Don't be shocked if the Niners win the division but fail to earn a bye.
The Seahawks are gunning for the division, but a wild-card spot seems more likely. Even if Seattle can't beat the 49ers, games against the Buffalo Bills and St. Louis Rams (6-6-1) should be wins for the Seahawks, and 10-6 should get them into the playoffs.
The Rams are alive in the postseason picture, but it would take a major shocker for them to make the playoffs.
Teams that would make playoffs if postseason began today
1. Atlanta Falcons, 11-2 (clinched division)
2. San Francisco 49ers, 9-3-1
3. Green Bay Packers, 9-4
4. New York Giants, 8-5
5. Seattle Seahawks, 8-5
6. Chicago Bears, 8-5
Teams still in contention for playoff berth
7. Washington Redskins, 7-6
8. Dallas Cowboys, 7-6
9. Minnesota Vikings, 7-6
10. St. Louis Rams, 6-6-1
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 6-7
(All standings via ESPN)
1. Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
2. Green Bay Packers (12-4)
3. San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)
4. New York Giants (10-6)
5. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
6. Chicago Bears (10-6)
Yes, I'm sticking with chalk. The Giants will beat the Falcons and Eagles down the stretch to clinch the NFC East, the Packers will win out and the 49ers will lose to the Patriots, costing them a bye. Both the Seahawks and Bears will lose one more game, but so will the Redskins, Cowboys and Vikings.
The New England Patriots (9-3) have already clinched the division, so all that's left for them is to secure home-field advantage throughout or at least a first-round bye.
But wait, there's more—the New York Jets (6-7) are still alive in the wild card race. Yes, the league's most dysfunctional team can still sneak into the postseason, and with games left against the Tennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills, they've got a shot to win out.
There isn't a more intriguing division in the AFC than the North.
The Baltimore Ravens (9-4) hold the necessary tiebreakers over the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6) and Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) with a 4-1 divisional record, but finish with games against the Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals.
It's possible Baltimore could lose all three and shockingly miss the playoffs. Unlikely, but possible.
Meanwhile, the final spot in the AFC playoff picture will likely come down to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. That's bad news for the Bengals, who have already lost once to the Steelers and currently have a paltry 1-3 record within the division. That spells trouble in any tiebreaker scenarios.
Then again, it may not come down to that. Here's how the final three weeks shape up for each team:
- Steelers: Cowboys, Bengals, Browns
- Bengals: Eagles, Steelers, Ravens
I'd rather be the Steelers right now, and I'm guessing Pittsburgh earns a playoff spot.
It feels like the Houston Texans (11-1) clinched a playoff spot a month ago, but those pesky Indianapolis Colts (9-4) have prevented them from clinching the division.
With a game against the Patriots on Monday night, two contests left against the Colts and a potential trap game against the Vikings, it's not a foregone conclusion the Texans will win the division.
On the other hand, the if the Texans beat the Patriots, they'll need just one more win to clinch home-field advantage in the AFC.
Meanwhile, the Colts are a win away from earning a playoff berth since the Steelers and Bengals play one another. That might be tough against the Texans, but sandwiched between two games against Houston is a tasty matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs.
A year after having the worst record in football, the Colts are going to be a playoff team. Unbelievable.
The Denver Broncos (10-3) have clinched the division and have a real shot at earning a first-round bye, or potentially even home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they sweep the Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Chiefs down the stretch.
The rest of the division stinks. We're done here.
Teams that would make playoffs if postseason began today:
1. Houston Texans, 11-1
2. Denver Broncos, 10-3
3. New England Patriots, 9-3
4. Baltimore Ravens, 9-4
5. Indianapolis Colts, 9-4
6 Pittsburgh Steelers, 7-6
Teams still in contention for playoff berth:
7. Cincinnati Bengals, 7-6
8. New York Jets, 6-7
(All standings via ESPN)
1. Houston Texans (14-2)
2. New England Patriots (12-4)
3. Denver Broncos (12-4)
4. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
5. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)
Again, sticking mostly to chalk here. The Texans will beat the Patriots on Monday night but lose one of two against the Colts. The Patriots will win out after losing on Monday night. The Broncos will beat the Ravens next Sunday but won't be able to secure a bye.
And Pittsburgh will win its final three games, earning the last playoff spot.
Hit me up on Twitter—my tweets are playoff bound.