The playoff picture looks a lot different than it looked a couple of weeks ago, and after this one, it could look drastically different again.
With some division races still neck-and-neck—including the NFC East, the NFC North and AFC North—there is a lot to gain and a lot to lose from this week's slate of games. One misstep could cost a team a chance to compete in the postseason, making every game from here until the end a must-win.
Here's a look at where the contenders stand at present and what the playoff picture could look like depending on what happens this weekend.
Current Playoff Picture
1. Houston Texans (11-2)
2. New England Patriots (10-3)
3. Denver Broncos (10-3)
4. Baltimore Ravens (9-4)
5. Indianapolis Colts (9-4)
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6)
In the Hunt: Cincinnati (7-6), New York (6-7), Cleveland (5-8), San Diego (5-8)
Projections Post-Week 15
First-Round Byes: (1) New England Patriots and (2) Houston Texans
A couple of weeks ago, I may have said that the final four weeks of the season presented a lot of danger to the Patriots; now, not so much. The Patriots have been playing some of their best football of the season over the last few weeks, and that's their MO: They always band together in December and suddenly become a monster of a team that is seemingly impossible to be reckoned with. As for what that means for San Francisco, which visits Gillette Stadium on Sunday—we'll get to that in the NFC section.
The Texans, meanwhile, looked atrocious on Monday night. The offense looked lost and the defense looked asleep. One loss could quickly become two in a row with a hot Indianapolis team coming to town. When all is said and done on Sunday, the Patriots could find themselves in possession of the AFC's top seed while the Texans attempt to figure out how to stop the bleeding.
Wild Card: 4 vs. 5: Indianapolis vs. Baltimore
The Ravens are going to have a very hard time getting by the Broncos this weekend, judging by how poorly they've been playing—and if they fall, they could find themselves swapping places with the Colts in terms of seeding.
Wild Card: 3 vs. 6: Denver vs. Pittsburgh
With another win in Week 15, the Broncos can continue to gain ground on the top two seeds in the AFC. They may not be able to work themselves into a bye this week, but if they keep winning and Houston continues to struggle, it could happen. Not to mention, Houston doesn't exactly have the easiest of schedules from here on out.
Current Playoff Picture
1. Atlanta Falcons (11-2)
2. San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1)
3. Green Bay Packers (9-4)
4. New York Giants (8-5)
5. Chicago Bears (8-5)
6. Seattle Seahawks (8-5)
In the Hunt: Washington Redskins (7-6), Dallas Cowboys (7-6), Minnesota Vikings (7-6), St. Louis Rams (6-6-1)
Projections Post-Week 15
First-Round Byes: (1) Atlanta Falcons and (2) Green Bay Packers
The Falcons haven't looked great as of late—they looked downright awful last week against Carolina, of all teams—and their job isn't going to get any easier with the Giants coming to town this week. Of course, plenty of teams have flopped against bad opponents, and this Falcons team knows what's at stake and won't let itself suffer a second consecutive loss.
The last time the Falcons lost (to New Orleans on Nov. 11), they came back the following week with a win over Arizona. It was a bit too close for comfort, but they fought and they got the job done—and they'll have to do the same in Week 15.
As for what that means in the NFC East… A Giants loss, plus wins for the Redskins and the Cowboys, leaves us with a three-way tie in the division, which is going to make for an exciting Week 16.
The 49ers face the unenviable task of traveling to Foxboro, Mass. in Week 15, and if they come out of there with a loss—a very real possibility, given the Patriots' December record under Bill Belichick's reign—the Packers could usurp them at the top of the division with a win over Chicago. Back on Sept. 13, the Packers bounced back from a loss to the 49ers and took care of the Bears with ease, and if they can do the same in Week 15, it will pay off huge.
Wild Card: 4 vs. 5: Redskins vs. Seahawks
Maybe it's bold, but I don't see the Falcons losing a second straight game—especially playing at home. If the Giants lose and the Redskins beat Cleveland, which they should, that leaves us with a three-way tie in the NFC East. And that means the Redskins take the cake with the best division record.
Wild Card: 3 vs. 6: 49ers vs. Giants
A 49ers loss to the Patriots, coupled with a Packers win over Chicago, coupled with a Giants loss to Atlanta, leaves us with a very different wild card picture after Week 15. If the Bears lose to Green Bay, they stand the chance of being bumped out of playoff contention. The Giants, with a better record than Chicago in conference games, get the wild card, setting up a nice little rematch of one of the 2012 postseason's most exciting games.