NFL Playoff Scenarios: Biggest Late-Season Storylines to Follow

Mike HoagCorrespondent IIDecember 12, 2012

LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 03:  Quarterback Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants stands on the sidelines during the fourth quarter against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on December 3, 2012 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Several 2012 NFL playoff spots are already locked, but many are still up in the air as the season begins to come to an end.

The Atlanta Falcons are the lone team in the NFC to have guaranteed themselves a playoff berth. New England, Houston and Denver have all already guaranteed their postseason eligibility and are playing for home-field advantage throughout the rest of the season.

But what about those teams on the bubble? Teams that are one game away from creeping into the wild-card picture still have very chances to do just that in the final three weeks of the season.

Let’s take a look at three different storylines with playoff implications as the 2012 season comes to an end.


AFC Wild Card: Which AFC North team will it be?

Last season three different teams from the division went to the postseason. The emergence of the Indianapolis Colts has likely thwarted that from happening again.

So who will it be, if anyone, who clinches the second wild-card spot?

The Cleveland Browns (5-8) are two games behind the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6). The Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) are right there with Pittsburgh despite having a rough patch of midseason games.

Pittsburgh controls its own destiny and has remaining games against both of its conference foes. It plays Cincinnati in Week 16 and finishes the season against the Browns in Week 17. Both games are at home and will make or break the Steelers' season.

What it could do, though, is ruin things for the entire division. If Cincinnati and Pittsburgh both stumble down the stretch, it could make room for the 6-7 New York Jets to sneak into the final spot.


The wide-open NFC East

In typical New York Giants' fashion, the defending champs have been wildly inconsistent this season with an 8-5 record. That has opened the door for the resurgent Robert Griffin III-led Washington Redskins to position themselves for not only a playoff run, but the possibility of stealing the division title.

Washington has gone to the playoffs just four times over the past two decades. Three of those appearances were thanks to wild-card appearances. The last two division titles for the Redskins have yielded mixed results. In 1999 the team lost in the divisional round and in 1991 it won Super Bowl XXVI against the Buffalo Bills.

The Skins will have the two-team tiebreaker with the New York Giants (conference record) and would win the NFC East if they finish with the same record as the Giants. A win over Philadelphia or Dallas clinches this in favor of the Skins. Washington must win both of those games regardless if it hopes to make the playoffs or catch the Giants.


Chicago’s potential monumental collapse?

The Chicago Bears started out hot, recording a 7-1 mark to begin the season. Things have tapered off since as the team has dropped four of its last five.

Things won’t get any easier on the injury-riddled Bears this week. They host Green Bay in Week 15 and then travel to Arizona and Detroit for two very winnable games to conclude the season. They are a team that truly controls its own destiny.

If Chicago does fall apart down the stretch and misses the postseason, it would become only the second team in the 23-year history of the current playoff format to do so, according to ESPN Stats & Info.