There is much to be decided in the 2012-13 NFL playoff picture even with two weeks to play in the regular season. But it's never too early to make predictions on the potential wild-card games based on the current standings.
There is some definite intrigue in the projected matchups as they stand, with the apparent underdogs all having a puncher's chance to pull out stunning victories.
Let's first take a look at the current scenarios, then dive into a breakdown of the AFC and NFC Wild Card games if today's standings were to hold true for the start of the postseason.
AFC Playoff Picture
|No. 1 Seed Houston Texans (12-2) Clinched AFC South|
|No. 2 Seed Denver Broncos (11-3) Clinched AFC West|
|No. 3 Seed New England Patriots (10-4) Clinched AFC East|
|No. 4 Seed Baltimore Ravens (9-5) Lead AFC South; Clinched Playoff Berth|
Texans clinch home-field advantage with win in Week 16 or Week 17 OR Denver and New England losses in Week 16 or Week 17.
Broncos clinch first-round bye if they finish with better record than New England. Patriots get first-round bye if two teams have the same record.
Ravens clinch AFC North with win in Week 16 or Week 17 OR Bengals Loss in Week 16 or Week 17.
|Wild Card Leaders|
|No. 5 Seed Indianapolis Colts (9-5)|
|No. 6 Seed Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)|
Colts will clinch playoff berth with win in Week 16 or Week 17 OR Steelers and Bengals lose in Week 16 or Week 17.
Bengals will clinch playoff berth with win in Week 16 or Week 17 OR Steelers lose in Week 16.
|In the Hunt|
|Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7)|
|Miami Dolphins (6-8)|
Steelers must defeat Cincinnati in Week 16 to stay alive. The Dolphins must win out and need Cincinnati to lose out. They also need Pittsburgh to lose in Week 17 and the Jets to lose once more.
NFC Playoff Picture
|No. 1 Seed Atlanta Falcons (12-2) Clinched NFC South|
|No. 2 Seed San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1) Lead NFC West; Clinched Playoff Berth|
|No. 3 Seed Green Bay Packers (9-4) Clinched NFC North|
|No. 4 Seed Washington Redskins (8-6) Lead NFC East|
Falcons clinch home-field advantage and first-round bye with win in Week 16 or 17 OR Green Bay and San Francisco losses in Week 16 or Week 17
49ers clinch NFC West with win in Week 16 or Week 17. Clinch home-field advantage with win in Week 16 and 17 AND losses by Atlanta in Week 16 and Week 17. Clinch first-round bye if they have the same number of wins as Packers.
Redskins clinch NFC East with wins in Week 16 and Week 17.
|Wild Card Leaders|
|No. 5 Seed Seattle Seahawks (9-5)|
|No. 6 Seed Minnesota Vikings (8-6)|
|In the Hunt|
|Chicago Bears (8-6)|
|Dallas Cowboys (8-6)|
|New York Giants (8-6)|
|St. Louis Rams (6-7-1)|
|New Orleans Saints (6-8)|
AFC Wild Card
No. 3 New England Patriots vs. No. 6 Cincinnati Bengals
OK so maybe not every wild-card showdown inspires talk of an upset special, but the Bengals have improved after an early four-game slide seemed to indicate they had taken a step back from their surprising 2011 playoff appearance.
A.J. Green is already in the conversation for best receiver in the game, and QB Andy Dalton has dismissed any notions of a sophomore slump by guiding the Bengals to victory in five of the past six contests.
The Bengals' only loss in that span was to Dallas—by one point.
While that dynamic duo may get all the headlines, Cincinnati has actually improved immensely on what were weaknesses early in the year. The defense has shored up drastically, courtesy of another fine coaching job by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Additionally, newly acquired free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis—an ex-Patriot, incidentally—has finally come on strong to produce for the Bengals rushing attack.
Now on to New England, a team that is virtually unbeatable at home at this point in the year. With the acquisition of CB Aquib Talib, the secondary finally has a player who can somewhat stick with the opposition's No. 1 target.
As improved as the Bengals defense has been lately, any team will have a hard time stopping Tom Brady and Co. Look no further than the Sunday night thriller in Foxboro against the San Francisco 49ers.
Brady brought the team back from a 28-point deficit with surgeon-like precision. If you missed it, find a way to get to NFL Game Rewind or catch a re-run somewhere.
It was truly magical, and it came against what is arguably the best defense in all of pro football.
This one may be close for a half or so, but it's hard to imagine the Patriots letting a game like this slip away—especially if superstar TE Rob Gronkowski returns to the fold, which he should. Opponents have had a hard enough time stopping the Pats without getting Gronk'd.
Prediction: Patriots 41, Bengals 24
No. 4 Baltimore Ravens vs. No. 5 Indianapolis Colts
John Harbaugh's team may have started 9-2, but this is not the Ravens of old. The wings on defense are spread extremely thin, and it's starting to show. Also becoming more apparent is the team's quarterback problem.
That's in reference to Joe Flacco, of course. Without a long-term extension inked and free agency pending, fewer QBs have more at stake than Flacco as the season winds down.
Thus far, he hasn't handled it well at all, as he threw a costly pick-six deep in Denver Broncos territory in a 34-17 home loss in Week 15.
Meanwhile, the Colts definitely have their answer under center in Andrew Luck, and the team has been the most inspiring story in the league in 2012. It's nothing short of remarkable across the board: Bruce Arians has done an exceptional job in his first head coaching experience while calling plays, filling in for Chuck Pagano, who is fighting cancer.
Luck has been mistake-prone but otherwise as good as advertised, routinely bailing the Colts out on 3rd-and-long situations. He has orchestrated six fourth-quarter comebacks. That's clutch, and it's something Flacco isn't.
It is truly befuddling as to why star Ravens RB Ray Rice doesn't get more touches, and until that changes, Baltimore is a bad bet even at home.
Vick Ballard is coming on strong in the Indianapolis backfield, as he scampered for more than 100 yards on the road against the Houston Texans' vaunted rush defense.
If this matchup did indeed take place, the Ravens wouldn't be able to stop the Colts in either phase of the game, and their fate would ultimately rest on the arm of Flacco.
That hasn't worked out so well lately.
Prediction: Colts 23, Ravens 17
NFC Wild Card
No. 3 Green Bay Packers vs. No. 6 Minnesota Vikings
These NFC North rivals recently squared off at Lambeau Field. There within, a man named Adrian Peterson ran for 210 yards on a ridiculous 10 yards-per-carry average and an electrifying 82-yard touchdown.
It didn't matter.
The Packers still won, which is a testament to just how much of a mismatch Minnesota faces at the quarterback position with struggling second-year player Christian Ponder to counter reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers.
After being one of the more surprising storylines of the season early on—highlighted by an impressive home win over San Francisco—the Vikings tailed off. All hope appeared to be lost, especially with the sharp decline in play from Ponder and a season-ending ankle injury to WR Percy Harvin.
But suddenly, Minnesota has come back to life with a home victory over division rival Chicago and a gutsy road win over the St. Louis Rams.
Since these teams face each other in the Metrodome in Week 17, the possibility of a rematch the very next week would be heavily dependent upon extenuating circumstances—and the Vikings would almost certainly have to come out on top.
Those types of games can be very strange, since both teams want to win but don't want to reveal too many tricks in the event they face each other again to begin the playoffs.
If this were in Minnesota, it might be a different story. However, barring an astonishing improvement by Ponder in Week 16 at Houston or against the Pack in the regular season finale, it's hard to imagine Green Bay blowing this at home, especially after the disappointment to the Giants last year.
It won't be pretty given the fact that this would be the third game between these divisional foes, but the Pack would get it done.
Prediction: Packers 20, Vikings 10
No. 4 Washington Redskins vs. No. 5 Seattle Seahawks
Is anyone else totally geeking out about the possibility that these two teams could face off?
Easily the most intriguing on the current opening round slate, No. 2 overall pick Robert Griffin III would do battle against fellow phenomenal rookie QB Russell Wilson in FedEx Field.
There's no telling what could happen. The Seahawks have the most talented young secondary in football, and Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Browner will be back for this one to go along with fellow 2011 selections, strong safety Kam Chancellor and FS Earl Thomas.
The best player, though, is shutdown CB Richard Sherman, who will be suspended if he doesn't win his appeal for allegedly violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
If the Seahawks' secondary is at full strength, Griffin will have a tough time throwing the ball, especially with the fearsome pass-rushers of Seattle constantly bearing down on him.
But the Redskins do have the top rushing attack in the game to stymie that pass rush at least a little bit, thanks to RGIII's outstanding speed and the emergence of sixth-round pick Alfred Morris at running back.
Two problems for Washington here: The Seahawks have the most dynamic defensive front seven in the league. First-round pick Bruce Irvin has corner-like speed at defensive end and could be the x-factor to keep Griffin firmly in the pocket. When RGIII does break contain, linebackers K.J. Wright, LeRoy Hill and especially Bobby Wagner have the top-end speed as a unit to chase him down.
Not to be forgotten, Wilson has arguably been the best, most consistent rookie of the extremely talented 2012 draft class. With a recent mastery of the offense, the Seahawks have been unstoppable lately in both dimensions.
Seattle hasn't lost a game by more than seven points all season long, and the Redskins have only lost one by more than eight. That should lead to a nail-biter, but I like the Seahawks' defense to make enough plays with or without Sherman to pull out this one on the road.
Prediction: Seahawks 31, Redskins 27