For fans of playoff clarity, Sunday was not your favorite day. For fans of NFL parity, however, Sunday was a gift from the football gods.
With just six weeks left in the regular season, Sunday's results created a whole lot of playoff intrigue. "If the playoffs started today" is a term we in the industry like to use to give readers a sense of order. If the playoffs actually did start today, order would be thrown out the damn window.
Little AFC Clarity
The AFC is particularly muddled, especially with the AFC West all but assured of taking up two playoff spots with Denver and Kansas City jockeying for the division title in the season's final six weeks.
New England, win or lose on Monday Night Football, will still be at least two games clear in the AFC East. The Bengals' victory over cross-state rival Cleveland on Sunday put Cincinnati two losses clear of every team in its division and, with an extra game leading into the season's final bye week, three games ahead in the win column. After a come-from-behind win over division rival Tennessee on Thursday night, the Indianapolis Colts are three games clear of everyone else in the AFC South with six games to play.
That much we know. Barring any significant injury for one of those teams—Green Bay fans are probably shaking their heads at that qualification—all signs point to five AFC teams firmly in place for postseason berths.
What about the sixth? Frankly, it's chaos. Glorious, parity-driven chaos.
Wild, Wild Card
The AFC has eight teams at 5-5 or 4-6 with six games to play in the season. The Buffalo Bills, at 4-7, are by no means out of the race after a season-saving victory over the New York Jets, which makes nine teams—more than half the conference—vying for one playoff spot.
Both the Jets and Miami Dolphins are 5-5 after Miami topped San Diego, a result that dropped the Chargers, 4-6, into a tie with Oakland at the bottom of the AFC West.
With Baltimore's loss and Pittsburgh's win, the AFC North has three teams—Cleveland being the third—with a 4-6 record with six games to play. Tennessee is the final AFC team at 4-6, though with Jake Locker likely out for the year and the next four games—including three on the road—against potential playoff contenders, the chances for the Titans seem perhaps the most bleak.
The Wild, Wild East
The Bills, despite being the only team in the AFC conversation with seven losses, may have the most favorable schedule of any potential contender.
Likely needing to run the table to get into the postseason, Buffalo comes off its bye next week with this schedule: home against Atlanta, at Tampa Bay, at Jacksonville, home against Miami and at New England. Granted, Tampa Bay has played well for two straight weeks, but the Bills could not have asked for a better late-season slate heading into the final week of the season. The game against New England could, it might turn out, mean a whole lot.
And yet, as optimistic as Buffalo fans can be, the Bills are still two games behind the Jets and Dolphins in their own division.
Who will earn the AFC's final playoff spot?
The Jets have an interesting schedule, to say the least. On paper, New York's final six games feature just one team that currently has a winning record, Carolina. The Jets face five teams in the other five weeks that are 4-6 or 5-5, including road games at Baltimore and Miami with home games against the Dolphins, Raiders and Browns.
The Jets should feel like they are in the driver's seat for the final playoff spot, even after a demoralizing loss to the Bills on Sunday. With two games against the Dolphins still to play, a team that sweeps the home-and-home can take a huge step toward making the playoffs. A split may not help either team. Two losses should put the defeated team to bed.
On Sunday, Jets guard Willie Colon didn't want to talk about whether or not they are a playoff team.
“I’m tired of answering that damn question,” Colon said in a New York Post story by Brian Costello. “I don’t want to be asked that no more. We’re not a playoff team until they say we’re in the playoffs. Right now, we just lost to the [bleeping] Buffalo Bills so please don’t ask me that question anymore.”
Over the next six weeks, the Dolphins have a more difficult slate than the Jets. Despite getting the season finale against New York and a game against common opponent Carolina at home while the Jets face the Panthers on the road, the other games seem far tougher for Miami.
The Dolphins still have to travel to resurgent Pittsburgh and host New England on back-to-back weeks before a trip in late December to Buffalo, where weather could be a factor for a team accustomed to training in more moderate temperatures.
Based solely on schedules, the Jets seem to have an advantage, but given Rex Ryan's club, "seem to" means a whole lot of nothing. Just last week the Jets "seemed to" be in contention for the division title while the Dolphins "seemed to" be reeling from scandal that's fractured the entire franchise.
It's amazing what a result on Sunday can do to change momentum one way or the other.
The Muddled North
Pittsburgh looked left for dead earlier this season after losing to the Minnesota Vikings in London in Week 4. And yet, since the Steelers came off the bye week following that jaunt across the Atlantic, they are 4-2 with victories over the Jets, Ravens, Bills and Detroit Lions.
Pittsburgh looks dangerous, and the next two weeks will determine how viable the playoff hopes really are after a dismal start to the season. The Steelers end the year with games at Cleveland, at Baltimore, home against Miami and Cincinnati, then at Green Bay before finishing at home against the Browns. Should we count Pittsburgh out of any of those games? The way the offense is clicking right now?
Baltimore, on the other hand, has seemed stuck in the mud. The Ravens are 1-2 since coming off the bye and 2-5 following their Week 3 trouncing of Houston. Those last seven games have been decided by a total of 23 points, with no game being decided by more than six points in that run.
The Ravens are battle tested, but they've lost most of the close battles.
The schedule for the defending champs does them no favors, either. With three home games in a row against the Jets, Steelers and Vikings, Baltimore has to go to Detroit before hosting New England and finishing the season at Cincinnati.
Are there five wins for the Ravens in those remaining games? They may need all six, which seems extremely unlikely.
Are there five or six wins out there for the Browns? No. With games at New England and the Jets, home against Chicago and home-and-home against the Steelers—with Jacksonville too—the Browns could be lucky to get six wins the entire season, not in the last six games.
The Broncos and Chiefs are clearly the class of the AFC, but the Chargers and Raiders still have an outside chance to give the division three teams in the playoffs.
San Diego really hurt any playoff chances with an ill-timed loss at Miami, and the Chargers finish the season with arguably the toughest schedule in football, despite four home games in the last six weeks. San Diego faces Kansas City twice, Denver on the road on a short week and hosts Cincinnati, a resurgent Giants team and Oakland.
If the Chargers can't beat Miami right now, which of those teams will they beat?
The Raiders won with rookie free agent Matt McGloin, who could beat out Terrelle Pryor for the starting job. Should Raiders fans feel confident about that? Oakland has no easy task in the final six weeks, no matter who is at quarterback, which could curtail any confidence Raiders fans have in anything.
The Raiders still host Tennessee, Kansas City and Denver, while traveling to Dallas on Thanksgiving, the Jets a week later and San Diego in the season's penultimate game.
AFC Wild Card Verdict
At 5-5, and with a more favorable schedule than most of the other contenders, the Wild Card is still the Jets' to lose. Having said that, it would be short-sighted to rule out the Bills, even at 4-7, who are 3-3 when E.J. Manuel plays from start to finish and 1-4 otherwise.
The way this Sunday unfolded, however, Pittsburgh looks like the most dangerous team still fighting for the final spot. No matter which team earns that final spot, there is a chance one wild-card team in the AFC could be 14-2 with another coming from a group of five or six teams at 8-8 or even 7-9, needing tiebreaker rules or the flip of a coin to determine the winner.
Is that parity? In a way, it might be.
By contrast of records for contending teams, the NFC looks downright dominant.
There is still parity, however, and plenty of it. The NFC boasts 12 teams with six or fewer losses on the season, 10 of which have a .500 record or better.
The Giants and Rams are both 4-6 and have little to no chance at this point of earning one of the two wild-card slots. (Note: With three division games remaining, the Giants have a better chance to win the NFC East than a place in the playoffs as a Wild Card.)
Even without the Giants and Rams as viable factors in the wild-card race, the NFC has 10 teams fighting for six playoff spots, with only two seemingly secure. The New Orleans Saints' victory over San Francisco has them at 8-2, one loss behind the 10-1 Seattle Seahawks.
The rest is totally up for grabs.
NFC Least or NFC Beast?
Wasn't there a time earlier in the season when people mocked the NFC East for being the worst division in football? I'll admit I was one of those who thought the division was terrible, though I never did think the winner of the division would be below .500.
With the Eagles heading into the bye week at 6-5 and the Cowboys coming out of their bye at 5-5, it's unlikely the division winner will be 7-9 this year. Sorry, fans of rewarding mediocrity.
Heck, the NFC East winner still has a good chance at the third seed with how the NFC North is playing out. The question is, does the second-place team in the East still have a chance for one of the two wild-card spots?
Who will win the NFC East?
Philly has a tough schedule coming out of its bye week with four of the final five games against playoff contenders. The Eagles end the year hosting Arizona and Detroit before traveling to Minnesota, returning home for Chicago and finishing the year at Dallas in a game the schedule-makers are high-fiving over already.
Chip Kelly's bunch just got its first win at home in 11 tries, and the Eagles are 5-1 on the road this year. With the way Kelly has the Eagles playing under Nick Foles, there is a chance Philadelphia could run the table and finish 11-5.
Of course, there's just as good a chance the Eagles could lose their three remaining home games and be 7-8 heading into the season finale with a shot at the division.
Why? Because the Cowboys are just as much of an enigma as the Eagles.
Dallas has to travel to the Giants before hosting Oakland four days later on Thanksgiving Day. The Cowboys then finish the season at Chicago, home against Green Bay, at Washington and home against Philly.
Are there four wins in there for Dallas? On talent, there should be, but the late-season woes for the Cowboys always seem to be about more than just talent.
As for the aforementioned Giants, they need to go at worst 4-2 the rest of the season, and with games against Seattle—at home—at San Diego and at Detroit, they need to win all three remaining division games, including two against Washington. They then must hope to win one of those non-division matchups while needing Philadelphia to go 1-4 and the Cowboys 2-4 to avoid a whole heaping of tiebreaker scenarios.
That's probably not happening.
Wild NFC North
More than anything, the status of Aaron Rodgers may determine a lot about the entire NFC playoff race. The Packers have been reeling without Rodgers under center, falling from division leaders to 5-5 and on the outside looking in at the playoff party.
There is little reason to even look at Green Bay's remaining schedule without knowing when, and if, Rodgers will return. The longer he is out, the more likely the Packers will be out as well.
If he returns, however, the division is still up for grabs. Detroit's loss to the Steelers put both Chicago—after beating the Ravens—and the Packers right in the mix for the division. If Detroit doesn't win that division or, even worse, fails to make the playoffs altogether, one has to wonder whom Jim Schwartz has photos of in the Detroit front office to keep his job another year.
How many teams from the NFC North will make the playoffs?
Hell, even if Detroit wins the division, it seems evident the Lions win because of their talent, not their coaching.
With just under 13 minutes to go against Pittsburgh and the Lions up four points, Schwartz and his staff thought it would be smart to try a fake field goal deep in Pittsburgh territory.
Rather than going up by seven points, Schwartz gambled at the wrong time. The play was a disaster, and Pittsburgh took over and never looked back, driving 97 yards in 16 plays to take a 30-27 lead. After a Matthew Stafford interception gave the ball back to the Steelers on a short field, Pittsburgh buried the Lions with another touchdown, ostensibly ending the game.
Detroit faces Tampa Bay and Green Bay at home before going to Philly, then returning home for Baltimore and the Giants before finishing the season at Minnesota. On talent, the Lions could finish 12-4 or 11-5. On coaching, they will be outclassed in at least half of the remaining games. Detroit fans better hope the talent prevails.
As for the Bears, their quarterback situation is interesting. Jay Cutler is hurt, again, and while most of the speculation is about whether Cutler will stay in Chicago after this season, the Bears are 2-0 in games started by Josh McCown and 4-4 in games started by Cutler (granted, two of those games were finished by McCown).
The Bears are every bit in the thick of the playoff hunt, regardless of who is playing quarterback for Marc Trestman's squad. Chicago has a favorable schedule, going to St. Louis, Minnesota, Cleveland and Philadelphia in four winnable road games while hosting Dallas and Green Bay at home. For a team with four games on the road in the last six, the home stretch, so to speak, is not as daunting as it could be.
Check back on Carolina's playoff hopes after Monday Night Football. A win over the Patriots at home will put the Panthers at 7-3, one game behind the Saints for the division lead. A loss will have Carolina at 6-4 and still in the hunt for a wild-card berth but with a much tougher fight.
The Panthers finish the season with an up-and-down slate, facing Miami, Atlanta and New Orleans on the road while hosting Tampa Bay, the Jets and the Saints.
To win the division, the Panthers may need to sweep the Saints, but even a split could go a long way toward a spot in the playoffs. Carolina should win at least three or four of its final six games, putting the Panthers anywhere between 9-7 and 11-5.
The Panthers control not only their own destiny, but also that of a lot of teams in the NFC.
The Wild, Wild (NFC) West
The division race is pretty much over. Sure, Seattle could lose all five remaining games to finish 10-6, but it won't. The three other teams in that division are all left fighting for one or both of the wild-card spots.
The Rams have an outside chance at getting back into contention, but they would need to win every game and still need some help to actually make the playoffs. With games at San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle and home matchups against New Orleans, Chicago and Tampa Bay still to come, Rams fans should be more concerned about losing all their games left than winning them.
That leaves the Cardinals and 49ers both at 6-4 and deep in the hunt for the playoffs.
Which NFC West team will earn a wild-card spot?
Arizona has a really tough schedule down the stretch, hosting Indianapolis before traveling to Philadelphia a week later. Fun fact: Much will be made of Bruce Arians facing the team he coached last year in Indy, but the Philly game will be a homecoming of sorts as well, as Arians coached the Temple Owls from 1983 through 1988, the only other head coaching job of his career.
Arizona finishes the year with St. Louis at home and Tennessee away before going to Seattle and hosting San Francisco in two games that will decide everything about the NFC playoff race.
After a Week 1 loss to the Rams, the Cardinals have only lost to the Saints, Seahawks and 49ers, with two coming on the road. This is a good team. Is it good enough to go 4-2 the rest of the season? Will that even be enough?
That may depend on if the Cardinals can beat the 49ers in the season finale. The Niners lost a heartbreaker to the Saints on Sunday, which derailed any hope at making a run for the division crown and put a place in the playoffs completely up for grabs.
San Francisco has a very favorable schedule down the stretch, though, with four of its six opponents not just currently under .500, but also no better than two games under that mark. At Washington, home to St. Louis and Seattle, at Tampa Bay, home to Atlanta and at Arizona is about as good as the defending NFC champions could hope for at this point in the season.
NFC Wild Card Verdict
Despite consecutive losses to potential playoff teams, San Francisco's schedule looks too easy to ignore the rest of the way. Don't put it in ink, but the Niners should be penciled in for one of the two wild-card slots.
The other spot is far too difficult to call without knowing which teams will win the East and North divisions.
Let's say for the sake of this argument that Philadelphia and Detroit win their respective divisions; the final wild-card spot will come down to Dallas, Chicago, Green Bay, Carolina and Arizona.
Carolina is playing like the best team—certainly the best defense—and a split with the Saints should put it over the edge. Arizona did beat Carolina and may be playing the best football on both sides of the ball, but the Cardinals' tough schedule when compared to San Francisco, Chicago and Carolina's could put them on couches in January.
It's hard to look at the Bears' remaining schedule and not think they can make a run to the playoffs, but that division could beat itself up the rest of the way. The safer guess, if a tad boring right now, is San Francisco and Carolina, but don't be surprised if the Cardinals make a run.
Do be surprised if the Rams or Giants make one.