Although the NFL's playoff picture got a bit clearer in Week 13, there is still plenty left to be decided. Each conference features some exciting divisional and wild-card battles, and it's quite likely that things won't be decided until the final week of the season.
There is no question that a few teams have seemingly separated themselves from the field as Super Bowl contenders, but that doesn't guarantee anything. It hasn't been uncommon in recent years for teams to come from out of nowhere to reach the Super Bowl, so nabbing a coveted playoff spot is of the utmost importance.
The AFC is wide open due to the fact that so many teams are jockeying for position in the wild-card race. The NFC is ultra-competitive as well, but the postseason battles being waged in that conference have more to do with the divisions.
Whatever the case, it can certainly be argued that this year's race to the postseason is shaping up to be the most entertaining in recent memory. Almost every game on the schedule means something each and every week, and that is precisely what the NFL wants to see.
Here is a complete breakdown of the playoff picture in both conferences along with a look at where the Super Bowl odds currently stand with Week 14 of the regular season approaching.
AFC Playoff Breakdown
|New England Patriots||9||3|
|New York Jets||5||7|
|Kansas City Chiefs||9||3|
|San Diego Chargers||5||7|
|AFC Wild Card||W||L|
|Kansas City Chiefs||9||3|
|San Diego Chargers||5||7|
|New York Jets||5||7|
Locks: AFC East (New England), AFC South (Indianapolis)
Likely: AFC West (Denver)
Up in the Air: AFC North (Cincinnati)
Wild Card: Six teams within one game of No. 6
There were plenty of questions being asked about the Denver Broncos' form last week after blowing a 24-point lead against the New England Patriots, but many of those questions were answered on Sunday. Denver came back from a 14-point deficit in its own right to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in an absolutely huge Week 13 clash.
Not only did the win allow Denver to maintain the No. 1 spot in the AFC, but it pulled a game ahead of Kansas City in the AFC West. Now that the Broncos have beaten the Chiefs twice, it is essentially a two-game advantage. Denver also continued its incredible run behind quarterback Peyton Manning, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Broncos are now 22-3 in last 25 regular-season games (22-1 vs teams other than the Patriots)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 2, 2013
Two other AFC teams put themselves in prime position to win their respective divisions as well. The New England Patriots got all they could handle from the two-win Houston Texans, but they survived and maintained what is beginning to look like an insurmountable three-game lead in the AFC East.
The Indianapolis Colts put their recent struggles behind them by outlasting the AFC South rival Tennessee Titans. That victory gives Indy a three-game cushion within the division, and with two wins over second-place Tennessee, the Colts are nearing a division title, according to Pro Football Talk.
Colts on cusp of AFC South title after season sweep of Titans http://t.co/rVWdi8vRJP— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) December 1, 2013
The sketchiest divisional race in the AFC right now exists in the AFC North. The Cincinnati Bengals scored an extremely important win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, and they hold a two-game lead over the Baltimore Ravens.
Baltimore's win on Thursday allowed it to keep pace with the Bengals, and it now owns the final playoff spot as well. The Ravens got all of the help they could have possibly asked for on Sunday, with the exception of a Cincinnati loss, and they now control their own destiny, according to the team's official Twitter account.
The Ravens are far from home free, though, with the Miami Dolphins tied at 6-6 and four additional teams lurking one game behind. Baltimore's wild-card lead is tenuous at best, but it has to be a huge confidence boost for the defending Super Bowl champs.
NFC Playoff Breakdown
|New York Giants||5||7||0|
|Green Bay Packers||5||6||1|
|New Orleans Saints||9||3||0|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||3||9||0|
|San Francisco 49ers||8||4||0|
|St. Louis Rams||5||7||0|
|NFC Wild Card||W||L||T|
|San Francisco 49ers||8||4||0|
Locks: NFC West (Seattle)
Likely: NFC North (Detroit)
Up in the Air: NFC East, NFC South
Wild Card: Four teams within two games of No. 6
The NFC is quite the opposite of the AFC in that essentially all of the divisional races are still up for grabs. The Seattle Seahawks are definitely in the best position with a 11-1 record and a stranglehold on the NFC West.
After Monday's dominant 34-7 win over the New Orleans Saints, Seattle is sitting pretty atop the NFC ahead of Week 14's road trip to Candlestick Park to take on the division rival San Francisco 49ers.
Speaking of the Niners, they thoroughly dominated the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, and by virtue of the Arizona Cardinals' loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Niners now have sole possession of the final playoff spot in the NFC, according to NFL Around The League.
49ers have NFC's sixth seed to themselves after easy win over Rams: http://t.co/JzkWlEcVVk— NFL: AroundTheLeague (@NFL_ATL) December 2, 2013
The Saints are essentially locked into the playoffs, but it remains to be seen how they'll get in. New Orleans is now tied atop the NFC South with the hard-charging Carolina Panthers, who are giving it a run for its money.
Now the Panthers travel to the Superdome to take on the Saints on Sunday with outright first place on the line, but these two teams will meet again in Week 16 at Carolina, too.
The Detroit Lions technically only have a one-game lead over the Chicago Bears in the NFC North, but it's more like two games since the Lions have swept the season series. Chicago let a late lead slip away against the Minnesota Vikings before losing in overtime, and that loss could be the final nail in the Bears' coffin, according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports.
Vikings win and that could end up being a damning loss for the Bears, who blew a late 10-point lead and lost in spectacular fashion— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) December 1, 2013
As is often the case, the most intriguing battle of all in the conference resides in the NFC East. It can certainly be argued that the NFC East is the NFL's worst division this season, but at least it figures to come down to the wire.
The New York Giants and Washington Redskins have basically played their way out of contention, so it comes down to the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. Both teams are 7-5, but Dallas holds the tiebreaker due to its previous win over Philly.
If everything plays out to perfection, though, it will all come down to a Week 17 clash between the two teams at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Both teams clearly have their flaws, but the winner could very well do some damage in the postseason.
Super Bowl Odds Breakdown
|New England Patriots||13-2|
|New Orleans Saints||15-2|
|San Francisco 49ers||8-1|
|Kansas City Chiefs||33-1|
|Green Bay Packers||66-1|
|New York Giants||75-1|
|San Diego Chargers||125-1|
|New York Jets||500-1|
|St. Louis Rams||500-1|
Top Contenders: Denver Broncos (13-4), Seattle Seahawks (13-4), New England Patriots (13-2), New Orleans Saints (15-2)
Although the top four Super Bowl contenders didn't change in name over the past week, their positioning is a bit different. The Broncos had slid behind the Seahawks after losing to the Patriots, but Denver re-established itself as the co-favorite along with Seattle by taking down the Chiefs.
Which Super Bowl matchup would you most like to see?
Manning and the Broncos proved that they are capable of winning in a hostile environment as the quarterback threw for 403 yards and five scores at Arrowhead Stadium.
Seattle decimated New Orleans on Monday night, but that didn't result in the Seahawks moving past the Broncos. Provided Seattle gains home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which is what it is positioned to do, it will clearly be very difficult to know them off before the Super Bowl.
The Saints are clearly in fourth right now following their embarrassing road loss to Seattle. Quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints offense couldn't get anything going on Monday, so there are definite questions about their ability to play in cold weather.
Perhaps the most interesting team in this group is New England. The Patriots have beaten both the Broncos and Saints, but it remains to be seen if they can hold up with so many injuries on defense. They were vulnerable on Sunday in a narrow win over the Texans, but it wouldn't be wise to count out a team with Tom Brady at the helm.
Coming on Strong: San Francisco 49ers (9-1), Carolina Panthers (10-1)
While the common theme among the top Super Bowl contenders seems to be explosive offense, the next level of contenders rely on defense. This season hasn't been an ideal one for the defending NFC champion 49ers, but everything seems to be coming together at the right time.
San Francisco still has a great defense, and its offense has looked better in recent weeks as well. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is settling in, and now that wide receiver Michael Crabtree is back in the fold, the Niners are a much more complete squad.
The 49ers do have four losses this year, though, and one of them came at the hands of the Panthers. Carolina is unquestionably the hottest team in football as evidenced by its eight-game winning streak, and it isn't showing any signs of slowing down.
The Panthers arguably have the league's best defense as they rank in the top six against both the pass and the run, but their offense is dangerous too. Carolina may not have a ton of weapons on that side of the ball, but quarterback Cam Newton finds a way to get the job done more often than not.
His improvisational skills coupled with Carolina's dominant defense could be a winning formula come January.
Sleepers: Indianapolis Colts (28-1), Baltimore Ravens (50-1)
As much as observers like to say that momentum is huge heading into the playoffs, that isn't always the case. The Ravens didn't resemble a Super Bowl team last year, but they hit their stride during the postseason and went on a magical run. Perhaps they can do something similar this season. They currently hold the final wild-card spot in the AFC, but they are just 50-1 when it comes to repeating.
Baltimore has been playing much better as of late, and its defense has been fantastic. Quarterback Joe Flacco is shaky, but he proved last year that he can raise his game on the big stage. The biggest issue the Ravens have is establishing the run, so running back Ray Rice's play down the stretch will likely dictate Baltimore's success.
The Colts have really struggled against lesser teams in recent weeks, but after persevering to beat the Titans on Sunday, they are essentially a lock to make the playoffs. Even though they aren't playing great football, they seemingly have all the elements necessary to go on a deep run.
Quarterback Andrew Luck is a star in the making, and the running game is coming along thanks to Donald Brown. The defense isn't elite, but it boasts the NFL's leading sack artist in Robert Mathis, so it can hurry opposing quarterbacks.
With wins over the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos this season, Indy is definitely a threat to make some noise in the playoffs.
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