December in the NFL can sometimes feel like the fall of Saigon for those on the playoff bubble. With only 12 spots for 32 teams, there are always deserving squads that fall short. And usually, an undeserving division winner or two sneaks into the postseason shrouded in mediocrity.
Here is your full playoff prognostication, plus a forecast of the NFL records which will and will not be shattered through the end of the season.
AFC Playoff Picture
If this subsection had to be compressed into a tweet, I would just attach a picture of a dumpster on fire. The top five spots are pretty much locked up, but the very bottom of the playoff picture is very messy indeed.
The Denver Broncos have steamrolled their competition and reign as kings of the AFC. Now they just have to worry whether their defense will be able to stop opponents' passing attacks in the playoffs.
The Kansas City Chiefs have gotten fat off of their laughable schedule, which is roughly as strong as a newborn baby, but they will whip the Oakland Raiders this week and cruise into the postseason as one of the winningest fifth seeds in recent memory.
The New England Patriots keep eking out wins because by rule they are not allowed to lose more than four games in a season. They will find a way to nip the Miami Dolphins in the waning moments with another Tom Brady special, and as a result, the Pats will torpedo the Cincinnati Bengals' shot at a first-round bye.
The Bengals will beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road this week, but even if they win out, they will end up behind the mighty Pats. The Striped Cats have snuffed out the rest of their division and will leave the Baltimore Ravens at home watching the playoffs. Whoever decided they didn't need to replace Anquan Boldin can be blamed for the Super Bowl champs missing out on January football.
The Indianapolis Colts will win their division nearly by default, despite looking eminently mortal in the second half of the season so far. They went through a four-game stretch that saw them get outscored by a total of 93-12 in the first half of those contests. None of that mattered since two of the league's worst teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans, play in their division. Indy will notch another victory over the lowly Tennessee Titans in Week 15.
|AFC Playoff Picture|
|2||New England Patriots||13-3|
|5||Kansas City Chiefs||13-3|
|9||New York Jets||7-9|
|10||San Diego Chargers||7-9|
And then there's the battle for sixth where the 5-8 Titans are still in the hunt. Egads! You can cross off those Titans as they must battle the stout defense of the Arizona Cardinals and will fall to 5-9.
The 7-6 Dolphins are even with the Ravens, but Miami finishes the season with the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. Despite their impending loss to the Pats, the Dolphins will be in the postseason with a pair of wins to close the season.
The Ravens have to run the gauntlet. They visit the Detroit Lions this week and will win, but they finish against the Patriots and Bengals, which will leave them at 8-8.
There is a glimmer of hope for the Jets and San Diego Chargers. However, their schedules doom them both. The Bolts play the Broncos again this week and still have a game against the Chiefs. The Jets will add to their loss total this week against the Carolina Panthers, and their playoff hopes will be crushed when they finish up in South Florida at Miami.
NFC Playoff Picture
The Seattle Seahawks are not nearly as good when they play on the road, but this week, they're just visiting the New York Giants, who will roll over like Beethoven in that song, as Seattle tightens its grip around the NFC's top seed.
The San Francisco 49ers are staring helplessly up at Seattle, resigned to a fate not unlike the Chiefs: a bunch of wins and a Wild Card for your troubles. They will whip the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week, but it won't help them catch Seattle.
And let me tell you the sad tale of the Arizona Cardinals. Their defense has them at 8-5 with an outside shot at the playoffs, but they play in the NFL's best division and close the season with a brutal schedule. They face the Titans and Seahawks on the road before returning home to finish up with the Niners. After running that gauntlet when they'll be 1-2, the 9-7 Cards will be outside the playoffs looking in.
|NFC Playoff Picture|
|2||New Orleans Saints||12-4|
|5||San Francisco 49ers||12-4|
|10||Green Bay Packers||7-8-1|
In Week 14, the New Orleans Saints showed just how much better they are than the Carolina Panthers, as long as the game is played in NOLA. They must travel to Charlotte in Week 16, but their next game will be a win against the St. Louis Rams as they chug toward the No. 2 seed. The Panthers will maul the Jets this week, but they won't be able to seize the division.
The Philadelphia Eagles are 8-5 and winners of their last five games. Despite their shaky defense, that is the Achilles' heel of the Dallas Cowboys as well. Week 15 will be the separation points for the NFC East, as the Eagles will thrash the Minnesota Vikings, but the Cowboys will fall to the Green Bay Packers.
Philly is 5-1 on the road and 7-2 in the conference and had started looking like a playoff team in the season's second half. They also mounted a snowy comeback on the Detroit Lions in Week 14 and turned a tight battle into a laugher.
The NFC North is the other look-away-it's-hideous division, but the Lions will stay out of their own way to barely win it. The Packers and Chicago Bears were decimated by their quarterback injuries, and the Packers suffered the ignominy of a tie to further complicate their playoff picture. Despite the Lions and Packers each set to tally wins in Week 15, the Bears will fall to the Cleveland Browns as Detroit pads its lead.
Record Breaking and Falling Short
Through 13 games, Peyton Manning has assailed opposing defenses on a weekly basis. He's barreling toward Tom Brady's touchdown record, and he's also poised to break Drew Brees' single-season mark for passing yards.
Manning could beat Brady's 50 TDs in his very next game, but Peyton will likely seize the record in Week 16. He's sitting on 45, so six more scores through the air will give him the top spot.
Manning also has 4,522 passing yards through 13 games, putting him on pace to surpass Brees' 5,476 yards in 2011. Peyton's average of 348 yards per game would put him roughly 100 yards over the record, but the question remains whether Peyton will even need to play the final week of the season.
The 11-2 Broncos are one game ahead of the Chiefs for the division, but Denver owns the head-to-head tiebreaker. They could also be fighting the Patriots for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but if there is nothing at stake, Peyton could be on the sidelines for Week 17. Super Bowls matter much more than records, and Peyton will fall short of Brees as he sits out part of the final game and finishes with somewhere around 5,200 yards.
Manning will play at home against the Chargers on Thursday night in Week 14, then finish up in Houston and Oakland. The Chargers and Raiders rank 28th and 23rd against the pass, and Peyton can feast on them. While the Texans have been stingy against the pass—allowing 183.6 yards per game, second in the league to the Seattle Seahawks—the 23 TDs they have yielded ties them for 21st.
And those aren't the only offensive records under assault in Denver. Broncos kicker Matt Prater, the new record holder for the longest field goal in history from 64 yards, has attempted and converted 65 extra points. That puts him within striking distance of Stephen Gostkowski for the all-time mark of 74 set in 2007, and the Broncos will indeed score 10 more TDs this season.
The record is as much a testament to the offense as anything else, and Manning's Broncos are about as fearsome as those Patriots when Brady found Randy Moss for 23 touchdowns. The 515 points scored by Denver is 158 more than the next closest team this season, and they deserve to own virtually all single-season records associated with scoring.
And in this passing league with ubiquitous tweaks of the rules to favor the offense, each of these records will probably be broken yet again in the next few seasons.