With every week comes another shift in the NFC and AFC playoff pictures. Despite spots in the NFL playoffs now clinched for teams like the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, the thought process now is getting ready for a playoff run that could lead to a Super Bowl this season.
There are a few teams that have cemented their place as Super Bowl contenders and appear to be locks for a visit to New York in February—depending on which group of fans you ask—but teams like the 2012 Baltimore Ravens and 2011 New York Giants would beg to differ.
Multiple teams in the AFC are still clinging to a shot at the No. 6 seed, with the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens currently in the driver's seat at just 7-6. On the NFC side, the North division is still up for grabs thanks to a loss by the Detroit Lions, and both wild-card spots are currently being led by 9-4 teams with the 8-5 Arizona Cardinals on their heels.
While a .500 team could still potentially claim an AFC spot in the playoffs, the final NFC wild-card spot will have to be grabbed by a team that has at least nine wins.
Here is a look at the playoff picture in both conferences through Week 14's Sunday action, followed by the Super Bowl odds for teams with playoff hopes heading into Week 15.
AFC Playoff Breakdown
|New England Patriots||10||3|
|New York Jets||5||8|
|Kansas City Chiefs||10||3|
|San Diego Chargers||6||7|
|AFC Wild Card||W||L|
|Kansas City Chiefs||10||3|
|San Diego Chargers||6||7|
|New York Jets||5||8|
Locks: Indianapolis Colts (AFC South), Denver Broncos (Playoff Spot)
Likely: Cincinnati Bengals (AFC North), New England Patriots (AFC East), Kansas City Chiefs (Playoff Spot)
Wild Card Contenders: Four teams within one game of No. 6 seed
Remember those questions being raised about Peyton Manning not playing well in cold weather? That 394-yard, four-touchdown performance against the Tennessee Titans might have answered those critics, to say the least. While the Broncos continued to roll, the Titans suffered yet another loss in Mile High Stadium and saw their playoff hopes continue to dwindle along with a few other teams.
The AFC playoff picture has finally started taking shape with the Indianapolis Colts finally clinching their division and the Broncos clinching a playoff spot. Ironically enough, both were thanks to former Colts and current Broncos quarterback Manning, who defeated the Titans to consequently help Indy clinch the AFC South. NFL Memes had an interesting take on the scenario:
Peyton Manning clinches the AFC South for the Colts. pic.twitter.com/ZOzWoCYnoF— NFL Memes (@NFL_Memes) December 9, 2013
While the Colts continue to slide at 2-3 in their last five games, with both wins coming over the Titans, they have a chance to move up further in the standings to the No. 3 seed still with two of three remaining games against the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Two other teams now have a firm grasp on their respective divisions, as the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals both won, but the Patriots' win came at a cost. Rob Gronkowski is now out with a torn ACL and MCL for the rest of the season, meaning Tom Brady will yet again be without his Pro Bowl tight end.
As for the AFC wild-card spots, the Kansas City Chiefs need another win and a loss by either the Dolphins or Ravens to clinch the fifth seed in the playoffs, so they are a likely candidate. Meanwhile, the battle still rages on below them, with the Ravens, Dolphins, Chargers and Jets all within one game of each other for the No. 6 seed.
If it weren't for that dreaded sideline again for the Steelers and Antonio Brown, the team would have a much better shot. But the wide receiver stepped out of bounds with no time left on the clock on a wild final play, and the Dolphins held off the Steelers, 34-28.
NFL Memes took a look at the play and offered some sage advice for Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin:
With 5-8 records, the Titans and Steelers are still technically in the playoff mix, but they would need to win out and get some help from the four teams ahead of them just to get to the sixth and final spot.
NFC Playoff Breakdown
|New York Giants||5||8||0|
|Green Bay Packers||6||6||1|
|New Orleans Saints||10||3||0|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||4||9||0|
|San Francisco 49ers||9||4||0|
|St. Louis Rams||5||8||0|
|NFC Wild Card||W||L||T|
|San Francisco 49ers||9||4||0|
Locks: Seattle Seahawks (Playoff Spot)
Likely: New Orleans Saints (NFC South), San Francisco 49ers (Wild Card), Carolina Panthers (Wild Card), Philadelphia Eagles or Dallas Cowboys (NFC East), Detroit Lions or Chicago Bears (NFC North)
Wild Card Contenders: Four teams within one game of both wild-card spots
Several divisional races are still up in the air, making the NFC a likely nine-horse race, with the only confirmed playoff spot going to the 11-2 Seattle Seahawks at this time. With 10 teams at or above .500 in the NFC, three division titles could come down to the final week.
While the Seahawks may be the most likely team to play in the Super Bowl out of the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals proved that the NFC West is still the league's toughest division with both winning this weekend.
NFL AM pointed out an interesting statistic about Jim Harbaugh against the Seahawks since he came to the NFL in 2011:
As for the other divisional races, the New Orleans Saints created quite a bit of separation from the Carolina Panthers with a 31-13 demolition of a team that came into the game with eight straight wins. If the Saints have proven anything thus far, it's that if Seattle and New Orleans can clinch the No. 1 and 2 seeds in the NFC, the two will likely be meeting for the NFC Championship thanks to their respective home-field advantages.
Will Brinson of CBS Sports made that point abundantly clear following the Saints' win on Sunday night:
Think this game says a lot more about Saints than Panthers. Namely: go into Superdome in primetime and you're losing.— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 9, 2013
In the NFC East race, the Philadelphia Eagles earned another win, and got some help on Monday night of Week 14 when the Chicago Bears destroyed the Dallas Cowboys. And if LeSean McCoy continues to run in the snow—he ran for an Eagles record 217 yards on Sunday—the Cowboys might once again see their playoff hopes fade when they travel to Philadelphia for the final week of the regular season.
In the wild-card race, the Panthers' and 49ers' spots still look comfortable, but not by much. With teams like Arizona and the outsider in the NFC East race between the Eagles and Cowboys still knocking on the door for both the fifth and sixth seeds, the wild-card spots are far from clinched in the NFC.
The Panthers have an advantage in the head-to-head with San Francisco. They also have one game remaining with the Saints and two other contests with the Jets and Atlanta Falcons remaining. The 49ers have easy games remaining against the Buccaneers, Falcons and a showdown with the Cardinals that could dictate who earns the final seed in the playoffs.
Super Bowl Odds
|New Orleans Saints||8-1|
|San Francisco 49ers||8-1|
|New England Patriots||10-1|
|Kansas City Chiefs||25-1|
|Green Bay Packers||50-1|
|San Diego Chargers||75-1|
|New York Jets||300-1|
Top Contenders: Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots
The top of the list remains the same, but the likelihood of each team continues to shift with each week. The Broncos and Patriots remain the class of the AFC, but might just have a few chinks in the armor after two crucial injuries in Week 14.
The Broncos defeated the Titans handily but lost Wes Welker, who suffered his second concussion of the year. Thankfully for Denver, several top targets like Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno and Julius Thomas still remain for Manning. The bigger concern, though, may be their struggling defense.
What matchup is most likely?
As for the Patriots, the loss of Rob Gronkowski will be a brutal one. Not only does Brady lose the production and physicality of one of the best tight ends in the league, but young receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins were also both out against the Browns. But Brady being Brady, the Patriots were still able to scrape by thanks to late-game heroics and a recovered onside kick to keep pace with the Broncos. Look for Shane Vereen to continue to see his role increase.
The NFC saw its top contender lose, but its current No. 2 seed destroyed one of the hottest teams in the league. The Seahawks and Saints have the best home-field advantage in the NFC. This makes one of the two teams a virtual lock for the Super Bowl, which explains their current odds.
But if the Seahawks' destruction of the Saints in Week 13 told us anything, it's that New Orleans will likely need to somehow overtake Seattle in order to raise those Super Bowl odds in the coming weeks.
Best of the Rest: San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals
All three of these teams made a point this weekend. Two were positive points while the other was a very low point.
The 49ers exacted a little revenge on the Seahawks after losing in embarrassing fashion in Week 2. While the defense is clearly a strength for San Francisco, Sports Illustrated points out that the team's offense still needs to improve in order for it to be a true Super Bowl contender:
In the AFC, the Bengals look like a team that has all of the bells and whistles to get the job done in the playoffs. After an impressive 42-28 victory over the Colts, the Bengals are riding a three-game winning streak and appear to be able to go just as far as Andy Dalton can take them. The only question is: How far is that, exactly?
For the Panthers, Week 14 was a huge setback. Carolina went into the Superdome and got crushed in prime time, but its Super Bowl chances still remain high. The team struggled on defense against Drew Brees and saw Cam Newton have one of his worst games of the year, but Carolina will have another chance to rectify that loss at home against New Orleans in Week 16.
Sleepers: Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens know what it's like to be the underdog and win the Super Bowl. The Eagles look unbeatable with Nick Foles under center. These are two teams that could very well shake up the month of January as a whole and send the top contenders back home.
Joe Flacco just has a knack of getting the job done in the clutch. No matter how unlikely the circumstances are, Flacco seems to always come through to save the Ravens' season from certain doom. The only downside for the Ravens seems to be the lack of a run game and a defense that is still improving and finding its identity.
UPDATED: The Vikings and Ravens scored FIVE TDs in the last 2 minutes and 7 seconds of the game.— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) December 8, 2013
Ray Rice's inability to run the ball effectively has led to obvious passing plays for the Ravens and has turned Flacco into a one-man show at times as a result, which is not fair to his talents. If Rice or Bernard Pierce can eventually emerge, the Ravens have a chance to once again contend in the AFC.
Who has the better shot at making the playoffs?
As for the Eagles, Foles showed he wasn't perfect by throwing his first interception of the season against the Lions. But quite frankly, viewers at home couldn't even see Foles' receivers down the field due to the intense snow in Detroit.
Foles' success has turned the Eagles' season around and has them at the top of the NFC East with the Cowboys. If Philly wants to prove it is truly a Super Bowl contender, it will have to just get into the playoffs with a win over Dallas in Week 17 at AT&T Stadium.
With five straight wins and a favorable schedule left before the final showdown with the Cowboys, the Eagles look every bit the part of a contender in the NFC and could certainly exceed everyone's expectations in the playoffs.