With only three games remaining in the 2013 regular season, the NFL playoff picture is beginning to take shape, but there is still plenty to be decided on the gridiron as Week 15 approaches.
Right off the bat, Thursday night's AFC West showdown between the conference's top team, the Denver Broncos, and the San Diego Chargers will go a long way in shaping storylines for the rest of the games on tap.
Let's take a look at the complete NFL standings and where all 32 teams stack up, along with a breakdown of the upcoming contests that have the biggest postseason implications.
|AFC Seed No.||Team||Record|
|2||New England Patriots||10-3|
|5||Kansas City Chiefs||10-3|
|NFC Seed No.||Team||Record|
|2||New Orleans Saints||10-3|
|6||San Francisco 49ers||9-4|
|AFC Wild Card||W||L|
|Kansas City Chiefs||10||3|
|San Diego Chargers||6||7|
|New York Jets||6||7|
|NFC Wild Card||W||L|
|San Francisco 49ers||9||4|
San Diego Chargers (6-7) vs. Denver Broncos (11-2)
First-year head coach Mike McCoy will face the quarterback he called plays for in 2012 in Peyton Manning for the second time this season, hoping to sustain the Chargers' playoff hopes.
The short week makes this game a bit more difficult to predict, as does the fact that these are familiar foes. But there is only one Manning, who leads the league with 45 touchdown passes and is in the running for a fifth MVP award.
Btw, I didn't know there was still a question if Wes Welker would play Thursday, he will not.— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) December 11, 2013
But even with Welker not on the field, there are still plenty of targets in Denver's passing game for The Sheriff to take care of business.
Philip Rivers has enjoyed a big turnaround from the past two seasons in his first work with McCoy, though. He should help keep the Chargers in it with his own stellar play under center against Denver's 29th-ranked pass defense.
What has held San Diego back from being a bigger factor in the playoff picture is defense, where it ranks 28th in yards allowed per game. The Chargers are also 25th in the league in yielding a touchdown in the red zone 61.1 percent of the time, per TeamRankings.com.
Lacking execution in that part of the field is devastating when facing a signal-caller of Manning's caliber, and it will be San Diego's downfall in a shootout.
Prediction: Broncos 41, Chargers 34
New England Patriots (10-3) vs. Miami Dolphins (7-6)
It was no secret that the Patriots' typically high-octane offense struggled at the beginning of the year. A big reason for that was the absence of injured tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Since Gronk's return, New England got back on track and Tom Brady looked like his usual, terrific self. But now Gronkowski is out for the season with a torn ACL and MCL, and that's a huge blow to Brady and Co., per ESPN Stats & Info:
Who will grab the AFC's No. 6 seed?
That will make this impending AFC East tangle with the Dolphins in Miami all the more difficult, but Brady has thrived in the face of adversity in 2013 as much as he ever has.
The good news is that no one has been sacked more than Brady's counterpart in Week 15, Ryan Tannehill, who was sacked six times, averaged a season-low 4.57 yards per attempt and threw two interceptions in a 27-17 loss to New England on Oct 27.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia should be able to design a game plan that confuses the young, hesitant Tannehill enough to compensate for any lack of firepower Brady has at his disposal.
It seems as long as Belichick and Brady are in the fold, New England is always able to win games at this juncture in the season. Expect nothing different on Sunday.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Dolphins 17
Baltimore Ravens (7-6) vs. Detroit Lions (7-6)
These two teams endured last week's snowiest games, but the defending Super Bowl champions were the ones to emerge victorious.
Although he's had a rather awful 2013 campaign after cruising through last year's playoffs, Ravens QB Joe Flacco made the play that mattered in Week 14. Flacco fired a game-winning touchdown to Marlon Brown with seconds remaining to keep Baltimore in position for the No. 6 seed in the AFC:
Detroit presents a huge test with a ferocious defensive line led by Ndamukong Suh, but the Lions were shredded by the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 14's 34-20 loss for 299 yards on the ground.
Unfortunately, pounding the rock hasn't been the Ravens' forte this season. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce haven't been able to find running room in averaging three and 2.7 yards per carry, respectively.
That doesn't bode well for Baltimore to win its fourth straight, especially on the road and facing a dynamic passing attack led by Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson in Ford Field's dome.
Stafford hasn't been as mistake-prone as Flacco (17 interceptions) this season and has proved to have some serious clutch ability over the past three seasons:
Most GW drives in 4th quarter/OT - last 3 seasons: Tony Romo 12 Matthew Stafford 10 Andrew Luck 10 Matt Ryan 10 Eli Manning 10— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 8, 2013
Given the stakes, there should be no shortage of drama in this Monday Night Football showdown, but the hosting NFC North leaders will find a way to pull it out.
Prediction: Lions 34, Ravens 27