We may have a pretty good idea of which teams are likely going to the playoffs and which teams are still in the playoff picture, but how the final seedings will shake out is still very much in question.
If you were looking for a bit of clarity on the playoff front, look no further. Using the current standings and NFL tiebreakers, I've attempted to lay out the various scenarios and project the ones most likely to actually occur.
NFC Playoff Picture
The NFC East is pretty simple, as it has come down to the Philadelphia Eagles (8-5) and the Dallas Cowboys (7-6). Each team is guaranteed to win the division if it wins out, since they play one another in the final week of the season. If the Cowboys win out, they'll win the division even if Philly has the same record, since the Cowboys would have won both games between the teams.
The Eagles should beat the Minnesota Vikings in Week 15, setting up meetings with huge playoff implications down the stretch between the Chicago Bears and Cowboys. The Cowboys have an easier close to the season, with Aaron Rodgers unlikely to suit up for the Green Bay Packers this week and Robert Griffin III shut down for Washington for the rest of the season.
Then again, the Cowboys traditionally choke in December, and the Eagles are on fire right now. Look for Philly to take the division and likely—and incredibly surprisingly—slide into the No. 3 seed in the NFC.
The NFC South is also up for grabs, but the New Orleans Saints (10-3) are a game ahead of the Carolina Panthers (9-4) and beat them once this season. The two teams will play a crucial game in Week 16, and if the teams both win in Week 15 and the Panthers win in Week 16, they would have split the season series and have identical division records.
In that scenario, if both teams finish 12-4, the Saints will still win the division based on conference record (they will be identical on the third criteria, winning percentage in common games). If both teams finish 11-5, however, it gets much trickier and will come down to strength of victory, then strength of schedule.
Of course, if the Saints beat the Panthers a second time, they'll clinch the division no matter what.
So in essence, the Saints need to win two of three against the St. Louis Rams, Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. No easy task, but the Saints remain a strong bet to win the NFC South, while the Panthers look destined for a wild-card spot in the NFC.
So do the San Francisco 49ers, though they can still win the NFC West if they win out and the Seattle Seahawks lose two down the stretch, though that scenario is unlikely. In fact, the 49ers can still earn the first seed in the playoffs, but they need the Seahawks and Saints to lose two down the stretch and the Panthers to lose at least once.
Got all that?
Take a deep breath, because we haven't even gotten to the NFC North yet, where three teams—the Detroit Lions (7-6), Chicago Bears (7-6) and Green Bay Packers (6-6-1)—are separated by half a game. If the Lions win out, they're in—they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bears and would finish at least a half-game better than Green Bay.
They're also guaranteed to have the best division record of the three. But with a tough matchup against the Baltimore Ravens this week, going undefeated may not be very easy.
The Bears likely need to win out to advance, and with matchups against the Eagles in Week 16 and Packers in Week 17, that won't be easy. Ditto for the Packers, who, like Chicago, will need the Lions to lose once even if they win out. And they may need to win out without Rodgers, as his return remains up in the air.
Expect Detroit to take this division. And expect it to remain up for grabs until the final whistles in Week 17.
Division Winners: Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions
Wild Cards: San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers
AFC Playoff Picture
The AFC playoff picture is waaaaay less complex than the NFC. The Denver Broncos (11-2) have already clinched a playoff spot and will clinch the top overall seed in the AFC if they win out or as long as they finish a game ahead of New England.
They will also clinch the AFC West with two more wins, as they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Kansas City Chiefs (10-3). Expect the Broncos to win this division, while the Chiefs seem a lock to earn the top wild-card seed in that scenario.
The Patriots (10-3) technically haven't won the AFC West yet, but they would need to lose their remaining three games and the Miami Dolphins (7-6) would need to win out for the Patriots to lose out on the division.
The Dolphins very well may beat the Patriots this weekend, but there's no way a Tom Brady-led team will drop three in a row to close the season.
The Indianapolis Colts (8-5) have already clinched the AFC South and seem destined for the No. 4 seed, while the Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) will likely earn either the No. 2 or 3 seed, though they could still feasibly concede the division to the Baltimore Ravens (7-6) if they lose to the Ravens and drop a second game while the Ravens win out.
More than likely, however, the Bengals will settle comfortably into the No. 3 seed.
That leaves the AFC Wild Card, and it seems to be between the Ravens and Dolphins, though the New York Jets (6-7) or San Diego Chargers (6-7) could conceivably earn the final playoff berth. The Ravens have to face the Lions, Patriots and Bengals down the stretch, while the Dolphins face the Patriots, Buffalo Bills. Baltimore does hold the tiebreaker over Miami, however.
The Ravens may not win out, but they'll still earn the final seed.
Division Winners: Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts
Wild Cards: Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens
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