You've probably heard this ad nauseam by now, but it's still a jarring stat worth processing: Heading into Week 16, only four teams (Denver, Kansas City, Seattle and Indianapolis) have locked up playoff spots.
Four! Out of 12 playoff spots! That's like [tries to do quick math before succumbing to calculator] only one-third!
Super-hard math assignments aside, there are a couple of ways to look at these final two weeks. The optimistic side says that this is the best of the parity that the NFL squawks about. So many teams, so many scenarios, oh my! Hell, there were some convoluted schemes that could have gotten Jacksonville into the playoffs before the Jags were finally scrubbed from contention in Week 15.
The pessimistic side is much more snarky and fun. That point of view makes it clear that this isn't "parity" but a mere collection of mediocre also-rans who are trying to scuffle their way into the postseason before the inevitable Seattle vs. Denver Super Bowl.
Which, of course, isn't going to happen. But whatever.
No matter which school of thought you fall into, the result is all gravy for the monolithic NFL. Because more games than ever come with playoff connotations, we're less likely to bail and go scrapbooking or do whatever normal, well-adjusted people do on their Sunday afternoons. We're going to stick our noses six inches away from the 62-inch plasma and plop down all day as Scott Hanson walks us through all the week's scoring plays.
Because that's what we do.
So as we prepare for our next-to-last Sunday of regular-season football, let's take stock of the entire playoff picture.
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Playoff Storylines to Watch in Week 16
Does Anyone in the AFC Want a First-Round Bye?
Three times in Week 15, teams had the chance to put themselves in the catbird seat for a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. Each time, those teams failed. Denver started the choke-off on Thursday with a loss to the Chargers, New England followed the Broncos in the early afternoon by coughing up a late lead to Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins, and then Cincinnati capped off the messy bed by getting pulverized by the Steelers on Sunday night.
While the losses offset one another in theory—the Broncos, Pats and Bengals are all in the same position that they were in heading into Week 15—each defeat made the teams' lives more difficult going forward.
In short, the Broncos can no longer rest their players. Had they been able to achieve home field against San Diego, Peyton Manning and Co. could have wrapped the division and a first-round bye with a win this week in Houston. Coupled with New England's loss, the Broncos would have been playing for home-field advantage against an abysmal Texans squad.
Instead, they'll need a ton of help to have any chance of resting Manning and any banged-up players in Week 17. Denver needs losses from both New England and Kansas City to lock up the top seed—which is possible considering the Patriots visit Baltimore and the Chiefs host the Colts.
If both of those things happen and Denver wins, then it can hurriedly get Manning his 51st touchdown in Week 17 and then get the hell out of Dodge.
Any other result, and the Broncos are probably all systems go.
Meanwhile, New England and Cincinnati haven't even clinched playoff spots yet. The Patriots' first loss to the Dolphins in eight tries sets up a scenario where—if Miami wins out and New England craters without Rob Gronkowski—Miami can steal the AFC East. And seeing as that scenario would include a New England loss to the Ravens, they would drop out of the playoffs if all three teams finished at 10-6.
The Bengals are in a weird spot. If they beat Minnesota on Sunday and New England takes down Baltimore, Cincy clinches the AFC North regardless of what happens in Week 17. But each New England win also makes it more difficult for the Bengals to sneak into the No. 2 seed.
In essence: Everyone screwed everything up last week, and now it'll probably be one big intertwined thread until the last moments of the regular season.
Will Aaron Rodgers Ride His White Horse in to Save the Packers' Season?
There is one and only one attitude in Green Bay at the moment: Thanks Detroit!
The Lions' 1-4 stretch after starting 6-3 and holding all the cards in the NFC North has been many things. It's been an indicator that Jim Schwartz might not be good at coaching professional football. It's been an affirmation of all our worst assumptions about this star-laden but flawed roster.
And it's been an absolute godsend for the Packers and Bears. Both teams were basically left for dead when their franchise quarterbacks went down midway through the season, and now both control their own destinies going into the final two weeks.
Only the return (or potential return) of their respective signal-callers mean far different things in Chicago and Green Bay.
Jay Cutler's return to the lineup in the Bears' 38-31 win over Cleveland on Sunday had a neutral (at best) effect from the Josh McCown era. Cutler looked rusty early on, throwing two early picks and sailing passes that perhaps McCown could have completed. But he quickly rebounded and finished 22-of-31 for 265 yards and three touchdowns.
Green Bay's quarterback situation is far less murky. While Matt Flynn threw four touchdowns in the second half of the Packers' thrilling 37-36 win over Dallas in Week 15, no one is going to bat an eye whenever Aaron Rodgers comes back to take his post. Rodgers is arguably the league's best quarterback when healthy, and Green Bay's 2-4-1 record without him* speaks volumes.
The question is whether he will be cleared in time for the Week 16 contest against Pittsburgh. Rodgers is still in the relatively early time frame of an expected comeback from a broken collarbone, and team physicians are understandably being cautious. He's planning to practice on Wednesday and see how he feels, but no promises have been made. The quarterback told CBS Sports' Will Brinson:
Last week I felt more like myself. I think I was closer. It's Tuesday and I haven't practiced this week. So we're sitting here with another four or five days of rest. We'll see how I feel tomorrow. Again, this is maybe not what people want to hear. This is how you have to go about the process. it's a combination of a lot of things and obviously there are a lot of strong opinions about what should happen.
The Bears would clinch the NFC North with losses from both Detroit and Green Bay. So Rodgers' status may be the most important news of the entire week across the northern part of the United States.
*I'm including the game where he was injured against Chicago. Rodgers played only one series.
The NFC East: Ugh
Other than being a football tire fire that hosts the NFL's most inexplicably stupid and dysfunctional organization and harbors two of the most meddlesome owners in professional sports, the NFC East is pretty simple.
With an Eagles win and a Cowboys loss in Week 16, Philly would win the division outright. With any other combination of results, the Eagles' trip to Jerry World in Week 17 will decide which team gets the privilege of being pulverized by the Panthers, Saints or 49ers.
So let us examine the likeliest results quickly. The Eagles host Chicago on Sunday night. Because this game is in prime time, both teams will know what their divisional counterparts did earlier in the day. They could either be playing to clinch their division or merely to hold some semblance of momentum heading into a deciding game the following Sunday.
All of this is good for Sunday Night Football viewers because these two teams are about as evenly matched as you can get. Per Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics, Philly ranks 22nd in defense and third offensively, while the Bears are the No. 19 defense and No. 5 offense. Chicago is ninth overall against the Eagles 11th ranking, thanks in large part to the yearly excellence of the Windy City special teams.
This game has all the makings of a 31-28 thriller, which of course means it will wind up bleeding your eyes dry of tears when both sides decide Sunday is the night to trade five turnovers apiece.
But, alas, none of that matters in terms of the NFC East. Instead, it's a matchup between the 7-7 laughingstock and the 3-11 circus that will carry more weight within the division in Week 16.
For an infinite number of reasons, this game should be meaningless for the Cowboys. They should be 8-6 and already looking ahead to their deciding game against Philly. And then Dallas went full Dallas against the Packers, and things went right to hell.
Tony Romo played right into his career narrative with two fourth-quarter interceptions, and Monte Kiffin's defense allowed 34 second-half points, as Twitter got its latest installment of Cowboys Schadenfreude Theatre.
It feels fitting that the NFL's biggest calamity could end Dallas' season. I'm sick of talking about the Redskins. About Mike Shanahan's "fire me" tour de force. About Robert Griffin III's supposed maturity issues. About Dan Snyder being this generation's Donald Sterling. About how Kirk Cousins, who asked for none of this, seems like the only adult in the locker room.
It's all tiresome, exhausting and stupid. Which is why I expect the Redskins to blow out Dallas, for everyone to have their chance to go LOL Cowboys again and then for Philly to blow its shot to lock it all up against Chicago.
Why? Because it's NFC East.
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