The NFL playoff playoff picture remains an unsorted mess heading into the final week of the 2013 season.
Only seven of 12 playoff spots are accounted for after Sunday's Week 16 action, but the San Francisco 49ers can add to that list by defeating the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night.
But regardless of San Francisco's result, not a single NFC division or seed is decided.
While the AFC at least presents four concrete division winners, four teams can still sneak in the playoffs with the final wild-card spot. As we've seen plenty of times in the past, anything can happen if you just find a way into the postseason.
Let's try to make sense of the crowded playoff race.
|Current Playoff Seed||Team||Record|
|1||Seattle Seahawks - X||12-3|
|2||Carolina Panthers - X||11-4|
|5||San Francisco 49ers||10-4|
|6||New Orleans Saints||10-5|
|Green Bay Packers||7-7-1|
|X=clinched playoff berth (courtesy of NFL.com)|
|Current Playoff Seed||Team||Record|
|1||Denver Broncos - Y||12-3|
|2||New England Patriots - Y||11-4|
|3||Cincinnati Bengals - Y||10-5|
|4||Indianapolis Colts - Y||10-5|
|5||Kansas City Chiefs - X||11-4|
|San Diego Chargers||8-7|
|X= clinched playoff berth, Y= clinched division (courtesy of NFL.com)|
Two Winner-Take-All Games in NFC
While the NFC remains largely unsolved, two division races at least have the decency to conclude in easily digestible, winner-take-all battles.
In the NFC East, the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys will square off to determine who escapes with the division title. The Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers will play for the NFC North crown.
If the 49ers suffer a stunner to the Falcons on Monday night, they'll play the Arizona Cardinals with a playoff spot hanging in the balance. If they win, they can snatch the NFC West with a win and Seattle Seahawks loss while the Cardinals joust with the New Orleans Saints for the final playoff bid.
With their season hanging in the balance, the Dallas Cowboys converted a long 4th-and-goal to fend off the Washington Redskins in a 24-23 victory. A hobbled Tony Romo orchestrated a game-winning drive that sent the misguided critics back into hiding.
They'll face off against the surging Eagles, who pummeled the Bears later that night even though the game held no impact on their hunt for the NFC East title. At best, it allows them to enter the playoffs and the No. 3 seed, which could help avoid a second-round bout in Seattle.
Against all odds, the Packers can still overcome the odds and win the North despite playing their last seven (and most of their earlier matchup against the Bears) without Aaron Rodgers. They've only won two of those contests, but the Bears and Detroit Lions left the door open by also losing during the penultimate weekend.
This will continue the neverending game of "Will Rodgers return this Sunday?" ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that Rodgers was not nearly as close to playing against the Pittsburgh Steelers as the reports initially suggested:
Eddie Lacy's ankle, however, will loom as just as big a concern. The rookie left action in Week 16, and the Packers will want to exploit the NFL's worst rushing defense regardless of who is under center.
Four Teams Will Fight for Final AFC Slot
While it's not a particularly forceful bunch clashing for the final AFC wild-card spot, the winner could make some noise in the playoffs.
The Miami Dolphins have already defeated the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts, two potential first-round opponents. They need to defeat the New York Jets, but as Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke explains, no teams is afforded a simple "win and in" path:
Not one of the quartet in the hunt fully controls its own destiny — a bizarre twist added by the NFL’s tiebreaker scenarios. Miami currently holds the edge on Baltimore because San Diego, a winner Sunday, created a three-team tie at 8-7. In that scenario, the Ravens’ win over Miami is canceled out by Miami’s win over San Diego, pushing the conference-record tiebreaker to the forefront. The Dolphins hold that edge on both the Ravens and Chargers.
Of course, nobody ever controls their own destiny because destiny is defined as a "predetermined course of events," but back to the playoff scenarios.
The Baltimore Ravens weren't expected to make a title run last year, but Joe Flacco stepped up and played masterfully at the perfect time. They can make the playoffs again with a win at Cincinnati and loss from the Dolphins or San Diego Chargers. While the Bengals have the division under control, they can still earn a first-round bye with a victory and loss from the New England Patriots.
Perhaps the scariest teams of the remaining competitors, the Chargers need to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs (the only team whose playoff seed is unaffected by the final week) for the second time this season while the Dolphins and Ravens lose. In their first battle, Philip Rivers torched the Chiefs for 392 passing yards and three touchdowns.
The Steelers came so close to beating the Ravens and Dolphins, but they're hanging on by a thread at 7-8. A win over the Cleveland Browns is certainly manageable, but they'll need the other three teams to fall in line.
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