While the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks have emerged as the favorites in their respective conferences, the NFL doesn't have a dominant team that looks unstoppable heading into the playoffs. The concept of just getting in and seeing what happens is alive and well.
Only one of the four wild-card positions is locked up heading into Monday Night Football. The San Francisco 49ers could make it two if they are able to knock off the Atlanta Falcons, which is likely but not a certainty, as the chaotic season has proven.
Let's examine the state of the wild-card races with 17 games left in the regular season. Even though the teams that secure these spots won't be considered favorites heading into the postseason, it will be impossible to totally count them out.
|Outlook for AFC Wild Cards|
|5||Kansas City Chiefs||11-4|
|8||San Diego Chargers||8-7|
|5 and 6 Make Playoffs|
The playoff picture in the AFC is far more settled than that of the NFC. Five of the six teams have already clinched berths, which leaves four teams to battle for the final wild-card berth heading into Week 17, with the Miami Dolphins holding the spot right now.
So far, the Kansas City Chiefs are the only team in either conference to lock up a wild card. They can't catch the Denver Broncos for the AFC West title and the other teams in the chase can't catch them, so they will be the No. 5 seed in the postseason.
Normally, the team leading a playoff race heading into the final week just has to win in order to clinch a berth. That's not the case for Miami. The Dolphins not only need to beat the New York Jets, but they also need a Baltimore Ravens loss or San Diego Chargers win to maintain their tiebreaker edge.
The Ravens can get in with a win over the division rival Cincinnati Bengals paired with a loss by either the Miami Dolphins or San Diego Chargers. Baltimore can also get in if all three of the other teams lose, bringing the New York Jets into the 8-8 mix, where the Ravens would own the tiebreaker.
Other teams still alive have more simple scenarios.
The Chargers need to win their game against the Chiefs and get help in the form of losses by both the Ravens and Dolphins.
And the longest shot is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who need a victory over the Cleveland Browns and losses by all of the other teams chasing the spot. Despite the long odds, Ben Roethlisberger praised his team's fight:
|Outlook for NFC Wild Cards|
|5||San Francisco 49ers||10-4|
|6||New Orleans Saints||10-5|
|5 and 6 Make Playoffs|
The NFC is more complicated because teams that wouldn't be considered in the wild-card race right now could still end up in one of the spots. Namely, the Seahawks and Carolina Panthers, who are the top two seeds as things stand now.
Assuming those two teams win next week, and they should against the St. Louis Rams and Atlanta Falcons respectively, then they lock up the first-round byes. Viewing the race through that likely spectrum turns it into a more conventional three-team battle for two spots.
As mentioned, San Francisco can lock up a playoff berth by beating the Falcons in the season's final Monday Night Football game. It would still be alive in the NFC West race as well, but one of the wild cards would definitely be going to the 49ers or Seahawks.
If they do get in, the 49ers are a dangerous team when the offense is clicking on all cylinders, as noted by Bleacher Report's Dylan DeSimone during the team's win last week:
Like the 49ers, the Saints still have one eye focused on the division title in case the Panthers slip up in Week 17. More likely, they are bound for a wild card, which they need a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to secure. A loss by the Arizona Cardinals or two straight losses by the 49ers would also get them in.
As the team on the outside looking in, the Cardinals need more help. They need a win next week over the 49ers paired with a San Francisco loss this week or a New Orleans loss next week to leapfrog one of those teams into the top six.
Ultimately, whichever two teams end up in those spots will be dangerous first-round opponents for the division winners from the NFC East and North.