All Denver and Jacksonville had to do was win to become virtual (though not mathematical) locks to secure the AFC wildcards. In the NFC the Cowboys and Giants could solidified the NFC race with wins, yet instead watched Philadelphia leapfrog ahead to the division lead while the Cowboys and Giants appear to be fighting for that sixth seed now.
In a weekend that could have been filled with coffin nails, hope survived just a little longer for several teams who won while those ahead of them largely fell. Now teams thought long out of the playoffs still see a glimmer of hope. In the AFC especially, 9-7 may just end up edging into the playoffs.
Miami defeating Jacksonville held the most blatant impact. With a win Jacksonville would be 8-5 and hold a solid lead with a pair of difficult games upcoming. Facing New England and Indianapolis, the 7-6 Jaguars could easily see an 8-8 finish after a 7-5 start.
Miami meanwhile kept its hopes alive by ascending above .500 for the first time all year. Facing the Titans, Texans, and Steelers, they have a much greater chance of running the table and finishing 10-6. Their big playoff question will come down to week 16 when Jacksonville plays New England. If a struggling Patriots team manages a loss, Miami may just be able to squeak into that divisional seed. If Jacksonville drops that game, Miami will be in a great position for the sixth and final playoff berth.
Baltimore finally assumed the role of ‘other AFC North team’, which had been given to Pittsburgh by default ever since Cincinnati assumed sole possession of the division. They have failed to string together consecutive victories since the 3-0 start against San Diego, but have a great opportunity to break that trend with Chicago, Oakland, and Pittsburgh remaining on the schedule.
The mostly disappointing Jets and temporarily deflated Titans have also watched playoff hopes continue. The New York Jets dipped above .500 for the first time since week five (which was ironically a loss to the aforementioned Dolphins). At 7-6 they occupy a four-way tie for that sixth seed with the Jaguars and Dolphins.
Facing two playoff teams (Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals) and one desperate to stay alive in the playoff hunt (Atlanta Falcons), the Jets schedule is the toughest by far of the wildcard hopefuls. They will need the Colts to give Manning and company a lot of rest week 16 to hope for a 2-1 record and a 9-7 wildcard.
The Tennessee Titans were considered eliminated for all practicality after falling to Indianapolis last week. The unfortunate scheduling bump in the road against an undefeated Colts team following a string of five straight victories dropped the team to 5-7.
At the time it was thought even an undefeated run and a 9-7 record would come up short. Instead they just might be able to squeeze out the last spot thanks to several tough games for those 7-6 teams. Next week’s direct battle with Miami may just decide who holds onto that final seed.
So who will grab that AFC wildcard? It will likely come down to Miami versus Baltimore. The Ravens and Dolphins fight will likely come down to a tie-breaker between the two 10-6 teams. Both would have the same conference records in that scenario, which means a tie-breaker involving the ‘best win-loss percentage among common games’.
Competition is much less bunched together in the NFC. Assuming the Packers maintain their fifth seeding, three teams are vying for that sixth and final seed (four should San Francisco upset Arizona tonight). Atlanta (who would share 6-7 with San Francisco), Dallas (having just dropped behind the Eagles in the division and stand at 8-4), and the New York Giants (hoping the Cowboys continue their December ways while sitting a game back at 7-6).
Dallas currently holds lone possession of that sixth seed, and is even still fighting for the division after dipping a single game below Philadelphia. They do face a difficult remaining schedule, playing the New Orleans Saints, much improved Washington Redskins, and finish the year head-to-head with the Philadelphia Eagles.
It is highly likely Dallas plays out the season to t tune of a 1-2 finish that lands them at 9-7. This would require a lot of help to get them into the postseason. If Washington can play as they have the last few weeks, a 2008 Broncos emulating 8-8 finish is not unheard of.
The New York Giants may find themselves cheering on Philadelphia just after losing to them in a 45-38 shootout. One game back of Dallas and still trying to regain form after a torrid start to the year, the Eagles topping Dallas in week 17 might very well be the game that puts New York into the playoffs.
The Giants play two winnable games against the Redskins and Panthers, followed by a season-closing tough matchup with Minnesota. New York will likely have to hope the Vikings, having secured the second seed, will take a note from the Indianapolis Colts and give their starters significant rest in that final game.
The troubles in Dallas and New York provide Atlanta some hope despite another loss. At 6-7 and suffering from a multitude of injuries, they have to hope they can get hot while Dallas and New York continue their late season difficulties.
The Jets, Bills, and Buccaneers all constitute winnable games. They should be able to finish 9-7. Unfortunately their fate is more in the hands of the Cowboys and Giants, and how those teams respond to difficult final schedules.
Ultimately the NFC’s sixth seed might very well back into the playoffs; all major competitors to that final seed are witnessing difficult stretches, going a combined 5-10 in the last five games. Whichever one can break the trend first should be able to secure the final wildcard. At this juncture it would appear Dallas’ mid-season surge should be enough to hang on for that last playoff berth.
Instead of discussing how the playoff matches are beginning to shape up, this week continued to shake things up and continue the debate over just who will make those playoffs. Teams on life support continued to breathe while others looking for solid ground found quicksand. Judging by play and final schedules it would appear Dallas and Baltimore should be the teams to grab those sixth seeds, but the truth will probably be in doubt through the final weekend of regular season play.
To see just how some playoff standards have dipped below expectations to open room for these teams see: