NFL Playoff Picture: Predicting Which Teams Will Be Playing In January

Dmitriy IoselevichSenior Analyst IIIDecember 21, 2010

NFL Playoff Picture: Predicting Which Teams Will Be Playing In January

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    Scott Boehm/Getty Images

    There are just two weeks left in the regular season and while some teams have already clinched a playoff spot, several teams still have some work to do to ensure that they can keep playing.

    Here's an early preview of what the playoff picture could look like when the season is over, seeding six teams from each conference.

AFC: 1. New England Patriots, 12-2

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    The Patriots need just one win to clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs. With games remaining against Buffalo and Miami, and a six-game winning streak to boot, look for Tom Brady and the Patriots to take care of business and earn the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers, 10-4

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    The Steelers hold the tiebreaker over the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North title. They need to win out to clinch a first-round bye, but have very winnable games remaining against Carolina and Cleveland. Pittsburgh should finish the season 12-4.

3. Kansas City Chiefs, 9-5

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    The Chiefs are only one game ahead of the San Diego Chargers in the AFC West, but they should be able to win their last two games against Tennessee and Oakland to clinch to clinch the division. 

    The Chargers would have to beat both Cincinnati and Denver (definitely doable), but they still need the Chiefs to lose at least one to make the playoffs. With Matt Cassel expected to be back at full strength, Kansas City should be able to finish the season strong.

4. Indianapolis Colts, 8-6

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    The Colts beat the Jaguars 34-24 in a must-win game on Sunday and they now control their playoff destiny. If Peyton Manning keeps playing like Peyton Manning, then the Colts should have no trouble rolling over the Raiders and Titans to clinch the division.

    If they lose one, then the Jaguars still need to beat both the Redskins and Texans to get in to the playoffs. It was a good run by Jacksonville, but it's pretty foolish to bet against Manning right now.

5. Baltimore Ravens, 10-4

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    The Ravens may not win their division, but they'll at least get a wild card berth. The only question is if they will be the No. 5 seed or the No. 6 seed.

    Baltimore currently holds the tiebreaker over the Jets, so all they need to do is to win out. They just beat the Saints on Sunday, so Cleveland and Cincinnati should be a cake walk.

6. New York Jets, 10-4

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    Karl Walter/Getty Images

    This isn't where the Jets expected to be when they started this season, but it'll have to do. They lost must-win games against New England and Miami to sever their chances of winning the division, but a wild card berth is still a decent consolation prize.

    If New York can't beat one of Chicago or Buffalo then 8-6 San Diego or Jacksonville could swoop in to steal the sixth and final playoff spot. However, after taking their frustration out on a very good Steelers team, the Jets are in prime position to finish the season on a high note.

NFC: 1. Atlanta Falcons, 12-2

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    The Falcons just need to win once to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC. If it doesn't happen against New Orleans, then it definitely will in the last week of the regular season against the two-win Carolina.

2. Philadelphia Eagles, 10-4

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    The Eagles put themselves in great position for a first-round bye with their dramatic comeback victory over the Giants.

    They're currently the No. 3 seed in the playoff standings behind the Bears, but I project Chicago to lose to the Jets, and the Eagles to beat both Minnesota and Dallas to move up in the standings.

3. Chicago Bears, 10-4

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    They've clinched the division, but need wins over both New York and Green Bay to to get a first-round bye. Both of those are quality teams, and it's hard to see the Bears beating both. 

    Chicago's in a good position to rest their starters to close out the season because they can't get lower than a No. 3 seed.

4. San Francisco 49ers, 5-9

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    This is the one playoff spot that's hardest to predict, so let's breakdown the scenario that has the 49ers coming out on top in the NFC West.

    San Francisco has games left against Arizona and St. Louis, teams they've already beaten this season. They need to win both and should be able to do so with quarterback Alex Smith back at the helm.

    Seattle has games remaining against Tampa Bay (a loss) and St. Louis, a team that crushed them 20-3 earlier in the season. The Seahawks are not playing good football right now, and may have a quarterback controversy on their hands.

    That leaves the division-leading St. Louis Rams. Assuming they beat Seattle, but lose to San Francisco, the 49ers and Rams would be tied atop the division with a 7-9 record. The tiebreaker would be the divisional record, with the 49ers projected to finish 5-1 and the Rams finishing 3-3.

    That means San Francisco makes the playoffs.

5. New Orleans Saints, 10-4

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    Not as much debate here. The Saints only need to win once to clinch a playoff berth, and twice to earn the No. 5 seed.

    They're capable of beating the Falcons next week and should definitely dispatch the Buccaneers, a team they already pounded 31-6, in the final week. 

    If the Saints lose one of those and the Giants win both to make each team 11-5, then the tiebreaker would be conference record. Both teams would be 9-3, however, so the next tiebreaker down the line is winning percentage against common opponents.

    Both teams have played Carolina, Seattle, Dallas and Minnesota, and both teams have a 4-0 record against them. The next tiebreaker would be strength of victory, a stat that the Giants currently hold the advantage in. But that could change depending on how the final two weeks play out.

    In other words, it's nearly unpredictable. But because I can, I'm going to predict the Saints upset the Falcons on Monday night and then finish strong against Tampa Bay. So it won't matter what the Giants do.

6. New York Giants, 9-5

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    The Giants, despite losing in heartbreaking fashion to the Eagles last week, still control their playoff destiny. They need to just win out to clinch a playoff spot.

    New York has Green Bay and Washington left on the schedule, two games they should be able to win. If they don't, then the 8-6 Packers (games left against Giants and Bears) and 8-6 Tampa Bay (games left against Seattle and New Orleans) could kick the Giants out of the playoffs.

    The Giants are still a Super Bowl contender, so expect them to play like one and finish the season at 11-5.

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