With only two weeks left of regular season play, the playoff picture should be crystal clear. Instead, only one team has clinched a division, and only three more have absolutely guaranteed a playoff appearance.
Sure, some of the win-loss expectancies are pretty cut-and-dried (who really expects the Steelers to lose to the Panthers or Browns; or the Patriots to lose to the Bills or Dolphins) but with some teams trailing by only one or two games, or whole divisions tied with a slew of winnable games left to play, there's still plenty of room for intrigue.
New England stands at 12-2 on the season with only Buffalo and Miami left to face. At 4-10 and 7-7 respectively, neither team is likely to take a stand against the league's No. 1 team.
Division rival, the New York Jets are only two games back, but unless the Patriots forfeit the rest of the season and the Jets win out, the Jets don't stand a chance at claiming the division (and even then, the tie-breaker wouldn't rule in their favor.)
New England finishes at 14-2 and claims a wild-card weekend bye.
Even with last weekend's upset at the hands of Rex Ryan's New York, the Steelers own the number two seed. Their last two games are against 2-12 Carolina and 5-9 Cleveland.
No way the Steelers finish less than 12-4 and risk forfeiting their bye.
Kansas City has been the AFC West's surprise leader all season long. San Diego is only a game back and has a very real opportunity to take the division if Kansas City slips in the coming weeks (knock on wood).
The Chiefs, though, are 7-0 at home and host two very winnable games to finish the season.
Tennessee, at 6-8, despite a rally against the Texans, continue to struggle without quarterback Vince Young.
Oakland stands at 7-7 and will have just lost to Indianapolis, forfeiting any meager hope of a playoff appearance.
The Chiefs hang on and keep their No. 3 seed at 11-5.
The Colts reclaimed their usual spot atop the AFC South with a win last week over Jacksonville. Even without Austin Collie and Maurice Jones-Drew both teams are likely to win their final two games (IND: @OAK, TEN and JAC: WAS, @HOU), but Indianapolis holds the tie-breaker.
At 10-6 the Colts aim for another Super Bowl run.
It's a long shot to suppose the Ravens will lose to Cleveland or Cincinnati (despite being one of Cincinnati's three wins this season) and should have no problem finishing the season at 12-4.
If it weren't for that loss against the Bengals in Week 2 and Week 13 against the Steelers, the Ravens would be enjoying the bye week instead of Pittsburgh.
The Jets have to win just one of their remaining games in order to guarantee a playoff berth. Since Chicago has already clinched the division and will be playing like Indianapolis did at about this time last year (*ahem*) and Buffalo, is, well, Buffalo, the Jets are likely to win both.
A 12-4 tie with Baltimore keeps the Jets at No. 6 and the Jets will look to defeat Kansas City to advance.
Even if the Falcons happen to lose to division rival and defending Super Bowl Champions, the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta has the division. If by some freak accident, Atlanta drops the game against 2-12 Carolina as well as the game against the Saints, New Orleans would claim the division with a better divisional record and Atlanta would slide to the No. 5 seed.
Since Atlanta won't lose to the Panthers and are unlikely to lose to the Saints, they'll remain the No. 1 seed and likely enter the postseason at 14-2.
Last weekend Michael Vick and the Eagles treated the New York Giants like a cat treats a mouse...just before it eats it. In a dramatic seven-minute finish the Eagles proved they were the better team and all but clinched the division.
Though the Giants are only a game back, the Eagles have swept the series and would have to lose their last two games for New York to claim the division.
Philadelphia hosts two of the season's most storied losing teams before the year is out (MIN and DAL) and are likely to show them the same sort of mercy they showed the Giants.
Philly will zip past Chicago (who has no pressing reason to win for a few weeks) and take the bye week at 12-4.
The Bears have already clinched the NFC North and face teams that could give them a run for their money if they're not betting too much (probably if they were all-in, too). More than likely, Chicago will take an extended bye and play their second and third strings through the last weeks of the season.
They'll finish at 10-4 and sit happily at No. 3.
The NFC West is still completely open. The 49ers could win out and take the division at 7-9 via a tie breaker.
The Rams could eliminate San Francisco in Week 16 and still lose the division to the Seahawks at 7-9 in Week 17.
San Francisco could beat the Rams in Week 16 only to fall, inexplicably, to Arizona the following week, while St. Louis takes the division at 7-9 with a win over Seattle.
Or, either the Seahawks or Rams could win out and take the division at 8-8, silencing the angry mobs which stand poised to lynch the first 7-9 team to ever reach the playoffs.
St. Louis has been the most consistent of the three teams and is likely to finish strong and claim the playoff berth with wins against both division rivals.
With a win over Tampa Bay (despite a loss to Atlanta), New Orleans will finish the season 11-5 and have a chance to defend their title this playoff season.
An unlikely win over Atlanta too would only help the Saints cement their place at No. 5. An unlikely loss to Tampa Bay plus the loss to Atlanta would oust the Saints and keep the Buccaneers in the running for the playoffs (common games percentage) provided they beat Seattle, the Packers lose one of their last two games (possible), and the Giants lose both remaining games (not likely).
The Saints remain the NFC's fifth seed at 11-5.
Eli Manning played a great game last week before the Eagles took it back. If he can go to Green Bay with that drive and leadership the Giants should have no problem against Aaron Rodgers and company.
If the Giants lose, though, and Green Bay beats Chicago, the Packers hold the tie-breaker and will oust the Giants from contention. The Giants manage to surpass Green Bay, find the Redskins to be no obstacle, and finish the season at 11-5.