Week 13 in the NFL season is now completely in the books. As Monday Night Football draws to a near conclusion, we now know enough to give an accurate reflection of the current playoff picture.
Only a few things have changed from last week to this. Some teams have fallen from the ranks of the playoff hopefuls (Detroit Lions and San Diego Chargers) while others have snuck up and leapfrogged their opponents (Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons).
What do the NFL playoffs look like right now and where do the roads to the Super Bowl go through? Who are the favorites to make it to Indianapolis on Feb. 5 to battle for the coveted Lombardi Trophy?
Here is the updated NFL playoff picture complete with seedings and tiebreaker scenarios:
Usual attendees to the NFL playoff party every January, the Patriots are currently the best team in the AFC.
New England is technically tied with the Texans and Ravens at 9-3, but holds the tiebreakers over both. The Pats have a better conference mark than Baltimore and have an advantage in the strength of schedule department over Houston.
Looking at the piece of cake schedule the Patriots have left, a 3-1 finish could land them the No. 1 seed in the conference.
Are the Patriots Super Bowl contenders? Absolutely. The passing defense is still worst in the league, allowing 310 yards a week. Normally this is a problem teams will eventually fall because of, but I feel this squad is different.
REMAINING FOUR GAMES: at Washington (4-8), at Denver (7-5), vs. Miami (4-8), vs. Buffalo (5-7)
Why the Ravens are soaring higher than ever in 2011 should come as no surprise. The defense, which ranks in the top five across the league in yards and points per game, is getting it done even without the likes of linebacker Ray Lewis, who has missed the last three games with a toe injury.
What helps the always consistent defense is an offense than can do its job when called upon. Baltimore features the NFL’s sixth-highest scoring offense, which has found a nice balance between Joe Flacco passes and Ray Rice rushes.
The Ravens currently possess the No. 2 seed because they swept the season series against divisional rival Pittsburgh and beat the Texans 29-14 back in Week 6.
This might be as good a chance as ever for Baltimore to capture the AFC crown. Getting that all important first round bye could mean a world of difference.
REMAINING FOUR GAMES: vs. Indianapolis (0-12), at San Diego (5-7), vs. Cleveland (4-8), at Cincinnati (7-5)
T.J. Yates? Seriously?
Yes, the Texans' third-string rookie quarterback from North Carolina is doing the job in Houston.
After losing Matt Schaub (foot) and Matt Leinart (shoulder) both for the season, the ship seemed sunk for a franchise looking to make its first postseason appearance.
However, Yates is doing a fine job managing the game and not costing the Texans that opportunity to make history.
Running back Arian Foster is having a monster year. After missing two of the first three games of the season, Foster is nearing 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns. As long as Houston doesn’t lose him as well, the offense could be just alright. The return of wideout Andre Johnson certainly helps, too.
The Wade Phillips addition on defense continues to make an impact. Houston is the second-toughest team to score on and features a top-five defense in both passing and rushing yards allowed.
They may be banged up, but they’re out to prove this team is Super Bowl worthy.
REMAINING FOUR GAMES: at Cincinnati (7-5), vs. Carolina (4-8), at Indianapolis (0-12), vs. Tennessee (7-5)
Someway, somehow, Tim Tebow continues to win in the NFL.
The reincarnation of Jesus himself improved to 6-1 as a starter after defeating the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday 35-32 on a last-second field goal.
I guess you could say the pondering Christian defeated Christian Ponder.
Next up for Team Tebow are the Chicago Bears, who present plenty of defensive problems. This could be a big week to see if Tebow is as legit as his record would imply or if we’ve been witnessing the work of smoke and mirrors.
Because of this recent hot streak, the Broncos have jumped the Oakland Raiders in the AFC West standings because they have a better divisional record.
Tim Tebow in the playoffs? The NFL couldn’t ask for a bigger ratings machine.
I wouldn’t advise throwing a stack down on Denver to make a run in the AFC playoffs, but this change of quarterback certainly makes for an entertaining story.
For now, the Broncos are postseason bound. A difficult last four games could change that quickly.
REMAINING FOUR GAMES: vs. Chicago (7-5), vs. New England (9-3), at Buffalo (5-7), vs. Kansas City (5-7)
Just like their bitter rivals—the Baltimore Ravens—the Steelers are doing it again this season on defense. A top-10 ranking in all major categories and an offense that can pass the football usually spell victories.
Indeed, a 9-3 mark is impressive, but the Steelers are in a tough predicament. In order to leapfrog the Ravens inside the AFC North, Pittsburgh will need to win at least one more game. In other words, they’re going to need help.
Because the Ravens won both head-to-head meeting this season, simply matching the Ravens won’t get it done. Baltimore’s last four consist of three losing teams before wrapping up against the Bengals. The Steelers have three cake games themselves but have to travel to San Fran to battle the 49ers.
The playoffs seem like a certainty for the Black and Yellow, but it may come in the form of a Wild Card berth.
REMAINING FOUR GAMES: vs. Cleveland (4-8), at San Francisco (10-2), vs. St. Louis (2-10), at Cleveland (4-8)
What a pleasant surprise the Bengals have been in this 2011 NFL season.
A total revision on offense with the additions of rookie QB Andy Dalton and rookie WR A.J. Green has led to a nice, young combination in the passing game that could prove effective for years.
It’s important for the young Bengals to finish 2011 strong; they’re deadlocked with three other teams (Tennessee Titans, Oakland Raiders and New York Jets) inside the AFC at 7-5. It’s because of Cincinnati’s six conference wins that they lead the race for the final Wild Card berth (no other 7-5 AFC team has more than five wins).
The question has to be asked: If the Bengals do make the postseason, could they do any damage? Should things stay as they are presently, Cincy would be headed to Houston (starting a rookie QB) and then on to New England. Maybe a first-round upset on the road, but the dream would end in the divisional round.
REMAINING FOUR GAMES: vs. Houston (9-3), at St. Louis (2-10), vs. Arizona (5-7), vs. Baltimore (9-3)
One or two more wins and the NFC North champion Green Bay Packers will have wrapped up all there is to win in the NFC.
There’s no reason to break down the efficiency of the Packers offensively. Three letters: M-V-P. Aaron Rodgers has shown time and time again that this is a quarterback-driven league. Right now, no one is playing the position better than he is.
The one flaw on this team appears in the pass defense. The Pack allow 293 yards a week. However, there’s logic behind why the number is so high. Green Bay has done such a great job jumping on teams early in ballgames, the only logical way to win games is by passing.
By comparison, Green Bay has attempted 412 throws, while their opponents have hurled the rock 476 times. Don’t let one number influence your opinion.
Thirteen wins should be enough to secure the No. 1 seed with San Fran two games back. Fourteen wins, though, is a lock.
Simply put, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Lambeau Field.
REMAINING FOUR GAMES: vs. Oakland (7-5), at Kansas City (5-7), vs. Chicago (7-5), vs. Detroit (7-5)
NFL fans have been pondering this riddle all season long—how legit are the Niners?
To their defense, they’re NFC West champions. Just remember, no other team in the division is better than 5-7.
The quarterback stylings of Alex Smith haven’t been Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Tom Brady-esque, but they’re efficient. Smith has completed 63.2 percent of his throws for 2,390 yards, 15 touchdowns and only five picks. It’s not sexy, but it works.
What is legit about San Fran is the run defense. The Niners hold their foes to 72 yards an outing, a league-best rank. Plus, they’ve yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season. Very impressive to say the least.
Teams are forced to pass the ball against the 49ers, resulting in a +18 turnover ratio. San Francisco has swiped 16 passes for interceptions, tied for fifth-best in the NFL.
How they finish may impact their playoff dreams. If they trip down the stretch with three of their final four games on the road, the Saints could very well jump the Niners for the No. 2 seed and force San Fran to play Wild Card weekend.
Buying that extra week will be huge for this young, inexperienced team.
REMAINING FOUR GAMES: at Arizona (5-7), vs. Pittsburgh (9-3), at Seattle (5-7), at St. Louis (2-10)
I’m starting to believe “rout” is a French Louisiana term for “Saints victory.”
Another impressive outing on Sunday Night Football has the Saints two games up on the Falcons inside the NFC South and one game behind the Niners, who face a road-heavy final four games.
If this were any other year, Drew Brees would be a lock for the MVP award. But because he trails a perfect Aaron Rodgers, Brees will have to settle for runner-up.
Nonetheless, the Saints have the most explosive offense yardage-wise in the league and the second-highest scoring attack behind just the Green Bay Packers.
When the Packers and Saints met Week 1 in the season opener, it may have been talked about as a potential NFC playoff preview. Now, it seems inevitable the Saints will travel to Lambeau to determine which squad will represent the NFC on Super Bowl Sunday.
Other than Green Bay, what other team in the conference presents a serious threat to Brees and Co.?
REMAINING FOUR GAMES: at Tennessee (7-5), at Minnesota (2-10), vs. Atlanta (7-5), vs. Carolina (4-8)
Of all the teams to be a fan of, there’s perhaps none more frustrating than the Dallas Cowboys.
A team that believes in icing its own kicker usually doesn’t smell the playoffs. The NFC East is having a down year, however, and someone has to represent that group of misfits for at least one game. The New York Giants (6-6), Philadelphia Eagles (4-8) and Washington Redskins (4-8) have failed to play to par.
Enough can’t be said about Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware’s 2011 season. The seventh-year pro has 15 sacks already, meaning he is on pace for 20. He could very well be flirting with Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5 set back in 2001.
If not for him, the Cowboys would be in a much worse situation than the No. 4 seed in the playoffs.
The division will be decided in Weeks 14 and 17 when the Cowboys meet the Giants twice. Only a game behind “America’s Favorite Team,” New York could sneak in front of Dallas via a series win. Should they tie, division record would decide the East champ. Those two games will go a long way toward deciding that team.
REMAINING FOUR GAMES: vs. New York Giants (6-6), at Tampa Bay (4-8), vs. Philadelphia (4-8), at New York Giants (6-6)
The image of Forte suffering a reported MCL sprain (left) could represent Chicago in relation to the NFC playoff race—laying flat on their asses.
Two weeks ago, this team seemed a solid lock for the No. 5 or 6 seed at 7-3. Even after two interconference losses, the Bears are still sitting pretty as a Wild Card team by virtue of the Giants, Falcons and Lions all losing Sunday.
At the soonest, the Bears could see Forte and/or Cutler back Week 17 at Minnesota for a postseason tune up—assuming they’re still relevant by then.
Aside from the Week 16 collision at Green Bay, Chicago has the luxury of an easy finish to the season.
The schedule doesn’t mean diddly-squat though if the team plays without a sense of purpose. Just re-watch the Kansas City Chiefs’ 10-3 upset victory at Soldier Field on Sunday.
The Bears control their own fate. Win three of the next four and they’re in. Lose a couple, and Detroit’s window to leapfrog the Bears opens that much wider.
Of all the teams in the playoff hunt, Chicago seems the most likely to absolutely implode and blow a perfectly good season.
REMAINING FOUR GAMES: at Denver (7-5), vs. Seattle (5-8), at Green Bay (12-0), at Minnesota (2-10)
The Week 7 matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions at Ford Field is the difference between the Falcons taking the final Wild Card spot and the Lions watching the postseason from their couches.
By virtue of that head-to-head victory, the Falcons own an automatic tiebreaker over Detroit.
Atlanta has been somewhat head-scratching this year. When they’re good, they’re good (win at Seattle, at Detroit, lost to Houston by 7, lost to New Orleans by 3 and held Green Bay to 25 points—the second-fewest they’ve scored all season).
Likewise, the Falcons have found ways to disappoint as well. The negative results haven’t been as attentive as the near wins and victories, but Matt Ryan and Michael Turner have had rough patches this season.
The biggest thing for the Dirty Birds down the stretch is consistency. If they play well, the Wild Card is theirs. All Atlanta has to do is fight it out with the Lions and go punch for punch with them. They might even be fortunate enough to see the Bears self-destruct and backdoor into the postseason anyway.
REMAINING FOUR GAMES: at Carolina (4-8), vs. Jacksonville (3-9), at New Orleans (9-3), vs. Tampa Bay (4-8)
Brett Lyons is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official interview materials.
Follow Brett Lyons on Twitter @BrettLyons670.