Only two weeks remain in the NFL regular season and the end is coming up fast. However the playoff picture continues to change from week to week and more changes can definitely be expected. At the end of Week 15, 22 teams are still alive in the playoff hunt.
As of now, seven teams have clinched playoff spots and exactly four divisions have decided their winners. The AFC North, AFC West, NFC East and NFC South have yet to decide their champions and all four of those division races could likely go to the final week of the regular season. Three wild-card spots remain open (one will go to the second-place finisher in the AFC North).
Among the teams still looking to clinch a playoff berth, a huge advantage is having the ability to control their destiny. Some teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles can still make the playoffs, however, they need to win out and have several other games work out in their favor. The teams with the real advantage are the ones that control their destiny and can punch their playoff tickets simply by winning their remaining games.
Six teams currently control their ability to get one of the five remaining spots. One of these teams will very likely be eliminated in a Week 17 winner-take-all NFC East showdown. The other four teams will make the playoffs provided they can win, something that is impossible to guarantee in today's NFL.
Projected Winner: Denver Broncos (8-6)
Still Alive: Oakland Raiders (7-7), San Diego Chargers (7-7), Kansas City Chiefs (6-8)
Tim Tebow's late-game heroics have helped the Denver Broncos win seven on their last nine games and move from worst to first in the unpredictable AFC West. This is the only division in the NFL where every single team has spent time in first place after Week 1. It figures to be a competitive division right down to the end with every team amazingly still alive entering Week 16.
Even after getting blown out at home by the New England Patriots, the Broncos have to like where they are. At 8-6, they have a 3-2 record inside of their division which is currently better than all their rivals. They also have the easiest road ahead for any AFC West team; they play the 5-9 Buffalo Bills this week and the 6-8 Kansas City Chiefs next week.
However their margin for error is small and they very likely need to win both games. Should they lose one game, particularly that last game against the Chiefs, the winner of the Raiders and Chargers game could win the division thanks to tiebreakers. If they lose both games, the Broncos will likely be eliminated and any of the other three teams could win the division instead ensuring endless offseason discussions of whether Tebow is good enough to start for the Broncos.
Projected Winner: Either Dallas Cowboys (8-6) or New York Giants (7-7)
Still Alive: Philadelphia Eagles (6-8)
This is a strange situation in that two teams effectively control their playoff destinies. Should either the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Giants win out, they shall be in the playoffs this year. The deciding factor that prevents both from winning out is their Week 17 showdown at New Meadowlands stadium.
The Cowboys have a slightly easier road at the moment. If they beat the Eagles in Dallas this week and the Giants fall to the playoff-hopeful New York Jets, the Cowboys clinch the NFC East. However that could be a hard task since the Eagles blew out the Cowboys in their earlier meeting this year and the Cowboys have found spectacular ways to grab defeat from the edge of victory this season with five games lost in either the fourth quarter or overtime.
The Giants are facing a must-win against the Jets this week, without this win they will need an Eagles' victory to keep their playoff hopes alive. Losers of five of their last six, the Giants amazingly can clinch the division with a win this week and a win next week which would give them a season sweep of the hated Cowboys. However, the Giants have historically been terrible in December under coach Tom Coughlin and last week's loss to the inferior Washington Redskins could be the type of game that comes back to haunt them.
Let's not forget about the perpetually dangerous-in-December Philadelphia Eagles. If they win out and both the Giants and Cowboys also end up at 8-8, the Eagles will win the NFC Least with a 5-1 division record. In a unclear season that has featured spectacular collapses by all three of these teams, the only safe prediction is that at least one more collapse is on its way and the winner of the NFL's weakest division will be by default.
AFC Wild Card
Projected Winners: Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4), New York Jets (8-6)
Still Alive: Cincinnati Bengals (8-6), Denver Broncos (8-6), Tennessee Titans (7-7), Oakland Raiders (7-7), San Diego Chargers (7-7)
The top AFC wild-card spot has essentially been clinched by the loser of the AFC North battle. Right now that falls to the Steelers who have been swept by the Baltimore Ravens and seem destined to visit the AFC West champion on Wild Card Weekend. Should the Steelers win their final two games, we could be looking at another season where a 12-4 team has to go on the road for every playoff game which could lead to more complaints for changes in the current playoff format.
The final AFC wild-card spot is very much up for grabs. Right now the Jets have control of it by virtue of their superior conference record over the Bengals. If the Jets win out, they will get the final AFC playoff spot meaning the Bengals could be the odd team that finishes 10-6 and doesn't make the playoffs.
Although they look good for a playoff spot, it's hard to feel good about the Jets, especially after their huge loss to the Eagles this week. The offense is struggling to execute and even the defense is allowing more yards than past Jets defenses. They play the Giants this week and then the potential spoiler Miami Dolphins to close out this season.
Should the Jets lose one or two games it is possible either the Bengals or one of the 7-7 teams will take advantage. It's a complicated mess but the Titans could be the team most likely to step up should the Bengals and the Jets fail this year thanks to tiebreaker advantages and an easier closing schedule. I won't go into detail here but scenarios exist where the Raiders, Chargers and even the AFC West favorite Broncos get the final wild-card spot.
All this goes to show the Jets have very little margin for error at this point.
NFC Wild Card
Projected Winners: Atlanta Falcons (9-5), Detroit Lions (9-5)
Still Alive: Dallas Cowboys (8-6), Seattle Seahawks (7-7), Chicago Bears (7-7), NY Giants (7-7), Arizona Cardinals (7-7)
Obviously many NFC teams could end the season with a wild-card spot. The front-runners are currently the Atlanta Falcons and the Detroit Lions, who both have a two-game lead right now. All it takes for each team is one win to clinch a playoff spot.
The Falcons actually have an outside chance of winning the NFC South. For that to happen they need to win out and hope the New Orleans Saints lose out. Should that happen it would be the first time ever that an NFC South team has won consecutive division titles, a stat that shows the remarkable parity experienced in this division.
Meanwhile the Lions are hoping for their first playoff berth since 1999, which ties the Bills for the longest current postseason drought. Their road to the playoffs is very difficult though, as they face the red-hot Chargers and then the NFC North champion Green Bay Packers. The Lions' playoff hopes could very well come down to whether or not the Packers rest their starters in Week 17.
Should the Falcons or Lions lose out, several other teams could be positioned to seize the opportunity. Both the Cardinals and Seahawks have risen from mediocre NFC West teams to legit contenders, and the winner of their Week 17 game might get into the playoffs with a 9-7 record. Amazingly the NFC East mess could result in the loser getting a wild-card spot should the right games fall into place. Even the struggling Bears could get in with a lot of help.
Needless to say, there are lots of compelling reasons to watch the final two weeks of the NFL regular season. With exciting playoff races heating up, this should make for a lot of compelling and exciting football.
My Week 16 Power Rankings
1. Green Bay Packers
2. San Francisco 49ers
3. New Orleans Saints
4. New England Patriots
5. Baltimore Ravens
6. Houston Texans
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
8. Atlanta Falcons
9. Detroit Lions
10. Denver Broncos
11. New York Jets
12. Dallas Cowboys
13. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Oakland Raiders
15. Seattle Seahawks
16. New York Giants
17. Arizona Cardinals
18. Tennessee Titans
19. Chicago Bears
20. San Diego Chargers
21. Kansas City Chiefs
22. Philadelphia Eagles
23. Carolina Panthers
24. Miami Dolphins
25. Buffalo Bills
26. Washington Redskins
27. Cleveland Browns
28. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
30. St. Louis Rams
31. Minnesota Vikings
32. Indianapolis Colts