NFL Playoff Picture Week 16: AFC and NFC Standings, Updated Predictions

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIDecember 15, 2014

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, left, celebrates with head coach Bill Belichick after defeating the Miami Dolphins 41-13 in an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Sunday's NFL action served up better clarity with regard to the playoff picture, as a number of teams locked up division titles.

The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos clinched the AFC East and West divisions, respectively, with convincing victories, which comes as little surprise.

Those two teams may very well meet in the conference title game for a second straight year. A couple of the all-time great quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would go head-to-head again, but there's plenty of football to be played between now and then.

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A surprising loss by the Green Bay Packers allowed the Detroit Lions to ascend to the top of the NFC North and suddenly surge to the No. 2 seed in the conference. But a trip to Lambeau Field looms for the Lions in the regular-season finale, which should decide a critical piece of the postseason puzzle.

Ahead of the current slate's Monday night cap-off, let's look toward Week 16 and make some updated predictions as to which 12 teams will make the NFL playoffs.

Current AFC Standings
RankTeamRecordWeek 16 Opponent
1New England Patriots (AFC East)11-3at NY Jets
2Denver Broncos (AFC West)11-3at Cincinnati
3Indianapolis Colts (AFC South)10-4at Dallas
4Cincinnati Bengals (AFC North)9-4-1vs. Denver
5Pittsburgh Steelers9-5vs. Kansas City
6Baltimore Ravens9-5at Houston
7Kansas City Chiefs8-6at Pittsburgh
8San Diego Chargers8-6at San Francisco
9Buffalo Bills8-6at Oakland
Source: ESPN.com
Current NFC Standings
RankTeamRecordWeek 16 Opponent
1Arizona Cardinals (NFC West)11-3vs. Seattle
2Detroit Lions (NFC North)10-4at Chicago
3Dallas Cowboys (NFC East)10-4vs. Indianapolis
4Carolina Panthers (NFC South)5-8-1vs. Cleveland
5Seattle Seahawks10-4at Arizona
6Green Bay Packers10-4at Tampa Bay
7Philadelphia Eagles9-5at Washington
Source: ESPN.com

Updated AFC Predictions

The hierarchy at the top will be fascinating to witness in the AFC. However, New England, as has seemed perpetually commonplace in the Brady and Bill Belichick era, will set the standard.

A head-to-head tiebreaker versus Denver should allow the Patriots to stay out in front as the No. 1 playoff seed.

Despite a tough Week 17 test at home against Buffalo—the defense that shut down Manning and Aaron Rodgers the past two games—New England can shut down the Kyle Orton-led Bills in Foxborough to win its fifth straight division game.

The AFC North is jumbled and comprises the bottom third of the conference's postseason elite. Cincinnati just went on the road and shut out Johnny Manziel in his starting debut for the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, so the Bengals have plenty of confidence ahead of hosting the Broncos in Week 16.

While that is dangerous territory for Denver to tread, Manning has benefited from a better running game spearheaded by C.J. Anderson.

Should Denver win in Cincinnati, it opens a whole can of possibilities. That should happen, thanks to a factor that Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo alludes to and ought to stymie underwhelming, big-game Cincy thrower Andy Dalton:

The Bengals' tie versus the Carolina Panthers earlier in the year makes for a ton of interesting scenarios.

Ultimately, yours truly believes the Pittsburgh Steelers, thanks to a balanced offense catalyzed by QB Ben Roethlisberger and all-purpose back Le'Veon Bell, find a way to get the job done and take the AFC North crown.

Even if the Baltimore Ravens win out, Pittsburgh will have the tiebreaker of a better division record as long as it beats Cincinnati at Heinz Field in Week 17. Then, as Bleacher Report's own Chris Simms indicates in the video above, the San Diego Chargers, galvanized by a Week 15 loss at home to Denver, will sneak in along with Baltimore to round out the two wild-card spots.

Projected AFC seeds: 1. New England; 2. Denver; 3. Indianapolis; 4. Pittsburgh; 5. Baltimore; 6. San Diego

Updated NFC Predictions

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Let it be known that this writer you're reading has picked the Seattle Seahawks to win the Super Bowl prior to each of the past three seasons. There were serious concerns near the dawn of this year, but now it appears the reigning Lombardi Trophy holders are back on track.

NFL.com's Chris Wesseling makes this point nicely with one mind-boggling stat that's emerged from the past month amid Seattle's four-game winning streak:

Oh, by the way, no coincidence on this huge turnaround. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, the underrated heart of the Seahawks defense, returned from injury after more than a month away when Seattle dominated Arizona 19-3 in Week 12.

CBS Sports' Pete Prisco recognizes Wagner's greatness:

And uh-oh. The Cardinals have to face the Seahawks next Sunday. They'll either deploy a hobbled Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley or raw rookie Logan Thomas under center to face the terrifying "Legion of Boom" secondary.

NFL Network's Ian Rapoport has information on Stanton's status—and it isn't terribly promising:

Defeating the QB-challenged Cardinals would give Seattle a 2-0 record against them, with a mere home victory over the St. Louis Rams thereafter all that stands in the way of a potential No. 1 NFC seed. Smart money says that happens.

Detroit's jump to No. 2 in Week 15 was most surprising. Until it shows more balance on offense, though, it's hard to say the Lions can go to Green Bay and knock off the Packers in the last week of the regular season.

Super Bowl MVP signal-caller Aaron Rodgers will want to rally the Pack after his worst game of the year this Sunday. His postgame words following the loss in Buffalo reflects that, per the Packers' official Twitter account:

The sense of urgency will only increase with a playoff berth not guaranteed. Green Bay should find a way to scratch its way to the NFC North title. Rodgers' Detroit counterpart, Matthew Stafford, has a less reliable rushing attack and inferior big-game experience to lean on.

An elite defense should see Detroit grab a wild-card spot. Arizona may have clinched a playoff berth in Week 15, but its chances to win are dependent on its ability to get the fifth seed, which the Cardinals should.

Michael Perez/Associated Press

The only caveat is that the NFC East has an intense race going on, as the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 38-27 on Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field, despite blowing a 21-0 lead.

These aren't the same old Cowboys, or rather the more recent ones that have failed in December. America's Team has folded in big moments and faded into mediocrity. Not this group—a physical bunch led by hard-running NFL lead rusher DeMarco Murray and savvy veteran Tony Romo leading the offense that imposed its will in Week 15:

ESPN's Skip Bayless was impressed:

Philadelphia concedes too many big plays, has an uncertain commodity in Mark Sanchez at the most important position and is wildly inconsistent, albeit explosive, on offense. That isn't a recipe for success, even with two winnable road games against Washington and the New York Giants on tap.

Whoever comes out of the woeful NFC South as a no-better-than-.500 champion—be it New Orleans, Atlanta or current front-runner Carolina—stands little chance of winning even a home playoff game.

Nevertheless, let's also credit the Panthers for gearing up and getting a win against a familiar Tampa Bay foe in Week 15 amid adverse circumstances, as ESPN's Ed Werder explains:

It will be interesting to see if Carolina can rally around Cam Newton, play inspired football and win out to stage an improbable, successful defense of the division. Linebacker Luke Kuechly anchors a talented but troubled defense that is nowhere near the level it was in 2013, but that side of the ball that could turn around in a hurry with his help.

The Saints and Falcons both field putrid defenses and have respective QBs in Drew Brees and Matt Ryan who have been susceptible to critical errors. Carolina has simply suffered from a talent deficiency on offense, yet has pounded the rock better with a finally-healthy Jonathan Stewart as of late.

Cam Newton's long-term well-being is the chief concern when it comes to the Panthers. At the same time, should he be healthy enough to return to the gridiron down the stretch, he may be the X-factor that swings the entire complexion of the final NFC playoff picture.

Projected NFC Seeds: 1. Seattle; 2. Green Bay; 3. Dallas; 4. Carolina; 5. Detroit; 6. Arizona

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