The NFL playoff race is coming into focus with three full weeks of the season remaining on the schedule. The majority of teams going to the playoffs appear to be determined, according to the current NFL standings, even though just one AFC team and two NFC teams have officially clinched their spots in the postseason.
The Chiefs have been the top team in the AFC since the start of the season, and they are going to the playoffs. While they are at least two games better than the other three division leaders in the AFC, they have not clinched their division.
That's because they are being chased by the Los Angeles Chargers, who are just a game behind the Chiefs in the AFC West prior to Thursday night's meeting at Kansas City. If the Chargers win, both teams will be tied with 11-3 records, but the Chiefs will still have the edge in the standings based on a superior division record.
However, Kansas City could be vulnerable at that point since they play at Seattle in Week 16 and host the Oakland Raiders in Week 17.
Despite losses in Week 14, the New England Patriots and Houston Texans still lead the AFC East and AFC South, respectively, by two games. The Patriots 34-33 loss to the Miami Dolphins was particularly galling since they allowed the Dolphins to score from 61 yards out on the final play of the game on a play that included a short pass reception and two laterals prior to Kenyan Drake running the final 52 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
While the Patriots have a road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, they close with home games against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, and they should be able to clinch the division. The Texans can get back on track Saturday against the New York Jets, followed by games against the Philadelphia Eagles and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are reeling after three straight losses, but they still lead the AFC North by one-half game. However, that losing streak could reach five games as they host the Patriots followed by a road game with the high-flying New Orleans Saints. The Steelers should win their final game of the year at home against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The second-place Baltimore Ravens host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 15 followed by a road game with the Chargers and a home game against the suddenly dangerous Cleveland Browns.
Cleveland has a road game Saturday against the Denver Broncos followed by a home game against the Bengals and the season finale at Baltimore. It's possible that the Browns win all three games, the Steelers lose two of three and the Ravens also drop two. In that case, Pittsburgh and Cleveland would both finish 8-7-1, while the Ravens would be 8-8. The Steelers would win the division title since they are 1-0-1 against the Browns.
The Chargers will either finish the season as the No. 1 wild-card team or the AFC West champion barring an 0-3 finish and at least two teams with 7-6 records winning their final three games.
The Dolphins, Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans are battling for the final wild-card spot. The winner of the season finale at Tennessee between the Colts and Titans may have the best chance of earning the final wild-card spot.
However, the Ravens could be in an excellent position by winning two of three or potentially sweeping the final three game. Baltimore hosts Tampa Bay, goes on the road to Los Angeles to play the Chargers followed by their season finale against the Browns.
1. x-Kansas City Chiefs (11-2)
2. New England Patriots (9-4)
3. Houston Texans (9-4)
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5-1)
x-clinched playoff berth
5. Los Angeles Chargers (10-3)
6. Baltimore Ravens (7-6)
7. Indianapolis Colts (7-6)
8. Miami Dolphins (7-6)
9. Tennessee Titans (7-6)
10. Denver Broncos (6-7)
11. Cleveland Browns (5-7-1)
12. Cincinnati Bengals (5-8)
13. Buffalo Bills (4-9)
14. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9)
15. New York Jets (4-9)
16. Oakland Raiders (3-10)
The NFC appears more clear-cut than the AFC. The New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams have already clinched the NFC South and NFC West, respectively, and both are likely to be the top two seeds in the conference.
The Chicago Bears lead the NFC North and can clinch the division with a win this week against the Green Bay Packers, and the Dallas Cowboys have taken charge of the NFC East. They have won five games in a row, giving them a two-game lead over the Philadelphia Eagles and the slumping Washington Redskins. The Cowboys have little chance of losing the division at this point with games against the Colts, Bucs and New York Giants remaining.
The Seahawks are in excellent shape to win the No. 1 wild-card spot after beating the Minnesota Vikings 21-7 Monday night. The Vikings are still holding onto the second wild-card spot, and they host the Dolphins, play at the Detroit Lions and host the Bears in their final three games.
The Carolina Panthers have fallen on hard times and have lost five straight games after their 6-2 start, and it's difficult to see them stopping New Orleans in Week 15 at home. They also host the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16 before going to New Orleans in the season finale.
The defending Super Bowl champion Eagles play the Rams in Los Angeles in Week 15 followed by a home game against the Texans. While they should win at Washington in the season finale, they are likely to fall out of contention before that games.
The Redskins had the division lead and appeared to be in good shape a month ago, but the loss of quarterbacks Alex Smith and Colt McCoy to season-ending injuries have all but ruined the team's chances. They dropped a 40-16 decision at home to the Giants Sunday, and it's difficult to see them winning any of their three remaining games (at Jacksonville, at Tennessee, vs. Philadelphia).
1. z-New Orleans Saints (11-2)
2. z-Los Angeles Rams (11-2)
3. Chicago Bears (9-4)
4. Dallas Cowboys (8-5)
z-clinched division title
5. Seattle Seahawks (8-5)
6. Minnesota Vikings (6-6-1)
7. Carolina Panthers (6-7)
8. Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)
9. Washington Redskins (6-7)
10. Green Bay Packers (5-7-1)
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-8)
12. New York Giants (5-8)
13. Detroit Lions (5-8)
14. Atlanta Falcons (4-9)
15. Arizona Cardinals (3-10)
16. San Francisco 49ers (3-10)