Oh, it’s getting close now. Almost every NFL team has played three-quarters of its season, and the league is making the final turn for the finish line. Seeds are shuffling on a weekly basis, and except at the very top of the NFC, there seems to be very little clarity about who’ll be playing where come January.
With one game left to play in Week 13, here’s a look at where the NFL’s playoff picture stands:
1. Dallas Cowboys (11-1): Washington’s loss in Arizona combined with the Cowboys’ win Thursday in Minnesota made Dallas the first NFL team this season to clinch a playoff berth. With a win Sunday night against the Giants in New Jersey, Dallas can (A) avenge its only loss of the season, (B) clinch the NFC East with three weeks to go and (C) ensure a first-round bye in the playoffs.
2. Seattle Seahawks (8-3-1): Seattle’s offense sprung back to life Sunday night after sleeping through the Sunday before. Two of the Seahawks’ remaining four games are on the road, where they’re not the same team, and Detroit is right on their heels in the chase for a first-round bye.
3. Detroit Lions (8-4): Sunday was the first time all season that the Lions didn’t trail in the fourth quarter, which could indicate that they’re getting better at the right time. They have a comfy, two-game lead in the NFC North, though tough tests loom against the Giants in New Jersey, at Dallas and at home against the Packers.
4. Atlanta Falcons (7-5): An excruciating loss Sunday dropped Atlanta into a first-place tie with Tampa Bay, over whom the Falcons currently hold the slimmest of tiebreaker edges because they’re 3-1 in division games and the Bucs are 2-1. The two teams split the season series, and Atlanta holds the common-opponent tiebreaker as of now, but this is very close. The Saints can still get to 9-7 and factor into the NFC South race before it’s over.
5. New York Giants (8-4): The Giants didn’t look their best in a loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh, but they are still in strong shape for a wild-card spot. If they can beat the Cowboys next Sunday night, they’ll remain mathematically alive in the race for the NFC East title, with the biggest of tiebreakers — head-to-head competition — in their pocket.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5): The defense is getting it done in Tampa, as the Bucs have won four in a row to surge into the NFC playoff picture in a big way. They have two games left against the Saints, one in Dallas and a home contest against the Panthers to close the season. It won’t be easy, but they’ve beaten the Chiefs, Seahawks and Chargers the past three weeks. This is not a joke.
Surging: The Green Bay Packers (6-6) won the second of the six games they’ll need to win to “run the table,” as Aaron Rodgers suggested they could two weeks ago. They’re two games back of Detroit in the NFC North race but still could factor in the wild card. It helps that their game next week against the Seahawks is at home.
Slipping: It’s getting tougher by the week to remember that the Minnesota Vikings (6-6) started 5-0 and the Philadelphia Eagles (5-7) started 3-0. The Vikings have the same record as Green Bay but have already lost both head-to-head games against the Lions. The Eagles are hemorrhaging offensive skill-position personnel and are in fourth place in a division with three strong playoff contenders.
Worth noting: As of right now, with Washington slipping out of the picture for the time being, the only NFC team that made the playoffs last season and would make them again if the season ended today is the Seahawks.
1. Oakland Raiders (10-2). It couldn’t be much closer at the top between the Raiders and Patriots, who have identical overall records and 7-1 conference records. Oakland has the edge right now in games against common opponents and strength of victory, should the tiebreakers get that far. But Oakland is also in far greater danger than New England of being caught by a team in its own division and having to play as a wild card.
2. New England Patriots (10-2). A victory over Baltimore on Dec. 12 could potentially lock up the AFC East title and a first-round bye for the Patriots. What else is new?
3. Baltimore Ravens (7-5). It looks like it’ll be a dogfight at the top of the AFC North. The Ravens have to go to Foxborough next week for a Monday night game against the Pats, and three of their final four games are on the road, including a potentially massive Christmas Day game in Pittsburgh.
4. Houston Texans (6-6). Head-to-head wins against the Colts and Titans set the Texans up well in tiebreaker situations. But the fact that the tiebreaker situations are necessary tells you how perilous Houston’s position is. The Texans have the same record as the Titans and are a half-game better than the Colts (who play on Monday night) with a game left against each of them. The Texans have allowed 50 more points than they have scored this season.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (9-3). Winners of 20 of their past 24 games, the Chiefs stole one from the Falcons on Sunday and are right there waiting to steal the AFC West from the Raiders. If they beat Oakland in Kansas City on Thursday, the Chiefs will be 2-0 against the Raiders and have a hold on first place in the division.
6. Denver Broncos (8-4). With a better record than either of the current wild-card teams, the defending Super Bowl champs look dangerous. The Broncos showed again Sunday in Jacksonville that they can win games with their defense. Denver still retains a realistic chance of earning one of the top two seeds, though their 1-3 division record hurts them in potential tiebreaker scenarios with division mates Oakland and Kansas City.
Surging: The Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) are tied with the Ravens atop the AFC North and only a game behind the Broncos in the wild-card hunt, so there’s probably no more dangerous team that isn’t currently in the field. After a pair of potentially treacherous road games in Buffalo and Cincinnati the next two weeks, Pittsburgh finishes with home games against Baltimore and Cleveland.
Slipping: The Miami Dolphins (7-5) saw their six-game win streak come to an ugly end in Baltimore and now find themselves a full game behind Denver — along with Pittsburgh — for the final wild-card spot.
Worth noting: This is the Patriots’ 14th consecutive season with at least 10 victories. A division title would be their 13th in those 14 years.
Source: ESPN Headlines