NFL playoff picture emerging, still being shaped

With four weeks to go, here is how the NFL playoff picture is shaping up.

Only one team has clinched a playoff spot. At 12-0, the Carolina Panthers were the first team to clinch a playoff spot by clinching their NFC South title.

Beyond that, there is plenty of work to do for all the teams, those that currently have a projected spot and those on the outskirts hoping to still gain entrance in the postseason despite currently being outside of the top 12.

Here is how it shakes out 12 games in:


1 and 2. In the NFC, the Panthers are currently the top seed with the Arizona Cardinals with a two-game cushion on earning a bye in the first round of the playoffs with a 10-2 record. The Panthers clinch a first-round bye with a win or tie, or a Minnesota loss or tie and a Green Bay loss or tie. The Cardinals clinch the NFC West with a win and a Seattle loss or tie, or and Arizona tie and a Seattle loss. They clinch a playoff spot with an Arizona win or tie, or a Tampa Bay loss or tie and an Atlanta loss or tie, or Tampa Bay loss or tie and a Green Bay win or tie.

3. Chasing the Cardinals are the Green Bay Packers (8-4), currently with the No. 3 seed in the NFC, but tied with the Minnesota Vikings at 8-4 (the Packers have the edge over the Vikings by winning the first game of their series but those two teams meet in the season finale).

4. The Washington Redskins, despite having a 5-7 record, are still atop the NFC East (you can see why it has been nicknamed the NFC Least) and therefore have a precarious hold on the fourth seed.

5. The Vikings (8-4) are tied for the third-best record in the NFC but are the No. 5 seed at this time because they aren’t on top of their division.

6. The Seattle Seahawks (7-5) are sitting at No. 6, but they aren’t likely to catch the Cardinals in the NFC West as Arizona sits three games ahead with four to play. However, in the wild card race the Seahawks are only one game behind the Vikings and just beat them, so Seattle holds the tie-breaker advantage there.

On the outside (for now)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6) and Atlanta Falcons (6-6) have the best shot of still earning a wild card bid, as they are the only teams in the NFC within one game of the Seahawks and two games of the Vikings, who currently hold the wild card spots.

However, the three non-Washington teams in the NFC East – the Philadelphia Eagles (5-7), the New York Giants (5-7) and the Dallas Cowboys (4-8) all are still very much in the hunt to leapfrog from the ninth, 10th and 16th seeds – yes, 16th for the Cowboys! – up to No. 4 because division winners take higher seeds than wild cards even if they have far inferior records.

Mission improbable: The Chicago Bears (5-7) and all the four-win teams not named the Cowboys – the St. Louis Rams, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers – stand little (10 percent for the Bears) to no chance and can only play the role of spoilers.


While the NFC winner might be decided in two weeks with the Panthers holding a two-game lead over the Cardinals, the AFC is far from determined, even at the top.

Essentially, three teams that are 10-2 are vying for the top two spots that earn first-round byes.

1. The Cincinnati Bengals (10-2) are the top seed in the conference because they have an 8-1 record in AFC games. They clinch the AFC North with a win or tie, or they can clinch a playoff spot with a New York Jets loss or a Kansas City loss.

2. The Denver Broncos (10-2) are ahead of the New England Patriots because they have the head-to-head win over the Patriots, but the Broncos also have the chance to take the top seed if they beat the Bengals in Week 16. The Broncos clinch the AFC West with a win and a Kansas City loss, or a Denver tie and a Kansas City loss. The Broncos clinch a playoff spot with a win and a New York Jets loss or tie, or a win and a Steelers loss or tie, or a Denver tie and a Jets loss, or a Deniver tie and a Steelers loss.

3. The Patriots (10-2) actually have a better conference record than the Broncos, but that 30-24 loss to Denver will give the Broncos any tie-breaker advantage over the Patriots. The Patriots don’t face the Bengals this year, so if they finish with the same record as the Bengals, the Patriots would have to finish with a better conference record or, if tied in that category, have a better record in common games, making that Week 16 matchup between the Bengals and Broncos an important one for Patriots fans, as well. The Patriots clinch the AFC East with a win and a Jets loss or tie, or a tie and a Jets loss, or a couple other scenarios in which the Patriots win the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Jets. The Patriots clinch a playoff spot with a win, or a Pittsburgh loss, or a Jets loss, or tie and a Kansas City loss, or a tie and a Pittsburgh loss, or a tie and a Jets tie.

4. After the three teams that are 10-2 in the AFC, there is a significant drop. The Indianapolis Colts (6-6) are currently leading the AFC South and that division winner is destined for the No. 4 seed. The Colts beat the Houston Texans (6-6) once already, but they play each other on Dec. 20, making that a pivotal game for the division crown.

5. The fifth seed currently belongs to the Kansas City Chiefs (7-5) and it’s unlikely they will catch the Broncos, who have a three-game lead.

6. Right behind the Chiefs are the New York Jets (7-5) with the same record but trailing the Chiefs by one game in their conference records.

On the outside (for now)

The Pittsburgh Steelers have every opportunity to work their way into the playoffs, as their overall record is tied with the currently projected wild card entrants. However, the Steelers are only 4-4 in their AFC games and have tough matchups against the Bengals and Denver in their next two games.

We already discussed the Texans (6-6), with their best chance to make the postseason coming by winning the division, which, again, makes their Dec. 20 matchup with the Colts of huge importance.

The Buffalo Bills’ (6-6) only shot to get in the playoffs is as a wild card because their division leader, the Patriots, have a four-game lead with four games to play, along with the series sweep against the Bills. Still, the Bills play the Jets, who are currently the sixth seed, in the season finale, making that game a huge one if both teams are still teetering on the playoff bubble.

Mission improbable: The Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins, both with 5-7 records, could still make some noise but would likely need to win out and have plenty of other things go right for them to stand a shot. For the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens, both at 4-8, and San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans, both at 3-9, it’s less than a 3 percent chance to make the playoffs, meaning some of them could be officially eliminated this weekend. Cleveland Browns (2-8) fans might just be hoping for the first overall pick in the draft as the first team (and only team so far) officially eliminated from the playoffs.


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