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NFL Playoff Scenarios: What We Know And What's Next

After a wacky Week 15 in the National Football League, the playoff picture in both the AFC and the NFC got just a little bit clearer. It could possibly get a little bit clearer still after tonight's game in Minnesota, but that only affects one potential playoff spot. There are more teams with guaranteed post-season spots than there were yesterday at this time, however, so let's go through all of those right now.

The NFC still only has one team that has guaranteed themselves a ticket to the NFL playoffs, and that's the Atlanta Falcons. With their win over Seattle yesterday, along with some of the other things that happened, the Falcons are now two games clear of the field for the top seed and home-field advantage in the NFC, meaning that a victory in either of their last two games guarantees that the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC will run right through the Georgia Dome. While the Saints still have the inside track to the top Wild Card spot in the NFC, their loss to Baltimore yesterday gave their division title hopes a HUGE hit. They need to win out and the Falcons need to lose out. . .not the most likely of scenarios, since the Falcons' season finale is against the Carolina Panthers, which you would think they'd have a hard time losing.

Currently, the Philadelphia Eagles sit in the #2 spot in the NFC, but if the Chicago Bears should happen to beat Minnesota this evening, Da Bears would not only clinch the NFC North, but they would move past the Eagles into the second spot in the conference, thanks to their head-to-head victory over the Eagles a couple of weeks ago. As far as the Eagles, their victory over the New York Giants yesterday was HUGE, as it not only gave them a one-game lead on the Giants in the East, but it gave them a sweep of New York and the advantage in any tie-breaker scenario. So, if the Eagles win one of their final two games (at home against Minnesota or at home against Dallas), they'll win the NFC East.

Whoever comes out of the slop that is the NFC West will be the #4 seed. And that will be the extent of our NFC West discussion in this posting.

As far as the NFC Wild Cards, the Saints are more than likely going to end up as the #5 seed and wind up traveling to face the NFC West Champion. The game this coming weekend at Lambeau Field between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants pretty much amounts to an elimination game. If the Giants win, they'll be in, as there won't be a scenario under which the Packers could catch them. If the Packers win, it gets a little more complicated and will depend on Week 17 results. . .a week that will see the Giants hosting Dallas and Green Bay hosting Chicago. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still alive, but after their crushing loss at home to Detroit yesterday, they're going to need help.

If the playoffs started today, the NFC would look like this:

First-Round Byes: #1 Atlanta Falcons (NFC South Champ, best overall record), #2 Philadelphia Eagles (NFC East Champ)

#6 New York Giants (Wild Card) at #3 Chicago Bears (NFC North Champ)
#5 New Orleans Saints (Wild Card) at #4 St. Louis Rams (NFC West Champ)

In the AFC, we have two teams that have now clinched playoff spots. The New England Patriots were in before yesterday, and because of the Jets' win over Pittsburgh they still technically haven't clinched the AFC East or home-field advantage yet, but it's going to be almost impossible for any team to take that #1 seed away from New England, considering the Pats finish the season with games at Buffalo and at home against Miami.

Pittsburgh also clinched a playoff spot yesterday, despite their loss. They're still in a dogfight with Baltimore for the NFC North title, however, as both the Ravens and Steelers are now 10-4 after yesterday's action. Pittsburgh is in control at this point due to their division record. . .they're currently 4-1 in the AFC North, while the Ravens are 2-2. Baltimore has two division games left at this point, as they'll play both Cleveland and Cincinnati to finish the year, while the Steelers will play the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night before making a road trip to Cleveland to end their regular season. While both teams should make the playoffs, the Steelers control their own destiny as far as taking down the AFC North and securing the other first-round bye in the AFC.

Jacksonville was in control of their own destiny in the AFC South. . .until they lost to Indianapolis yesterday. Now, if the Colts can win their final two games, they'll win the AFC South once again. The Colts' final two games are at Oakland and a home game against Tennessee. Jacksonville finishes the year with games at home against the Washington Redskins and at home against the Houston Texans. They'll need to win out and have the Colts lose one of those final two games to win the AFC South and reach the post-season.

The AFC West remains interesting, as three teams still have a chance to take down the division crown. The Kansas City Chiefs remain on top with a 9-5 record, followed by San Diego at 8-6 and the Oakland Raiders at 7-7. Again, the Raiders are interesting because, if they win out, they have the tie-breaker advantage over both Kansas City and San Diego because they will have, somehow, gone 6-0 against the AFC West. However, they have a tall order to be able to do that, with the Colts coming to town this week before finishing the year with a trip to Arrowhead. Kansas City's final two games are at home, as they'll host Tennessee before the Raiders come to town. The Chargers have two road games remaining on their schedule, as they travel to Cincinnati and Denver to end their season. To put it simply, if Kansas City wins out, they're in. If Kansas City splits their final two and San Diego wins out, we get into tie-breakers between the Chiefs and Chargers. And if Kansas City loses out, San Diego splits or loses out, and the Raiders win out, Oakland is in.

Got all that?

If the season ended today, the AFC playoffs would look like this:

First-Round Byes: #1 New England Patriots (AFC East Champ), #2 Pittsburgh Steelers (AFC North Champ)

#6 New York Jets (Wild Card) at #3 Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West Champ)
#5 Baltimore Ravens (Wild Card) at #4 Indianapolis Colts (AFC South Champ)

And there you have it. . .the current playoff picture in a nutshell.

Photographs by Micah Taylor, clairity, and Fibonacci Blue used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.