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NFL Playoff Picture Coming Into More Distinct Focus

With most teams only having one game remaining on the schedule, the NFL's playoff picture has cleared up quite a bit from what it was just 24 hours ago. Many playoff berths have been clinched, particularly in the AFC, and the scenarios for those spots that haven't been clinched, the "what do we have to do" questions are much easier to answer now.

Starting in the AFC, the New England Patriots have locked up the AFC East, a first-round bye, and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs by virtue of their victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday and the New York Jets losing to the Chicago Bears. The road to Dallas in the AFC runs through Foxboro, and nothing anybody does from here on out will change that.

The other first-round bye in the AFC is still up for grabs, and it's being contested by the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. A Pittsburgh victory over the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland on Sunday will give the Steelers the AFC North, the No. 2 seed in the AFC, and a first-round bye. Should the Browns pull off the upset and the Ravens can beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday in Baltimore, then the Ravens will gain all of those things and the Steelers will be on the road for the first round of the playoffs instead.

The Kansas City Chiefs have wrapped up the AFC West, and can secure the No. 3 seed. . .and the right to not have to go to Foxboro in the Division Round should they win their first playoff game. . .if they can defeat the Oakland Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs can drop to the No. 4 seed if they lose this weekend. . .

And the Indianapolis Colts defeat the Tennessee Titans to wrap up the AFC South. The scenario for the Colts is "win and you're in." Should the Colts somehow lose to the Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars can knock off the Houston Texans, then Jacksonville would win the AFC South and qualify for the playoffs as the #4 seed.

The New York Jets have also punched their ticket to the AFC playoffs, not because they won, but because the Jaguars' loss to the Washington Redskins yesterday pushed them into the post-season. So, five of the six AFC playoff teams have been decided, but we still have a bit of drama involving the AFC North and the AFC South, as well as the seeding situation.

The NFC is coming after the jump.

In the NFC, things are a bit more convoluted. The Atlanta Falcons will still lock up the No. 1 seed with a victory in one of their final two games, whether it's tonight when they host the New Orleans Saints or next week when they host the Carolina Panthers. Again, it's really hard to envision the road to Dallas in the NFC not going through Atlanta, but stranger things have happened.

The No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the NFC will be some combination of the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles. Assuming that the Eagles are able to knock off the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday Monday Tuesday night, both teams will be alive for the all-important first round bye going into Week 17. (Of course, if the Vikings can pull off a massive upset, the Bears will have the No. 2 seed all locked up with nothing to play for in the season's final week.) The Week 17 schedule sees the Bears traveling to Green Bay to take on the Packers, and Philadelphia playing host to the Dallas Cowboys.

The NFC West has come down to a one-game playoff, as the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks will do battle at Qwest Field next weekend in prime time. Yes, this game has been flexed into the Sunday night slot by the folks at NBC, because it will impact the post-season picture regardless of the results of any other game on the schedule. The winner of this game will be the NFC West champions and the No. 4 seed in the NFC. . .whether St. Louis gets in at 8-8, or the Seahawks become the first sub-.500 team in NFL history to make the post-season at 7-9.

The wild card race is where things get a little hairy. New Orleans still has the simple "win and you're in" scenario for the No. 5 seed and the right to travel to face the NFC West winner in the first round. If it loses its last two games, however, things get a little crazy between the Saints, the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints and Bucs will battle each other in New Orleans in Week 17, we've already mentioned the Packers hosting the Bears, and the Giants will travel to play the Washington Redskins. Assuming that the Saints lose tonight to the Falcons to drop to 10-5, here is what all the potential scenarios would look like:

-New Orleans win, Green Bay win, New York win - New Orleans #5 seed, Green Bay #6 seed, New York out
-New Orleans win, Green Bay loss, New York win - New Orleans #5 seed, New York #6 seed, Green Bay out
-New Orleans win, Green Bay win, New York loss - New Orleans #5 seed, Green Bay #6 seed, New York out
-New Orleans win, Green Bay loss, New York loss - New Orleans #5 seed, Green Bay #6 seed, New York out
-Tampa Bay win, Green Bay win, New York win - Green Bay #5 seed, New York #6 seed, New Orleans out, Tampa Bay out
-Tampa Bay win, Green Bay loss, New York win - New York #5 seed, Tampa Bay #6 seed, New Orleans out, Green Bay out
-Tampa Bay win, Green Bay win, New York loss - Green Bay #5 seed, Tampa Bay #6 seed, New Orleans out, New York out
-Tampa Bay win, Green Bay loss, New York loss - Tampa Bay #5 seed, New Orleans #6 seed, Green Bay out, New York out

If the Saints beat the Falcons tonight, it opens up a whole host of other scenarios, but we can get into those when it happens. With the Falcons being the best team in the NFC and Matt Ryan being basically invincible at home, it makes it hard to project a Saints victory this evening.

But there you have it, the playoff picture as it stands right now.

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