But with four weeks to go in the season, 12 of the 16 teams in the AFC are still in the playoff race. The NFC playoff picture is much more certain. Technically, 12 teams are also alive in the NFC, but the four teams sitting at 5-7 are in need of an amazing miracle with two wild card teams sitting at 8-4 (three games ahead with four games to go). Three of the six NFC spots could be set by the end of the weekend.
|REMAINING SCHEDULE STRENGTH|
|New York Jets||28||20||.583||3|
|New York Giants||26||22||.542||2|
At the right you'll see the remaining schedule strength for all the potential playoff teams. It gives an idea of who was an easier path to a playoff spot. This year I've also added a rundown of how many games the team has left against teams whose current records are at .500 or above.
What I've found is that the remaining winning percentage is somewhat misleading -- if Team A has four games left on its schedule against teams that are currently 5-7 (20-28 overall record) and Team B has one game against a 1-11 team, one against a 5-7 team and two games against 8-4 teams (20-28 overall), Team B is playing the tougher remaining schedule, but you wouldn't know it by winning percentage.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are a good example of this discrepancy. Their .435 remaining winning percentage is the third-easiest among potential AFC playoff teams thanks in large part to the Browns 1-11 record. But they have three games left (Ravens, Packers and Dolphins) against teams with a .500 or better record. Denver's remaining opponents have a .563 winning percentage. Two of the Broncos' final four games are very tough (Indianapolis and Philadelphia), but Denver also plays the struggling Raiders and Chiefs over the final four weeks of the season.
Looking at the remaining schedules, the Jets (Bucs, Falcons, Colts and Bengals) and Bengals look to have it the roughest in the AFC but both have reasons for optimism. For the Bengals (Vikings, Chargers, Chiefs and Jets), the reality is that even with losses in the next two weeks they will likely have wrapped up the division by Christmas. For the Jets, the hope is that the Colts and Bengals will have nothing to play for by the time they face them in the final two weeks of the season.
In the NFC, Dallas (Chargers, Saints, Redskins and Eagles) could be heading to another series of stories about them being December chokers. But as we noted earlier this week, much of the Cowboys' December problems can be blamed on tough schedules. The Eagles (Giants, 49ers, Broncos and Cowboys) also have a rough December ahead of them.
So here's a look at the playoff picture heading into Week 14.
It's Official (Already Clinched)
Indianapolis (12-0): Fantasy football teams around the country may not like to hear this, but Indianapolis could come out of next weekend's games with nothing less to play for. If they beat the Broncos, they have wrapped up the No. 1 seed and will just be waiting for the second week of the playoffs to arrive, unless they want to make a run at the Dolphins' perfect record.
New Orleans (12-0): Because the Vikings are sitting only two games back at 10-2, New Orleans doesn't have the three-week vacation on tap that the Colts have. But with the 1-11 Buccaneers on the schedule in three weeks, it's hard to imagine New Orleans won't finish up as the No. 1 seed.
Count It Baby (Not officially in, but they will be)
Minnesota (10-2): Technically, the Vikings aren't in the playoffs yet, but a reincarnation of Tarvaris Jackson's rookie season couldn't keep the Vikings out at this point. The Vikings have tough games left with the Bengals and Giants, but a three-game lead on second-place Green Bay for the NFC North title is a pretty nice cushion with four games to go. Minnesota also has a two-game lead for a first-round bye, although Arizona would win the head-to-head tiebreaker in the case of a Vikings collapse.
Arizona (8-4): The Cardinals can officially wrap up the NFC West with a win over the 49ers next week. Even if San Francisco pulls off the upset, Arizona faces the Lions and Rams the following two weeks -- this division is locked up even if the Cardinals won't get the "y" by their name in the standings (signifying a division title) until next week.
Cincinnati (9-3): The Bengals will likely battle the Chargers for the No. 2 seed in the AFC, but their playoff spot is virtually assured -- one more Bengals win or one more loss by the Steelers and Ravens and the division is theirs.
San Diego (9-3): The Chargers have nearly completed their now routine second-half turnaround with seven-straight wins, vaulting from 2-3 to having the No. 2 seed in the AFC if the playoffs began today. The Chargers still have some work to do to wrap up the AFC West--the Broncos are only one game back -- but San Diego would have to lose out and see several teams win out to fail to make the playoffs.
That's six of the 12 playoff spots that are largely set. The other six spots are more fluid, especially in the AFC.
Great Shape (Hard to see them failing to make it)
Denver (8-4): The Broncos may have games left with the Raiders and Chiefs, knowing that two wins will probably get them in the playoffs. Three wins definitely will. Denver could still catch the Chargers and even a loss to the Colts this weekend wouldn't crush those hopes. A lot obviously depends on what San Diego does. If San Diego goes 2-2 over its final four games and the Broncos go 3-1, it could get quite interesting. The two teams split their head-to-head games (first tiebreaker), will likely end up tied in division record (second tiebreaker) and could end up tied in common games (third tiebreaker) and even the fourth tiebreaker (conference record). Right now the Chargers are 3-2 in common games and the Broncos are 4-3. The key games for the tiebreakers are the final three for the Broncos (all three are common games and two are division games) while the next two games and the final game of the season are common games for the Chargers.
Not Bad (Work to do but controlling their destiny)
New England (7-5): The Patriots are slumping into December with back-to-back painful losses, but they still control the path to the AFC East title and the schedule sets up for them to win it. Between the Panthers and the Bills the next two weeks, New England should be sitting at 9-5 with two games to play. If the Patriots falter, they currently hold a one-game edge over the Dolphins in the common-opponents tiebreaker, although three of New England's final four games are with common opponents. The Jets aren't as much of a threat to catch New England, because their 2-4 division record virtually ensures they will lose any tiebreakers against the Dolphins or Patriots.
|IF IT ENDED TODAY|
|No. 1 Indianapolis||12||0||8||0|
|No. 2 San Diego||9||3||7||3|
|No. 3 Cincinnati||9||3||6||3|
|No. 4 New England||7||5||5||4|
|No. 5 Denver||8||4||6||3|
|No. 6 Jacksonville||7||5||6||3|
|On The Outside|
|New York Jets||6||6||5||4|
|No. 1 New Orleans||12||0||8||0|
|No. 2 Minnesota||10||2||8||1|
|No. 3 Arizona||8||4||7||2|
|No. 4 Dallas||8||4||6||3|
|No. 5 Green Bay||8||4||6||2|
|No. 6 Philadelphia||8||4||6||3|
|On The Outside|
|New York Giants||7||5||5||3|
Dallas (8-4): If a team at 8-4 can be in rough shape, it's the Cowboys. There are two teams in their division chasing them, one of whom (the Giants) holds the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage. They also are one-game behind the Giants and Eagles in the division record tiebreaker (the second tiebreaker). And Dallas has to play the Chargers, Saints and Eagles in the final four weeks of the season. If Dallas loses two of those games, it would ensure another losing December and could end up sitting at home come January. The good news is that the Giants and Eagles play this weekend, which means that one of the two teams chasing Dallas is guaranteed a loss.
Green Bay (8-4): The Packers have fixed much of their pass-protection problem, just in time to make a playoff run. Because of their two losses to the Vikings, they are not really a threat to catch Minnesota for the division title, but two more wins will likely get them in as a wild-card team.
Philadelphia (8-4): The Eagles may be behind Dallas right now, but they control their own destiny in the NFC East because they still have games against the Giants and Cowboys. If the Eagles don't make the playoffs, it will be because they fell apart in December.
Work To Do (Teams that still have a realistic shot)
Baltimore, Miami and Pittsburgh (6-6): The Dolphins still have a chance to catch the Patriots in the AFC East. Between the Ravens and Steelers, only one will survive -- if Baltimore beats Pittsburgh in their Week 16 game, it will likely be the Ravens because of the head-to-head advantage.
New York Giants (7-5): Beat the Eagles this week and New York moves into the control-their-own-destiny slot next week. With Carolina and the Redskins still on the schedule, a Giants win this week and a Cowboys loss could put the Giants in position to still win the division.
Looking For A Miracle (Teams that need everything to work out)
New York Jets (6-6): The Jets may have the same record as three other teams that are one game out in the wild-card chase, but their division record is an albatross in any tiebreakers. The Jets lose the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Dolphins and will lose any division-record tiebreaker to the Patriots. So for the Jets to earn a playoff spot, they can't end up in a tie with either of their fellow AFC East rivals.
Atlanta (6-6): The Falcons are two games out in the NFC wild-card race, they likely will be without their quarterback and tailback this weekend, and they'll be facing the undefeated Saints. All of that sounds really bad, but if they can somehow pull off the upset this weekend, things start looking up. The final two games of the season (Bills and Bucs) are nice breathers. But even with that, it's going to take a miracle for the Falcons to make their first-ever back-to-back playoff appearances.
It's Not Happening
Tennessee (5-7): Vince Young's amazing run is a great story, but the Titans' 3-7 conference record makes it very hard to map out a scenario where Tennessee makes the playoffs. Not only would Tennessee have to win out, but it'd also need at least two of the three of the combination of the Broncos, Jaguars and Ravens to finish worse than 9-7 because all three are guaranteed to finish with better conference records than the Titans.
Houston, San Francisco, Chicago, Carolina, Seattle (5-7): It's safe to say you can get really, really good odds if you want to bet on any one of these teams making the playoffs.
Stuff Worth Knowing.
If you need a refesher on the tiebreaker rules, here's the NFL's official explanation. And if you're wondering who wins head-to-head tiebreakers, here's a handy cheat sheet: