Here’s what the AFC and NFC playoff pictures look like after Sunday's action:
1. New England Patriots (9-2) AFC East leader
2. Denver Broncos (8-3) AFC West leader
3. Cincinnati Bengals (7-3-1) AFC North leader
4. Indianapolis Colts (7-4) AFC South leader
5. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) Wild-card
6. San Diego Chargers (7-4) Wild-card
Jonas Gray, LeGarrette Blount ... it really doesn't seem to matter which journeyman running back New England uses, the Patriots just keep winning. Their 34-9 thrashing of the Lions makes seven in a row, and more and more, the Pats look to be every bit the best team in the conference. The good news for the Broncos in their 39-36 nail-biter over the Dolphins is that Peyton Manning emerged from his recent cold streak, throwing four touchdowns and (more importantly) no interceptions against one of the league's better defenses. Andy Dalton was good enough for the Bengals to exact a measure of revenge for past wild-card heartbreaks at the hands of the Houston Texans, and the Colts are happy to play in the AFC South. That division contains the Jacksonville Jaguars, who Indy beat soundly on Sunday.
As you can see, the wild-card and in-the-hunt designations are pretty fungible; last week, it was the Chiefs and Dolphins who would have been the five- and six-seeds. But a loss to the Broncos pushed Miami into the basement of the hopefuls, while the Steelers and Browns popped up.
1. Arizona Cardinals (9-2) NFC West leader
2. Green Bay Packers (8-3) NFC North leader
3. Philadelphia Eagles (8-3) NFC East leader
4. Atlanta Falcons (4-7) NFC South leader
5. Dallas Cowboys (8-3) Wild-card
6. Seattle Seahawks (7-4) Wild-card
In the hunt: Detroit Lions (7-4), San Francisco 49ers (7-4).
The Cardinals have been hot enough that Sunday's 19-3 loss to the Seahawks doesn't throw too much shade on their top-seed aspirations -- at least, for now. But they have to face Seattle again, and there's a slate of brutal NFC West tilts ahead for both teams. With Detroit's blowout loss to the Patriots, the Packers have taken over as the clear leader in the NFC North -- they're looking better these days on defense, and the way Aaron Rodgers is playing of late, it would be foolish to think that the road to the Super Bowl in this conference couldn't go through Titletown. And the Lions are just fighting for oxygen at this point.
Where the NFC gets really interesting is in the battle between the two top teams in the East -- the Eagles rolled over the Titans earlier in the day, and had a little time to enjoy the specter of a real lead in the division before Dallas' come-from-behind victory over the Giants on Sunday night. With both teams at 8-3, Philly has a fractional divisional lead based on a better win percentage in divisional games, but things will turn pretty quickly one way or the other -- these two teams face off on Thanksgiving Day, and then again on Dec. 14.
Meanwhile, someone with a much better record is going to have to travel to play an NFC South "champion" who will probably fall short of a .500 record on the season, and people all over the country will wonder if it's time to reconsider how the playoffs are seeded. And those people will be absolutely right. If the season ended today, the Cowboys would travel to Atlanta to face a four-win team ... as an eight-win team. That's just weird, America.