Wednesday December 7th, 2011

In Week 14, Drew Brees and the Saints could become the third NFC team to clinch a playoff spot. (Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire)

Two of the NFL's 12 postseason slots were filled last week, as Green Bay and San Francisco both wrapped up division titles. Four more invitations to the big show could be sent out this week.

The Saints, Patriots and Texans can all clinch their respective divisions with a win and a little bit of help -- New Orleans also needs the Falcons to lose to Carolina; New England needs a "W" plus a Jets loss; and Houston requires a Tennessee loss.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh, despite being in second place in the AFC North, could lock down a wild-card spot with a lengthy list of occurrences (Win plus losses by Cincinnati, the Jets and Tennessee is the easiest).

But things, arguably, are more interesting the further down the playoff race you get. Several spots in both conferences are wide open heading into Week 14.

AFC

No. 1 seed: New England Patriots (9-3) — Remaining opponents: at Redskins, at Broncos, vs. Dolphins, vs. Bills

No. 2 seed: Houston Texans (9-3) — Remaining opponents: at Bengals, vs. Panthers, at Colts, vs. Titans

No. 3 seed: Baltimore Ravens (9-3) — Remaining opponents: vs. Colts, at Chargers, vs. Browns, at Bengals

No. 4 seed: Denver Broncos (7-5) — Remaining opponents: vs. Bears, vs. Patriots, at Bills, vs. Chiefs

No. 5 seed: Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3) — Remaining opponents: vs. Browns, at 49ers, vs. Rams, at Browns

No. 6 seed: Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) — Remaining opponents: vs. Texans, at Rams, vs. Cardinals, vs. Ravens

On the bubble: Tennessee Titans (7-5), New York Jets (7-5), Oakland Raiders (7-5)Buffalo Bills (5-7)

The big change here: Denver, thanks to five straight wins and better conference and division records than the Raiders, has leapfrogged Oakland in the AFC West. And not only did the Raiders fall out of the AFC West lead, they dropped from the No. 4 seed last week to ninth place. Denver has a very manageable closing schedule, too, so the one-time 2-5 Broncos have the inside track on a stunning division title.

New England and Houston also flip-flopped spots, with the Patriots now in line for the No. 1 seed. The Patriots' Week 13 win over the Colts gave them and the Texans matching 7-2 conference records, so the top spot is New England's by virtue of a common-opponent edge -- the Patriots beat the Raiders; the Texans lost to them.

And while the second-place finisher in the AFC North, either the Steelers or Ravens, will take the No. 5 seed, that final conference seed is up for grabs. The Bengals, Titans and Raiders all play first-place teams this week, so the opportunity is there for the Jets, who host Kansas City, to jump back into the top six.

NFC

No. 1 seed: Green Bay Packers (12-0) — Remaining opponents: vs. Raiders, at Chiefs, vs. Bears, vs. Lions

No. 2 seed: San Francisco 49ers (9-2) — Remaining opponents: at Cardinals, vs. Steelers, at Seahawks, at Rams

No. 3 seed: New Orleans Saints (9-3) — Remaining opponents: at Titans, at Vikings, vs. Falcons, vs. Panthers

No. 4 seed: Dallas Cowboys (7-5) — Remaining opponents: vs. Giants, at Buccaneers, vs. Eagles, at Giants

No. 5 seed: Chicago Bears (7-5) — Remaining opponents: at Broncos, vs. Seahawks, at Packers, at Vikings

No. 6 seed: Atlanta Falcons (7-5) — Remaining opponents: at Panthers, vs. Jaguars, at Saints, vs. Buccaneers

On the bubble: Detroit Lions (7-5), New York Giants (6-6), Seattle Seahawks (5-7)

Are the top three seeds in the NFC really that intimidating? It must seem that way to the rest of the playoff contenders, because teams four through eight all lost last week. That carnage actually brought the Seahawks back to the outskirts of the playoff picture -- at this point, a 9-7 mark might be enough for a team to claim a wild-card spot.

A 9-7 record seems like it would hold up in the NFC East too, where the Cowboys' tenuous lead held for another week. Their showdown with the Giants is one of Week 14's biggest games.

Don't be surprised if Detroit's back in a wild-card spot come Monday. The Lions host 2-10 Minnesota this week, while both Chicago and Atlanta face tricky games on the road. The Falcons are favored against the Panthers, who should give Atlanta all it can handle. The Bears, on the other hand, head into Denver as underdogs. Oh, and those plucky Seahawks have the Monday night stage, at home against the reeling Rams.

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