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NFL Playoff Picture, Week 15: More spots could be clinched this week

If the Patriots can hold off the red-hot Broncos this week, they'll clinch the AFC East title. (Mark Buscher/Cal Sport Media)

How's this potential playoff first-round schedule strike you?: Jets at New England, Pittsburgh at Denver, Detroit at New Orleans and Atlanta at the Giants.

Looks pretty entertaining from here. Of course, the situation changes by the game, so we're a long way from having anything set in stone. But with Houston, Green Bay and San Francisco already claiming division crowns, and New England and New Orleans not far behind, we can speculate with a little more certainty.

Week 15 kicks off with the Falcons facing a must-win at home Thursday night against the Jaguars. Just about every game is critical this time of year, though. Here's how the NFL playoff picture looks heading into Week 15:

AFC

No. 1 seed: Houston Texans (10-3) — Remaining opponents: vs. Panthers, at Colts, vs. Titans

No. 2 seed: Baltimore Ravens (10-3) — Remaining opponents: at Chargers, vs. Browns, at Bengals

No. 3 seed: New England Patriots (10-3) — Remaining opponents: at Broncos, vs. Dolphins, vs. Bills

No. 4 seed: Denver Broncos (8-5) — Remaining opponents: vs. Patriots, at Bills, vs. Chiefs

No. 5 seed: Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) — Remaining opponents: at 49ers, vs. Rams, at Browns

No. 6 seed: New York Jets (8-5) — Remaining opponents: at Eagles, vs. Giants, at Dolphins

On the bubble: Tennessee Titans (7-6), Cincinnati Bengals (7-6), Oakland Raiders (7-6), San Diego Chargers (6-7)

The NFL's playoff tiebreaker system is a fickle mistress, something the Patriots found out this week by dropping from the AFC's top spot to No. 3 despite a win. Why? Well, the Pats won out of the conference, while Houston and Baltimore did the opposite. That gave the Texans a better conference record than the Patriots (8-2 vs. 7-2), and tied the Ravens with New England in that category -- Baltimore owns the "common opponent" tiebreaker over the Patriots, by virtue of its sweep over a Pittsburgh team that beat Tom Brady's bunch.

Houston clinched the AFC South and its first-ever playoff spot last week , despite being down to third-string QB T.J. Yates.

New England can still clinch the AFC East with a win this week at Denver or a Jets loss.

Speaking of the Jets' rollercoaster ride ... New York is also back in the mix, with a full game lead now over the rest of the wild-card hopefuls. The Jets control their own destiny, but their last three games will be tough.

Both Baltimore and Pittsburgh can punch playoff tickets this week, too, simply by winning or tying in their respective games. The Steelers can also clinch a wild-card spot with a loss by any one of the Jets, Broncos, Titans and Raiders; Baltimore would need two losses from the Jets-Titans-Raiders trio.

NFC

No. 1 seed: Green Bay Packers (13-0) — Remaining opponents: at Chiefs, vs. Bears, vs. Lions

No. 2 seed: San Francisco 49ers (10-3) — Remaining opponents: vs. Steelers, at Seahawks, at Rams

No. 3 seed: New Orleans Saints (10-3) — Remaining opponents: at Vikings, vs. Falcons, vs. Panthers

No. 4 seed: New York Giants (7-6) — Remaining opponents: vs. Redskins, at Jets, vs. Cowboys

No. 5 seed: Atlanta Falcons (8-5) — Remaining opponents: vs. Jaguars, at Saints, vs. Buccaneers

No. 6 seed: Detroit Lions (8-5) — Remaining opponents: at Raiders, vs. Chargers, at Packers

On the bubble: Chicago Bears (7-6), Dallas Cowboys (7-6), Seattle Seahawks (6-7), Arizona Cardinals (6-7)

A Packers win or a 49ers loss would wrap up Green Bay's home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. It's an inevitability at this point, but claiming that edge this week would give the Packers even more reason to consider resting people in Weeks 16 and 17.

San Francisco's loss last Sunday brought New Orleans back into the first-round bye mix. The Saints have three in-conference losses to the 49ers' two, so they need another San Francisco stumble to jump up to the NFC's No. 2 seed. But the Saints can clinch the NFC South with a win or tie coupled with an Atlanta loss.

Thanks to a friendly remaining schedule, starting with a Thursday night home game against Jacksonville, the Falcons have to be feeling pretty good about their chances. Beating the Jags and then the Buccaneers in Week 17 would bump them to that magical 10-win spot.

Detroit's actually in pretty good shape now, too, because it holds tiebreakers over Chicago (common opponents), Dallas (head-to-head) and the Giants (conference record). One more Lions win would force those teams to win out to jump them -- and either Dallas or New York will take at least one more loss, since the two teams meet in Week 17.

Believe it or not, the Lions' biggest worry if they get to nine wins is the NFC West. If either Seattle or Arizona runs the table to get to 9-7 (and those teams also play in Week 17), it would have the conference-record edge on Detroit.

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