Tuesday December 20th, 2011

Alex Smith and the 49ers took a big step toward a first-round bye Monday night. They can finish the job this week. (Cary Edmondson/US Presswire)

Seven of the 12 playoff spots have been claimed across the league -- four in the AFC and three in the NFC. All but one of those remaining slots could come off the table in Week 16, with only the sixth and final AFC seed free of clinching scenarios this weekend.

With Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Houston all losing in Week 15, the Patriots now have a clear path through Gillette Stadium to the Super Bowl -- as things stand right now, they will not leave their home stadium between now and then.

Green Bay's still in total command in the NFC, even with its upset loss at Kansas City last week. But the 49ers took a huge step toward a first-round bye with Monday's win over the Steelers.

Here is the current playoff picture and the NFL's Week 16 playoff scenarios:


No. 1 seed: New England Patriots (11-3) — Remaining opponents: vs. Dolphins, vs. Bills

No. 2 seed: Baltimore Ravens (10-4) — Remaining opponents: vs. Browns, at Bengals

No. 3 seed: Houston Texans (10-4) — Remaining opponents: at Colts, vs. Titans

No. 4 seed: Denver Broncos (8-6) — Remaining opponents: at Bills, vs. Chiefs

No. 5 seed: Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4) — Remaining opponents: vs. Rams, at Browns

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

On the bubble: Cincinnati Bengals (8-6), Tennessee Titans (7-7), Oakland Raiders (7-7)San Diego Chargers (7-7), Kansas City Chiefs (6-8)

The Patriots can wrap up a first-round bye with a win or tie plus a Houston loss or tie, or losses by the Steelers and Ravens. They also can secure home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs if they win and the Texans, Steelers and Ravens all lose or tie their Week 16 games.

New England looked doomed to the No. 2 or 3 seed for awhile -- it trailed tiebreakers to the Ravens and Steelers heading into Week 15. Now, if the Patriots beat Buffalo and Miami at home, the AFC race will go through Foxborough.

Baltimore also finds itself in a terrific position, despite falling in Week 15 at San Diego. The Ravens can clinch the AFC North this Sunday with a win and Steelers loss. They can also secure a first-round bye and at least the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a win, Steelers loss and Texans loss.

A Denver win plus Oakland loss or tie would hand the AFC West to the Broncos. Tim Tebow's bunch could ensure a playoff spot with a win, Jets loss, Bengals loss and Titans loss or tie.

The Steelers already had clinched a playoff spot prior to their Monday night loss in San Francisco. They're stuck in the No. 5 slot, barring two Pittsburgh wins and a Baltimore loss somewhere along the line.


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

No. 2 seed: San Francisco 49ers (11-3) — Remaining opponents: at Seahawks, at Rams

No. 3 seed: New Orleans Saints (11-3) — Remaining opponents: vs. Falcons, vs. Panthers

No. 4 seed: Dallas Cowboys (8-6) — Remaining opponents: vs. Eagles, at Giants

No. 5 seed: Atlanta Falcons (9-5) — Remaining opponents: at Saints, vs. Buccaneers

No. 6 seed: Detroit Lions (9-5) — Remaining opponents: vs. Chargers, at Packers

On the bubble: Seattle Seahawks (7-7), Chicago Bears (7-7), New York Giants (7-7), Arizona Cardinals (7-7), Philadelphia Eagles (6-8)

The Packers can focus on the playoffs, now that their chance at a 16-0 regular season has gone by the wayside. Any Green Bay win or San Francisco loss over the season's final two weeks would send the NFC trudging through the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.

San Francisco can lock down a first-round bye this week with a win in Seattle and a New Orleans loss to Atlanta. The 49ers long ago clinched the NFC West.

New Orleans, however, can clinch the NFC South -- and stay alive in the first-round bye race -- by beating Atlanta on Monday night.

The fourth-seeded Cowboys have a potential do-or-die game in Week 17 against the Giants, but Dallas could wrap up the NFC East this week instead. A Cowboys win plus a Giants loss or tie (or a Cowboys tie plus a Giants loss) would end the race before Week 17.

Atlanta would be in fine wild-card position, even with a loss this Monday, but a win or tie in New Orleans would guarantee the Falcons a playoff spot. So, too, would a Bears loss or tie, Cardinals loss or tie, and a Giants or Cowboys loss or tie. Finally, in the NFC, Detroit -- yes, Detroit -- can punch its playoff ticket by beating or tying the Chargers this week. The Lions could get in by losing, but it would require four other teams (Chicago, Arizona, Seattle and either Dallas, the Giants or Atlanta) to lose or tie in Week 16.

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