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NFL Playoff Picture, Week 14: Texans-Patriots looms large in AFC

Tom Brady and the Patriots have to beat the Texans this week to keep their hopes of securing the AFC's No. 1 seed alive. (Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE) Tom Brady and the Patriots have to beat the Texans this week to keep their hopes of securing the AFC's No. 1 seed alive. (Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE)

Four spots down, eight to go in the NFL's playoff race. A quartet of teams -- Houston, New England, Denver and Atlanta -- RSVP'd to the postseason last week, slicing by one-third the number of available spots.

But lest you think there will not be any commotion in the season's final four weeks, know this: only two more playoff spots can be claimed in Week 14, and neither is likely to fall. So, we should head into Week 15 still stuck on eight open playoff berths, with at least four divisions still on the table.

What's on the line this week? A look at the current situation ...

* means team has clinched a playoff spot.

AFC

Texans No. 1 seed: Houston Texans (11-1)*Remaining games: at Patriots (9-3), vs. Colts (8-4), vs. Vikings (6-6), at Colts (8-4)

The Texans wrapped up a playoff spot last week but have not secured the AFC South ... yet. That division crown could come as soon as Sunday. A Houston win in New England plus an Indianapolis loss to the Titans would get the job done. And if that doesn't happen, the Texans can take matters into their own hands next week. The only real question that seems to remain for Houston: Will this team be the AFC's top seed come playoff time? Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 10

Patriots No. 2 seed: New England Patriots (9-3)*Remaining games: vs. Texans (11-1), vs. 49ers (8-3-1), at Jaguars (2-10), vs. Dolphins (5-7)

New England clinched the AFC East with a Week 13 victory over Miami. Now the Patriots can set their sights on bigger targets, like a first-round bye and the No. 1 seed. The latter will depend greatly on Monday's showdown with Houston -- win and the Patriots put a ton of pressure on the Texans; a Houston win all but guarantees that the AFC playoff road will head through the Lone Star State. The Patriots' hope for a bye received a boost last week when Pittsburgh upset Baltimore. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 10

Ravens No. 3 seed: Baltimore Ravens (9-3) — Remaining games: at Redskins (5-6), vs. Broncos (9-3), vs. Giants (7-4), at Bengals (7-5)

The Ravens scored a 10 on the "playoff likelihood scale" last week, but that now looks like an error. The Ravens' loss to Pittsburgh put the AFC North back up for grabs and made Baltimore's difficult closing stretch that much more critical. Baltimore's magic number to secure a playoff spot sits at 2 -- any combination of Ravens wins and Pittsburgh (or Cincinnati) losses that add up to two locks up a berth. It's just not the sure thing it appeared to be headed into last week. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 9

Broncos No. 4 seed: Denver Broncos (9-3)*Remaining games: at Raiders (3-9), at Ravens (9-3), vs. Browns (4-8), vs. Chiefs (2-10)

The Broncos are dancing, having claimed the AFC West title decisively. The drama for Denver now pertains to its playoff seed. Denver could finish anywhere from No. 1 to No. 4 in the AFC, though losses to both New England and Houston likely mean the third or fourth spot is where the Broncos will land. Next week's trip to Baltimore will be a huge one for both teams. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 10

Colts No. 5 seed: Indianapolis Colts (8-4)Remaining games: vs. Titans (4-8), at Texans (11-1), at Chiefs (2-10), vs. Texans (11-1)

From a pure mathematical perspective, Indianapolis' win over Detroit looms large in the standings -- Indianapolis kept one game up on both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the wild-card race, plus kept open the possibility of stealing the division from Houston. So long as the Colts take care of business against Tennessee and Kansas City, they should be golden in the wild-card race. Anything beyond that will require a 4-0 finish and a sweep of Houston. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 8

Steelers No. 6 seed: Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5)Remaining games: vs. Chargers (4-8), at Cowboys (6-6), vs. Bengals (7-5), vs. Browns (4-8)

How 'bout that Charlie Batch? With Pittsburgh's playoff dreams slowly slipping away, Batch delivered a terrific performance to help the Steelers upset the Ravens. And take a look at that remaining schedule: Would it surprise anyone if Pittsburgh finished 4-0, especially if Ben Roethlisberger returns soon? Pittsburgh's most important game from here out is the Week 16 showdown with Cincinnati. But will that be for the AFC's final wild-card spot or the division crown? Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 7

Bengals Cincinnati Bengals (7-5)Remaining games: Cowboys (6-6), at Eagles (3-9), at Steelers (7-5), vs. Ravens (9-3)

Cincinnati absolutely had to have its game Sunday in San Diego. By securing that road win, the Bengals set the table for an exciting finish -- highlighted by those two division games in Weeks 16 and 17. But a slip-up against Dallas or Philadelphia would put Cincinnati even further behind the 8-ball. The Bengals still control their playoff destiny, but Dallas could change that. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 5

Still alive: Jets (5-7), Bills (5-7), Dolphins (5-7), Browns (4-8), Chargers (4-8), Titans (4-8)

Eliminated: Raiders (3-9), Jaguars (2-10), Chiefs (2-10)


NFC

Falcons No. 1 seed: Atlanta Falcons (11-1)*Remaining games: at Panthers (3-9), vs. Giants (7-4), at Lions (4-8), vs. Buccaneers (6-6)

The NFC South is in Atlanta's hands, officially. Now the Falcons can set their sights on securing the conference's top spot. A win plus losses by Chicago, Green Bay and San Francisco this week would cement Atlanta's status as the NFC's top dog. That set of results might be unlikely, but any two wins by the Falcons down the stretch would mean no NFC team could catch them. Of course, all four remaining contests on Atlanta's schedule could be tricky. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 10

49ers No. 2 seed: San Francisco 49ers (8-3-1)Remaining games: vs. Dolphins (5-7), at Patriots (9-3), at Seahawks (7-5), vs. Cardinals (4-8)

The 49ers let one get away last Sunday in St. Louis and now probably will need to wait until at least Week 15 to clinch a playoff spot (San Francisco needs a win plus losses from Dallas, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Washington and St. Louis to seal that up this week). Circle that Week 16 trip to Seattle on your schedules -- if the 49ers don't have the NFC West title in tow by then, it will be a game of massive importance. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 9

Packers No. 3 seed: Green Bay Packers (8-4)Remaining games: vs. Lions (4-8), at Bears (8-4), vs. Titans (4-8), at Vikings (6-6)

Green Bay moved back atop the NFC North, thanks to Chicago's home loss to Seattle. That division race likely hinges on next week's Packers-Bears clash in Chicago. But the Packers still have work to do just to clinch a playoff spot -- though a first-round bye also is within reach. In other words, Green Bay's spot could fluctuate a bunch in the coming weeks. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 8

Giants No. 4 seed: New York Giants (7-5)Remaining games: vs. Saints (5-7), at Falcons (11-1), at Ravens (9-3), vs. Eagles (3-9)

Collars getting tight, Giants? New York's Monday night setback in Washington whittled the division lead to one game -- and the Giants have a brutal next three weeks. They'll probably need at least a 2-1 mark there to hold their ground as the NFC East leader. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 6

Bears No. 5 seed: Chicago Bears (8-4)  — Remaining games: at Vikings (6-6), vs. Packers (8-4), at Cardinals (4-8), at Lions (4-8)

Chicago sits behind the Giants in the playoff pecking order, but the Bears are closer to wrapping up a postseason bid. A 2-2 close ought to get it done (and 1-3 might suffice too). The next two weeks will determine just how high Chicago can aim. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 7

Seahawks No. 6 seed: Seattle Seahawks (7-5)Remaining games: vs. Cardinals (4-8), at Bills (5-7), vs. 49ers (8-3-1), vs. Rams (5-6-1)

The Seahawks' win over the Bears put a big dent in the NFC East's hope of claiming two playoff spots. Seattle also finishes with three games at home, where it's been pretty smooth sailing. Can the 12th Man help Seattle steal an NFC West title? If nothing else, the comforts of home give the Seahawks a major edge in trying to nail down a wild-card berth. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 6

Redskins Washington Redskins (6-6)Remaining games: vs. Ravens (9-3), at Browns (4-8), at Eagles (3-9), vs. Cowboys (6-6)

For as exciting and cathartic as the Redskins' win over New York was for the franchise and its fans, there's work left to be done. The last four weeks set up nicely, provided Washington can turn around and knock off Baltimore on Sunday. Neither the Redskins nor the Cowboys have a game left against New York, but their Week 17 clash could be for all the NFC East marbles. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 5

Cowboys Dallas Cowboys (6-6)Remaining games: at Bengals (7-5), vs. Steelers (7-5), vs. Saints (5-7), at Redskins (5-6)

For the time being, consider Dallas third of the three NFC East hopefuls -- both in the standings and reality. The Cowboys already lost once to Washington, so that Week 17 rematch will be daunting, and Dallas will have a hard time finding even a win or two before that. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 3

Buccaneers Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6)Remaining games: vs. Eagles (3-9), at Saints (5-7), vs. Rams (5-6-1), at Falcons (11-1)

Can the Buccaneers win in New Orleans and/or Atlanta? If not, they can forget about representing the NFC South in the playoffs. Tampa Bay lost to the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins earlier this season, so they're in rough tiebreaker shape. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 2

VikingsMinnesota Vikings (6-6)Remaining games: vs. Bears (8-4), at Rams (5-6-1), at Texans (11-1), vs. Packers (8-4)

Sunday is a must-win for the Vikings, no doubt about it. Lose to the Bears for a second time in three weeks, and Minnesota would need to finish 3-0 and get a ton of help to reach the playoffs. Considering the Vikings close with Houston and Green Bay (plus a road game against an improved St. Louis team), that's a longshot. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 1.5

Still alive: Rams (5-6-1), Saints (5-7), Lions (4-8), Cardinals (4-8), Panthers (3-9), Eagles (3-9)

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