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Here’s how the AFC and NFC playoff pictures look as Week 12 begins:
1. Denver Broncos (9-1): AFC West leader
2. Indianapolis Colts (7-3): AFC South leader
3. New England Patriots (7-3): AFC East leader
4. Cincinnati Bengals (7-4): AFC North leader
5. Kansas City Chiefs (9-1): Wild card
6. New York Jets (5-5): Wild card
Yes, America: The entire AFC is 4-6. Or maybe it just seems that way right now. And has there been a better argument for record-based playoff seeding than the eventual loser of the AFC West? Nothing says "fairness" like a 14-2 or 13-3 team with no postseason bye. Of course, the big shift in this conference came when the Broncos beat the Chiefs last Sunday night and flipped the No. 1 and No. 5 slots. The Colts also jumped over the Patriots by virtue of their win over the Titans, and New England's loss to the Panthers. The Bengals and Jets are the only bastions of stability among those teams currently earmarked for a playoff spot.
Among those looking for scraps off the table? The Raiders and Steelers officially moved from life support to possible entrants -- in fact, the Raiders are just one game behind the Dolphins, based on conference win percentage. The Fins face the Panthers this weekend, while the Raiders welcome the Titans to Your Name Here Coliseum, so it may be time to look at Oakland as a slightly frisky possibility.
Where things get really interesting is in the AFC North. Andy Dalton's recent performance slide has people wondering if the Bengals can keep their pace out front, and Cincinnati faces the Ravens and Steelers in the season's last three weeks. The Bengals have their bye this week to figure that out.
Looking for movement on the top spot? You'll have to start by hoping that the Patriots can upset the Broncos, who travel to Foxboro for Brady-Manning Bowl XIV. The Chiefs have the Chargers at Arrowhead, which should effectively take San Diego out of this discussion. As for the Bills ... putting a 4-7 team in this mix? Let's just say we have a feeling. The Jets look slippery downhill, the Dolphins are going to implode at some point, and EJ Manuel appears to be finding a groove.
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1. Seattle Seahawks (10-1): NFC West leader
2. New Orleans Saints (8-2): NFC South leader
3. Detroit Lions (6-4): NFC North leader
4. Philadelphia Eagles (6-5): NFC East leader
5. Carolina Panthers (7-3) Wild card
6. San Francisco 49ers (6-4) Wild card
Seattle has its bye this week, and then things get really interesting for the league's current best team. The Seahawks welcome the Saints to CenturyLink Field on Dec. 2, and that game may determine home-field advantage in the playoffs -- a huge deal for the two teams with perhaps the NFC's best home-field advantages. New Orleans will have extra time to prepare for that on the heels of Thursday night's win over the Falcons. After Seattle, the Saints get the Panthers twice in three weeks. If you've seen Carolina lately, you'll believe that the NFC South is by no means wrapped up.
The NFC North is equally confusing, of course. Detroit has the lead because it swept the Bears this season, but Chicago has been far more efficient this season, per Football Outsiders' metrics. The Packers have the third-easiest remaining schedule in the league (per FO), but they're on hold until Aaron Rodgers comes back. Detroit has a suddenly plucky Buccaneers team this Sunday, while Chicago faces the St. Louis Rams' tough front seven.
Two teams to watch through the last six weeks of the season are the Eagles and the Cardinals -- Philly has the hang of the full-steam version of the Chip Kelly offense, and that defense is starting to come around. Don't be surprised if the Eagles start rising up the charts. And the Cardinals have the NFL's best defense (surprise, surprise) -- if Carson Palmer can stay on his feet and avoid pressure-based mistakes, Arizona could leap over San Francisco. Behind the Eagles in the NFC East, the Giants could actually start to make a go of it as a wild-card entrant after an 0-6 beginning if they beat the Cowboys this Sunday. A loss would drop Dallas down to third in the division, and it's hard to see it recovering from that when Monte Kiffin's defense is finding new ways to free-fall every week.