NFL playoff scenarios shaken up in Week 15

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The Ravens' three-game losing streak has put them on the outside looking in for a first-round bye. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The Ravens' three-game losing streak has put them on the outside looking in for a first-round bye. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Several of Sunday's games are of critical importance in the NFL postseason race. You can revisit the full playoff picture and a breakdown of this week's scenarios here, but we're keeping an eye on what each of the Week 15 outcomes means for the conference, division and wild-card standings.



Houston has clinched the AFC South: The Texans bounced back from their embarrassing Week 14 shellacking at New England to take down Indianapolis on Sunday. That win moved Houston to 12-2 on the season and eliminated any chance that the Colts can steal first place.

Denver can finish no lower than third in the AFC: The Broncos' rout of Baltimore on Sunday (their ninth straight win) secured Peyton Manning's team a top-three spot in the conference. New England's loss to San Francisco means that Denver controls its destiny for a first-round bye -- win their last two, and the Broncos will avoid playing on the playoff's first weekend.

Baltimore's lead in the AFC North is down to one game (but the Ravens have clinched a playoff spot): Both the Steelers and Bengals could max out at 10 wins, while the Ravens are stuck on nine -- and finish with games against the Giants and in Cincinnati. That Week 17 Ravens-Bengals showdown could be for the division title.

Pittsburgh's loss to Dallas clinched a playoff spot for Baltimore, officially, though only a wild set of circumstances that included a Pittsburgh-Cincinnati tie would have bounced the Ravens.


Cincinnati has the upper hand in the wild-card race, but ...: The Bengals currently have a one-game lead on Pittsburgh in the AFC North and 1.5-game edge on the Jets (who play Monday night). However, Cincinnati still faces what amounts to a must-win next week in Pittsburgh -- if the Steelers get to 9-7, the Bengals could only qualify if the Colts lose out to finish 9-7 as well.

There remain a lot of scenarios that could play out for the AFC's final wild-card spots, but that Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game has massive implications.

Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh all control their own destinies in the AFC wild-card race: The Colts need just one win (either next week at Kansas City or in Week 17 vs. Houston) to clinch a playoff spot. Losses by Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and the Jets would get the job done too, but the Colts' easiest road is to take care of business.

Both the Bengals and Steelers are in the same spot: Win and they're in. Cincinnati could clinch a wild-card berth as early as next Sunday -- one Jets loss plus a Bengals' win over the Steelers and they would be home free.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, simply has to beat Cincinnati and Cleveland at home in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively, to return to the postseason.

What the Jets need: Basically, three wins and total chaos. The Jets cannot get into the postseason at 8-8 -- Indianapolis already has nine wins, and if both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh finish at .500, the Steelers would beat New York via tiebreaker.

However, if the Jets can make it to 9-7, one more loss each from Pittsburgh and Cincinnati would get them to the postseason. So, too, would an 0-2 finish from the Colts.

Current seeds, through Sunday night's game: 1. Texans (12-2), 2. Broncos (11-3), 3. Patriots (10-4), 4. Ravens (9-5), 5. Colts (9-5), 6. Bengals (8-6)


San Francisco has clinched a playoff berth: The 49ers can put a bow on the NFC West with a Week 16 win in Seattle, but for now, they'll have to settle for knowing that they'll be postseason participants. San Francisco also kept its hold on the NFC's No. 2 seed and a coveted first-round bye, thanks to Sunday night's win in New England.

Green Bay has clinched the NFC North: Their win in Chicago wrapped up a division title for the Packers. They also remain alive for a first-round bye in the NFC and would jump up to the No. 2 spot if San Francisco loses Sunday night.

Washington now leads the NFC East; Dallas and the Giants both control their own destinies (to a point): Thanks to their 3-1 record in the division, the Redskins' win over Cleveland leapfrogged them up and over the Giants for first place in the NFC East.

However, with the Cowboys' win over Pittsburgh, there is a three-way tie atop the NFC East. Dallas would take the division by winning out (vs. New Orleans, at Washington), as a tiebreaker with the Giants would fall the Cowboys' way.

For the Giants to take the NFC East, they need both the Cowboys and Redskins to lose in the last two weeks (and one of them will, barring a tie, when they play in Week 17). New York also has to finish 2-0 ... a result that would lock up a playoff berth for the defending champs, even though ...

... Minnesota currently holds the No. 6 seed: Stick with me here, because we're well past where the playoff scenarios get nuts. Five teams sit tied at 8-6 right now (Minnesota, Washington, Dallas, the Giants and Chicago). The NFL's system in a multi-team tie goes through divisional tiebreakers first, then cross-divisional ones.

The short version of the breakdown is this: Washington has the NFC East tiebreaker edge on the Giants and Dallas; Dallas is a leg up on the Giants in the wild-card race; and Minnesota is then ahead of both Dallas and Chicago.

Because of all those wacky tiebreakers, though, a lot of the positioning will switch since the NFC East teams play within the division in Weeks 16 and 17.

The Seahawks, Redskins, Cowboys and Giants control their own destinies: If any three of those teams finish 2-0 over the season's last two weeks, they will join Atlanta, San Francisco and Green Bay in the playoffs (all four cannot go 2-0, since Washington and Dallas play).

Losses by more than one of those teams would open the door for Chicago, Minnesota or, should the conference fly completely off the rails, St. Louis.

Chicago would be wise to finish 2-0: There's a path to the playoffs at 9-7 for the currently 8-6 Bears, but it would require the Vikings to fall to 8-8 and the NFC East to finish exactly with one 10-6 team and two 9-7 teams. In other words, it would be very difficult.

Should the Bears get to 10-6, they would have a very legitimate shot. In short, they would then need three of Minnesota, Seattle, Dallas, Washington and the Giants to drop to 9-7. Either the Cowboys or Redskins (barring a tie) will get their in Week 17. Can two others fall?

We'll try sort it out further for you as the week goes along ...

Current seeds, through Sunday night's game: