Here’s what the AFC and NFC playoff pictures look like after Sunday's action:
1. New England Patriots (8-2) AFC East leader
2. Denver Broncos (7-3) AFC West leader
3. Cincinnati Bengals (6-3-1) AFC North leader
4. Indianapolis Colts (6-4) AFC South leader
5. Kansas City Chiefs (7-3) Wild-card
6. Miami Dolphins (6-4) Wild-card
In the hunt: San Diego Chargers (6-4), Baltimore Ravens (6-4), Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4; play Monday night against Tennessee Titans), Cleveland Browns (6-4)
With their Sunday night slaughter of the Colts, the Patriots have taken a serious lead in the AFC, owning the advantage over the Broncos by beating Peyton Manning's team two weeks ago. Since their 41-14 loss to the Chiefs in Week 4, New England has won six straight, and any current comments about Tom Brady as a player past his prime should get the head-shaking incredulity they deserve. The Pats do have some challenges coming up, though -- they welcome the 7-3 Lions to Foxboro next Sunday and then travel to Lambeau Field the week after to face the unstoppable-looking Packers. Denver is in soul-searching mode after losing to the aforementioned Pats and dropping one to the Rams this Sunday -- the walk in the park against the Raiders in the middle of that three-game stretch doesn't really count.
The Colts are a near-sure thing to win their division again and head to the playoffs, but do they look like a team that can go on the road and get it done in the postseason? Their defense is a mixed bag at best whenever Vontae Davis isn't out there, and the Pats exposed them as weak against the run. Similarly, the Bengals, with their inconsistent defense and Andy Dalton's spiky performances, don't look to have graduated to a level above the teams that got blasted in the postseason in the last two years.
Kansas City might be the AFC's sleeper -- they beat Seattle with pure physical domination on Sunday, and they trail the Broncos by virtue of their 24-17 loss to Denver in Week 2. They'll welcome the Broncos to Arrowhead Stadium on Nov. 30 after this Thursday's game against the Raiders, and a long rest before the rematch. The Dolphins will go as far as Ryan Tannehill and a resurgent defense will take them, but they also have Denver, Baltimore and New England in the next month.
1. Arizona Cardinals (9-1) NFC West leader
2. Detroit Lions (7-3) NFC North leader
3. Philadelphia Eagles (7-3) NFC East leader
4. Atlanta Falcons (4-6) NFC South leader
5. Green Bay Packers (7-3) Wild-card
6. Dallas Cowboys (7-3) Wild-card
In the hunt: San Francisco 49ers (6-4), Seattle Seahawks (6-4)
Bruce Arians' Cardinals team beat the Lions' league-best pass defense on Sunday with backup quarterback Drew Stanton, raising Arizona (sorry) to a 9-1 mark, the best in the NFL, and a seemingly inevitable Coach of the Year award for Arians. Now, the Lions are hearing serious footsteps -- and they come from the Packers, who are putting up some historic offensive performances right now -- Aaron Rodgers is on the same pace as he was during his amazing 2011 season, and Green Bay's defense looks to be for real now. In order to keep their heads above water in the NFC North, Detroit must be more consistent in their passing game -- Matthew Stafford looked pretty rough against Arizona.
By the way, the Cards had to be happy with Seattle's loss to the Chiefs -- if they can head up to the Emerald City and beat their division mates up there (don't laugh -- they did it last season despite a four-interception performance from Carson Palmer), they'll have a three-game lead in the NFC West. That's not a certainty by any means, but it does allow them to play more for home-field through the playoffs than any survival kick. Right now, the Seahawks and 49ers are each on the outside looking in, with remaining schedules heavy on brutal inter-divisional matchups. That might be the thing that upsets Arizona's apple cart, if anything can -- they have the same lights-out kinds of games on the docket.
As for the NFC East, the Eagles proved in their loss to the Packers on Sunday that they are no sure thing to take the division with Mark Sanchez in charge (not that they were a lock with Nick Foles this year, either), and the Cowboys could rise up in the rankings.