Here’s what the NFL Playoff Picture looks like after Sunday's action:
1. New England Patriots (11-3)
2. Denver Broncos (11-3)
3. Indianapolis Colts (10-4)
4. Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1)
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5)
6. Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
The Patriots hold on to the No. 1 seed after their 41-13 beatdown of the Dolphins. While New England's schedule is certainly more favorable than Denver's (the Broncos travel to Cincinnati for MNF in Week 16 before a finale vs. Oakland), it's no cakewalk. The Jets (Week 16) always play the Pats tough, and Buffalo (Week 17) showed Sunday with its win over the Packers that it can be a giant-killer. Given that New England owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, Denver needs to win out and hope one of those teams can pull an upset.
New England, Denver and Indianapolis all clinched division titles Sunday, but barring an unexpected collapse (or injury), the Colts are unlikely to rise higher than No. 3. The Patriots and Broncos have a head-to-head tiebreaker over Indy, and a challenging trip to Dallas still remains on the Colts' schedule.
The AFC north, the most competitive division in the NFL all season long, would put three teams in the playoffs if the season ended today. With a Week 17 matchup looming, the Bengals and Steelers each control their own destiny. If one wins out, the division is theirs. Both face tough games in Week 15: Cincy hosts Denver; Pittsburgh hosts Kansas City. The Ravens need some help to capture the division crown, but a favorable schedule (at Houston, which is down to its third-string rookie QB; vs. Cleveland) and a loss by San Diego makes them a likely wild-card team.
Sitting just outside the playoff picture, Kansas City controls its own destiny. If it wins out, it'll capture a wild-card spot. San Diego, which travels to Kansas City in Week 17, needs some help to make the playoffs after a loss to Denver this week. An upset win over the Packers resuscitated the Bills' playoff hopes, but they too need help down the stretch.
1. Arizona Cardinals (11-3)
2. Detroit Lions (10-4)
3. Dallas Cowboys (10-4)
4. New Orleans Saints (6-8)
5. Seattle Seahawks (10-4)
6. Green Bay Packers (10-4)
Surprise, surprise: The Week 16 game between the Cardinals and Seahawks will have big implications. A win for the Cardinals all but secures the No. 1 seed; a loss likely relegates them to wild-card status and gives the Seahawks the ability to secure the No. 1 seed for themselves. Both face NFC West foes in Week 17 (Cardinals at 49ers; Rams at Seahawks).
Speaking of divisional matchups with big stakes, the winner of the Week 17 tilt between the Packers and Lions at Lambeau will take the NFC North. Green Bay's loss to Buffalo, however, likely took the No. 1 seed off the table for Aaron Rodgers and Co.
With their win over the Eagles in SNF, the Cowboys took sole possession of first place in the NFC East. The road isn't easy for Dallas (vs. Indy, at Washington), but if it survives that test against the Colts, the No. 2 seed is in reach. The Eagles have a much easier stretch run, though it all comes on the road (at Washington, at Giants). If they can match the Cowboys at 11 wins, the East is theirs by virtue of a better record within the division.
Over in the wacky NFC South, the Saints' 31-15 win over the Bears on Monday night gives them the division lead at 6-8 and puts them in control of their own playoff destiny. Drew Brees and Co. finish off the season with games against the Falcons and the Bucs. Meanwhile, the Panthers, a team that lost six straight from mid-October through late November and saw its starting QB injured in a car accident on Tuesday, have won two straight and are still alive in the South. With games against the Browns and Falcons remaining, Carolina can win the South with a 7-8-1 record, but they'll need losses from the Saints.