Here's everything you need to know about the NFL playoff picture as it stands.
It's the most wonderful time of the year—temperatures are falling, the holiday spirit is in the air and the NFL is entering the stretch run. While there's still plenty of time for the playoff picture to go haywire—which it almost certainly will—we're at a point in the year when postseason scenarios are beginning to take shape. By now, a few teams are virtual locks to make the playoffs while a growing number of teams need late-season magic.
Before we get to the current playoff picture, let's review the qualification rules, which are the same for both the AFC and the NFC.
• The winners of each division—the North, South, East and West—qualify for the playoffs and earn the top four seeds. The team with the best record earns the No. 1 seed, the second-best earns the No. 2 seed, etc. If a team wins its division with a 7-9 record while another team qualifies as a Wild Card with an 11-5 record, the division winner will be seeded higher.
• The two teams with the best record that do not win their division qualify in the Wild Card spots, seeded fifth and sixth.
• If two teams in the same division finish with the same record, the first tiebreaker is their head-to-head record. If the teams split the two games played against each other, the next tiebreaker is the teams' record against teams within the division. If the in-division records are the same, the next tiebreaker is the teams' records in games against common opponents. If that too is is the same, the fourth tiebreaker is the teams' record against teams within the conference.
• If two teams in different divisions finish with the same record, the first tiebreaker is the head-to-head matchup, if applicable. If the teams did not play each other, the next tiebreaker is the teams' record within the conference. If that too is the same, the third tiebreaker is the teams' record against common opponents.
• The top two teams in each conference receive first-round byes. Each conference's No. 3 seed hosts the No. 6 seed, while the No. 4 seed hosts the No. 5 seed in the Wild Card Round.
• In every playoff game, the higher seed hosts the lower seed.
• After the Wild Card round comes the Divisional Round, during which the top seed in each conference plays the lowest remaining seed, while the No. 2 seed plays the higher-seeded team. There is no bracket as there is the NBA playoffs; matchups in the Divisional Round depend on the winners in the Wild Card round.
Now that the clerical stuff is out of the way, let's get to the playoff picture.
Current Wild Card matchups
6. Ravens at 3. Titans, 5. Jaguars at 4. Chiefs.
1. Patriots, 2. Steelers have byes, will host Divisional Round games.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-2, DIV: 4-0, AFC: 7-1, first place in AFC North)
Remaining games: vs. Ravens, vs. Patriots, at Texans, vs. Browns.
Monday night's 23-20 victory over the Bengals was anything but pretty, both in terms of football and player safety. On the football front, Pittsburgh fell behind 17-0 as Andy Dalton put forward one of the better halves you'll see a quarterback play. And on the player safety front, star linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spine injury in the first half and appeared to lose movement in his lower body. Then in the second half, JuJu Smith-Schuster was flagged for a nasty hit on Vontaze Burfict, who also had to be carried out on a stretcher. When all was said and done, Chris Boswell again saved the day for the Steelers, who remain atop the AFC West because they have a better record than the Patriots against common opponents. Next up for Mike Tomlin's team is the streaking Ravens—a win will clinch the AFC North—followed by a showdown with New England that could be for home-field advantage.
2. New England Patriots (10-2, DIV: 3-0, AFC: 7-1, first place in AFC East)
Remaining games: at Dolphins, at Steelers, vs. Bills, vs. Jets
New England had no trouble dispatching the Bills on Sunday in a workmanlike 23-3 victory. It's hard to believe, but the Patriots might actually be flying under the radar. New England has won eight in a row and can clinch its ninth consecutive (!!!) AFC East title with a win at the 5-7 Dolphins on Sunday. That Week 15 matchup between the Pats and Steelers at Heinz Field is looking more and more like it will determine the AFC's number one seed. But with the defense steadily improving and Tom Brady playing at his magnificent best, the Patriots will like their chances to get to the Super Bowl no matter where they have to play to get there.
3. Tennessee Titans (8-4, DIV: 4-1, AFC: 7-4, first place in AFC South)
Remaining games: at Cardinals, at 49ers, vs. Rams, vs. Jaguars
The Titans just keep winning the games they should. Sunday's 24-13 victory over the Texans was far from pretty—the Titans actually trailed early—and the game Derrick Henry's 75-yard garbage time touchdown made the final score look more lopsided than the game was. But at this point in the season, style points are completely irrelevant; wins are wins, and each one is as sweet as can be, no matter how it might have looked. The Titans have a good chance to get to 10-4 with two very winnable games on the horizon, but a brutal final two-game stretch pits them against the Rams and Jaguars. That Week 17 game against Jacksonville could well decide who wins the AFC South, but Tennessee can put itself in really good position to reach the playoffs with wins against Arizona and San Francisco. Tennessee currently holds the tiebreaker over Jacksonville via a 37-16 win over the Jags way back in Week 2.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (6-6, DIV: 2-1, AFC: 4-4, first place AFC West)
Remaining games: vs. Raiders, vs. Chargers, vs. Dolphins, at Broncos
Free. Free falling. That's what the Kansas City Chiefs are doing, plain and simple. After starting the season 5-0, Andy Reid's team has lost six of seven and find itself in the middle of a dogfight for the AFC East, and they're up against two teams that are trending in the opposite direction: upwards. Sunday's loss to the Jets came at no fault of the offense, which bounced back from some anemic performances to put 31 on the board, or Alex Smith, who rebounded from poor play to throw for 366 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. But the defense just could not get a stop all game. The Chiefs still hold the tiebreaker over the Chargers and Raiders because they have a better in-division record (2-1), but these next two weeks (vs. Oakland, vs. San Diego) will determine Kansas City's season.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-4, DIV: 3-1, AFC: 8-2, second place in AFC South)
Remaining games: vs. Seahawks, vs. Texans, at 49ers, at Titans
Sunday's game against the Colts had some trap-game potential, but Jacksonville's defense imposed its will early and the Jags cruised to a 30-10 victory that was desperately needed after a momentum-killing loss to Arizona the week before. Sure, it came against the three-win Colts, but Sunday's performance serves as a blueprint for how this Jaguars team could win a playoff game—the defense forces turnovers, Leonard Fournette gets the ball early and often and, perhaps most important, Blake Bortles does not turn the ball over. Next up is a clash of defenses with Seattle on Sunday in what has to be one of the biggest games in recent Jaguars history. Also looming large is that season-ender at Tennessee.
6. Baltimore Ravens (7-5, DIV: 2-1, AFC: 5-3, second place in AFC North)
Remaining games: at Steelers, at Browns, vs. Colts, vs. Bengals
It always felt like at least one AFC team would emerge from the cluster around .500 to become a legitimate playoff threat, and the Ravens have done exactly that. Baltimore's defense is playing some terrific football, and Joe Flacco has bounced back from a lackluster start to the season and played probably his best game of the season on Sunday, when Baltimore handled Detroit 44-20. Baltimore is in all likelihood too far behind the Steelers to think about winning the AFC North, but a win in next week's matchup with Pittsburgh would send a serious message to the AFC that this Baltimore team is no joke. After that game are three matchups with teams below .500. All the sudden, the Ravens look like a good bet to reach the postseason.
Outside looking in
7. Los Angeles Chargers (6-6, DIV: 2-2, AFC: 3-5)
Remaining games: vs. Redskins, at Chiefs, at Jets, vs. Raiders
If seeding were based on the eye test, the Chargers might be in the No. 3 spot. The Chargers are one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL, and Sunday's 19-10 win over the winless Browns was their third straight victory. But a frustrating start to the year that included a number of maddening losses in close games has the Chargers on the outside looking in. Making matters worse, a 4-5 record against conference opponents hurts Los Angeles considerably in the Wild Card race. Still, the Chargers will like their chances in each of their remaining games, which include face-offs with the teams (Oakland, Kansas City) they're tied with in the AFC West.
8. Buffalo Bills (6-6, DIV: 1-2, AFC: 4-4)
Remaining games: vs. Colts, vs. Dolphins, at Patriots, at Dolphins
Buffalo couldn't have really expected to beat New England on Sunday, but the manner in which it lost served as a reminder that this Bills team isn't nearly ready to compete with the AFC's best. The Bills also have reason to be concerned about quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who suffered a patellar tendon bruise and is listed as day-to-day. If he can't suit up on Sunday against the Colts, coach Sean McDermott may have to turn to...wait for it...Nathan Peterman, and we all know how well that went the first time. The one thing working in Buffalo's favor its is remaining schedule, which features two matchups with the inconsistent Dolphins and a winnable game against the Colts next weekend. They could feasibly get to 9-7.
9. Oakland Raiders (6-6 DIV: 2-2, AFC: 5-5)
Remaining games: at Chiefs, vs. Cowboys, at Eagles, at Chargers
For a team that struggles against the pass, the Raiders got an early Christmas gift: back-to-back games against Paxton Lynch and Geno Smith. Oakland managed to win both of those contests to get back to 6-6. The season hasn't gone as they'd planned, but the Raiders are in position to win the division with four games left, which is kind of all you can ask for. But trips to Dallas, Philadelphia and Los Angeles to end the season could well squash any hopes this Oakland team has cultivated with its back-to-back wins..
Technically still alive, practically already dead
10. New York Jets (5-7), 11. Miami Dolphins (5-7), 12. Cincinnati Bengals (5-6), 13. Houston Texans (4-8), 14. Indianapolis Colts (3-9), 15. Denver Broncos (3-9)
16. Cleveland Browns (0-12)
Current Wild Card Round matchups
6. Panthers at 3. Rams, 5. Seahawks at 4. Saints.
1. Vikings, 2. Eagles have byes, will host Divisional Round games.
1. Minnesota Vikings (10-2, DIV: 3-1, NFC: 8-1, first place in NFC North)
Remaining games: at Panthers, vs. Bengals, at Packers, vs. Bears
After the Eagles held the top spot for what seemed like all season, there's finally a change at the top this week after Philly was beaten 24-10 by Seattle on Sunday night. Minnesota, on the other hand, picked up a really impressive win at Atlanta, a win that pushed the Vikings' in-NFC record to 8-1. The Eagles are also 8-1 within the NFC, but the Vikings now own the tiebreaker because their record against common opponents is better. Case Keenum continues to impress for this Vikings team that has now won eight straight. Minnesota wraps up what might be the toughest three-game stretch for any team this season (vs. Rams, at Falcons, vs. Panthers) this weekend against Carolina, a team that desperately needs a victory to keep pace in the ultra-competitive NFC South.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (10-2, DIV: 4-0, NFC: 8-1 first place in NFC East)
Remaining schedule: at Rams, at Giants, vs. Raiders, vs. Cowboys
The Eagles are still going to win the NFC East, which was the goal entering the season, but my oh my how quickly things can change in a week. Before the Eagles were well beaten by the Seahawks, Philly was the consensus best team in the league and looked a cut above the rest of the NFC. The loss to Seattle, coupled with a trip to Los Angeles to play the Rams on Sunday, now means the Eagles could be the fourth seed this time next week. After playing the Rams, the Eagles will travel back east to play the Giants, a franchise in disarray, and finish the season by hosting the Raiders and Cowboys. They should be able to take care of business in those games, which makes Sunday's Rams clash that much more impactful.
3. Los Angeles Rams (9-3, DIV: 2-1, NFC: 5-3, first place in NFC West)
Remaining games: vs. Eagles, at Seahawks, at Titans, vs. 49ers
Two weeks ago, the Rams were humbled by the Vikings in a game that could well have derailed this team, which is led by a 23-year-old quarterback and a rookie 31-year-old head coach. How did Goff, McVay and the rest of the rams respond? By beating the red-hot Saints, a game that gave Los Angeles the head-to-head tiebreaker, and taking care of business in a road divisional game against Arizona. Unfortunately for the Rams, it doesn't get any easier until Week 17—next up is a meeting with the Eagles, the winner of which will be guaranteed at least the second seed in next week's standings. After that is a trip to Seattle, which beat the Rams in Los Angeles earlier in the season, and then another road game against the AFC South-leading Titans. If the Rams do indeed hold off the Seahawks and win the NFC West, they will have truly deserved it.
4. New Orleans Saints (9-3, DIV: 2-0, NFC: 6-2, first place in NFC South)
Remaining games: at Falcons, vs. Jets, vs. Falcons, at Buccaneers
Drew Brees & Co. bounced back from a disappointing road loss to the Rams just the way they needed to, by beating Carolina to preserve its spot atop the NFC South. That victory, coupled with the Falcons' loss to the Vikings, gave the Saints a bit of breathing room in the division race—the Saints have a two-game lead over the Falcons and beat the Panthers twice. Splitting the remaining two games against the Falcons should be enough to clinch the division should New Orleans beat the Jets and Buccaneers, which they'll be heavily favored to.
5. Seattle Seahawks (8-4, DIV: 4-0, NFC: 6-3, second place in NFC West)
Remaining schedule: at Jaguars, vs Rams, at Cowboys, at Cardinals
What a huge win for Seattle on Sunday. Had the Seahawks lost to the Eagles, they'd have been two games behind the Rams in the NFC West and sitting outside the playoff picture, as the Falcons' superior NFC record would give them the edge over Seattle in a tiebreaker. But that victory keeps Pete Carroll's team in playoff position and, most importantly, means Seattle still controls its own destiny in the NFC South. Because the Seahawks beat the Rams earlier in the season, they will win the NFC West if they win out, which would mean another victory over the Rams. Seattle gets the fifth spot over the Panthers because they have a better record within the NFC (6-3 vs. 4-3).
6. Carolina Panthers (8-4, DIV: 2-1, NFC: 4-3 second place in NFC South)
Remaining schedule: vs. Vikings, vs. Packers, vs. Buccaneers, at Falcons
After a four-game winning streak got the Panthers back into the playoff picture and NFC South race, the Panthers came back down to earth on Sunday, when they were beaten comfortably by the Saints. One thing working in the Panthers favor is that they currently have the tiebreaker over the Falcons, whom they beat 20-17 in Week 9, though a Week 17 meeting in Atlanta could nullify that earlier victory. Carolina enters Week 14 still holding onto the last playoff spot, but Carolina could find itself outside the playoff picture very easily—its 4-3 conference record does not do hold up well in tiebreaker conversations. Next up is a date with the Vikings, and the regular season finishes in Atlana. Such is life in the 2017 NFC South.
Outside looking in
7. Atlanta Falcons (7-5, DIV: 2-1, NFC: 6-2 third place in NFC South)
Remaining schedule: vs. Saints, at Buccaneers, at Saints, vs. Panthers
The Falcons just couldn't get into the endzone on Sunday against a stingy Vikings defense, and it led to a 14-9 loss. The Falcons now have some ground to make up late, and they still have to play the Saints twice and finish the season against the Panthers.
8. Detroit Lions (6-6, DIV: 3-1, NFC: 5-4)
Remaining games: at Buccaneers, vs. Bears, at Bengals, vs. Packers
Back-to-back losses to the Vikings and Ravens have put the Lions behind the 8 ball. Now, Detroit will likely need to finish 4-0 and get help from the teams above them. The remaining schedule is manageable, however, so don't count out Detroit just yet.
9. Green Bay Packers (6-6, DIV: 2-2, NFC: 5-4 )
Remaining games: at Browns, at Panthers, vs. Vikings, at Lions
The Packers aren't dead just yet. Sunday's victory over the Buccaneers, coupled with the news that Aaron Rodgers started practicing and could return in Week 15, has kept Green Bay's hopes alive for just a bit longer. If the Pack can beat the Browns on Sunday, a proposition that is quite likely, Rodgers could return to a 7-6 team that could sneak in at 10-6. This could get fun.
Technically still alive, practically already dead
10. Dallas Cowboys (6-6), 11. Washington Redskins (5-7), 12. Arizona Cardinals (5-7), 13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-8)
14. Chicago Bears (3-9), 15. San Francisco 49ers (2-10), 16. New York Giants (2-10)