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Breaking Down the NFL Playoff Picture With Five Weeks to Go

If the regular season ended today, we'd have some delicious matchups to look forward to in the wild-card round.

The most consequential prime-time divisional game in recent memory is over, and the Patriots have come away with a signature post-Tom Brady victory that would have been hard to fathom at the beginning of the season.

That's true in multiple ways, of course. We couldn't fathom that the Patriots could roll into Buffalo and steal a win of significance over a Super Bowl hopeful after being swept by the Bills in 2020. We also couldn't fathom that they would do so while only throwing three passes against the best run defense in the NFL. Leave it to Bill Belichick to change our perspective, both on his own team and of teams we thought we understood through this point in the season.

As it stands right now, the playoff picture offers some intriguing matchups, including a rematch of Buffalo's early-season Monday Night Football loss to the Titans. Derrick Henry could, maybe, potentially, become a factor after becoming the first of three backs (along with Jonathan Taylor and Damien Harris) to show that some of Buffalo's run credentials were a bit flimsier than expected. Though, at this point, we aren't sure whether Henry's rehabilitation from a Jones fracture will lead him back to the field this season, or whether the Titans would be interested in risking his long-term health by handing him an exhausting workload immediately upon his return. The season obviously does not end today, but seeing an inter-divisional AFC North matchup in the opening round, as well as the Chiefs facing a Brandon Staley, Vic Fangio-inspired scheme in the first round would be more than one could ask for having watched the vacillations of a less talented AFC conference throughout the year.

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Over in the NFC—again, we know, it may not end up looking like this—getting a chance to see the 49ers with a second crack at the Packers with their full-strength running game would be a great opening-round matchup. Kyle Shanahan is redefining his outside zone scheme yet again, while Matt LaFleur and Nathaniel Hackett are doing the same with their rendition of the offense in Green Bay. Meanwhile, the Tom Brady-Taylor Heinicke rematch we've all been waiting for from the 2020-21 playoffs is on the table. Who says dreams can't come true? In all seriousness, whether it be Washington, Philadelphia, Minnesota or New Orleans, that bottom third of the NFC playoff bracket feels like a major pitfall for one of the conference's bluebloods looking to roll through en route to the Super Bowl.

New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (left) hands the ball off to running back Rhamondre Stevenson (right) against the Buffalo Bills during the second half at Highmark Stadium.

Patriots QB Mac Jones only completed two passes against the Bills on Monday night, but that was enough to leave Buffalo with a critical victory.

Anyway, here's what the picture looks like at this very moment:

AFC:

1. New England (9-4)
2. Tennessee (8-4)
3. Baltimore (8-4)
4. Kansas City (8-4)
5. Los Angeles (7-5)
6. Cincinnati (7-5)
7. Buffalo (7-5)

In the hunt: Indianapolis (7-6), Cleveland (6-6), Pittsburgh (6-5-1), Denver (6-6), Miami (6-7), Las Vegas (6-6)

NFC:

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1. Arizona (10-2)
2. Green Bay (9-3)
3. Tampa Bay (9-3)
4. Dallas (8-4)
5. Los Angeles (8-4)
6. Washington (6-6)
7. San Francisco (6-6) 

In the hunt: Philadelphia (6-7), Minnesota (5-7), New Orleans (5-7), Carolina (5-7), Atlanta (5-7), New York (4-8), Seattle (4-8)

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