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NFL playoff picture: Patriots' loss vaults Bengals to top seed, Broncos to No. 2 in AFC

With four weeks left to play, the NFL playoff picture is starting to take shape. If the season ended today, here's how it would look (before the Monday night game):

AFC

1. Cincinnati Bengals (10-2): Andy Dalton is now the king of the castle, at least for this week. Nothing like games against the Rams and Browns in consecutive weeks to wipe away the memory of two consecutive losses. The Bengals rolled over Cleveland 37-3 on Sunday and now sit at the top of the AFC.

2. Denver Broncos (10-2): The Denver defense plus “Da Brockweilder” at quarterback (Brock Osweiler has a million nicknames, but I’m not missing the chance to shout out "Method Man" and "Redman") is the right recipe for the rolling Broncos right now. Osweiler & Co. cruised to a 17-3 victory over San Diego on Sunday, giving Denver three straight wins under their new quarterback and moving them into position for a first-round bye.

3. New England Patriots (10-2): Even with all of the injuries, not many expected the Patriots to lose to the Eagles on Sunday, but that’s exactly what they did despite a furious late rally. Tom Brady might have had another comeback in him, but as his blushing bride once reminded us, he can’t throw the ball and catch it.

4. Indianapolis Colts (6-6): Matt Hasselbeck's magic ran out on Sunday night in a 45-10 blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Houston's loss to Buffalo keeps the Colts in first place in the AFC South and in the playoff mix, but Indianapolis' hold on a postseason spot remains tenuous with a showdown against the Texans just two weeks away.

5. Kansas City Chiefs (7-5): Another week, another win for the conference’s hottest team, as Kansas City won its sixth in a row by beating Oakland 34-20. And here’s your weekly reminder that Kansas City probably won’t slow down anytime soon against a schedule that closes with games against San Diego, Baltimore, Cleveland and the Raiders.

6. New York Jets (7-5): Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is determined to keep pushing for the spot as Harvard’s most notable NFL alumnus as he threw for 390 yards and two scores in a thrilling 23-20 victory against the Giants on Sunday. With the Titans and Cowboys next on the schedule, the Jets find themselves in a good spot in the AFC.

Best projected matchup: New England vs. N.Y. Jets. It wouldn’t have quite the same pizzazz as if we were getting Rex Ryan’s Jets against the Patriots, but it will have to do. There’s still plenty of bad blood between these two AFC East rivals.

On the rise: N.Y. Jets. Just two weeks ago, this looked like a team headed in the wrong direction with consecutive losses to Buffalo and Houston. Coach Todd Bowles turned it around with two straight wins against Miami and the New York Giants.

On the decline: Oakland Raiders. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Raiders looked like they might enjoy a major turnaround and be in the playoff chase in December. Instead, they’ve lost four of their past five and probably have too much traffic in front of them to get back into the wild-card picture.

NFC

1. Carolina Panthers (12-0): The MVP award HAS to go to Cam Newton, right? Newton led the Panthers to a stirring comeback victory over the Saints on Sunday, throwing five touchdowns in a thrilling 41-38 win. This team doesn't care for your analytics and just keeps winning.

2. Arizona Cardinals (10-2): The Cardinals looked every bit like a Super Bowl contender as they dominated the Rams 27-3 on Sunday. With running back David Johnson ably stepping in for Andre Ellington, the Cardinals have few weaknesses.

3. Green Bay Packers (8-4): The Packers’ Christmas miracle came a few weeks early on Thursday night with a walk-off touchdown on quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary, which ended up vaulting them back to the top of the NFC North. One pass helped erase what would have been a bad loss and put Green Bay’s playoff position in peril.

4. Washington Redskins (5-7): Neither Washington nor Dallas looked too interested in scoring Monday night until there was about a minute, 10 seconds left in the game. Ultimately, Dallas' interest in points was a tad bit greater than Washington's, which was enough to come away with a 19-16 win. It wasn't enough to knock the Redskins from their perch atop the division nobody wants to win, though, as they hold the tiebreaker against the Giants and Eagles for now as the Cowboys climbed to within a game of their NFC East brethren.

5. Minnesota Vikings (8-4): Just when the Vikings look like they’re about to take control of their division, they cough up the lead. What's more concerning is how they did it. Fellow playoff contender Seattle throttled Minnesota on its home field.

6. Seattle Seahawks (7-5): Don’t look now, but here come the two-time defending NFC champions. Seattle sent a resounding message to the rest of the league by easily handling the Vikings. In the process, Seattle stretched its winning streak to three. And it is cementing its status as a team you don’t want to play come January.

Best projected matchup: Green Bay vs. Seattle. A rematch of last year’s NFC Championship Game, in which the Seahawks overcame a 19-7 deficit with about four minutes remaining to advance to their second consecutive Super Bowl. Does it get any better?

On the rise: Philadelphia Eagles. Left for dead after three consecutive losses, Sunday’s upset of the Patriots has put Philadelphia firmly back in the mix in the “battle” for the NFC East Division crown. It won’t be easy with games against Buffalo and Arizona over the next two weeks, but the Eagles close with Washington and the Giants, their two closest competitors in the division.

On the decline: Chicago Bears. Every time the Bears offer some hope that they’re legitimate playoff contenders, they give it right back, as Sunday’s 26-20 overtime loss to San Francisco demonstrated. Maybe prosperity just isn’t the thing for this team, which now sits at 5-7 and two games out of the playoffs with four games to play.