With one week left to play, the NFL playoff picture is starting to take shape. If the season ended today, here's how it would look (before Sunday and Monday night games).
1. New England Patriots (12-3) -- The road to the Super Bowl might no longer go through New England as the Patriots lost 26-20 in overtime to the division rival Jets. Now, New England could drop from this perch if things don’t go its way next week.
2. Denver Broncos (11-4) -- After blowing two leads the past two weeks, the Broncos came through when they needed it most, escaping on Monday night with a 20-17 win against the Bengals. In the process, Denver clinched a playoff spot but still sits in the interesting position of potentially landing the top seed or falling to a road game in the wild card round.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (11-4) -- The Bengals had a golden opportunity to sew up a first-round bye but couldn’t finish the deal against Denver in a 20-17 loss. Cincinnati still owns the AFC North and could still land a bye but will need some help next week to get there.
4. Houston Texans (8-7) -- An easy win against Tennessee has the Texans on the brink of an AFC South championship, a title they could clinch as soon as Monday night via a strength of victory tiebreaker. Regardless, it’s Houston that has emerged as the Brandon Weeden-led team based in Texas that is primed for a playoff bid. Obviously.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (10-5) -- The Chiefs wrapped up a playoff berth by beating Cleveland to win their ninth straight. Kansas City is still nipping at Denver’s heels for the AFC West title and has a great chance to close the regular season with 10 consecutive victories next week against Oakland.
6. New York Jets (10-5) -- Entering this weekend’s games, the Jets had just one win against a team with a winning record this season, which left many questioning their legitimacy. But Sunday’s 26-20 win over New England sent a clear message that Todd Bowles’ group is capable of going toe-to-toe with anyone.
Projected wild-card round matchups:
Cincinnati vs. New York -- Whether it’s Denver or Cincinnati in this spot, this would still feature a battle of two top-10 defenses. We’d lose the battle of the Brandon Marshalls, but a game pitting stellar wideouts A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall still holds plenty of intrigue.
Houston vs. Kansas City -- In terms of winning streaks, there are no hotter teams in the AFC right now than these two. Plus, if the thought of Weeden vs. Alex Smith doesn’t get you excited, well, I’m not sure we can help you.
Looking ahead: For the Steelers, it was all good just a week ago. Now, they’re on the outside looking in. To be the team that nobody wants to play in the postseason, you have to actually make the playoffs. They need to beat Cleveland and get some help next week to get in. ... Kansas City can still claim the AFC West with a win against Oakland and a Denver loss to San Diego next week but the Broncos could also still snatch the No. 1 overall seed if New England somehow loses to Miami and they beat the Chargers. ... New York has won five in a row and needs only a win at Buffalo, against former coach Rex Ryan, next week to land a playoff spot. That should be fun. If the Bills can win that one, it would allow Pittsburgh to make the postseason so long as it takes care of business against the Browns.
1. Carolina Panthers (14-1) -- Somewhere, Mercury Morris and the 1972 Dolphins popped champagne Sunday as Carolina’s dreams of a perfect season vanished at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons in a 20-13 loss. Of more importance is the possibility of losing the No. 1 seed throughout the playoffs to Arizona. Carolina still controls that but must take care of business to ensure it.
2. Arizona Cardinals (13-2) -- With Carolina losing, we can officially say the Cardinals are the hottest team in the NFC as they dominated Green Bay in a 38-8 blowout victory. It was Arizona’s ninth consecutive victory and wrapped up a first-round bye. This is a freight train of a team right now, stand on the tracks at your own peril.
3. Green Bay Packers (10-5) -- The Packers will enter Week 17 still holding this position but that grip is tenuous at best. A blowout loss to Arizona raises more questions than answers about this team.
4. Washington Redskins (8-7) -- The Redskins clinched the NFC East with Saturday night’s 38-24 win against Philadelphia. Washington won’t wow anyone with strength of schedule but like it or not, this team is locked in here and will host a wild-card playoff game come January.
5. Minnesota Vikings (10-5) -- The Vikings left no doubt about their playoff position, clinching a berth by cruising to a 49-17 win against the Giants on Sunday night. Minnesota now heads to Green Bay with a chance to win the NFC North and the No. 3 seed.
6. Seattle Seahawks (9-6) -- The Seahawks have a playoff spot wrapped up but Sunday’s 23-17 loss to St. Louis takes some of the momentum off the “NFC team nobody wants to play” narrative.
Projected wild-card round matchups:
Green Bay vs. Seattle -- The Packers clearly would prefer to win the NFC North and have a home game, especially against a team they beat back in Week 2. This potential rematch of last year’s NFC Championship Game would be the crown jewel of wild-card weekend should it come to pass.
Washington vs. Minnesota -- This game might not move the needle much in terms of nationwide appeal but a matchup of two intriguing young quarterbacks could offer a glimpse into a pair of promising futures.
Looking ahead: All of the NFC playoff spots are now spoken for with the six teams just left to jockey for position next week. ... No game on next weekend’s NFC slate will be more important than Green Bay hosting Minnesota. That will be for the NFC North crown and the No. 3 seed. … It’s unlikely but the Cardinals still have a chance to claim the No. 1 seed and force the road to Santa Clara to go through Glendale. They’ll need Carolina to lose at Tampa Bay and win at home against Seattle but the fact that it’s even in play given the Panthers’ undefeated start is a testament to Arizona’s dominance over the final half of the season.