If baseball is the circle of life, dying as autumn leaves fall and renewing itself each spring, football is a straight line to oblivion: It starts when everything is green and happy and ends with one ragged survivor standing out black against a colorless wash of snow and sky.
For the rest of this increasingly harsh and bitter month, VICE Sports will trek across the NFL, painting each team's map to postseason—if they have one.
IF THE SEASON ENDED TODAY
Still alive: Ravens, Titans, Broncos, Colts, Bills
Still alive: Buccaneers, Washington, Vikings, Saints, Panthers
* Clinched Playoff Berth
** Clinched Division Title
*** Clinched First-Round Bye
The Titans took a huge step forward when they upset the Chiefs in Arrowhead, but even though Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler's poor play finally got him benched, Houston still managed to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Since Tennessee lost the first matchup, Houston is temporarily ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker—but their Week 17 rematch looms large. In the meantime, taking care of the Broncos and the Chiefs has given the Titans a well-earned soft spot on the schedule this week: the Jaguars.
Even if the Titans win and the Texans lose to the Cincinnati Bengals, however, Week 17 will still be winner-take-all...
...unless they both lose in Week 16, and the Titans win in Week 17, and the Indianapolis Colts beat both the Raiders and the Jaguars in their final two games. The Colts, with the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Titans, would then claim the AFC South title. But it will be quite the surprise if Tennessee loses to the Jags and the Colts beat the Raiders in Week 16.
The division will be all but decided this week when the two teams vying for the title—Baltimore and Pittsburgh—face each other on Christmas. The Ravens are a game behind, but they have a head-to-head win in hand; if they can go into Pittsburgh and defeat the Steelers, they'll pull level and go ahead on the tiebreaker. Week 17, however, has the Steelers hosting the lowly Cleveland Browns, whose first win of the season almost certainly won't come in Pittsburgh. So the Ravens will have to get past the Bengals in their season finale to claim the division title.
Of course, if the Steelers beat the Ravens, they'll lock it up; given the numbers of wins involved, it's unlikely a Wild Card comes out of this division.
The Bengals and the Browns are currently teams that play football games in the NFL.
The Patriots have clinched the division and a first-round bye. If they win out, they'll also clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Should they lose a game, they'll need the Raiders to lose one, too, as the Raiders hold the advantage over common opponents.
The Dolphins are in great shape; if they win out they can clinch a Wild Card berth. They can also clinch with a win this weekend and a Broncos loss.
The Bills, still technically alive, need to win out against the Dolphins and the Jets, and then they need a lot of help. The Ravens and the Dolphins need to lose out, the Broncos need to lose to the Raiders, and then the Titans and Colts need to pick up at least one loss apiece. For a team that's only won seven games all year, that's a big ask.
The Oakland Raiders have clinched a playoff berth, and now they're playing for more: a division title, a first-round bye, and the aforementioned home-field advantage. After playing the Colts on the road this weekend, they host the Denver Broncos in Week 17.
All they need to do is win one of those two to put the division out of reach for the Chiefs, but they'll almost certainly need to run the table to steal home-field advantage from the Patriots.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, are a game behind the Raiders but possess the head-to-head tiebreaker. One more win over the next two games, and they'll be AFC West champions. First, they'll have to go through the Broncos; if the Raiders aren't kind enough to lose to the Colts, the Chiefs will have to beat the Chargers and hope the Raiders lose to the Broncos in the season finale.
The Lions failed a massive test when they lost at the Giants in Week 14. Instead of taking one step toward clinching the NFC North with time to spare, they now almost certainly can't win the division without beating the Packers in Week 17.
Sure, in the extremely unlikely scenario the Lions beat the Cowboys in AT&T Stadium, and the Packers lose to the Vikings in Lambeau, the season finale will be moot. But, again: extremely unlikely. For the Packers, beating Minnesota only helps if the Lions lose to the Cowboys—and even then, not really, because the Lions can just claw that win right back.
The Lions can also clinch at least a Wild Card berth this week with a win and a Tampa Bay loss, or losses by both Washington and Tampa Bay together with a Falcons win.
The Vikings are technically still alive. They'll have to go beat the Packers this weekend, then get revenge for their loss at Chicago in Week 17. Then they need plenty of help: Washington and Tampa Bay must both lose out, and then the Lions have to win one of their final two. For the Vikings, step one is winning this weekend.
The San Francisco 49ers can clinch the No. 1 overall pick if they lose out and the Browns either beat the Chargers this weekend, or the Steelers in Week 17.
Nothing else in this division is up for grabs; the Seahawks clinched it last week, the Cardinals are mathematically out of it, and the Rams already got Jeff Fisher fired.
Here's where things get really hairy.
The Falcons can clinch the division this week with a win over the Carolina Panthers and a Buccaneers loss. Even if the Bucs win, a Falcons win and either a Lions loss or a Packers loss clinches at least a Wild Card berth for the Falcons.
There's also "The Complicated Scenario," as outlined by the team's official site, that breaks a potential tie between the Lions and Falcons based on strength of victories:
- Atlanta beats Carolina in Week 16
- Detroit beats Dallas in Week 16
- Tampa beats New Orleans in Week 16
- Green Bay beats Minnesota in Week 16
- Atlanta loses to New Orleans in Week 17
- Detroit loses to Green Bay in Week 17
- Tampa Bay beats Carolina in Week 17
For the Bucs, it's mostly win-two-games-and-in, unless both the Falcons and either Washington or the Packers also win out. Technically, the Panthers are still alive, too, but they need a mountain of things that have to come together—and the cherry on top: Washington has to tie another game. Thanks to CBS Sports for doing the legwork on this convoluted scenario.
The Saints' path to the playoffs is only slightly more likely than that, but no less convoluted. It starts by beating the two contenders for the division title this week and next, then getting a whole bunch of help. The Saints happen to hold tiebreakers over nearly everyone they're chasing, but a lot of teams will have to trip up to tie the Saints at 8-8.
This division was very nearly as easy as its AFC counterpart—but the Giants had to go and ruin everything by beating the Lions. The Cowboys have clinched at least a playoff berth, but despite winning 12 of their last 13 games, they could still end up as a very rare 12-win Wild Card team.
Because the Giants have ten wins and swept the Cowboys, New York will steal the division if they win out and Dallas loses out. How likely is it the Cowboys lose to both the Lions this weekend and the Eagles the next? Not particularly. Nor is it anything like a slam dunk that the Giants win in both Philadelphia and Washington.
And yet, it's far from impossible—and indeed, the Giants clinch at least a Wild Card berth this week by either beating or tying the Eagles. Should the Giants lose to the Eagles, they'll still have several paths to get in.
Washington needs to beat the Bears this weekend (no problem), then upset the Giants in Week 17 (problem) and get a bunch more help (big problem), but they're technically still alive, and that's more than ten NFL teams can say at this point.