If baseball mimics 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 left standing against a colorless wash of snow and sky.
With December upon us, a raft of decent teams have just met their competitive end. So it will go from here on out, each of the next four weeks of NFL action burying more, better teams under a thick white blanket of Not Good Enough.
Let's see where everyone stands as the playoff picture rounds into focus. We'll start with seeding and then dive deeper into the divisions.
IF THE SEASON ENDED TODAY
- Oakland Raiders
- New England Patriots
- Baltimore Ravens
- Houston Texans
- Kansas City Chiefs
- Denver Broncos
- Dallas Cowboys
- Seattle Seahawks
- Detroit Lions
- Atlanta Falcons
- New York Giants
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Should the Indianapolis Colts beat the New York Jets on Monday Night Football, they'll be locked in a three-way tie with the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans for the AFC South lead heading into Week 14.
The Colts are 2-2 in-division, with a season sweep of the Titans in hand, but have home rematches against the Texans and the Jacksonville Jaguars in their remaining four games. Brutal road games at Oakland and Minnesota in Weeks 15 and 16 mean the Colts will likely have to beat the Jets, the Texans, and the Jaguars and hope that division record or head-to-head gets them in.
The Titans, 1-3 in-division and having been swept by the Colts, are not in great shape with tiebreakers. After hosting the Denver Broncos in Week 14, they go on the road to Kansas City, then finish up with the Jaguars and a potentially decisive finale against the Texans.
The Texans are 3-0 in-division, but they have only played each rival once. Other than playing their division again, all the Texans have left to do is host the Cincinnati Bengals. Should they beat the Colts and the Titans head-to-head, the Texans may not only finish with the best record; they may hold all the tiebreakers, too.
As has often been the case, the Wild Card is not coming out of this division—and whichever team makes it will be the poster child for "How Is This Team Hosting a Playoff Game?" head-shaking.
At 4-7-1, the Cincinnati Bengals are all but mathematically out of it, so it comes down to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens, who are currently tied at 6-5. It's easy to point at their Week 16 rematch in Pittsburgh (the Ravens won the first game) as decisive, and it might well be.
But the schedule sets up nicely for the Steelers to pull ahead of the Ravens, no matter who wins that game: the Ravens face the New England Patriots, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Cincinnati Bengals while the Steelers play the Bengals, the Cleveland Browns, and the Buffalo Bills. The Ravens are playing their best football of the year, and won't go quietly. The question is: Can both teams play well enough for the loser of this race to snag a Wild Card berth?
The Patriots have run away with this division. Yes, they're just three games ahead of Miami with four games to play, including against the Dolphins, but they are not losing many (if any) of those games.
The Dolphins, despite going 6-1 over their last seven games, are still on the outside looking in at 7-5. Tough but winnable games against the Cardinals, the Bills, and the Jets set up a potential win-and-in game against the Patriots—who, by that time, may have long since clinched everything there is to be clinched, and could be resting starters.
Here's where all the action is. The 10-2 Oakland Raiders have the No. 1 seed over the Pats by virtue of better record against common opponents, and right now both the 9-3 Chiefs and 8-4 Broncos are in. Even if the Raiders beat Kansas City in Week 14, though, they still won't be able to clinch.
Kansas City has a round-robin of the division left, as well as a game against the Titans, with three of those four at home (the season finale, against the San Diego Chargers, is on the road). They're 3-0 in division, too, so a win over the Raiders this week would put them in the driver's seat from here on out.
Denver needs a lot of help, but they can get there if the Chiefs beat the Raiders this week, and the Broncos take care of business against the Titans. A rough home game against the Patriots is survivable, though, because Denver's final two games are against the Chiefs and the Raiders.
Sorry, San Diego.
The Lions' wins over Minnesota and New Orleans in the past two weeks have helped their chances enormously. Not only are they effectively up three games on the Vikings with four left to play; they can pad their 2-2 divisional record against the Chicago Bears this week. Two tough road games at the Giants and the Cowboys, followed by the Packers at home in Week 17, means the division is still in play. Pocketed wins over Washington and, potentially, New York could swing a Wild Card Detroit's way if they don't finish the job.
Picked by many to repeat as division champs before practically their whole team got injured, the Vikings have the softest remaining schedule in the division (@JAX, IND, @GB, CHI). But they'll probably need to win out, as a 1-3 division record and season sweep by the Lions means tiebreakers will be tough to come by. Then again, September wins over the Packers and the Giants could save their season.
The Packers haven't looked much like a playoff team all year. With a round-robin against the division and Week 3 win over the Lions in hand, they could definitely make a run at it. That run, however, includes the Seattle Seahawks this week; if they lose and the Lions beat the Bears, then the Pack will need to, in the words of their quarterback, "run the table" and have the Lions lose out in order to reclaim the title.
Technically, that awful mid-October tie between the Cardinals and the Seahawks could still tilt this division Arizona's way. In reality, the Cardinals are three games behind the Seahawks with four left to play—including the Seahawks on the road. It's hard to see how the 5-6-1 Cardinals visit CenturyLink Field, the Superdome, the LA Coliseum, and host the Saints and come away with a Wild Card berth.
For the Seahawks, it's now all about playoff seeding: Can they stay a half-game ahead of the Lions even without safety Earl Thomas? Both teams still have to face the Packers, but where the Lions have the Cowboys, the Giants, and the Bears, the Seahawks have the Cardinals, the Rams, and the 49ers. Things are falling into place nicely for Seattle as they look set to stay right where they are—in line for a playoff bye.
The southern waters of the NFC were significantly muddied in Week 12, when the Atlanta Falcons lost and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won. Now the teams are knotted at 7-5, a sentence that would have been difficult to imagine after Week 9, when the Falcons improved to 6-3 by dropping the Bucs to 3-5 with a 43-28 win.
Aside from the Falcons' one-win lead in the division (3-1 vs. 2-1), not much separates their schedules going forward. Both teams play the Saints and the Panthers in their last four games; the Bucs actually play the Saints twice. The Bucs' fourth game is the Cowboys, however, while the Falcons get the Rams and the 49ers.
Both teams' fans will be tracking Washington, New York, Green Bay, and Minnesota closely. It's likely, as the Bucs are now, that the loser of this race ends up in position for a Wild Card berth.
Hoo boy. The 11-1 Cowboys haven't quite clinched the No. 1 seed, but having lost just one game by one point, and that having been in Week 1, it's impossible to imagine the eight-win Giants, Lions, or Seahawks catching them now.
The Giants didn't look impressive at Pittsburgh in their Week 13 loss, and face a brutal remaining schedule: Cowboys, Lions, Eagles, and Washington. They may lose two, three, or even all of those games, putting their Wild Card status in serious jeopardy.
Washington still has a path. They face the Eagles, who they've already beaten, in Week 14. Then they have winnable games against the Panthers and the Bears before playing what could be a win-and-in game against the Giants.
The Eagles ... played in the wrong division this year.