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: Buccaneers, Washington
* Clinched playoff berth
** Clinched division title
*** Clinched first-round bye
**** Clinched home-field advantage
Incredibly, the AFC playoff field is already set.
Week 16's slate played out in such a way that we know for sure which six teams are in and which ten are out—however, we don't yet know how all of them will be seeded.
The New England Patriots remain in pole position, and should they beat the Miami Dolphins on New Year's Day they'll clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. However, the Oakland Raiders still have the better record against common opponents; if they win in Denver and the Patriots lose to Miami, every other tiebreaker (overall record, conference record, etc.) will equalize and the Raiders will be the AFC's top seed.
Fat lot of good it will likely do them without starting quarterback Derek Carr, though.
In fact, it's far more likely backup Matt McGloin goes into Denver and gets pasted, which opens the door for the Kansas City Chiefs to snatch away both the AFC West title and the first-round bye. Thanks to their head-to-head sweep of the Raiders, an Oakland loss and Kansas City win over the "San Diego" Chargers will make the Chiefs the AFC's No. 2 seed.
The rest of the field is pretty straightforward. The Dolphins, thanks to their four (and potentially five) AFC losses, are locked into the sixth seed. Whichever AFC West team doesn't win the division takes the fifth seed. The Pittsburgh Steelers aren't giving the Cleveland Browns their second win of the season, so Pittsburgh's got the three seed and Houston's safely in fourth.
With their emphatic Monday Night Football win over the Detroit Lions, the Dallas Cowboys locked up the NFC's No. 1 seed—which means the road to the Super Bowl will go through Jerryworld.
The No. 2 seed is still very, very much up for grabs: The Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, and Seattle Seahawks are all in the running for the NFC's other playoff bye.
At 10-5, the Falcons have the inside track: All they have to do is beat the New Orleans Saints, and the second-easiest path to the Super Bowl is theirs. Of course, the eliminated Saints are on a two-game win streak, and they certainly aren't rolling over in one of the NFL's fiercest rivalries.
Should Atlanta lose, the Seahawks have the next best shot; all they need to do is go into San Francisco and beat a woeful 49ers team to get to 10-5-1. If Seattle slips on a banana peel for the fourth time in six weeks, though, Detroit can snag the second seed with a win over the Packers.
In this scenario, the Lions would be tied with the Falcons at 10-6, and in conference record at 8-4, so it falls to common opponents. The Lions will have gone 4-1 against the Eagles, Packers, Rams and Saints while the Falcons will have gone 3-2. Given the same scenario, but with Green Bay beating the Lions for the NFC North, the Falcons would get the extra week off due to their Week 8 head-to-head win over the Packers.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers TECHNICALLY still have a path. Per John Breech of CBS Sports, here are the eight dominoes the Bucs need to fall in order to save their season:
Ultimately, the Packers-Lions Sunday Night Football season finale will set the field. Whichever team wins the game wins the division, and will get seeded somewhere between No. 2 & No. 4, depending.
If Washington beats the New York Giants at home during the 4:25 block, they clinch the six seed—and thus turn Ford Field into Thunderdome: Two teams enter, one team leaves.
...unless the two teams tie, in which case they both get in. In this wild scenario, all three teams would be knotted at 9-6-1, the Packers would win the NFC North on the head-to-head tiebreaker (1-0-1 against the Lions) and the Lions would edge Washington based on their Week 7 head-to-head win. In fact, a Green Bay/Detroit tie gets both teams in regardless of what happens to Washington, setting up a scenario soccer fans remember as the "Disgrace of Gijon."
Fans of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's disciplinary methods will be rooting hard for a similar non-aggression pact.