Playoff projections: Who will grab final AFC wild-card spot?

Don McPeak/US Presswire
With a 7-6 record, Jake Locker and the Titans still have a shot at a wild-card spot in the AFC.

Talk about agony. When my editor asked me to prognosticate the final three weeks of the regular season, I thought it would be a decent assignment. He is one of those tie-and-jeans guys, so I figured he wanted it done extra conservatively. That's OK, I thought.

If the season ended today...
... who would be in and who would be out? Check out NFL.com's handy guide, complete with tiebreakers, weekly updates and much more. Playoff Picture ...

But then I fully examined the prospects of the sixth seed in the AFC.

It's important to note that every year, some team sneaks into the playoffs that few saw coming and required tremendous help from other clubs. Last season, the Packers benefitted from a controversial Lions' victory down in Tampa, as well as DeSean Jackson's miraculous punt return in New Jersey. In 2009, the Jets' fortunes were swayed positively by the insertion of Curtis Painter into a game in which Peyton Manning was doing just fine. Then there were those Eagles in 2008, getting every break early in the day before crushing Dallas in the late stages of Week 17.

Which team will weasel its way in this time? Let's find out. Below, I play out the final three weeks of the season for all the playoff contenders and project how the postseason will look if my projections come true. Here we go:

AFC

Texans (10-3)
If Season Ended Today: First seed
Remaining Schedule: vs. Panthers (W), at Colts (W), vs. Titans (W)
Crystal Ball: 13-3; third seed
The schedule lays out nicely for the Yatesans, hosting Carolina and then traveling to Lucas Oil Stadium to face Dan Orlovsky, Curtis Painter or possibly Mark Rypien at quarterback. The homefield dream dies when the Ravens and Patriots also win out, with the Texans succumbing to the tiebreaker process.

Ravens (10-3)
If Season Ended Today: second seed
Remaining Schedule: at San Diego (W), vs. Cleveland (W), at Cincinnati (W)
Crystal Ball: 13-3, top seed
So much will be riding on Week 17 at Paul Brown Stadium. What a tough game to pick, but this is finally the year for the Ravens, particularly with the Steelers ailing from a depleted defense and a quarterback with a high ankle sprain. The Ravens get the top seed in a tiebreaker over the Patriots, while crushing the Bengals' scant playoff hopes.

Patriots (10-3)
If Season Ended Today: third seed
Remaining Schedule: at Denver (W), vs. Miami (W), vs. Buffalo (W)
Crystal Ball: 13-3, second seed
Much like Houston, the schedule plays out favorably. The toughest obstacle is Tebowmania. The Patriots won't contain Tim Tebow, but Denver's secondary gets exposed late by Tom Brady, the evil tight ends and Welkermania.

Broncos (8-5)
If Season Ended Today: fourth seed
Remaining Schedule: vs. New England (L), at Buffalo (W), vs. Kansas City (W)
Crystal Ball: 10-6, fourth seed
The Tebows falter at home finally, but they take care of business against an awful Bills defense and an identity-less Chiefs team. Even Jake Plummer gets excited for the AFC West champion Broncos.

Steelers (10-3)
If Season Ended Today: fifth seed
Remaining Schedule: at San Francisco (W), vs. St. Louis (W), at Cleveland (W)
Crystal Ball: 13-3, fifth seed
In a bit of an upset, Steelers win at the 'Stick. The 49ers' strong running game is thwarted by the Steelers' run D, while the 49ers secondary struggles versus Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace. Pittsburgh can't catch Baltimore, however.

Jets (8-5) If Season Ended Today: sixth seed
Remaining Schedule: at Philadelphia (W), vs. New York Giants (L), at Miami (W)
Crystal Ball: 10-6, sixth seed
The Jets survive a late push from the Titans. Mark Sanchez forgets he's Mark Sanchez long enough to deliver the two wins necessary to get the Jets in the playoffs for the third consecutive year under Rex Ryan.

Titans (7-6) If Season Ended Today: out of playoffs
Remaining Schedule: at Indianapolis (W), vs. Jacksonville (W), at Houston (L)
Crystal Ball: 9-7, out of playoffs
Tennessee rolls over Indy with Jake Locker at quarterback, while the defense almost plays them into the postseason. Unfortunately, a Week 17 loss at Houston spoils everything. Don't worry, all is not off in the universe. Chris Johnson stinks in that game, too.

Bengals (7-6)
If Season Ended Today: out of playoffs
Remaining Schedule: at St. Louis (W), vs. Arizona (W), vs. Baltimore (L)
Crystal Ball: 9-7, out of playoffs
The dream dies at the hands of Torrey Smith in overtime of Week 17. Smith, of course, pushes off on a play that Pacman Jones gets called for interference. The Bengals' penchant for not being able to beat the better teams rears its ugly head again.

Raiders (7-6)
If Season Ended Today: out of playoffs
Remaining Schedule: vs. Detroit (L), at Kansas City (W), vs. San Diego (W)
Crystal Ball: 9-7, out of playoffs
Carson Palmer's turnoveritis continues at home against the Lions. While the Raiders get their act together in K.C., it's too little too late.

Chargers (6-7)
If Season Ended Today: out of playoffs
Remaining Schedule: vs. Baltimore (L), at Detroit (W), at Oakland (L)
Crystal Ball: 7-9, out of playoffs
Norv Turner's grip on his job is more tenuous than Kirstie Alley's hold on 140. The Chargers fail to turn it on like in previous years, with any drama toward a playoff run evaporating at the hands of the Ravens in Week 15.

NFC

Packers (13-0)
If Season Ended Today: top seed
Remaining Schedule: at Kansas City (W), vs. Chicago (W), vs. Detroit (W)
Crystal Ball: 16-0, top seed
The argument certainly can be made that the Packers dodged a bullet with Jay Cutler's injury, at least in the sense that going undefeated would have been far more difficult. Aaron Rodgers still might have difficulty with that defense, but what challenge does Caleb Hanie present?

49ers (10-3)
If Season Ended Today: second seed
Remaining Schedule: vs. Pittsburgh (L), at Seattle (W), at St. Louis (W)
Crystal Ball: 12-4, third seed
This club has hit some speed bumps lately. Losers of two of three, the Niners have seen the offensive line and secondary play slip. They will fall to a banged-up Steelers squad but finish the season strong at 12-4.

Saints (10-3)
If Season Ended Today: third seed
Remaining Schedule: at Minnesota (W), vs. Atlanta (W), vs. Carolina (W)
Crystal Ball: 13-3, second seed
If there is one NFC team that can match the Packers offensively, it's the Saints. Look for New Orleans to run the table the rest of the regular season because they have a first-round bye to play for, unlike 2009 when they had clinched homefield by Week 14.

Giants (7-6) 
If Season Ended Today: fourth seed
Remaining Schedule: vs. Washington (W), at New York Jets (W), vs. Dallas (L)
Crystal Ball: 9-7, fourth seed
The Giants win two out of three, and tie Cowboys with 9-7 record, despite losing to them in Week 17. But because the Giants have better record in common games (the third division tiebreaker), they win NFC East with a 9-7 record.

Falcons (8-5)
If Season Ended Today: fifth seed
Remaining Schedule: vs. Jacksonville (W), at New Orleans (L), vs. Tampa Bay (W)
Crystal Ball: 10-6, fifth seed
Atlanta has no shot of catching the Saints in the NFC South, so the wild-card berth is the chip in play here. Look for the Falcons to take care of business versus the Florida opponents, but fall at the Superdome to a super-charged team and fan base. At some point -- hopefully versus the Jags -- the Falcons will get Michael Turner and the ground game going.

Lions (8-5)
If Season Ended Today: sixth seed
Remaining Schedule: at Oakland (W), vs. San Diego (L), at Green Bay (L)
Crystal Ball: 9-7, sixth seed
Detroit wins the tiebreaker by a process only figured out by the good peeps at STATS, LLC and a TI-89 graphing calculator. It works like this: In a three-way, wild-card tie, division tiebreakers must be applied first. The Lions oust the 9-7 Bears because they have a better record in games versus common opponents (8-6 to 7-7). Then, they slip past Dallas due to beating the Cowboys early in the season when Tony Romo decided he didn't like playing with a lead.

Bears (7-6)
If Season Ended Today: out of playoffs
Remaining Schedule: vs. Seattle (W), at Green Bay (L), at Minnesota (W)
Crystal Ball: 9-7, out of playoffs
The Jay Cutler-less Bears fight the good fight down the stretch, but at 9-7, it's not enough. The defense holds the fort in Green Bay and suffocates Christian Ponder and company at the Metrodome. But based on a worse record than Detroit in common games, no dice.

Cowboys (7-6)
If Season Ended Today: out of playoffs
Remaining Schedule: at Tampa Bay (W), vs. Philadelphia (L), at New York (W)
Crystal Ball: 9-7, out of playoffs
If only the Cowboys could haveā€¦ that is the mantra of the 2011 season for Dallas. This team loses a heartbreaker in Week 16 to a motivated Eagles team that is dysfunctional all the time, EXCEPT when it plays the Cowboys. The culprit in the division loss is a deep snap that sails over the 12-inch vertical leap of punter Matt McBriar. The failure versus Philly hands the division to the Giants.

Seahawks (6-7)
If Season Ended Today: out of playoffs
Remaining Schedule: at Chicago (L), vs. San Francisco (L), at Arizona (L)
Crystal Ball: 6-10, out of playoffs
Seattle falls in a very physical tilt in Chicago. Tarvaris Jackson' pectoral muscle might be healthy, but his game can't get any push against two very tough defenses in the Bears and 49ers. The much-improved Cardinals hand Pete Carroll his third straight loss to close the season.

Cardinals (6-7)
If Season Ended Today: out of playoffs
Remaining Schedule: vs. Cleveland (W), at Cincinnati (L, OT), vs. Seattle (W)
Crystal Ball: 8-8, out of playoffs
The team that many of us in league circles thought could win the NFC West because of its offseason improvement on offense finishes strong because of strides made on defense. Ray Horton's group keeps Ken Whisenhunt's job more than safe by bottling up the Browns and Seahawks.