The NFL playoff picture is shaping up as teams head deeper into the 2014 season. Who looks promising? Who's on the edge? Check it out
One reason the lousy NFC South has been such a mess? Let's start with their disastrous cross-conference showing against the AFC North, a rough-and-tumble division with a 10-1-1 record against the NFC South.
Consider that the surprising Cleveland Browns are 7-4 and currently occupy last place in the North behind the Bengals (7-3-1), Ravens (7-4) and Steelers (7-4). NFL Media's Charley Casserly -- the former Redskins and Texans general manager -- told NFL Network on Tuesday that he's never seen a division this loaded so late in the year. Football fans roam in uncharted territory.
Beyond the North, the Chargers and Chiefs also boast seven wins, while the Dolphins and Bills remain in the hunt with six victories apiece. It's too early to predict how the top-heavy conference will shake out, but the glut of strong teams has set the table for one of the great stretch runs of our time.
We're in for a glorious December.
Here's what else we learned about the playoff race in Week 12:
Bills, Dolphins on the brink
Buffalo (6-5) looked sharp in Monday night's wipeout of the Jets, but the road ahead is brutal. After hosting the Browns on Sunday, the Bills close out against the Broncos, Packers, Raiders and Patriots. It's hard to take Buffalo seriously as a wild-card contender when the team will struggle to finish 9-7. Miami (6-5) has a much better chance to make a run with two games against the Jets and a home date against the Vikings. We'll find out if the 'Fins are playoff-ready, though, with back-to-back showdowns against the Ravens and Patriots starting in Week 14.
Bengals will be tested
Cincinnati sits half a game above the rest of the North, but the team's schedule is tricky. After Sunday's gift-wrapped date with the Bucs, the Bengals face the Steelers, Browns and Broncos before meeting Pittsburgh again in the finale. After sweeping Baltimore, Cincy has a better shot than anyone in the North to clear their own path into January while sticking a fork in division rivals.
But do we trust Andy Dalton and the Bengals to seal the deal? The Ravens look like a legitimate threat to the entire conference, while the Steelers -- in their peak moments -- can hang with anyone. The Browns are entirely unpredictable, but their 6-2 mark over the past eight games is better than any team in the division. This one's coming down to the end.
Wild Card déjà vu?
If the season ended today, the AFC Wild Card round would serve as a carbon copy of last year's affair, with the Bengals hosting the Chargers and the Chiefs visiting the Colts. The team we don't trust is San Diego. The Bolts face a slate from hell with tilts against the Ravens, Patriots, Broncos, 49ers and Chiefs.
Kansas City's schedule is equally dodgy. Coming off an abysmal loss to Oakland, Andy Reid's club has the Broncos on Sunday, followed by the Cardinals, Raiders and Steelers before a potentially huge finale with San Diego. My guess: Both the Chargers and Chiefs miss the playoffs. We're going to see three teams from the North invited to the winter party.
We've come this far without saying much about the Patriots (9-2) or Broncos (8-3). Why? Barring an epic collapse, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning feel destined to tug their teams into first-round byes (again). Denver's challenge, though, is catching New England and finishing with a better record after Bill Belichick and friends flattened the Broncos in Week 9.