Sevens are wild in the AFC after a Week 15 in which teams either won (Tennessee, Houston, and Pittsburgh) or lost (New York, Jacksonville and Miami) to even their records at 7-7. Six teams, all rolling sevens.
C'mon, how nuts is that?
Baltimore (8-6) avoided the 7-7 logjam by beating Chicago, 31-7, and are now clearly in the driver's seat, along with Denver (8-6), for the two AFC wild cards. And for Baltimore and Denver, the next two weeks could feel like an eternity with the conglomerate of sevens on their heels.
The Broncos know all about late-season meltdowns. Last year they had a three-game lead with three to go and ended up handing the AFC West and a playoff spot to San Diego, which got in despite its 8-8 record. While the Ravens and Broncos control their own destiny, as last year showed us, the AFC wild cards are still very much up for grabs. The NFC isn't quite as convoluted, but it still has a pretty intriguing race for the sixth seed, where Dallas currently is aligned after beating New Orleans Saturday night.
It's way too soon and complicated to get into all the conjecture of every scenario, but let's take a look at the AFC and NFC playoff pictures with two weeks to go:
AFC playoff race
1. Indianapolis Colts (14-0, clinched No. 1 seed): They finish against the Jets at home and at Buffalo, teams that could see plenty of Curtis Painter instead of Peyton Manning. A perfect regular season would be nice, but expect Indy to play things conservatively -- and still find a way to finish unbeaten.
2. San Diego Chargers (11-3, West winners): The Chargers' Christmas Day game against Tennessee on NFL Network could be a thriller with the Titans hanging on to their slim -- but remarkable -- playoff lives and San Diego trying to maintain its momentum going into the playoffs. The Chargers have a stranglehold on the No. 2 seed, so while they don't catch a break in the season finale against a dangerous Redskins team, that game might not have any meaning by the time it rolls around.
3. New England Patriots (9-5, first in East): The Patriots' escape in Buffalo and losses by the Jets and Dolphins pretty much greased the skids for a division title. New England still isn't playing like a team that scares anyone, but the team's history shouldn't make opponents feel comfortable either. The Patriots close against the Jaguars and Texans, 7-7 teams in desperation mode.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (9-5, first in North): It seems like we've been saying for weeks that their lead in the North is secure. Probably still is because of their 6-0 mark in the division, but the Ravens lay in the weeds a game back (actually two having lost twice to Cincinnati). Following the death of teammate Chris Henry, the Bengals have to snap out of their funk and rally with heavy hearts to write a happy ending to their best season in years. The Chiefs and Jets will make them work, especially if New York is still alive in Week 17.
5. Baltimore Ravens (8-6, second in North): The Ravens might be the team that emerges from this glut of wild-card hopefuls but it will have to win in Pittsburgh next week, which won't be easy. Neither will the finale at Oakland; the Raiders have been successfully playing the role of spoiler for weeks. Should the Ravens fight their way in, they could be that "hot" team no one wants to play in the playoffs, like they were last year when they entered as a wild card.
6. Denver Broncos (8-6, second in West): The Broncos are hoping their schizophrenic season -- in which they won six straight, lost four, won two and now lost two -- takes yet another turn. They've lost six of their last eight and have no momentum heading into the next two weeks that will decide everything. You have to think they have last season's debacle still on their minds, at least the holdovers from a franchise that underwent an offseason facelift. Big game at Philadelphia before a breather against Kansas City in finale. A split might not be good enough.
Jacksonville Jaguars (7-7, tied for second in South): The good news for the Jaguars is that they sit in pretty good position with the best conference mark (6-4) among the 7-7 hopefuls. The bad news: Their final two games are on the road. Jacksonville has only won twice away from home and both remaining games will be played in un-Florida-like climates (New England and Cleveland).
Miami Dolphins (7-7, tied for second in East): No team has a more intriguing road, although the final two games are in South Florida. Houston and Pittsburgh, respectively, will either push Miami out of the playoffs or will be cast out of the 7-7 mix by a Dolphins team that has re-invented itself at quarterback and tailback. Conference mark: 5-5.
New York Jets (7-7, tied for second in East): New York's offense remains a huge issue, but the Jets could catch a two-tiered break. They face the Colts next week and the Bengals in the finale. The Colts have nothing to play for (except a perfect season) and the Bengals might be locked into their playoff spot by the finale. Conference mark: 5-5.
Steelers (7-7, third in North): Well, well, well. The defending champs might want to play ball after all. Beating Baltimore at home is a must, but so is holding off Miami in Florida. Pittsburgh could have safety Troy Polamalu back to provide inspiration and on-field production. Their 4-6 conference mark isn't going to help in tiebreakers.
Titans (7-7, tied for second in South): It is amazing Tennessee has worked itself to this point, and it might not be done. San Diego isn't going to be too keen on having to travel to Nashville for a Christmas night game, and the Titans end the season at Seattle. Problem for Tennessee is a 4-7 conference record -- worst among the playoff hopefuls and a likely death knell of a tie-breaker.
Houston Texans (7-7, tied for second in South): If there was ever a time for Matt Schaub to post a defining snapshot, this is it. The Texans face Miami and New England. Victories over both would still leave the team with six conference losses, which ultimately could be the downfall of both Houston and coach Gary Kubiak.
NFC playoff race
1. New Orleans Saints (13-1, clinched South and first-round bye): Don't think losing to Dallas provided any sense of relief. Players and coaches were hurt. They should be at full strength defensively soon with DT Sedrick Ellis and solid cover corner Jabari Greer poised to return from injuries. They're closing in on homefield advantage and should have little trouble capturing it with Tampa Bay and Carolina on deck.
2. Minnesota Vikings (11-3, clinched North): If the Vikings win out over the Bears and Giants, they would need a monumental collapse by the Saints to gain homefield advantage. Not likely. Now they have to wonder if they can win at New Orleans; all three of their defeats this season -- including Sunday night's at Carolina -- have come on the road.
3. Philadelphia Eagles (10-4, first in East): Their victory over San Francisco puts them in position to win the division. Denver and the Cowboys, both trying to get into the playoffs, will push the Eagles. It is Andy Reid's style to rest players, so if Philly clinches next week, it could open the door for Dallas to get into the playoffs in the finale. Wow.
4. Arizona Cardinals (9-5, clinched West): This bipolar team could make a run back to the Super Bowl or be one and done. Arizona could ease back against St. Louis and Green Bay the next two weeks and lose its focus ... or play up to its potential. Finale vs. the Packers could be a first-round preview and a very vanilla game if neither team has anything to play for.
5. Green Bay Packers (9-5, second in North): Loss to Pittsburgh was heartbreaking but not backbreaking. Packers' superior conference mark (7-3) didn't take a hit against the AFC's Steelers. Realistically, one win in their final two against Seattle and Arizona should be enough to get them in. It's just a matter of if they'll go in as the No. 5 or 6 seed.
6. Dallas Cowboys (9-5, second in East): How big was that win against New Orleans? Call it a season saver. With questions about their December woes behind them, they can concentrate on beating Washington and Philadelphia to punch their ticket. It's all in front of them. Then again, we've heard that before.