With December nearly here, it's time to think about which teams are bound for the playoffs. If the season had ended after Week 12 a year ago, 11 of the 12 teams in postseason position at that point made the playoffs. The only team that wasn't part of the picture after Week 12 last year that made the dance was the New York Jets. The eventual Super Bowl teams had the best records in the league, as both the Saints and Colts were 11-0.
However, we don't have any teams with double-digit wins this year, so this could be a bigger mystery. Nevertheless, here's a look at how I think the playoff teams will shake out.
If the season ended today
I looked at each team's current record, the remaining schedule, road games vs. home games, how everyone has fared against winning teams, critical rematches remaining in the division, and potential haunting defeats earlier in the year that might factor into tie-breakers.
Keep in mind, every team finishes the season with a division foe and the fate of close to half the clubs headed to the playoffs will be decided in Week 17. If things go the way I have laid it out here, 10 of the 12 teams in the postseason feature former first-round picks at quarterback. Only Tom Brady and Drew Brees would join the 10 first-rounders.
In each conference, I added a seventh team -- the ones most likely to break into the tournament.
1. Atlanta Falcons (9-2)
The Falcons dominate at home and sit with the best record in the NFC. They do have three road games left on the schedule but their remaining opponents have a 22-33 record. Atlanta is 4-2 against winning teams and gets the Saints in the Georgia Dome after beating them in New Orleans. A midseason loss to the Eagles should not affect their seed and I project this team, currently riding a five-game winning streak, to finish 12-4.
2. Green Bay Packers (7-4)
The Packers lost a heartbreaker to the Falcons, which probably eliminates the chance of being the No. 1 seed. The Pack also has to overcome an early-season loss to the Bears when Chicago goes to Lambeau Field in Week 17. The Packers only have two road games left and the remaining opponents have a 29-25 record. Against teams with a winning mark, Green Bay is 2-3. I project them to finish 11-5.
3. Philadelphia Eagles (7-4)
The Eagles are 3-3 against winning teams and have a loss to the Packers, which could be problematic. The good news is they only have two road games left and their remaining opponents are 22-33. The big game is a road date against the Giants on Dec. 19. I project them to finish up 11-5.
4. St. Louis Rams (5-6)
We will see a team in the No. 4 slot with an 8-8 record, possibly even 7-9. A team with 10 wins will not make the playoffs as a wild card, which will be a shame. The Rams had a major breakthrough this week when rookie QB Sam Bradford led them to their first road victory. The Rams still have three road games and probably have to win at Seattle in the final week to claim the division with at 8-8. Bradford is the best quarterback in the division, Steven Jackson is the best running back and the defense is playing well.
5. New Orleans Saints (8-3)
The Saints are on a four-game winning streak and look a lot like the team that won the Super Bowl. At 8-3 and a 2-1 record against winning teams, they are in good shape. Their remaining opponents have a 31-24 record and they still have three road games. An early-season home loss to Atlanta makes it tough to catch the Falcons. I project them to go 12-4.
6. New York Giants (7-4)
The Giants are a risky pick for the final spot, but they do have a win over the Bears and their remaining opponents are 28-27. A road game at Green Bay and a rematch with the Eagles after a Week 11 loss in Philly could knock them out of the picture. I project them to finish 10-6. One slip and the Bears move past them.
7. Chicago Bears (8-3)
Too close to leave out of the picture, especially since they currently sit in the No. 2 spot. The Bears defense is excellent, but the offense is inconsistent. They are hot right now with four straight wins, but they still have three road games and their two home games are against the Patriots and Jets. The remaining schedule is against teams with a 31-24 record. I project the Bears to go 10-6.
1. New England Patriots (9-2)
It was hard not to pick the Jets here, but the Patriots only have two road games remaining and get the Jets at home next Monday. The Patriots have the best record against winning teams (5-1). Brady hasn't lost in his last 25 regular-season home games and will grab enough wins to go 12-4. The Patriots have victories over the Colts and Ravens, which will pay dividends for seeding.
2. Baltimore Ravens (8-3)
The Ravens have only two road games left. They already have won in Pittsburgh and are undefeated at home. Joe Flacco has more passing weapons than ever, which he will need in the postseason. An early-season defeat to the Patriots puts them in the No. 2 spot. I project the Ravens to finish 12-4.
3. San Diego Chargers (6-5)
The Chargers looked tremendous in beating the Colts in Indianapolis. They have losses to Kansas City and New England, but they only have two road games left and the combined record of the five remaining opponents is 20-34. The big game is the rematch against the Chiefs on Dec. 12. I project the Chargers to finish 11-5.
4. Indianapolis Colts (6-5)
The Colts are beat up and the injury list is longer than that of any other contender, but Peyton Manning isn't hurt and that gives them a chance to be division champs. Losses to the Patriots and Chargers drop them to the fourth slot and a Week 15 rematch with the Jaguars is in Indianapolis. Despite the loss to San Diego, the Colts are usually tough in their own building. I project them to finish 11-5.
5. New York Jets (9-2)
The Jets currently are the No. 1 seed and are 5-0 on the road. An early-season victory over New England puts them in a good position -- but can they sweep Brady? The Jets are 2-2 against teams with winning records, but road games against New England, Pittsburgh and Chicago is no easy task. I project them to finish 12-4.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3)
The Steelers have history and they understand how to make a playoff run. They are sitting in a good spot, but they have losses to New England and Baltimore. They are 5-1 on the road and only have two games left away from Pittsburgh. Their remaining opponents have a 24-31 record and, with games against Cincinnati, Carolina and Cleveland, they should get to 11-5. The Steelers' conference record is 6-2 and should end up 8-4. One slip and the Chiefs take their spot.
7. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)
Right now they are in the No. 3 spot and are playing very good football. They are 2-1 against opponents with a winning record. The offense is coming alive and the tandem of Matt Cassel to Dwayne Bowe looks unstoppable. They are 5-0 in Kansas City and all three remaining home games (Denver, Tennessee, Oakland) are very winnable. I project them to finish 11-5. The problem they face is their 4-4 conference mark, which could wind up 7-5.