Other than the NFC West, where San Francisco holds a five-game lead over Seattle and Arizona, the playoff picture in the NFL is a quagmire -- even in the NFC North where the Packers are unbeaten but only hold a two-game edge over Detroit.
As we begin the second half of the season, some teams that are in position to make the playoffs seem to have rugged runs, while others don't have nearly as challenging a gauntlet. Let's take a look at a few teams whose paths are littered with land mines and others whose adventure looks far less perilous: (Click team name to see schedule)
If they get there, they've earned it
Bengals -- At 6-2, Cincinnati not only shares the AFC North lead with the Ravens, but also is atop the conference due to tiebreakers. Unlike Baltimore, the Bengals have yet to play the Steelers. The Ravens and Cincinnati also have yet to meet. Those four games could very well determine who comes out of the North as the division winner and likely, a wild card. The Bengals' season finale is at home against Baltimore. Other than those games, Cincy also faces Houston, which leads the AFC South and looks like the real deal on both sides of the ball.
Raiders -- The AFC West winner likely won't be decided until Week 17, when the Raiders and Chargers meet in Oakland. Then again, the Raiders might not have a pulse by then. Oakland had a chance to gain some headway with three straight games in the Black Hole, but they only won one. The Raiders play five of their final eight games on the road, including a stop at Green Bay on Dec. 11. Their home games? Chicago, Detroit and the finale against the Chargers.
Giants -- No team has a harder stretch run than New York, which has a history of not closing the deal when it gets off to strong starts, like it has this season at 6-2. Sunday's game at San Francisco could go a long way in determining which direction it will finish. After the Niners, the Giants face Philly, New Orleans, Green Bay, Dallas (twice), Washington and the Jets. The Giants will be getting healthier (Ahmad Bradshaw, Hakeem Nicks, Prince Amukamara) along the way and one of the red-hot teams, like the 49ers or Packers, could fall due to a letdown when the Giants come around. Then again, New York is a good team and might not need any help.
The hard part could be over
Falcons -- Atlanta has won three straight and now plays three in a row in the Georgia Dome. They face the Saints twice, including Sunday, and those games will be huge because they likely will determine the NFC South champ. However, it's foreseeable both will make the playoffs regardless of which one wins the division. As for the rest of Atlanta's schedule, only Houston looks like a serious playoff contender, although division foes Carolina and Tampa Bay won't be easy outs.
Bears -- Monday's victory over Philadelphia was huge because it kept the Bears in the playoff hunt. Chicago has an important game with Detroit in Week 10 but then has a remarkable scheduling quirk that has it facing the AFC West over the next four games. After capping that stretch with a game at Denver, it sandwiches its late-season rivalry game with the Packers at Green Bay with Seattle and Minnesota.
Patriots -- With two straight losses, all hell seems to have broken loose in New England. It could be three straight if the Patriots can't slow down the surging Jets this weekend. After playing New York, however, things get far less daunting. The only team of New England's final seven opponents currently with a winning record is Buffalo, who the Patriots play in their final game. Winless Indianapolis and one-win Miami accompany three-win Philadelphia, three-win Washington and three-win Denver on that list. Kansas City is on deck after the Jets. If New England can't get things on track with that docket, then hell indeed might have broken loose.