AFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
1) Baltimore Ravens (13-2):Lamar Jackson accounted for 341 yards and three touchdowns Sunday on the way to clinching home-field advantage. The entire Browns team gained 241 yards and scored 15 points. That's a fitting conclusion to Jackson's MVP campaign, with Ravens coach John Harbaugh announcing Monday that Jackson will sit out the finale against the Steelers. Robert Griffin III will start at quarterback. Other veterans -- including guard Marshal Yanda, defensive tackle Brandon Williams, running back Mark Ingram and safety Earl Thomas -- will not play.
2) New England Patriots (12-3):Tom Brady's first fourth-quarter comeback of the season came at the perfect time. The Patriots' win over the Bills was the team's best overall performance since Week 1 and it clinched the AFC East. It also turned the Dolphins into the most forgiving quasi-Wild Card Round opponent possible. If the Patriots beat Miami in Week 17, they will advance to the Divisional Round with a bye and a home game for the 10th straight season. Of all the silly Belichick-Brady stats out there, that's the most impressive.
3) Kansas City Chiefs (11-4):Patrick Mahomes and friends have won five straight games with increasing ease and host the collapsing Chargers on Sunday. Kansas City would need to win against Los Angeles and hope the Patriots lose to Miami in order to move up to the No. 2 seed and skip a round of the playoffs. The Chiefs could also theoretically fall to the No. 4 seed if they lose and the Texans win their finale.
While it's an annoying spot to be in, K.C. can't risk sitting its starters. Andy Reid could, however, pull Mahomes at some point if he sees a blowout in Foxborough while scoreboard-watching. The Chiefs are as healthy offensively as they've been all season and want to stay that way because this a championship-level team. They may just have a brutal path to the promised land.
4) Houston Texans (10-5):Saturday's win over the Buccaneers was typical Texans. Even in a division-clinching victory, concern about Will Fuller's injury and the offense's play dimmed the excitement. The Texans have perhaps the trickiest decision of any team in Week 17. They can go all out to beat the Titans in an uphill attempt to knock out a division foe and climb to the No. 3 seed. Or Bill O'Brien could rest starters like Deshaun Watson, cracking the door wide open to Mike Vrabel for the Titans to make the AFC playoffs as the No. 6 seed.
As of Monday, O'Brien announced that "we are playing to win" and he won't hold out starters. Considering that the Texans (who kick off at 4:25 p.m. ET on Sunday) would need the Chiefs (who kick off at 1 p.m. ET) to lose to move to No. 3, this approach may not be popular in Houston. I personally don't think it's a crazy idea to prepare to win competitive sporting events by trying to win competitive sporting events.
5) Buffalo Bills (10-5): Sean McDermott's crew is locked into the fifth seed after a spirited loss in New England that showed the team's heart and its limitations. That means a Buffalo-Houston matchup is rather likely. Don't be surprised if Bills-Texans is the Wild Card Weekend opener on Saturday, which has turned into Houston's annual timeslot. The Bills host the Jets in Week 17 and it would make a lot of sense to rest some players with a potential short week ahead.
6) Tennessee Titans (8-7): Perhaps a week off will help running back Derrick Henry and defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons get back on the field. All things considered, Week 16 worked out alright for the Titans, even though they lost any chance to win the division. The Texans now don't have much motivation to go all out against Tennessee on Sunday and the Titans can clinch a playoff spot with a win. Simple.
Making the playoffs with a loss is less simple. The Titans can make the playoffs at 8-8 if the Steelers lose in Baltimore and the Colts lose in Jacksonville. Considering the way Ryan Tannehill is playing and the Titans' point differential on the season, Tennessee is the most dangerous potential 6 seed of the bunch.
7) Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7): A once-magical run is running out of pixie dust. Pittsburgh scored 10 points for the second straight week, this time in a dispiriting loss to the Jets. The game hurt the Steelers' tiebreaks and now they need a lot of help to make the playoffs. Pittsburgh could earn the No. 6 seed with a win over the Ravens, a Titans loss, a Raiders loss and a Colts win. Essentially, the Steelers win a three-way tie at 8-8 with the Titans and Colts. They don't win a two-way tie with the Titans and they probably won't win a four-way tie with the Raiders, Colts and Titans. Got all that?
Beating the Ravens in Baltimore may still be the toughest part of the equation, even with Lamar Jackson getting the week off. Steelers fans will remember 2004 well, when their top-seeded team with backup Tommy Maddox at quarterback knocked the Bills out of playoff contention despite sitting many starters. It's not that hard to imagine Robert Griffin III and the Ravens defense doing enough against Duck Hodges to end Pittsburgh's season.
8) Oakland Raiders (7-8): So the Raiders needed nine things to happen to make the playoffs entering Week 16. The first five all amazingly fell into place in Week 16, giving them a somewhat-realistic scenario for sneaking into the tournament. Just keep in mind that this realistic scenario is not as simple as you think.
Four things need to happen for the Raiders to have a chance. They need to win in Denver. They need the Titans to lose in Houston. They need the Colts to win in Jacksonville. And they need the Steelers to lose in Baltimore. None of those occurrences are far-fetched in isolation, but hitting the four-part parlay is far less likely.
Now, here's the catch: Even if all those results happen, Oakland isn't guaranteed to make it in this four-way tie. The Raiders would still have to beat Pittsburgh on "strength of victory," a calculation they currently lead in. For Oakland to maintain that lead, the Raiders need any of the following teams to win or tie in Week 17: the Patriots, Lions, Chargers or Bears. That's a lot of detail about a scenario which isn't very likely, but can still keep Raiders fans dreaming on Christmas morning.
NFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
1) San Francisco 49ers (12-3): The 49ers have a fantastic chance to close out an epic regular season in style. After knocking Sean McVay into soul-searching mode on Saturday night, they can earn home-field advantage with a victory in Seattle. The battle for the NFC West championship may be the best season finale with Al and Cris in Sunday Night Football history.
The 49ers have been involved in every kind of game possible, have battled through an incredible array of injuries and their only three losses have come at the buzzer. With a bye on the line, the game in Seattle is like a playoff game. Win and they are the No. 1 seed. If they lose, they will travel to the NFC East champion in the Wild Card Round.
The Packers only have to beat David Blough and the Blough Hards in Detroit next week to clinch a bye and a home game in the Divisional Round. A 49ers loss would allow the Packers a chance to move up to the No. 1 seed. (An unlikely loss by the Saints would also clinch a bye without even beating the Lions.) It's hard to overstate how crucial Monday night's performance was. If you didn't take the Packers seriously as a Super Bowl contender until now, it's going to be increasingly hard to ignore them when they are hosting a game in the league's quarterfinals.
3) New Orleans Saints (12-3): The Saints' incredibly impressive offensive explosion in the second half against Tennessee kept their hopes for a No. 1 seed alive, but they are growing faint after the Packers' win on Monday night. The Saints are third in line for a bye. They need the 49ers or Packers to lose to jump up a spot. They need them both to lose to get home-field advantage. After an unlucky end to last season, it would be incredibly unlucky if a 13-3 record was only good enough for a three seed.
4) Philadelphia Eagles (8-7): Who can blame Eagles fans for starting to dream? Carson Wentz is playing his best to end the season, as the Eagles coaching staff has helped to figure out what works on a short-handed offense. If nothing else, it has to feel good to know they are tougher than the Cowboys after the Eagles' 17-9 win Sunday.
5) Seattle Seahawks (11-4): No team had a worse Sunday than the Seahawks. They lost running back Chris Carson for the season and left tackle Duane Brown to knee surgery and their dispiriting loss to the Cardinals puts a potential playoff bye at risk. All is not lost, though. Jadeveon Clowney is expected to return to the lineup, Marshawn Lynch is riding in on his white horse to create chaos and this Seahawks team is just insane enough to win against the 49ers despite being so banged-up.
6) Minnesota Vikings (10-5): Well, that was incredibly depressing. Only Luke Falk's Jets in Foxborough had fewer first downs this season than Kirk Cousins' Vikings did on Monday night against the Packers. Cousins will get a chance to make amends in the Wild Card Round, on the road, as the NFC's No. 6 seed. The Vikings have been too balanced all season to dismiss after one terrible game, but they will be underdogs no matter where they go in the playoffs. The only route to the Super Bowl will be three straight road games, which feels as likely as Mike Zimmer inviting Aaron Rodgers over for Thanksgiving next year.
7) Dallas Cowboys (7-8): If the Eagles have proven resourceful in recent weeks, the Cowboys are as wasteful as ever. Dallas' season -- and Jason Garrett's career as head coach with the Cowboys -- will end in Week 17 unless the Cowboys can beat the fighting Callahans and get some help from Danny Dimes against Philadelphia. It's going to be a long week, possibly leading to a long offseason.
The usual disclaimer applies here: Associated Press voters only vote for one player, and that player will be Lamar Jackson, possibly on all 50 ballots. After a dazzling performance in Cleveland, Jackson -- who will sit in Week 17 with the Ravens having already clinched the No. 1 seed -- finishes 2019 with 1,206 rushing yards and 43 total touchdowns.
I rewarded Michael Thomas and George Kittle for transcendent seasons. Thomas set the single-season reception record Sunday in the most fitting way possible, setting up his own touchdown with a terrific run after the catch. Kittle is having the best tight end season since Peak Gronk, which means Kittle is playing the position about as well as it's ever been played. McCaffrey, meanwhile, is now only 65 receiving yards away from being the third running back ever to hit the 1,000-1,000 club for a single season.
UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Kenyan Drake, RB, Arizona Cardinals
The 80-yard lightning-strike touchdown in the first quarter at Seattle was impressive, but not a surprise. I was even more surprised by the 5 and 6-yard runs Drake kept piling up in the second half to close out the Seahawks, even after backup quarterback Brett Hundley was forced into action by Kyler Murray's hamstring tweak. The Seahawks knew the run was coming and were powerless to stop Kliff Kingsbury's creative attack.
HONORABLE MENTIONS:Saints running back Alvin Kamara's assist (a 40-yard TD and 110 yards from scrimmage) on Michael Thomas' record-breaking day was a great sign for New Orleans. Ryan Fitzpatrick's four-touchdown day was a delightful capper to the Dolphins' 2019 home slate. Surviving a furious Bengals rally and prevailing 38-35 in overtime, Miami finishes with a 3-5 record in front of Fin fans at Hard Rock Stadium -- that's three more wins than many folks expected back in September, when the team was mocked as one of the worst in NFL history.
Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.