Now that the Vikings have officially been eliminated from the post-season picture, it's time to take a look around the rest of the league and see how things are looking at this point in time.
For starters, only nine teams out of 32 in the entire NFL have been eliminated from the post-season. In the AFC, the only teams that are completely out of it are the Cincinnati Bengals (2-11), the Buffalo Bills (3-10), the Denver Broncos (3-10), and the Cleveland Browns (5-8). In the NFC, the list of teams that are out of the playoff hunt is only five. . .the Carolina Panthers (1-12), the Detroit Lions (3-10), the Dallas Cowboys (4-9), the Washington Redskins (5-8), and your Minnesota Vikings (5-8). Yes, the Arizona Cardinals only have four victories this year but, because the 2010 NFC West might be the single worst division in the history of the National Football League, they are technically still alive for the playoff spot that will go to one of the teams from that division. . .but it will only take one more win from either the St. Louis Rams or the Seattle Seahawks to eliminate them.
So, let's start with the conference that we care the most about, the NFC.As things sit right now, the Atlanta Falcons are in the driver's seat for the top overall seed in the NFC playoffs with their 11-2 record. The Falcons are 0-2 in Pennsylvania this season. . .and 11-0 everywhere else. They have three games left on the year: at Seattle, home for New Orleans (in what could be a huge game) and their finale against the Carolina Panthers. They should finish no worse than 13-3, and could win out, so it's going to be tough for anyone to take that top spot away from them.
To be honest, the team with the best shot at taking that spot is, indeed, New Orleans. The Saints are right on Atlanta's heels with a 10-3 record, but they've already lost one time to the Falcons this year. They have a significantly tougher road to hoe as their schedule sees them go to Baltimore next week, the aforementioned game in Atlanta, and their regular season finale at home against Tampa Bay. That Week 16 match-up at the Georgia Dome. . .which will be a prime time game, conveniently enough. . .may decide that division, and we could even see a 13-3 team going on the road in the first round of the post-season.
As things stand right now, Atlanta is the #1 seed, and New Orleans is the #5 seed. Whoever comes out of the NFC West mess will be the #4 seed, as it's basically impossible at this point for them to end up any higher than that. At this moment, the #2 seed belongs to the Chicago Bears, the #3 seed belongs to the Philadelphia Eagles, and the #6 seed belongs to the New York Giants. All three of those teams currently possess 9-4 records, but the Eagles get a higher seed than the Giants because the Eagles have a head-to-head victory over the Giants, which at the moment would give them the NFC East title. Conveniently, those two teams hook up again this coming weekend. Head-to-head is the same reason that the Bears currently have the #2 seed and, potentially, a first-round bye, and the Eagles are in the third spot. The schedules for those three teams the rest of the way looks like this:
Chicago - at Minnesota, New York Jets, at Green Bay
Philadelphia - at New York Giants, Minnesota, Dallas
New York Giants - Philadelphia, at Green Bay, at Washington
Chicago clinches the NFC North if they can beat us next weekend. . .well, that and another Green Bay loss, but let's be real. The Packers are going to get their freaking heads handed to them by the Patriots in prime time this Sunday, so from there, it's up to the Bears. If the Bears do beat the Vikings, it would give them a 5-0 record in the division, and the advantage in any tie-breaker over the Packers, who currently have a 3-2 division mark.
As far as any Wild Card races, keep an eye on Tampa Bay. . .the 8-5 Bucs have what should be a couple of easy ones at home against Detroit and Seattle before hitting the road for their season finale against the Saints. The Packers? Who cares?
So, to recap, as things sit right now. . .if the season ended today, the NFC Playoffs would look like this. . .
First-Round Byes: #1 Atlanta Falcons, #2 Chicago Bears
Wild-Card Match-Ups: #6 New York Giants at #3 Philadelphia Eagles, #5 New Orleans Saints at #4 St. Louis Rams
Tampa Bay is currently the first team out, followed by Green Bay and the three NFC West clubs.
Over in the AFC, we find the only team in the NFL that has already clinched a playoff berth. . .the New England Patriots. The Patriots, like the Falcons, are currently 11-2 and have a one-game lead on the Pittsburgh Steelers, who currently hold the number two spot. The Patriots also have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers, having defeated them earlier in the regular season, so any combination of one more Patriots win and one more Steelers loss would ensure that the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC runs through Foxboro. The Patriots' three remaining games are at home against Green Bay, at Buffalo, and at home against Miami. . .it's really hard to envision any team but New England being the #1 seed in the AFC.
The Steelers, at 10-3, currently have a two-game lead over both Kansas City and Jacksonville, the other two AFC division leaders, in the race for the #2 seed and an all-important first-round bye. The Steelers' last three games have them hosting the New York Jets, hosting the Carolina Panthers, and then traveling to Cleveland. They're facing a challenge from the Baltimore Ravens, who currently hold the AFC's #5 seed with a 9-4 mark, one game behind the Steelers. Baltimore ends their season by hosting New Orleans, traveling to Cleveland, and hosting Cincinnati. After their thrilling comeback victory last night, the Ravens still have a shot to catch the Steelers, but it appears they have a slightly harder road to the AFC North title than the Steelers do.
The AFC West has gotten crazy, particularly now with the injury to Chiefs' quarterback Matt Cassel. The Kansas City Chiefs are atop the division with an 8-5 mark, but the San Diego Chargers are coming fast and furious, and sit a game out at 7-6. The Oakland Raiders, at 6-7, are even still in the hunt for the AFC West title, and currently possess a 4-0 record in the division, so they're very much in play in this race (San Diego and Kansas City are both 2-3 in the AFC West).
The AFC West teams finish their seasons like this:
Kansas City - at St. Louis, Tennessee, Oakland
San Diego - San Francisco, at Cincinnati, at Denver
Oakland - Denver, Indianapolis, at Kansas City
San Diego appears to have the easiest road, particularly if Matt Cassel has to sit out this week's trip to St. Louis, but the game at Arrowhead between the Raiders and Chiefs could have huge playoff implications. The AFC West race might end up being the best race in football over the course of the season's final few weeks.
Over in the AFC South, the Jacksonville Jaguars lead the division and currently sit in the #4 slot in the AFC playoffs with an 8-5 record. The Indianapolis Colts are one game behind them at 7-6, but the Jags can actually clinch the AFC South with a victory over Indy this weekend. A Jacksonville win would give them a head-to-head sweep over the Colts and a two-game lead with two games remaining. Beyond that, Jacksonville has to play at home against Washington and at Houston, while the Colts' final two games will be at Oakland and against Tennessee at home.
Baltimore appears to have a pretty solid grip on one of the Wild Card spots in the AFC, but the other spot is going to be an interesting race to keep an eye on. Currently, the New York Jets are the #6 seed in the AFC, and though they currently sit at 9-4 on the season, they finish the year with two very tough games. . .at Pittsburgh and at Chicago. . .before returning home to finish the season against the Buffalo Bills. It's quite possible that the J-E-T-S. . .a team that, much like Green Bay, was penciled into the Super Bowl in many people's minds (including their own) back in about June. . .will miss the playoffs entirely.
But, as things sit right now, the AFC Playoff Picture looks like this:
First-Round Byes: #1 New England Patriots, #2 Pittsburgh Steelers
Wild Card Match-Ups: #6 New York Jets at #3 Kansas City Chiefs, #5 Baltimore Ravens at #4 Jacksonville Jaguars
Right now, the Chargers would be the first team on the "outside looking in," followed (in order) by Indianapolis, Miami, and Oakland. The Houston Texans and the Tennessee Titans are both still alive, but only mathematically. Neither of those teams are going to the post-season.
And there you have it. . .the whole NFL playoff picture. Feel free to discuss the remaining season and the playoff picture here, considering that the Vikings aren't a part of it any more. I'll do a breakdown like this the next couple of weeks as well. . .after all, just because our team isn't in the post-season chase any more doesn't mean we can't have rooting interests, right?