St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones breaks down the NFL playoff picture heading into the season's final weeks.
The undefeated Colts have clinched the division.
QB Tom Brady, right, and the Patriots are 7-5 and lead the Dolphins and Jets by a game. New England should hold on thanks to a soft schedule: home against Carolina and Jacksonville and at Buffalo and Houston.
Mathematically, the 9-3 Bengals can be caught, but not realistically.
This is a two-team race between the red-hot Chargers (9-3, with a seven-game winning streak) and the Broncos (8-4). The Chargers' schedule, however, is dicey: at Dallas, home against Cincinnati, at Tennessee and then a soft finale at home against Washington. The Broncos must play at Indianapolis and Philadelphia but have home games against Oakland and Kansas City. Both teams should make the playoffs, but we'll give the edge in the division to the Chargers.
Broncos (8-4): Assuming the Chargers win the West, the Broncos are in the driver's seat for one of the two wild-card spots. They have a one-game lead on Jacksonville (7-5) and at least a two-game lead on everyone else. If they can at least break even over the final two games —and against the Raiders and Chiefs, they should — they would finish 10-6, and that would be good enough. Chance of making the playoffs: Excellent.
Jaguars (7-5): Jacksonville holds down the final wild-card spot, and today's intrastate showdown at home against the Dolphins is huge. After that, the Jaguars play the Colts and Patriots before closing out the season at home against the Browns. Jacksonville's hopes could depend on today's outcome. Chances of making the playoffs: 50-50.
Ravens (6-6): Baltimore hasn't won back-to-back games since starting the season 3-0. But in the past six games, the defense has allowed more than 17 points only once. With Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Oakland left on the schedule, we can see the Ravens going 4-0 and finishing 10-6. The game against the archrival Steelers in Pittsburgh could settle things. Chances of making the playoffs: Above average.
Dolphins (6-6): A loss to Jacksonville today likely ends Miami's postseason hopes. That would leave the Dolphins 6-7 and two games out of a playoff spot with three games left. Chances of making the playoffs: Not good.
Jets (6-6): The Jets must win today against the Bucs, especially because they have the Falcons, Colts and Bengals left. With QB Mark Sanchez hobbled, they don't appear to be in good shape. Chances of making the playoffs: Not good.
Titans (5-7): The Titans have won five of six, but to make the playoffs, they need to win four in a row and get lots of help. They could win the four because they play the Rams, Dolphins, Chargers and Seahawks, but the "lots of help" part seems too much to ask for. Chances of making the playoffs: Slim.
Steelers (6-7): The Steelers aren't eliminated, but having lost five straight games, including to the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns, we're saying they're dead. Chances of making the playoffs: Slim to none.
Texans (5-7): Houston needs to run the table, but that seems unlikely seeing as how it has lost four straight. Chances of making the playoffs: Slim to none.
How we see it
We'll take the Chargers over the Broncos in the West, but both will make the playoffs. That leaves the Ravens, Jets, Steelers, Dolphins and Jaguars fighting for one spot. Because of their defense and running game (the two most important aspects of the game come December) and a light schedule, the Ravens take the final playoff spot.
The undefeated Saints have clinched the division.
The Cowboys and Eagles are 8-4, and the Giants are a game back at 7-5. That sets up a crucial game tonight with the Giants hosting the Eagles. Then the Eagles must travel to Dallas for the season finale. Playing two make-or-break division games on the road might leave the Eagles out of the division hunt. The Cowboys have to play the Chargers and travel to New Orleans. So even though the Giants are a game back, they might be the team to beat, especially because they have two victories against the Cowboys. A loss tonight likely kills the Giants' division hopes, but a victory means they are our pick to win the division.
The Vikings (10-2) have a two-game lead on the Packers.
QB Kurt Warner, left, and the Cardinals (8-4) have a three-game lead.
Eagles (8-4): The Eagles may not win their division, but they should win home games against San Francisco and Denver. If they do win those games, they'll do no worse than 10-6. Chances of making the playoffs: Above average.
Packers (8-4): It's hard to believe this team lost to the Bucs. Though they appear safe in the wild-card race, the Packers aren't. Three of their final four games are on the road against decent teams: Chicago, Pittsburgh and Arizona. The only game left that looks like a sure victory is home against Seattle. If the Packers lose the road games, 9-7 might not be good enough for the playoffs. Chances of making the playoffs: 50-50.
Cowboys (8-4): Let's assume Dallas doesn't win the division. Then where does it stand? In trouble. Look at this schedule: home against the Chargers, at New Orleans, at archrival Washington, home against the Eagles. This team is so wildly inconsistent that we can see it going 4-0 or 0-4. If we had to guess, we would say the Cowboys will finish 1-3, at best 2-2. Chances of making the playoffs: 50-50.
Falcons (6-6): The only way Atlanta gets in is to sweep its final four games, but that's not as difficult as it sounds. The Falcons have to figure out a way to beat New Orleans today, possibly without QB Matt Ryan. Their remaining three games are against the Jets, Bills and Bucs. Chances of making the playoffs: Not good.
The 5-7 teams: The Panthers, Bears, 49ers and Seahawks are 5-7, but even winning four in a row and finishing 9-7 might not be good enough for any of them. Chances of any of them making the playoffs: Slim to none.
How we see it
We don't see how any team that finishes worse than 10-6 will make the playoffs in the NFC. The Giants, Cowboys or Eagles will win the East, and that leaves the two teams that don't fighting QB Aaron Rodgers, left, and the Packers for the two wild-card spots. No matter how we draw it up, we see all three teams in the East making the playoffs and the Packers left out in the cold.