With two weeks left to play, the NFL playoff picture is starting to take shape. If the season ended today, here's how it would look (before the Sunday and Monday night games).
1. New England Patriots (12-2): The AFC East champions had little problem with Tennessee and now aim to wrap up the No. 1 seed in the AFC. No team overcomes injury issues better than the Patriots, but they continued to pile up Sunday, making the challenge moving forward all the more difficult.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (11-3): The Bengals had little problem dispatching the 49ers on Sunday, but more important was the fact that quarterback AJ McCarron looked capable of handling his new role. A big showdown next week at Denver gives Cincinnati a chance to lock up the division and a first-round bye.
3. Denver Broncos (10-4): The Broncos looked like legitimate Super Bowl contenders early against Pittsburgh, but their second-half collapse led to their second consecutive loss. Now, Denver finds itself in danger of losing the AFC West and tumbling out of hosting a wild-card game.
4. Houston Texans (7-7): Just as we all expected, it took Brandon Weeden at quarterback for the Texans to beat the Colts in Indianapolis for the first time in franchise history. Houston has seized control of the AFC South and closes the season with games against division rivals Tennessee and Jacksonville.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (9-5): Kansas City made a bit of history on Sunday, becoming the first team in NFL history to have a five-game losing streak followed by an eight-game winning streak. The Chiefs throttled Baltimore 34-14 and are another step closer to finishing the season with 10 consecutive victories.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5): The Steelers’ stirring comeback victory over Denver finally allows them to jump into the playoff picture. The way this offense is playing, nobody wants to face Pittsburgh, especially the team it just beat.
Best projected matchup: Denver vs. Pittsburgh. If you watched Sunday’s 34-27 Pittsburgh win, you already know why a rematch would be appealing.
On the rise: New York Jets (9-5). Despite winning four in a row and looking like a deserving playoff team, the Jets finally dropped out of the playoff mix. They host New England next week and don’t have a lot going for them in tiebreaker situations, so they’re going to need some help to climb back into the mix.
On the decline: Indianapolis Colts (6-8). The Colts haven’t missed the playoffs since 2011, but at 6-8, they find themselves on the outside looking in with two weeks to go. Indianapolis will need a little bit of luck and perhaps a whole lot of Luck to get back to the postseason dance.
1. Carolina Panthers (14-0): The Panthers nearly let a huge lead slip away, but Cam Newton got it done again, leading a game-winning drive for a field goal to escape with a 38-35 victory over the Giants. With only Atlanta and Tampa Bay left on the schedule, an undefeated regular season seems likely, unless the Panthers pump the brakes on playing their starters in the final week.
2. Arizona Cardinals (11-2): The Cardinals claimed the NFC West title with Sunday night’s rout of Philadelphia and can lock up a first-round bye with a win next week at home against Green Bay. Arizona has now won eight in a row and looks like one of the most complete teams in the NFL, especially with rookie David Johnson more than ably stepping in for the injured Chris Johnson.
3. Green Bay Packers (10-4): The Packers clinched a playoff spot with a 30-20 victory over Oakland on Sunday. Green Bay can still elbow its way into a first-round bye with some help, but for now the Packers are in excellent position to nail down the NFC North and the No. 3 seed.
4. Washington Redskins (7-7): It hasn’t come against top competition, but the Redskins are at least looking more like a deserving division winner than any NFC East team has all season. Sunday’s 35-25 victory over Buffalo keeps Washington in control of this spot and its playoff possibilities.
5. Seattle Seahawks (9-5): The Seahawks just keep rolling with an easy, 30-13 victory over Cleveland on Sunday that allowed them to clinch a playoff berth. It’s their fifth straight win, and with quarterback Russell Wilson playing as well as anyone in the league, Seattle still looms as the wild-card team nobody in the NFC wants to see in January.
6. Minnesota Vikings (9-5): Minnesota snapped its two-game losing streak by cruising to a 38-17 victory over Chicago on Sunday. The Vikings continue to take advantage of below-.500 teams, but it’s hard to see another NFC team doing enough to overtake them for this spot.
Best projected matchup: Washington vs. Seattle. Since the playoff matchups from a week ago didn’t change, we’ll just go ahead and offer a glimpse at what the other NFC wild-card game would be. The Seahawks likely and rightly would be strong favorites in this one, but Washington is 6-2 at home this year, which might give it at least a fighting chance.
On the rise: Washington (7-7). The Redskins have won two in a row and finish with games at Philadelphia and Dallas. The NFC East title is within reach, and Washington could even save a little face for the conference’s worst division by winning out to finish with a winning record.
On the decline: The New York Giants (6-8). No team in the NFL has fallen victim to more heartbreaking late losses than the Giants. After Sunday’s valiant comeback fell short against Carolina, New York finds itself teetering on the brink of a lost season.