Playoff picture taking shape early

Normally, the "if the playoffs would start today" discussion is a waste of time because the playoffs don't start a month early. In the NFL this season, the statement is defining.

Three-fourths of the playoffs are pretty well set, and the rest is easy to figure out. With four games left, each of the eight division winners hold at least two-game leads. The Patriots have clinched the AFC East. The Cowboys, Packers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Colts, Steelers and Chargers can clinch their division titles this weekend.

The Giants have a two-game advantage on the top NFC wild card and actually could clinch a playoff spot if they beat the Eagles and the other contenders lose. With only the other three wild-card spots to be determined, the playoffs almost could start today.

Little should change at the top because all the potential division winners except the Steelers have closing schedules against teams with combined winning percentages of .458 or easier. And after the Steelers play the unbeaten Patriots, the Steelers have a 15-21 closing schedule.

Barring unexpected collapses, the playoffs are taking shape.

• In the NFC, as long as the Seahawks beat the Cardinals, they should get the No. 3 seed. They have the tiebreakers over the Bucs from an early-season victory. That would put the Seahawks in position to take on the final wild card -- the Vikings, Cardinals or Lions.

• The Giants, the likely No. 5 seed, can send scouts to Bucs games for a meeting in Tampa.

• In the AFC, the Steelers have a two-game lead over the Chargers for the No. 3 seed and should be awaiting a rematch against the Browns or Titans. The Bills could jump into the mix if they beat the Browns Dec. 16. The Steelers play a bigger role in the wild card because they play host to the Jaguars Dec. 16.

• As AFC West champ, San Diego would play host to the Jaguars in the first round as long as the Jags lock up the No. 5 seed. The Jaguars still have a decent chance to get to 11 wins. Though they have a tough trip to Pittsburgh, they have winnable games against the Panthers, Raiders and Texans.

The final wild card can't be pinned down. Of the NFC's 6-6 teams, the Vikings are getting hot and the Cardinals can't be counted out. The Lions are on a four-game losing streak and face a tough .667 closing schedule. In the AFC, the Browns and Titans have the best chances.

Even the next round is taking shape. As long as there are no upsets, the Chargers would visit the Patriots and the Steelers would go to Indianapolis. In the NFC, Dallas would play host to the Bucs and the Seahawks would visit the Packers.

The Patriots are on track to lock up home-field advantage in the AFC, and the Cowboys are on pace to do the same in the NFC in the next couple of weeks.

The playoff picture is pretty clear.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.