Three divisional races ended last week, with New England, Denver and Indianapolis all claiming titles in the AFC. The Arizona Cardinals locked up a playoff spot in the NFC, but their chances of winning the West hinge on whether quarterback Ryan Lindley can do anything this week against the lethal Seattle Seahawks defense.
Those berths leave 17 teams in the running for the remaining eight playoff spots, and there's a chance all of those playoff berths could be claimed by Monday night.
With half of the AFC berths scooped up, the main focus of the playoff chase shifts to the NFC's race to the No. 1 seed. The Seahawks could be in an enviable position if the right pieces fall into place.
As often is the case at this time of year, Seattle's rooting interest is changing by the game. A week ago, the Seahawks needed a Green Bay loss to Buffalo in order to enhance their odds of securing the top seed. On Sunday, Seattle is hoping for wins by those same Packers as well as the Detroit Lions. If both NFC North teams win, the winner of next week's Detroit-Green Bay game will be 12-4.
In that event, the Seahawks would capture home-field advantage if they win their final two games. The Seahawks would lose home field if they finish in a tie with Dallas at 12-4 by virtue of the Cowboys' Week 6 win at CenturyLink Field. A 12-4 team coming out of the NFC North would create a three-way tie for the NFC's top seed -- a favorable outcome for Seattle, which would own tiebreakers over the other two teams. There's still plenty of outcomes that could change Seattle's fortunes. But after their early-season struggles, things could set up quite nicely for the defending champs to force NFC teams to travel to CenturyLink and contend with the 12th man.
Here are the trends to consider heading into Week 16.
1. Coaches scrambling to get a read on new QBs: Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said the Seahawks didn't have much tape of Lindley, who had all of four starts in 2012 and has thrown only 181 career passes, with no TDs. Lindley's 2012 tape wasn't too useful, either, as he played then under former coach Ken Whisenhunt, not Bruce Arians, who has guided the team to an 11-3 mark despite a rash of injuries at QB. So instead of studying Lindley, the Seahawks focused their attention on Arians' offense in advance of Sunday night's matchup.
The story was similar for the Carolina Panthers after finding out the Chicago Bears would start Jimmy Clausen over Jay Cutler. Clausen has thrown nine passes this year, but before that he hadn't thrown a pass in a regular-season game since 2010, when he was a Panther.
Both quarterbacks face daunting tasks in their first starts of the season, and they're not alone. Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien isn't saying whether Thad Lewis or Case Keenum will start against Baltimore on Sunday after losing his top three quarterbacks to injuries. (ESPN's Adam Kaplan reported that Keenum is expected to get the start.) And Robert Griffin III is back as starter against a desperate Philadelphia Eagles team Saturday after Colt McCoy was placed on injured reserve.
2. Will AFC West bump AFC North playoff hopefuls?: Last season, three AFC West teams reached the playoffs. This year, the AFC North is hoping to duplicate that feat. Standing in its way are the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos, the AFC West's top two teams from a year ago.
The Broncos are playing for a playoff bye after winning the division last week in San Diego. Their Monday night matchup versus Cincinnati should be fascinating. If the Bengals lose, they are in trouble because they could drop to third place in a tightly packed division and face a tough assignment playing in Pittsburgh the following week. Historically, Peyton Manning has owned the AFC North. His career record against that division is 22-1, best ever for a quarterback against any division, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Despite Manning's recent struggles, most people would still pick him in a head-to-head battle versus Andy Dalton.
The Steelers host Kansas City in a game Andy Reid's Chiefs need to win to stay in the playoff race. Alex Smith wishes he had the weapons available to Ben Roethlisberger. Le'Veon Bell has become one of the league's best running backs, and the Steelers' three-receiver set ranks among the best in football. Smith is working with a wide receiving corps that hasn't had a touchdown reception all season. For the Chiefs to win, they'll have to keep it a low-scoring, defensive game, which is tough with Pittsburgh's array of offensive talent.
3. Can Dallas count on its workhorse? Thanks to running back DeMarco Murray, who accounts for 38 percent of the Cowboys' offensive yards, Dallas is 10-4 and in prime position to win the NFC East. After suffering a hand injury in Philly that required surgery, the question is whether he can play effectively to continue to produce and help Dallas control the clock.
The Indianapolis Colts have an offense that can expose the Cowboys' vulnerable defense. Andrew Luck is having an MVP-type season, and if he can run off about 70 plays, the Cowboys will be in trouble. You know Colts coach Chuck Pagano will have his defenders target Murray's injured left hand to try and force fumbles, an issue Murray struggled with early in the season. Murray is willing, but asking him to be a workhorse in his weakened state might be too much.
4. Defining moment for the NFC South: The Saints are the only NFC South playoff contender that can win the division with a degree of respect. New Orleans hosts the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday then travels to 2-12 Tampa Bay the next week. Winning out could give New Orleans an 8-8 record and prevent the NFC South from becoming the second division in league history won by a team with a losing record (Seattle was 7-9 in 2010).
Much like Seattle-San Francisco, Falcons-Saints has been one of the better recent rivalries, with many contests decided in the final minutes or overtime. This one could be another classic with playoff implications on the line and the Falcons playing to save head coach Mike Smith's job.
5. Limping to the finish line: A number of teams are hoping the season mercifully comes to an end. The San Francisco 49ers are out of the playoffs and dealing with the news that coach Jim Harbaugh is considering a $49 million offer from Michigan. Add Ray McDonald's release and a long injury list, and 49ers fans may be subjected to an uninspired performance against San Diego on Saturday.
Joe Philbin knows Harbaugh rumors could soon hit Miami, so he'll need to produce a couple of wins to convince owner Stephen Ross to keep him as head coach. Philbin has been hurt by his defense of late, as the unit has surrendered 30.3 points per game over the past four contests. As a result, the Dolphins have lost three of four, and their playoff chances are minuscule.
Then there's Johnny Manziel and the scuffling Browns. Manziel's first career start was a disaster, as his 1.0 QBR matched former Cleveland signal-caller Brandon Weeden's debut in 2012. He hopes for a quick turnaround against the Panthers.