A running series that should have started a couple weeks ago, it's time to look at the playoff picture as the NFL begins to close it's season. Since we still have the Giants and Redskins playing tonight, the AFC is the perfect place to start. Going into yesterday, all four AFC Division leaders had a chance to clinch playoff berths. Here's a look at the AFC playoff picture after yesterday's games (Chiefs, Jags and Raiders are eliminated; Browns, Titans and Chargers may as well be).
Houston (11-1)- Clinched a playoff berth. Last 4 games: @NE, Indy, Minn, @Indy.
Stand as the top team in the AFC right now and will play New England next Monday with a chance to lock up home-field throughout the playoffs. They would need losses by Denver and Baltimore to officially clinch, but they would own head-to-head tiebreakers over all three teams in case the Ravens or Broncos win. Not an easy schedule to close it out, so a loss would open the door for a second trip to New England potentially in January.
New England (9-3)- Clinched AFC East. Last 4 games: Hou, SF, @Jac, Mia.
Their win over the Dolphins locked up the division, the Pats 10th AFC East title in the last 12 seasons. They currently win a tiebreaker over both Denver and Baltimore by having a better conference record than both (since Denver and Baltimore didn't play yet, head-to-head don't count). If they can beat the Texans at home, then they are very alive for the top seed. If they lose, they would still be in the hunt for the other 1st round bye, especially with the Ravens and Broncos playing each other in Week 15.
Baltimore (9-3)- Last 4 games: @Wash, Den, NYG, @Cin
The Ravens could have clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Steelers. By failing to do so, their playoff position became a little more precarious. That schedule they have left is pretty brutal and I wouldn't be surprised if they finished 9-7. They hold the 3 spot right now due to playing two more conference games than Denver.
Denver (9-3)- Clinched AFC West. Last 4 games: @Oak, @Balt, Clev, KC
It's clear that the Broncos have the easiest schedule to close the 2012 season. As long as they beat the Ravens, the Broncos are probably the favorite to land the two seed in the AFC (perhaps the top seed if the Texans struggle). Would lose head-to-head tiebreakers with Houston and New England, but a win over Baltimore would counter that.
Indianapolis (8-4)- Last 4 games: Ten, @Hou, @KC, Hou
The Colts tremendous comeback against the Lions maintain their place in the AFC playoff picture as the 1st Wild Card and 5th seed. While the Houston games aren't easy, they have winnable games with Tennessee and Kansas City. And who knows; if the Texans lose to the Pats next Monday and the Colts win, they are two games behind for the division with 3 to play, controlling their destiny for the AFC South.
Pittsburgh (7-5)- Last 4 games: SD, @Dal, Cin, Clev
They are in the 6th spot because of their Sunday night win against the Bengals back in October. Somehow, the Steelers have survived this stretch without Ben Roethlisberger by getting that comeback win over the Ravens. Keeps them both in the playoffs if the season ended today and still gives the Steelers an outside shot at the division.
Cincinnati (7-5)- Last 4 games: Dal, @Phil, @Pitt, Balt
Cincinnati had their own comeback win by beating the sorry Chargers while being down 13-10 in the 4th quarter. This four-game winning streak came out of nowhere, but it's brought the Bengals in the heart of the AFC playoff race. Looking back at the Bengals, they've only once made the playoffs in back-to-back years (1981 and 1982, a strike year). These two games with the Cowboys and Eagles are must-wins, since it would be harder to sweep the Steelers and Ravens.
Mathematically alive, but pretty much done
NY Jets (5-7)- Last 4 games: @Jac, @Ten, SD, @Buf
Thanks to Greg McElroy, the Jets remains with faint playoff hopes. They needed two of Indy, Pitt and Cincy to lose yesterday, though. All won and despite an easy finishing schedule, the Jets have little chance of cracking through. 9-7 is a must for them.
Buffalo (5-7)- Last 4 games: Stl, Sea, @Mia, NYJ
The Bills also kept slight playoff hopes alive by knocking off the Jaguars at home. They also have a schedule that can get them to 9-7 since they have the Seahawks at home. Knowing the Bills, they probably will lose to the Rams to eliminate themselves.
Miami (5-7)- Last 4 games: @SF, Jac, Buf, @NE
What could have been for the Dolphins. After their dominant win over the Jets, Miami was 4-3 and schedule was seemingly easy. Then they lost 3 straight, two to the Titans and Bills and now they're also in need of winning out. Good luck with beating the Niners and Pats on the road to do that.