NFL Race to the Playoffs Preview

By Michael LoCoco
PSDC NFL Beat Writer

Other than tonight’s matchup between Dallas and Washington, Week 13 is in the books. Every team in the NFL has now played 12 games. With 3/4 of the season gone, the run-up to the playoffs has taken clear shape. However, this is one of the most even seasons in recent memory. Due to this, it won’t be until Weeks 16 and 17 until most divisions are decided and the conferences are all sorted through. So let’s take a quick look at each division and conference with a look to the playoffs.

NFC East

Photo Credit: Danny Wild/USA Today Sports

Current Leader — Washington 5-6

Key Remaining Games: Week 13 Washington vs. Cowboys; Week 17 Giants vs. Eagles 

The NFL’s crappiest division this year sees Washington, a team with a losing record, leading the division. This division won’t be won until the final week though with everyone but Dallas within a game of the division lead. Dallas likely won’t recover from losing Tony Romo. They’d likely need to win the next five straight. It’s hard to like anyone in this division.

NFC North

Current Leader — Green Bay 8-4

Key Remaining Games: Week 17 Packers vs. Vikings

The NFC North picture is actually incredibly straight-forward. As long as the Vikings and Packers are within one game of each other going into Week 17, that game will be for the division due to how the tie-breakers work out. Both teams are tied in the standings, but Green Bay has the tie-breaker for now. Minnesota has a tough run-in and after losing to Green Bay and Seattle and with Arizona coming up, the goal for them is to make Week 17 count. Smart money is probably still on Green Bay though.

NFC South

Current Leader — Carolina 12-0

Key Remaining Games: None

Carolina has won the division and barring a pretty horrid December will sew up the number one seed shortly as well. The only real drama left here is whether Carolina will become the second team ever to go 16-0.

NFC West

Current Leader — Arizona 10-2

Key Remaining Games: Week 17  Seahawk vs. Cardinals

The West is probably set as we head into the stretch. Two wins by Arizona or a win and a Seattle loss will give Arizona the West title. Seattle though looks incredibly dangerous as things heat up though. They couldn’t slow down the Steelers passing attack (can anyone at this point?), but they embarrassed the Vikings and are heating up going into the stretch. All they can do is keep winning.

AFC East

Current Leader — New England 10-2

Key Remaining Games: Week 16 Jets vs. Patriots

The math in the AFC East is extremely similar to the NFC West. The Jets haven’t been mathematically eliminated but it would take a fairly major collapse by New England to make the division interesting. Still, New England has been rocked by injury lately and has dropped two straight, first to Denver, and then to lowly Philadelphia. Still, New England can win twice and take the division or a win and a Jets loss.

AFC North 

Photo Credit: Brett Carlsen/Fox Sports

Current Leader — Cincinnati 10-2

Key Remaining Games: Week 14 Bengals vs. Steelers

Another division with a leader three games ahead with four to play. However, no one is playing as hot on offense right now as Pittsburgh. They can run, they can pass (a lot) and they can bomb it out. Week 14 sees these two teams match up and a win by Cincy takes the division. Essentially the division will be decided in Week 14.

AFC South

Current Leader — Indianapolis 6-6

Key Remaining Games: Week 15 Colts vs. Texans

The AFC version of the NFC East, the Texans are making a valiant push for the finish. The Jags and Titans are still technically alive, but it’s hard to see either of them getting there. While a win would have been nice for Houston this week against the Bills (giving them cushion as they play the Pats coming up in Week 14), the division will likely come down to Week 15. The real question for that week will be whether or not Luck can be back. If not, it’s anyone’s game.

AFC West

Current Leader — Denver 10-2

Key Remaining Games: None

The final division is also another three game lead by a 10-2 team. As with the others, two wins by Denver or a win by Denver and loss by Kansas City will end the division race in favor of Denver. Tough to see Denver missing that boat though as they’d have to drop one against Oakland and San Diego to lose the division.


The NFC playoff picture is marginally easier to play out than the AFC due to the continued invincibility of the Carolina Panthers. While the Cardinals can technically catch the Panthers, Carolina has a relatively simple finish with Washington, cratering Atlanta twice and then the Bucs. 16-0 seems imminent. While Carolina is two games up for the top spot, the second spot is held by Arizona with a two game lead over the Vikings and Packers. The Cardinals have a tough finish with games against the Vikings, Packers and Seahawks closing out. Drop two of those, with a loss to Green Bay or Minnesota and the first round bye could be in jeopardy. Honestly, though, the six top spots right now are held by Carolina, Arizona, Green Bay, Washington, Minnesota and Seattle. While the math puts a number of teams in play, it’s pretty tough to see anyone other than those six making it to January (with the exception of Washington being replaced by whoever decides they want to win the East). Tampa and Atlanta are the only teams in spitting distance of the Wild Card spots really, and Atlanta is 1-5 in the last six and Tampa isn’t really talented enough to challenge.

Projected Finish: Carolina, Arizona, Green Bay, New York, Seattle, Minnesota


The AFC playoff picture is highlighted by three 10-2 teams vying for the top two seeds followed by the Texans or Colts in the South and then the surging Steelers  and Chiefs. Injuries have derailed New England’s perfect dreams with back to back losses. Still, the Pats play the Texans, Titans, Saints and Dolphins to close out and it’s not hard to see four wins there. Notably the Bengals and Broncos play in Week 16 on Monday Night. It really seems as though the winner of that game will grab one of the bye spots for sure with the loser missing out to New England who benefits greatly from this matchup. The real question mark in that game is Peyton Manning. Will he be back? We don’t know. The South comes down to the Colts-Texans rematch and the winner of that division seems likely to see the Steelers or Chiefs in the Wild Card round. While the Jets currently hold the final spot, it’s hard to see them sustaining success with Fitzpatrick at QB. The Steelers are the better bet to finish out the season.

Projected Finish: Cincinnati, New England, Denver, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Pittsburgh

Follow Mike on Twitter: @MichaelLoCocoWI


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