Before we get into the three games I’ve picked as the can’t-miss matchups this week, let’s take a look at the current playoff picture, just to put everything in perspective. To summarize, twelve teams in total make the NFL playoffs: one from each of the eight divisions, and two “wildcard” teams from each conference. The six teams in each conference are “seeded”—that is, ranked—first to sixth. The first and second seeds in each conference get a bye in the first week of the playoffs, in which the other division winners face off against each other or the wild card teams. Since the highest seeded team in each game gets to play in its home stadium, the first seeds in each conference get a further benefit: home-field advantage throughout the playoffs (until they lose, of course).
So, with that review in mind, here is the current playoff picture:
Division Leaders. At this point, the champions of only three of the eight divisions have been determined: the San Francisco 49ers (NFC West), the Green Bay Packers (NFC North) and the Houston Texans (AFC South). The New Orleans Saints are leading the NFC South, two games ahead of the Atlanta Falcons, and have clinched a spot in the playoffs, even if they don’t end up winning that division. The other current division leaders are: the Baltimore Ravens (AFC North), the New England Patriots (AFC East), the Denver Broncos (AFC West) and the New York Giants (NFC East).
Wildcard Teams. If the season ended today, the following teams would qualify for the postseason as wildcards: the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets in the AFC; and the Atlanta Falcons and the Detroit Lions in the NFC. Because the winner of each division automatically gets a playoff berth, there are often some strange results. For example, the Falcons and the Lions, at 8 and 5, both have better records than the New York Giants, who are leading the NFC East with a 7-6 record. In the AFC, the Steelers, at 10-3, are two games ahead of the NFC West-leading Denver Broncos, with an 8-5 record.
In the Hunt. With three weeks remaining in the season, we can’t overlook the possibility that some other teams could still win enough games to make the playoffs, ousting five of the division leaders and the four current wildcards. In the AFC, those teams are: the Tennessee Titans, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers. The NFC playoff race is a little more crowded; the Chicago Bears, the Dallas Cowboys, the Seattle Seahawks, the Arizona Cardinals and the Philadelphia Eagles all have a chance (some slimmer than others) of continuing to play in mid-January.
Eliminated. Then there are the teams that should count on having plenty of free time come January. In the AFC the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars should have plenty of time to return unwanted Christmas gifts. The NFC’s Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins can go ahead and book vacations for New Year’s week.
Detroit Lions (8-5) @ Oakland Raiders (7-6) (Sunday, 4:05 PM ET, FOX): With the Lions holding on by their thumbnails as a wildcard and the Raiders only one game out of the wildcard race, every game from here on out is critical for both teams. Realistically, the Lions need to win the rest of their games to stay in the playoffs. After the Raiders, they play the San Diego Chargers, who are also in the hunt; their last game is against the Green Bay Packers who, at that point, may be trying to accomplish a historic 16-0 season. The Raiders’ remaining opponents are the Kansas City Chiefs and one of their division rivals, the San Diego Chargers. Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh returns from a two-game suspension for stomping on an opponent, and he will be looking to make up for lost time against the struggling Raiders QB, Carson Palmer. Of course, the Raiders aren’t exactly known for their afternoon-tea demeanor. Even without the playoff drama, this contest should be entertaining.
New England Patriots (10-3) @ Denver Broncos (8-5) (Sunday, 4:15 PM ET, CBS): The Chronicles of Tebow have been recited week-in, week-out for almost the entire 2011 season. Themes have included praise, confusion, bewilderment, criticism and above all, wonder. The Chicago Bears tried to disrupt the mojo of Tebow and the Broncos by filling the media with messages of scorn and an impending comeuppance in the week leading up to last week’s game, which ended in another thrilling victory (in overtime) for the Broncos. However, the approach of the New England Patriots leading up to this week’s game couldn’t be more different. It has been a virtual love fest of comments pouring from Foxborough this week. Praise for Tebow and the entire Broncos squad has been from QB Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and owner Bob Kraft so fast that printing presses and keyboards can barely keep up. Is this part of a reverse strategy to get into the Broncos’ heads? Will the Pats kill them with kindness on Sunday or will the Broncos pull off another miraculous escape?
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) @ San Francisco 49ers (10-3) (Monday, 8:30 PM ET, ESPN): Usually, you wouldn’t talk about a team with ten wins and only three losses being in a must-win game. And we’re not going to talk about it here. There’s no need to get into details, but even though the Steelers only have a wildcard spot right now, they have a two game lead over the holder of the second wildcard opening and a three-game lead over the next three contenders. In fact, there are several ways the Steelers can clinch a playoff berth this weekend, even if they lose to the Niners. For their part, the Niners have clinched the NFC West and their schedule gets much cushier after this weekend, with the Seattle Seahawks and the St. Louis Rams. So why watch? For one thing, this may be a preview of the Super Bowl, especially since both teams have a chance to finish as the No. 1 or 2 seed in their respective conferences, thus giving them a leg-up in byes and home field advantage. For another, the injury Ben Roethlisberger sustained last week adds some additional drama to the action: Will he sit out after heroically coming back in the second half last week? If he plays, will the Steelers rely on the running game to protect Big Ben? The Niners defense ranks #1 in the league in rush defense, so they could be looking to get Big Ben on the run. What a great way to end Week 15!