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The Monday Night Football game between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons will probably be best remembered for Drew Brees' performance and his breaking of the single-season passing yards record, but it had large implications in the NFC playoff picture as well. With their win, the Saints clinched the NFC South division title and will host at least one home playoff game.
While Atlanta were still fighting to win the division, they were locked into a playoff spot due to other results before the game started. They can be the fifth or sixth seed. They're currently sixth, and would move up if they win in Week 17, while the Detroit Lions lose.
The Saints are in a similar situation with their seeding. They are currently third, but can move up to second if they win in Week 17 and the San Fransisco 49ers lose. However, in the current scenario, the Saints and Falcons are likely to play a rematch at the Superdome in the first round of the playoffs.
The AFC West is one of three divisions in the NFL that will come down to the final week of the 2011 NFL season. Like the AFC North and unlike the NFC East, though, only one of the two teams in the race controls its own destiny.
That would be the Denver Broncos, whose Tim Tebow- and defense-fueled winning streak gave them pole position in the AFC West that has proved to be valuable; despite losses in Week 15 and Week 16, the Broncos can still win the division with a win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 17 or a loss by the Oakland Raiders to the San Diego Chargers.
The Raiders, on the other hand, need to win and have the Broncos lose or tie or tie and have the Broncos lose to claim the division; the Raiders cannot beat Denver to win the AFC West if they finish with the same record, thanks to a tiebreaker.
To make things even more confusing, the Raiders, not the Broncos, remain alive in the AFC Wild Card chase.
We know the names of five of the six NFC playoff teams and the final spot will be determined by the winner of the Cowboys vs. Giants game in Week 17.
The Houston Texans have had the AFC South locked up since Week 14. But now the Texans also have the AFC's No. 3 seed in the bag, leaving them with nothing to play for in Week 17.
Houston's 10-5 record is more than good enough to give the Texans their first ticket to the NFL playoffs in franchise history, and well beyond the record that the AFC West champions, whether they ends up being the Denver Broncos or Oakland Raiders, will have.
But it isn't good enough to give the Texans a chance to edge the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens for the second spot in the AFC. The Texans would, at 11-5, lose out to an 11-5 Ravens team that won the AFC North because of a head-to-head loss, and could not best an 11-5 Steelers team, because the Steelers cannot win the AFC North at 11-5.
And so, if the Texans have a back-up quarterback behind T.J. Yates, it might be prudent to play him in Week 17.
As we enter Week 17 there are only two more playoff spots up for grabs as the Patriots, Ravens, Texans and Steelers have already clinched spots.
The San Francisco 49ers are the only team still alive in the NFC West and they have a shot at clinching a first round bye in the coming week. The 49ers, 12-3, have long been the NFC West's best team so we're past the point of being surprised that they're in the playoffs.
The 49ers have several scenarios in which they can clinch a first round bye. First, they can simply win next weekend against the Rams. Second, they can tie plus a Saints loss or tie and they'd clinch it. Third, they can hope for one Saints loss. Any of those scenarios would clinch the first round bye for the 49ers.
The first round bye is significant because it's one less game the 49ers would have to play. If they don't clinch home field, they're in line to likely host the Lions or Falcons in the wildcard round, which are two dangerous teams.
Check out SB Nation's Niners Nation for more on the 49ers.
The New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons are the last two teams standing in the NFC South and the winner of the division is yet to be decided. The two teams meet on Monday Night Football where the division title could be decided.
For the Saints, they can clinch the NFC South title and, possibly, a first round bye. To win the NFC South they have to beat win once or the Falcons lose once. It's that simple. They meet on Monday night so the Saints can clinch the division with a win there.
The Saints also have a shot at a first round bye if they win out and the 49ers lose or if they win once, tie once and the 49ers lose. So basically they're rooting for the Rams to beat the 49ers next week (and then winning out).
For the Falcons, they've already clinched a playoff spot. Winning the NFC South is considerably tougher as they'll have to win out and hope the Saints lose twice.
As it stands now, the Saints and Falcons are in.
Though both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have clinched playoff berths, both teams also have plenty to play for in the final week of the 2011 NFL season. The Ravens and Steelers could win the AFC North and earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and could also find themselves looking at three road games en route to a Super Bowl.
The Ravens have the inside track on the AFC North, at least: with a win over the Cincinnati Bengals, or a loss by the Steelers to the Cleveland Browns, they clinch the divisional title and no worse than the AFC's No. 2 seed. For them to claim the No. 1 seed, they must win and have the New England Patriots lose to the Buffalo Bills. Baltimore cannot fall lower than the No. 2 seed as the AFC North champion, even with a loss, because the Ravens would hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Houston Texans if both teams were 11-5.
Likewise, the Ravens' sweep of and head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers means that Pittsburgh must win or tie and have the Ravens lose to claim the AFC North and the No. 2 seed. Pittsburgh could be the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a win and losses by both the Patriots and Ravens, but can't earn lower than the No. 2 seed as the AFC North champion, because the Steelers would have to be 12-4 or 11-4-1 to win the division, and that's better than Houston's best possible final record or 11-5.
The Ravens and Steelers are also playing to avoid the No. 5 seed. Whichever of the two teams does not win the AFC North will earn that seeding, and must travel to play the AFC West champion in the first round of the 2011 NFL playoffs.
The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants are the last two teams standing in the NFC East and, as NBC had hoped, they'll be playing for the division title in Week 17. NBC will broadcast the game next Sunday night, which will give us our last playoff participant and a win-and-you're-in situation.
The Cowboys and Giants are both 8-7 entering the final week which means the winner will win the NFC East and secure a playoff spot. The winner will be awarded the NFC's fourth seed and will host a home playoff game on wildcard weekend.
The Giants beat the Cowboys earlier this year, 37-34, which was one of those instant classics. That win turned out to be arguably the biggest of the season for the Giants as it gave them a game in the NFC East. Now that both teams are tied, the winner will move and the loser is out.
As everyone expected, the Green Bay Packers are the top seed in the NFC playoffs after clinching the first round bye with a 14-1 start to the season. They're clearly the best team in the NFL so no one is surprised that they have everything already wrapped up. The only remaining question for them is whether they play their starters in Week 17.
Elsewhere in the NFC North, the Detroit Lions' victory on Saturday clinched a playoff spot, which means we'll see the Lions in the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Detroit will be either the fifth or sixth seed as a wildcard depending on what the Falcons do. Atlanta holds the head to head tiebreaker with Detroit so in the event they both finish 10-6 or 11-5, Atlanta would be the fifth seed (assuming Atlanta doesn't win the AFC South, which is still possible). But an Atlanta loss on Monday night plus a Lions win means Detroit gets the fifth seed.
So the keys to remember in the NFC North playoff scenario is that the Packers have already clinched home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. They're the NFC's top seed entering the postseason. The Lions, meanwhile, will be the NFC's fifth or sixth seed as a wildcard.
Despite playing with what has seemed like the tattered shreds of a defense for much of the 2011 NFL season, the New England Patriots are still in line to clinch home-field advantage in Week 17.
All the Patriots have to do to make sure that they won't leave Gillette Stadium in the AFC playoffs is win or tie against the Bills; that would move New England to 13-3 (or 12-3-1) on the year and secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. The Patriots can also earn the first seed if they lose, but only if the Ravens and Steelers, both 11-4 heading into the final week of the regular season, both fall as well.
Of course, the Patriots had the No. 1 seed in the AFC in 2010, too, and were unceremoniously ousted from the playoffs in the divisional round by the New York Jets. Home-field advantage is nice, but Bill Belichick and Co. know it guarantees nothing.
The Detroit Lions are playoff bound after clinching a wildcard spot with a win over the San Diego Chargers on Saturday evening. The Lions found themselves in the driver's seat with two games to go in the regular season, needing just one win to lock up a playoff spot. And they found it in convincing fashion, jumping out to a 24-0 lead over the Chargers and breezing to a 38-10 finish.
The Chargers were also eliminated from playoff contention, leaving the AFC West race to the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders. Earlier in the day, the Kansas City Chiefs were eliminated with a loss to the Raiders.
The Seattle Seahawks are also out of the playoff picture after falling to the San Francisco 49ers, 19-17. The Seahawks needed to win out and get some help to make the playoffs, but it's all moot now. The Niners remained in the driver's seat for the No. 2 seed in the NFC heading into the final week, as well.
In the other late game, the Dallas Cowboys' result was rendered meaningless earlier in the day, with the NFC East coming down to Week 17 battle with the New York Giants. The Cowboys were run off the field in a 20-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday, but it matters not.
The NFL playoff picture came slightly more into focus, but not much after Saturday's early games. The Arizona Cardinals were the only team to be eliminated and the New England Patriots were the only team to clinch their division. Here's a complete look at how the picture now looks:
Raiders 16, Chiefs 13: Oakland improved to 8-7 and remains alive in the playoff hunt. In fact, they can still win the AFC West if they beat the San Diego Chargers next week. Kansas City was officially eliminated from the playoff race.
Patriots 27, Dolphins 24: New England recovered from a slow start to clinch the AFC East and improve to 12-3. They will clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they win their final game against the Buffalo Bills.
Bengals 23, Cardinals 16: Cincinnati kept their playoff hopes alive, while Arizona's died. The Bengals are now 9-6 and can clinch a playoff spot by beating the Baltimore Ravens in their final game and could qualify even if they lose.
Bills 40, Broncos 14: Denver's once seeming lock on the playoffs is suddenly much more tenuous after losing to Buffalo, a team that had already been eliminated from playoff contention. The Broncos (8-7) play the Kansas City Chiefs in their final game and can still win the division or miss the playoffs.
Steelers 27, Rams 0: Pittsburgh remained in contention to win the AFC Central and have clinched a playoff spot. The Steelers (11-4) could win the division and earn a first-round bye if they beat the Cleveland Browns next week.
Giants 29, Jets 14: The Giants (8-7) put themselves in position to win the NFC East with a victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the season's final week. The Jets (8-7) were dealt a blow and will now need to win over the Dolphins as well as a little bit of help in order to qualify for the playoffs.
Ravens 20, Browns 14: Baltimore kept its hopes for an AFC Central title and a first-round bye alive with the victory. The Ravens (11-4) can clinch both of those things with a win in their final game over the Bengals.