NFL playoff picture: Falcons, Texans still the best; Bengals, Cowboys could sneak in

Ronald Martinez

The NFL playoff race tightened up on Sunday afternoon, setting up what should be a wild ride to the postseason.

Week 11 has been a strange one. Several of the NFL's top contenders narrowly escaped challenges by visiting underdogs. Houston and Atlanta both turned back threats to stay on top of the standings in both the AFC and NFC. Nevertheless, the NFL playoff picture looks a little different just a week out from Thanksgiving and the home stretch of the 2012 NFL season.

Let's review what we learned so far.

The quest for No. 2

Did you write off the Green Bay Packers after a replacement ref assisted fiasco in Seattle? You can be forgiven. That game, in Week 3, was part of a 2-3 start to the season that had the preseason Super Bowl favorites looking forlorn and lost. Since a Week 5 loss to the Colts, Aaron Rodger and Co. have rattled off five straight wins including a crucial conference win over the Detroit Lions this week.

On Tuesday morning, the Packers could be on top of the NFC North and in the second spot in the NFC. The Bears currently sit there, but Chicago faces San Francisco this week without Jay Cutler. A Bears' loss puts the Packers in first in the division. The 49ers could be second in the NFC in that scenario.

Over in the AFC, second place in the conference standings hinges on the outcome of Sunday night's prime-time affair between the Steelers and the Ravens. Baltimore leads the AFC North and claims the second spot in the AFC. A Steelers win flips the division standings. It would also give the AFC four teams with a 7-3 record: the Steelers, Ravens, Patriots and Broncos.

Division leaders - AFC

New England has sewn up the AFC East at this point, barring some strange, unforeseen circumstance like a hoodie shortage in the Boston area. Every other team in the division looks like they belong in the AFC West.

Ben Roethlisberger is out this week, and could miss an extended amount of time with a freak rib injury that could have killed him. It might have been the break a struggling Ravens team needed to stay a step ahead of them in the AFC North.

Houston escaped the Jaguars this week, thanks in large part Mike Mularkey's poor decision-making in overtime. At 9-1, it's next to impossible, realistically, for another team to catch up to the Texans. The question here is whether or not Houston can cruise through the end of the season on top of the AFC.

Denver beat the Chargers again this week, sweeping the season series and running up a three-game lead for the AFC West crown.

Division leaders - NFC

The Giants had a bye this week, and Dallas won, barely, over Cleveland, which leaves them just game behind in the NFC East. Against all odds, we could be in for another Giants-Cowboys battle for the division if Eli Manning can't get things turned around in time.

The Falcons have locked down the NFC South with a 9-1 record. Matt Ryan's terrible performance may have fans there worried about how deep the team can go in the playoffs, but a first-round bye looks all but guaranteed.

Chicago and Green Bay could switch places in the NFC North, depending on how the Bears do Monday night without Cutler. It looks like those two teams could be in a dogfight through January with a Week 15 game key.

San Francisco was expected to walk to an NFC West crown, but a loss to the Bears on Monday could set up a tight race with the Seahawks. San Francisco currently holds the tiebreaker. The 49ers travel to Seattle in Week 16.

Wildcards - AFC

Tom Brady sent quarterbacking prodigy Andrew Luck back to school this week as the Patriots thumped the Colts by a final score of 59-24. It was a disappointing, but not unexpected, result. Luck and the Colts still have the sixth seed in the AFC race with a 6-4 record.

The team to watch in the AFC race is the suddenly resurgent Cincinnati Bengals. Sure, Andy Dalton looked like a seasoned pro against the Kansas City Chiefs this week, but the Bengals won big last week against the Giants. The Bengals have the Raiders, Chargers and Cowboys over the next three weeks.

Another wild card race to watch is the same as the chase for the AFC North top spot, between the Steelers and Ravens. If both teams keep struggling, one or the other could slip out of the playoff picture entirely.

Wildcards - NFC

Right now, the Packers and Bears fight extends into the NFC wildcard picture, with one of those teams looking likely to capture that as a consolation prize as the other one takes the division.

Seattle currently has the second Wild Card spot, but there are several teams knocking at the door. Tampa Bay and Minnesota both have 6-4 records that mirror the Seahawks' results so far. The Bucs have a tough two weeks ahead with games against Atlanta and in Denver. The Vikings have two road dates, in Chicago and Green Bay, over the next weeks before coming home to face the Bears again.

Against all odds, the Cowboys and Saints are in the picture with a 5-5 record each. New Orleans has the 49ers, Falcons and Giants ahead. Dallas has Washington, Philadelphia and Cincinnati on the docket. Don't be surprised if the Cowboys somehow sneak into the playoff race.

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