With only three weeks left in the 2012 season, the NFL playoff picture is coming into focus. There are only eight teams officially eliminated, but many of the league's top teams are starting to claim their spots and some have locked up division crowns. The Week 15 slate is loaded with games full of playoff implications with teams trending in divergent directions.
The NFC Wild Card has suddenly become interesting due to the Bears' scuffles over the past month. At 8-5, Chicago will host the Green Bay Packers in a critical game for their postseason chances. The Bears have dropped four of their past five games, and the Packers have taken advantage to build a one-game lead in the NFC North. Green Bay can lock up the division with the sweep of the Bears on Sunday.
The closest divisional race is in the NFC East, where three teams are over .500 with three games to play. The Giants hold a slim one-game lead over the Cowboys and Redskins. New York will travel to Atlanta to face the NFC South champion Falcons. Atlanta is coming off a disappointing loss to the Panthers, and while their postseason berth is secure, they'll be trying to prove themselves against a Giants team that wiped them out in the postseason. The Falcons are also still playing for a first-round bye and home-field advantage.
The Redskins will be without star quarterback Robert Griffin III as they go for their fifth straight win against the Browns. Washington is still alive in both the Wild Card and NFC East races, but they'll need some help from Atlanta and Green Bay in order to pull even in the East. They'll also need Kirk Cousins to step up against an improved Browns team.
The Cowboys are even with the Skins at 7-6, getting over .500 last week on the road. They face the Steelers in a crucial game at Cowboys Stadium. Pittsburgh needs a win to match the Bengals at 8-6 after Cincinnati's blowout win on Thursday Night Football. The Steelers and Bengals meet next week in what will likely be an elimination game in Pittsburgh.
In the AFC South, the Texans can slam the door on the Colts' faint hopes of taking that division with a win over Indianapolis on Sunday. Despite two straight losses, the Ravens are still in prime position to clinch the AFC North. A win over the Broncos in Baltimore on Sunday, combined with a Steelers loss in Dallas, would clinch a postseason spot for the Ravens.
The early afternoon slate is full of games that could clear up the playoff picture by 4:30 p.m. Here are this week's biggest games:
Redskins at Browns - 1 p.m. ET
Giants at Falcons - 1 p.m. ET
Packers at Bears - 1 p.m. ET
Broncos at Ravens - 1 p.m. ET
Colts at Texans - 1 p.m. ET
Steelers at Cowboys - 4:25 p.m. ET
With 24 teams still mathematically alive, there's a plethora of playoff scenarios still in play. But the division races are much more stable entering Sunday. The chart below, courtesy of Cincy Jungle, sets out the playoff possibilities in Week 15:
|New England||AFC East|
|Clinch AFC North||Win OR|
|Tie plus Steelers loss (or tie) AND Bengals loss (or tie) OR|
|Steelers loss AND Bengals loss|
|Clinch Postseason Berth||Tie OR|
|Bengals loss (or tie) OR|
|Steelers loss (or tie)|
|Clinches AFC South||Win|
|Clinches First-Round Bye||Win plus loss by Broncos AND Patriots (or tie)|
|Clinch Postseason Berth||Win OR|
|Tie plus Bengals loss (or tie) OR|
|Tie plus Steelers loss (or tie) OR|
|Tie plus Ravens win OR|
|NYJ loss or tie plus Bengals loss OR|
|NYJ loss (or tie) plus Ravens win plus Bengals tie plus Steelers tie|
|Clinches First-Round Bye||Win plus Packers loss (or tie) OR|
|Win plus 49ers loss OR|
|Tie plus Packers loss|
|Clinches Homefield Adv.||Win plus Packers loss (or tie) plus 49ers loss|
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
|Clinches NFC West||Win plus Seahawks loss|
|Clinches Postseason Berth||Win OR|
|Tie plus Cowboys loss (or tie) plus Redskins loss (or tie) plus Vikings loss (or tie) OR|
|Tie plus Cowboys loss (or tie) plus Redskins loss (or tie) plus Packers/Bears does not in tie OR|
|Tie plus Cowboys loss (or tie) plus Vikings loss (or tie) plus Bears loss OR|
|Tie plus Giants loss plus Vikings loss (or tie) plus Bears loss OR|
|Vikings loss plus Cowboys loss plus Redskins loss plus Seahawks loss (or tie)|
GREEN BAY PACKERS
|Clinches NFC North||Win|
|Clinches Postseason Berth||Tie plus Cowboys loss plus Redskins loss plusRams/Vikings tie OR|
|Tie plus Cowboys loss plus Redskins loss plus Vikings loss plus 49ers win (or tie) OR|
|Tie plus Cowboys loss plus Redskins loss plus Vikings loss plus Seahawks not ending in tie|