NFL playoff picture 2013: Cowboys retake lead in NFC East, AFC wild card race tightens up

Wesley Hitt

With six AFC teams at 5-6, there's a mashup for the second wild card. Meanwhile, the Cardinals and Panthers keep winning while the Lions fall again.

If Week 12 taught us anything, it's that this December is lining up to be one more of the more exciting closing months in recent NFL history. It wouldn't be at all surprising if division and wild card leads changed more often over the next five weeks than the score changed in Kansas City on Sunday. Things shifted quite a bit this week, and there are still implications left to be decided with the games on Sunday and Monday night.

NFC Playoff Picture

No. 1 Seattle Seahawks 10-1 (NFC West Leader)

No. 2 New Orleans Saints 9-2 (NFC South Leader)

No. 3 Detroit Lions 6-5 (NFC North Leader, head-to-head tiebreaker over Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys)

No. 4 Dallas Cowboys 6-5 (NFC East Leader, head-to-head tiebreaker over Philadelphia Eagles)

No. 5 Carolina Panthers 8-3 (Wild Card)

No. 6 Arizona Cardinals 7-4 (Wild Card, pending San Francisco 49ers result on Monday)

Contenders: 49ers 6-4, Bears 6-5, Eagles 6-5, Packers 5-5-1

By beating the New York Giants on Sunday, the Cowboys improved to 6-5 and took back the lead in the East since they beat the Eagles in Week 7. Those two teams meet again in Week 17 in what could be another NFC East title race that comes down to the wire. A team hasn't won that division by more than one game since 2008.

The Lions ended up losing to the 3-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but stayed ahead in the NFC North thanks to the Bears losing, 42-21, to the St. Louis Rams and the Green Bay Packers tying the Minnesota Vikings. Detroit has already swept Chicago this season, but they lost to the Packers once already this season and meet them again in Week 14.

Arizona stayed hot and absolutely demolished the Indianapolis Colts for its fourth straight win to take at least a temporary lead for the second wild card. The 49ers play the Redskins in Washington on Monday night and if they win, they will move back into the sixth spot by way of beating the Cards in Week 6.

The Cardinals and 49ers play again in Week 17.

The Panthers came back to beat the Miami Dolphins and grab a tighter lead on that second wild card while keeping pace with the Saints. Carolina and New Orleans meet in Weeks 14 and 16.

The Seahawks could finally rest this year on their bye week and they will take on the Saints for the No. 1 seed next Monday night in Seattle.

AFC Playoff Picture

No. 1 Denver Broncos 9-1 (AFC West Leader)

No. 2 New England Patriots 7-3 (AFC East Leader)

No. 3 Indianapolis Colts 7-4 (AFC South Leader, better conference record than Bengals)

No. 4 Cincinnati Bengals 7-4 (AFC North Leader)

No. 5 Kansas City Chiefs 9-2 (Wild Card)

No. 6 Tennessee Titans 5-6 (Wild Card, conference record and divisional tie-breakers)

Contenders: New York Jets 5-6, Miami Dolphins 5-6, Pittsburgh Steelers 5-6, Baltimore Ravens 5-6, San Diego Chargers 5-6

In a rather unbelievable set of circumstances, there are six teams tied for the second AFC wild card berth and the Titans have managed to take at least a temporary lead in the race. The Titans beat the Raiders, 23-19, on Sunday and improved to 5-6. They hold head-to-head victories over the Chargers, Steelers and Jets and have a 4-4 record in conference. Though the Ravens and Dolphins have better conference record, they are eliminated from contention because they are not even in second place in their own divisions.

Baltimore trails the Steelers, and the Dolphins trail the Jets, but the Titans hold the tiebreaker over both of those teams. By way of being in the division with the two worst teams in football, Tennessee gets an advantage in the wild card race. At least for today.

The Titans have games remaining against the Colts, Broncos, Cardinals, Jaguars and Texans. They had lost five of their previous six games going into Week 12, but are presently a playoff team.

The Jets were leading the wild card spot going into the day, but lost the Ravens, giving Baltimore new hope after the team had previously lost four of its last five games. The Ravens take on another wild card contender next week in the form of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have climbed back into it by beating the Cleveland Browns in Week 12, their fifth win in the last seven games.

After facing the Steelers next week, the Ravens play the Dolphins in Week 14. Miami had a shot to lead the wild card all by themselves but lost a late lead to the Panthers and fell into the tie with everybody else. The Dolphins still have two games remaining against the Jets and one against the Steelers. Meanwhile the Chargers ended up pulling the biggest upset of the day by beating the Chiefs in Kansas City and keeping themselves in it.

And that's not the end of it, since every 4-7 team in the AFC still has an outside shot, and that includes the Browns, the Oakland Raiders and the Buffalo Bills. Only the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars are truly out of it, and it just so happens that the Jaguars beat the Texans this week.

By losing to the Chargers, the Chiefs find themselves a little further behind the Broncos, but it's far from over. The Chiefs play the Broncos next Sunday, and a win would take them right back to the top. Denver plays the Patriots on Sunday night, and if New England wins, that would drop the Broncos to 9-2 and put Tom Brady only a game behind getting a No. 1 seed again.

In the AFC, there are five teams that are almost guaranteed to make the playoffs and nine more teams that still have a shot.

This will be interesting.

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