Fifteen weeks into the season and we've finally got some clarity in figuring out which teams are pretenders or contenders. Four teams clinched playoff berths on Sunday -- the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts each won their AFC divisions, while the Arizona Cardinals locked up the NFC's lone spot -- but there are still a whopping 21 teams mathematically alive for eight more postseason berths as we enter the final stretch.
If you think this year's playoff race has been one of the most unpredictable and tightest in recent history, you'd be absolutely correct. The four teams that have qualified for the playoffs are the second-fewest at this point in the season since the playoffs expanded in 1990 (three teams had secured spots through 15 weeks in 1995).
Somehow over the next two weeks we are going to sort out this mess, leaving us with a playoff field of 12 teams that could be among the most impressive we've seen in several years -- with the exception of the NFC South champ.
It is very likely that double-digit wins will be the minimum for a wild-card position this year, and there could easily be several teams with 10 or even 11 wins that are sitting at home next month. Since 1990, the only season where there were at least two 10-win teams left out of the postseason was 1991 (San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles), and the only 11-win team to miss the playoffs in that span was the 2008 Patriots.
NFL playoff picture
NFL playoff picture
For as much parity as there is in NFL today, however, it's amazing that we could still have 11 of the 12 same playoff teams from last year and all eight of the same division winners. The only 2013 postseason team that has been eliminated so far is the 49ers, who were knocked out following their loss to the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday, and each of the division champions have either clinched a title already or remains in the hunt for a second straight crown.
That being said, the game of musical chairs that has defined this season's playoff race has certainly made it one of the most exciting in several years. And we are not done yet, with 32 games left to decide who will be playing in January.
Week 16 is like an early Christmas present for NFL fans, with games on Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday that will go a long way towards deciding who's in and who's out of the playoff race. All but two of the matchups (except the Tennessee Titans vs. Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Giants vs. St. Louis Rams) in this week's slate feature at least one team in the postseason hunt and have some sort of playoff implications.
Eleven teams have clinching scenarios in Week 16, so it could be the last week we see a near-full set of meaningful matchups with starters playing the entire game, as teams that have already cemented their playoff position typically rest players for the final contest in Week 17.
One of the biggest games of the week is the Sunday night battle between the Seahawks (10-4) and the Cardinals (11-3), a game that could ultimately decide not only the NFC West champion, but also the No. 1 seed in the conference. Our experts are unanimously picking Seattle to win on the road over Arizona -- a team that somehow has survived a ton of injuries to remain atop the league standings, and will be starting its third-string quarterback on Sunday.
The playoff race is not the only one that is heating up as this season approaches the finish line. The chase for the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft is just as tight, with four two-win teams tied at the bottom of the standings -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jaguars, Titans and Oakland Raiders. The Jags are the only one of those last-place squads that is predicted to win in Week 16 according to our expert panel, and that's merely because they face another cellar dweller (Titans) on Thursday night.
As a reminder, these are picks to win the game (not against the spread), so choose wisely and do your research before making your own predictions this week:
|Week 16||Ryan Van Bibber||Stephen White||Joel Thorman||David Fucillo||Danny Kelly||PFT Commenter||Matt Ufford||OddsShark Computer|
|TEN @ JAX||JAX||JAX||JAX||JAX||JAX||UGH||JAX||JAX|
|PHI @ WAS||PHI||PHI||PHI||PHI||PHI||WAS||PHI||PHI|
|SD @ SF||SD||SD||SD||SF||SF||SF||SD||SD|
|MIN @ MIA||MIN||MIA||MIA||MIA||MIA||MIA||MIA||MIA|
|BAL @ HOU||BAL||BAL||BAL||BAL||BAL||BAL||BAL||BAL|
|DET @ CHI||DET||DET||DET||DET||DET||CHI||DET||DET|
|CLE @ CAR||CAR||CAR||CAR||CLE||CAR||CLE||CLE||CLE|
|ATL @ NO||ATL||NO||NO||NO||NO||NO||NO||NO|
|GB @ TB||GB||GB||GB||GB||GB||GB||GB||GB|
|KC @ PIT||PIT||PIT||PIT||PIT||PIT||KC||KC||PIT|
|NE @ NYJ||NE||NE||NE||NE||NE||NE||NE||NE|
|NYG @ STL||STL||STL||STL||STL||STL||STL||STL||STL|
|BUF @ OAK||BUF||BUF||BUF||OAK||BUF||OAK||BUF||BUF|
|IND @ DAL||DAL||DAL||IND||DAL||IND||IND||IND||IND|
|SEA @ ARZ||SEA||SEA||SEA||SEA||SEA||SEA||SEA||SEA|
|DEN @ CIN||DEN||DEN||DEN||DEN||DEN||CIN||DEN||DEN|
Our panel consists of: David Fucillo, SB Nation's fantasy guru; Danny Kelly, SB Nation NFL contributor; PFT Commenter, SB Nation's hot takes expert; Joel Thorman, SB Nation NFL blogs manager; Matt Ufford, editorial producer, SB Nation studios; Ryan Van Bibber, SB Nation's NFL editor; and Stephen White, retired NFL defensive end and SB Nation NFL contributor.
Our panel's record last week and for the season: