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NFL playoff picture 2016: Cowboys are one step closer to a 1st-round bye

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All three games on Thursday had serious playoff implications.

So this is pretty cool. Not only do we get three football games on Thursday this week, but they’re all meaningful games in the NFC and AFC playoff races. This is, by far, much better than the usual midweek contest the NFL provides.

All six teams have records of .500 or better, and two matchups feature big-time division rivals. No one is clinching anything just yet, but a few teams can start controlling their own destiny after this week.

Let’s break down these scenarios game by game.

Lions 16, Vikings 13

The first matchup of the day featured the top two teams in the NFC North. The Lions already had an overtime victory against the Vikings on their résumé this season, so splitting the rematch was vital for Minnesota’s playoff chances — but this games was not necessarily a must-win.

Four of the Vikings’ remaining five games after Detroit are against teams currently at or below .500 (Jaguars, Colts, Packers, and Bears). But the loss on Thursday took away almost any chance of the Vikings controlling their own destiny down the stretch.

The Lions gave themselves a healthy lead in the NFC North on Thursday with Detroit’s seventh fourth quarter comeback win of the season. The Lions were trailing the Vikings 10-13 in the fourth quarter, when Matthew Stafford executed a 10-play, 68-yard drive to put Matt Prater in position to tie things up with a field goal.

A Darius Slay interception of Sam Bradford with under a minute remaining let the Lions kick another field goal to secure the win.

With a few top offenses remaining on its schedule (Cowboys, Saints, Giants), Detroit needed all the breathing room it can get — especially considering the NFC North may not end up with a wild card spot if the East stays hot. The Lions’ grasp on the division is a little more secure after Thursday’s win.

Cowboys 31, Washington 26

With the win, Dallas became the first team in the NFL to reach 10 wins, moving one step closer to locking up a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The loss doesn’t knock Washington out of a playoff stop just yet, but it puts the race for the sixth seed within a half-game, much tighter than it prefers. With the New York Giants at 7-3 and hanging on to the other wild card spot, it’s not unrealistic for the NFC East to get three teams in the postseason.

Steelers 28, Colts 7

The AFC North race is almost identical to its NFC counterpart. Pittsburgh was tied with Baltimore entering Thursday night, with the edge going to the Ravens, who have a victory over the Steelers this season. But the Steelers are now a half-game up on the Ravens after their Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Baltimore needs to emerge victorious over Cincinnati on Sunday to stay atop the division.

Pittsburgh still has a matchup with Cleveland left on the schedule, but it’ll have to battle past the Bills, Bengals, and Ravens before then. There isn’t much room for mistakes in Pittsburgh right now, which is why it was crucial for the Steelers to beat a banged-up Colts team missing Andrew Luck.

Indianapolis’ schedule, on the other hand, doesn’t offer the 5-6 team too many favors going forward. It has road games at the Jets, Vikings, and Raiders remaining, plus another matchup with the division-leading Texans. The Colts are currently second in the AFC South and will need a few breaks along the way to move up, as Houston faces no teams currently at or above .500 the remainder of the season.

Here are the current playoff standings after Thanksgiving:

NFC

  1. Dallas Cowboys (10-1)
  2. Seattle Seahawks (7-2-1)
  3. Detroit Lions (7-4)
  4. Atlanta Falcons (6-4)
  5. New York Giants (7-3)
  6. Washington (6-4-1)

AFC

  1. Oakland Raiders (8-2)
  2. New England Patriots (8-2)
  3. Houston Texans (6-4)
  4. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)
  5. Kansas City Chiefs (7-3)
  6. Denver Broncos (7-3)