With only six weeks left in the 2016 NFL season, the postseason picture is starting to come into focus. A few obvious choices — the Patriots, Raiders, Cowboys, and Seahawks — have settled into the league’s top spots. Behind them, the race to the playoffs gets a bit more volatile.
The AFC West and NFC East are each shaping up to be brawls as teams drop out of postseason consideration week by week. In the West, three dominant teams have done what only New England can match in the AFC this season — they’ve won seven games or more. The NFC East can do them one better; every member of the division is .500 or better.
That will shift focus to the divisional races, especially in the AFC and NFC Norths. The AFC North is officially the NFL’s worst division record-wise, but Pittsburgh and Baltimore are both traditionally tough franchises who would shock few by making a deep postseason run. In the NFC, Detroit has taken advantage of Minnesota’s midseason slump to have a leg up in the division after the Lions’ win on Thanksgiving.
And while the Browns and 49ers are the only teams that officially has been eliminated from the playoffs, we can also probably write off the Bears, Jaguars, and Jets. That leaves 27 teams fighting for a dozen playoff spots.
Here’s how those battles look heading into Sunday of Week 12:
- New England Patriots (9-2)
- Oakland Raiders (9-2)
- Baltimore Ravens (6-5)
- Houston Texans (6-5)
- Kansas City Chiefs (8-3)
- Miami Dolphins (7-4)
Rex Ryan may have conceded the AFC East to the Patriots three weeks ago, but he probably didn’t see the Dolphins creeping up on the rest of the conference. Miami has won six straight after a 1-4 start and now holds the sixth seed after Sunday night’s game. The Dolphins own the tiebreaker based on conference records over the Broncos.
New England has a two-game lead on Miami and owns a head-to-head win, but Jay Ajayi and Ryan Tannehill may still find a way to lead the Dolphins to their first postseason appearance since 2008.
Pittsburgh held down the top spot in the AFC North after the Steelers’ win over the Colts on Thursday night, but the Ravens regained the lead when they beat the Bengals Sunday. However, the Steelers can close strong with three games left against divisional opponents. The highlight in that stretch is a Week 15 showdown against the Ravens, which will likely decide the division’s lone representative in the postseason.
The West is currently threatening to send everyone but the Chargers to the playoffs this winter. The Broncos and Chiefs, both of which entered 7-3, had a pivotal matchup on Sunday Night Football to determine seeding. In a thrilling overtime game, the Chiefs won, letting them retain a wild card spot. The Raiders currently hold the West’s top spot.
The Texans still hold down the South, but they’re only up one game after a loss to the Chargers.
- Dallas Cowboys (10-1)
- Seattle Seahawks (7-3-1)
- Detroit Lions (7-4)
- Atlanta Falcons (7-4)
- New York Giants (8-3)
- Washington (6-4-1)
The Cowboys are well ahead of everyone in the NFC, but they’re not guaranteed a first-round bye just yet. Their biggest threat may come from their own division. The Giants went to Dallas and handed Dak Prescott his only loss as a professional in the opening week of the season. New York fell to 2-3 soon after, but a six-game winning streak has established Eli Manning’s team as one of the NFC’s elite.
Also gunning for home-field advantage are the Seahawks, who rebounded from a controversial loss to the Saints by knocking off the Bills, Patriots, and Eagles in successive weeks. But a lose to the surging Buccaneers hurts the Seahawks’ standing and means the Cowboys are even closer to locking up the top seed.
In the South, the Falcons are in front, but they also have to be wary of the Bucs, who followed up an upset win over the Chiefs with another major win over the Seahawks. The Bucs and Falcons split their season series, but the Buccaneers have some momentum after rebounding from a 1-3 start to the season.
In the NFC North, the Lions created a little breathing room, but they’ll still have to finish strong to retain their lead. The Packers are still hanging around, just two games back after their win over the Eagles on Monday Night Football.