Reduced to its simplest, the NFL playoff races come down to this: Cincinnati, Denver, Dallas and the New York Giants must win. Then it gets complicated, because the Giants host the Cowboys in prime time, and the loser is out.
Even that, though, is easy to decipher compared to the chase for the final AFC wild card.
Just the way the NFL wants it.
“With this game with the Cowboys, it is a very exciting, very, very historical week for our players and franchise,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “The setting is incredible.”
As it will be at Paul Brown Stadium, which actually is sold out. The Bengals, who get the other AFC wild card with a victory, appealed to their fans to fill the stadium and, by Wednesday, all the tickets were gone.
“Just to have everyone here in Cincinnati wanting to come out for this game, I think that’s something we’ve been wanting and been trying to get for a while,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “I’m just happy everybody responded to it. It’s going to be a fun atmosphere, and we’re excited about it.”
As for the playoff primer, try this:
If Denver wins at home against Kansas City, the AFC West belongs to the Broncos. If the Chiefs win, then the Raiders can grab the division with a home victory against San Diego. Denver gets the spot regardless if the Raiders lose. But Oakland also has a chance for a wild card, while Denver doesn’t.
Baltimore gets the AFC North crown by beating Cincinnati. A Ravens loss opens the door for Pittsburgh to win the division with a win at Cleveland. Both the Steelers and Ravens already own at least a wild card.
NFC West winner San Francisco earns a first-round bye if it wins at lowly St. Louis. A loss would allow New Orleans, the NFC South champion, to get the bye by beating Carolina.
Detroit and Atlanta are the NFC wild cards.
With a victory over Buffalo, AFC East champ New England will get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Baltimore or Pittsburgh still have a shot at that if the Patriots fall.
Houston has won the AFC South.
Now, take a deep breath, and here’s what can happen in the race for the second AFC wild card if the Bengals lose to Baltimore.
Cincinnati still gets it if the Jets and Oakland lose, or the Jets and Denver lose.
Oakland moves in by winning while Denver wins, and having the Titans lose along with the Bengals, or by having the Jets win while Cincinnati loses.
The Jets are in with a win and defeats for the Bengals, Titans and either the Raiders or Broncos.
Tennessee has three scenarios, all involving a victory by the Titans and a loss by the Bengals. They also need a Jets win and a loss by either Denver or Oakland, or a Jets loss and wins by both the Broncos and Raiders.
Kansas City (6-9) at Denver (8-7); San Diego (7-8) at Oakland (8-7) — The Wild West, AFC style, where no team is feared and the division winner will be an underdog in the first round of the postseason to either the Ravens or Steelers.
Denver has rallied from a 2-5 record as Tim Tebow revitalized the franchise with his late-game heroics. Doing it again against a Kansas City team eager to make a case for keeping interim coach Romeo Crennel will be difficult, especially with Kyle Orton, the man Tebow displaced, now quarterbacking the Chiefs.
“The focus should be on the Chiefs and Broncos. Forget about all that jibber-jabber. Let’s give the fans what they want to see and let’s compete and may the best man win.” Broncos safety Raheem Moore on the Orton-Tebow hoopla.
Oakland dropped three straight before an OT win at Kansas City last week kept it alive.
Baltimore (11-4) at Cincinnati (9-6); Pittsburgh (11-4) at Cleveland (4-11) — The Ravens won all eight home games this year, but they have been mediocre on the road — although Baltimore beat the best team it faced away from home, Pittsburgh. That win is the difference in the division right now.
“It’s about us, man,” Ravens DE Cory Redding said. “It’s not about them. We need to get this win so we can get what we’re looking for.”
Cincinnati’s record has been built by beating the lesser opponents; all six losses have come against winning teams or contenders.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin must decide whether to give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s sprained left ankle another week to mend. Charlie Batch handled the team nicely in a win over St. Louis last week, and Cleveland, despite being an archrival, is in the Rams’ class this year.
Dallas (8-7) at New York Giants (8-7); Washington (5-10) at Philadelphia (7-8) — Three weeks ago, the Giants broke a four-game slide by rallying to beat the Cowboys. That slump scrambled what was a division runaway, and now it’s winner take all at the Meadowlands.
Neither team has been much on defense, except for rushing the passer. The big edge might belong to the Giants, and not because they are home, where they are 3-4 this season — not counting their “road” victory over the Jets last week. While Eli Manning has had a Pro Bowl season, Tony Romo has been up and down, and has a banged-up right hand that could affect his passes.
Preseason division favorite Philadelphia finishes off a flop of a season hoping to at least get to .500 with a three-game winning streak.
San Francisco (12-3) at St. Louis (2-13); Seattle (7-8) at Arizona (7-8) — The intrigue in St. Louis is minimal concerning the 49ers, who don’t deserve the bye if they can’t beat the awful Rams. Should St. Louis lose, it could “earn” the No. 1 overall draft choice for the second time in three years. Indianapolis would have to lose at Jacksonville, as well.
Rams QB Sam Bradford has missed the last five games with a high left ankle sprain and was not optimistic he could go this week.
Seattle won the NFC West a year ago with a 7-9 record, yet even by going 8-8 would be an also-ran now. RB Marshawn Lynch has scored a TD in 11 successive games.
Carolina (6-9) at New Orleans (12-3); Tampa Bay (4-11) at Atlanta (9-6) — Now that Drew Brees has broken Dan Marino’s 27-year-old record for yards passing in a season, he might see someone else walk off with the mark. If the 49ers win earlier as expected, New Orleans’ game becomes meaningless and Brees could be rested for the playoffs.
In that case, Tom Brady, who is 190 yards behind Brees, could get the record because the Patriots have incentive no matter what.
“What we have to do is keep playing,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “The playoffs are close. How do we put ourselves in the best position to play well and put ourselves in an opportunity to win a championship? That’s not always what is popular.”
To avoid a likely return trip to the Superdome, where they were routed on Monday night, the Falcons need a win and a Detroit loss.
Detroit (10-5) at Green Bay (14-1); Chicago (7-8) at Minnesota (3-12) — Back in the postseason for the first time since 1999, the Lions actually are favored at Lambeau Field. That says it all: the bookmakers expect the defending champion Packers to rest key personnel.
Green Bay has won 11 of the last 12 against Detroit, hardly that special considering how everyone in the NFC North slammed around the Lions for a decade. But with the way Lions DT Ndamukong Suh stomped on Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith on Thanksgiving Day, drawing a two-game suspension, this won’t be completely tame.
Injuries destroyed the Bears’ season and severely struck Minnesota last week when star RB Adrian Peterson tore left knee ligaments. Vikings DE Jared Allen leads the league with 18½ sacks, four short of the NFL record.
Tennessee (8-7) at Houston (10-5); Indianapolis (2-13) at Jacksonville (4-11) — Two teams really care about these games, Tennessee and Indy.
The Titans have had a nice turnaround year in their first season under coach Mike Munchak, and have done it with only a modest contribution from their best offensive player, RB Chris Johnson. They will rue losing to the 0-13 Colts should they fall one win short of the playoffs.
As for the Colts, while their fan base wants them to get lucky — as in the chance to draft Stanford QB Andrew Luck — the players and coaches say all the right things about wanting to finish with a three-game winning streak.
Buffalo (6-9) at New England (12-3); New York Jets (8-7) at Miami (5-10) — For all the criticism of the Patriots’ weak defense and with all the doubts that they match up with their previous AFC East winners, they will finish with 13 wins, only one behind last year’s supposed powerhouse, if they take down the Bills. The emergence of Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski to go with the always-reliable pass-catching machine Wes Welker has helped Brady get close to Marino’s, uh, Brees’ record.
Miami LB Jason Taylor has his farewell game against a team he played for in 2010, yet was always its most-hated rival during his two previous stints with the Dolphins. No question the Dolphins would get supreme satisfaction out of ending the Jets’ playoff hopes, slim as they are.