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Taking a look at the ins and outs of the NFL playoff races
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With five of the six playoff slots in the NFC and four in the AFC decided, some would think much of the drama of the schedule’s final week has been removed.
Think again.
All nine of the teams already qualified for the Super Bowl chase have something to play for on Sunday.
Start with the defending league champion Seahawks (11-4). Excluding any Week 17 ties in the multitude of scenarios, Seattle not only will get the NFC West title by beating St. Louis, but also home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Not a pleasant thought for its opponents.
“They’re playing awesome football,” Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “You can’t take nothing away from that ballclub. They have a championship pedigree, what it takes to win on the road, what it takes to win the division. Obviously, it’s not over yet, but they’re one step closer.”
New England (12-3) doesn’t need anything else to happen but to beat visiting Buffalo on Sunday to clinch staying home for the AFC playoffs. The Patriots already are the first team since the current postseason format was adopted in 1990 to get five consecutive first-round byes.
Denver (11-3) headed into Monday night’s game at Cincinnati (9-4-1) with the AFC West secured. But a win against the Bengals would give the Broncos a first-round bye, and keep them on the heels of the Patriots for the top AFC seed.
Meaning their home game with Oakland (3-12) could have significance if Buffalo (8-7) upsets New England.
The Bengals would grab a playoff berth by beating Denver on Monday night, and regardless will play at already-qualified Pittsburgh on Sunday for the AFC North crown.
Indianapolis (10-5) has the AFC South title and will be either the No. 3 or No. 4 seed. The Colts are at Tennessee (2-13), which has the inside track for the top overall draft pick through 15 games.
The remaining AFC wild-card spot could go to Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, barring winning the North division; San Diego (9-6); Baltimore (9-6); Houston (8-7); or Kansas City (8-7). The Chargers have the easiest task: win at KC and advance.
But all of them remain alive heading to the weekend, with Jacksonville (3-12) at Houston, and Cleveland (7-8) at Baltimore.
The sixth NFC spot will go to the survivor in the South, where Atlanta (6-9) hosts Carolina (6-8-1). Yes, a losing team will not only make the postseason, but will be the No. 4 seed and host a game on wild-card weekend.
“It says a lot about the guys in here,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “Every year you set out to try to win your division. We have one game left and it is right in front of us.”
With Seattle, Arizona, NFC East champ Dallas, Green Bay and Detroit all at 11-4, byes are up for grabs. The Cowboys have the most difficult road to get the top seed because the Packers host the Lions and both own the tiebreaker over Dallas. The Cowboys need a victory at Washington (4-11), an Arizona loss and a tie at Lambeau Field.
Oops, sorry, didn’t mean to threw draws into the mix, but in that case it’s essential.
For Green Bay to get the No. 1 spot in the conference, it must win and have Seattle lose. Detroit must win and have both Seattle and Arizona lose.
As for earning a bye, the winner of Detroit-Green Bay gets one.
“It’s what you play the game for,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “You play the game to play extremely meaningful games in December. They’ll be excited for it. I know everybody in our locker room will be excited as well.”