Schedule could determine playoff chances
With all the focus on the playoffs at this point, John Clayton breaks down the remaining schedules by division to see what the playoff picture might look like.
It's Week 12, and that means the focus is clearly on the playoff races.
Though the NFC is still cloudy and competitive, the AFC is becoming pretty clear. The Colts have the AFC South in control with a three-game lead over Jacksonville. The Ravens could all but clinch the AFC North by Thursday when they take on the Bengals, the team they currently lead by three games. The Chargers have a 1½-game lead over the Chiefs and Broncos and play both at home between now and Dec. 17. The Patriots lead the Jets by two games in the AFC East and should cruise to the division title.
One of the wild cards will come from the AFC West: either Kansas City or Denver. The final playoff spot is up for grabs, with the other AFC West team, Jacksonville, Cincinnati and the New York Jets having a legitimate chance.
The Dolphins' current four-game winning streak has them thinking about the playoffs, but at 5-6, that will be tough. It's still going to probably take 10 wins to make the playoffs in the AFC. There is an outside chance a nine-win team could sneak in at the No. 6 spot, but that might be tough. The Dolphins might be playing like a playoff team down the stretch, but they lost a lot of tiebreakers during their 1-6 start.
Let's break down the remaining schedules by division to see what the playoff picture might look like.
AFC North: The Ravens are 8-2 and have the easiest remaining schedule in the division. The Ravens' closing schedule is against teams with a combined record of 27-34. The only teams they face with records of .500 or better are the Bengals (5-5) and Chiefs (7-4). But the next four games could be tough. Their first of two remaining games against the Steelers is Sunday. If they beat the Steelers this weekend and the Bengals Thursday, they could essentially wrap up the division. That five-day stretch between Sunday and Thursday could determine if they can coast to the finish or not. Beating the Steelers would all but eliminate Pittsburgh from the playoff race. Beating the Bengals on Thursday would relegate Cincinnati to fighting for the wild card. The Bengals have a tough finishing schedule. If they are still in the playoff race by mid-December, they'll have tough road games in Indianapolis (Dec. 18) and Denver (Dec. 24) that could decide their fate. With such a hard schedule, the Bengals should be looking at Thursday's showdown with the Ravens as a must-win game.
AFC South: The Colts are more concerned with home-field advantage in the AFC than they are with the AFC South race. The Jaguars' closing schedule (against teams with a 36-26 record) is the toughest in the conference. It's even tougher if you look behind the numbers. They have to travel to Buffalo this weekend, and to Miami Dec. 3 to face a Dolphins team that is playing much better than its 5-6 record. If the Jaguars lose either of those games, they are playing for a wild card. The Colts have only three games remaining against teams with records of .500 or better, and two of them -- Sunday against the Eagles and the Monday night battle against the Bengals -- are at home. The key for the Colts is keeping players healthy for the playoffs.
AFC East: Eric Mangini has done an amazing job of rebuilding the Jets and being competitive at the same time. Even though the Jets are just 1-4 against teams that are .500 or better, they are in the playoff hunt. As of now, they don't play a team with a winning record down the stretch. The Jets' closing schedule, against teams with a combined record of 22-39, is the easiest in football, making them a legitimate playoff contender. Still, they probably won't be able to catch the Patriots, who have a two-game lead. The Patriots play only two teams -- the Bears on Sunday (home) and the Jaguars (at Jacksonville) on Dec. 24 -- with records of .500 or better. With that schedule, the Patriots should finish 11-5. With five losses already, the Jets won't catch them. As for the Dolphins, their remaining schedule is tough. Nick Saban's best hope is to finish 8-8 or 9-7.
AFC West: The Chargers earned the right to win the AFC West. They went 2-1 on the road against division opponents. They have a 1½-game lead in the division, and all three of their remaining divisional games are at home over the next four weeks, starting with Sunday's game against Oakland. Denver's loss to the Chiefs was huge. It dropped the Broncos further behind the Chargers and probably will force a quarterback change from Jake Plummer to rookie Jay Cutler. The Broncos face four teams that are .500 or better in their final five games. Cutler would have to get his feet wet against the Seahawks, Chargers, Bengals and 49ers. But don't be too quick to knock the Broncos out of the playoff picture. Three of their final games are against NFC West teams. The Broncos are 7-2 in AFC games, and that will win a lot of tiebreakers. Maybe the Broncos will be backing into the playoffs as a wild card, but don't eliminate them yet. The Chiefs' schedule comes down to one game: Dec. 17 in San Diego. If they win that game, they have a chance to challenge for the division title. If they lose that game, they will be fighting for a wild-card spot.
NFC North: It's the Bears, that's it. Not much has to be said here. The Bears lead the NFC North by five games and lead for home-field in the NFC by 2½ games over the Cowboys and three over the other top teams in the conference. They could actually clinch the NFC North title this weekend with a win and losses by the Packers and Vikings. The Bears were blessed with an easy schedule. They are 9-1. Their closing slate (against teams with a combined record of 25-37) is one of the easiest in football. After they play the Patriots, the Bears don't face a winning team again.
NFC East: Bill Parcells was obviously right when he made the decision to go with Tony Romo at quarterback. The Cowboys are 4-1 since Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe. Their closing schedule (against teams with a combined record of 24-26) isn't a killer. Still, the next game will be critical to see how they hold up. The Cowboys visit the Giants Dec. 3. In December, the winds can be a problem for visiting quarterbacks in Giants Stadium. That will be a big test for Romo. After that, though, the Cowboys finish with three home games in the final four weeks. The Giants are 3-4 against teams with records of .500 or better and face four more clubs that, right now, fall into that category: Dallas, Carolina, Philadelphia and New Orleans. With almost half their defense hurt and Eli Manning and the offense struggling, Tom Coughlin has a tough task in turning the Giants around. The Eagles went 5-5 against a relatively easy opening schedule. Now they finish against teams with a combined record of 37-24, and they won't have Donovan McNabb. Good luck.
NFC South: This division looks set up for the Panthers to emerge as the winners. They have the easiest remaining schedule (against teams with a record of 29-31). As long as they can get to eight or nine wins by Christmas Eve, they can take control of the division. They visit the Falcons on Dec. 24 and visit the Saints on New Year's Eve. The Saints and Falcons have tougher schedules. Five of the Saints' next six games are against teams with .500-or-better records. Three of the games -- against the Falcons on Sunday, the Cowboys on Dec. 10 and the Giants on Dec. 24 -- are on the road. The slipper could be falling off on the Saints' Cinderella season. The Falcons still have a chance if Michael Vick gets hot. Their tough games -- New Orleans, Dallas and Carolina -- are all at home. Don't count them out yet.
NFC West: The Seahawks haven't played like a playoff team of late, but everything stacks up for them to win the NFC West and get the No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NFC. They have only two games remaining against teams with winning records and one of those teams (Broncos) could have a rookie making his first start. The 49ers don't have a tough closing schedule, but their season comes down to one game. They face the Seahawks on Dec. 14 in Seattle on Thursday night. It will be their third road game in four weeks, and the 49ers are 1-3 on the road this season. Odds don't favor them catching the Seahawks. Still, Mike Nolan has put the team back on the map. The Rams have the easiest closing schedule in the division (25-35 combined opposing record), but they are 4-6 with virtually no hopes of climbing back in the race.
John Clayton is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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