NFL playoff chase: Who’s in, who’s alive?
The Steelers blew their chance at taking the No. 1 seed in the AFC on Monday, making a muddled playoff picture even more unclear.
New England, meanwhile, won its ninth division crown in the 11 seasons Tom Brady has been the starting quarterback, beating Denver 41-23 on Sunday. The Patriots (11-3) are in position to gain a first-round bye or even home-field advantage in the AFC, especially with South division winner Houston falling to 10-4 with a loss to Carolina.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh, tied atop the AFC North at 10-4, also earned postseason berths in Week 15 before even taking the field. The Ravens (10-4), who lost 34-14 to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night, got in thanks to losses by the Jets, Raiders and Titans. The Steelers, who lost 20-3 on Monday night at San Francisco, used a similar route.
In the NFC, Green Bay (13-1) finally lost in Week 15 but already has the North crown and a first-round bye. The Packers need one more victory to clinch home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. The 49ers (11-3) already have won the West and are battling New Orleans (11-3), which leads the South, for the other first-round bye.
The Saints have a two-game division lead over Atlanta and play the Falcons in New Orleans on Dec. 26.
Dallas (8-6) grabbed back the NFC East lead Sunday when it beat Tampa Bay and the Giants lost to Washington. Still, the Giants (7-7) will win the division if they sweep their final two games, against the Jets and Cowboys. Barring that, Dallas takes the division.
But Philadelphia (6-8), which beat the Jets on Sunday to hurt New York’s wild-card chances, also can win the division — only if the Eagles win at Dallas and at home against Washington, and the Giants lose to the Jets before beating the Cowboys.
”It feels good to still have a chance to even be considered in the playoff race,” Eagles QB Michael Vick said. ”We’ve been through a lot, but we’re resilient.”
Everyone in the AFC West was still alive, but Denver’s loss wasn’t too damaging because Oakland (7-7) fell to Detroit. Even though San Diego (7-7) beat Baltimore on Sunday night, the Broncos have a one-game lead with two games left: at Buffalo and home against Kansas City (6-8). The Chargers need to win at Detroit and at Oakland and have Denver lose out.
”I definitely feel like we’re all right,” Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow said after falling to 7-2 as a starter. ”We’ve got two big games and . . . we’re excited about where we’re at. We’re going to continue to be positive and stay motivated and just try to improve like we’ve done every single day in practice.”
The AFC wild-card races couldn’t be more muddled. Either Pittsburgh or Baltimore, whichever finishes second in the North, will get one spot. The other will go to either the Bengals (8-6), Jets (8-6), Raiders, Titans (7-7) or Chargers.
”Go into the game thinking we have to run the table to control our own destiny, and we come out of the game needing to win out to control our own destiny,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said.
Atlanta and Detroit have that control in the NFC. Each is 9-5 and could get in even with two losses. A victory by each sews up those spots.
After visiting New Orleans, the Falcons finish by hosting Tampa Bay. The Lions host San Diego and travel to Green Bay to conclude the schedule.