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NFL Playoff Picture

Two weeks left. Lot’s to be hashed out, except at the top. In the AFC, the Patriots have clinched home field throughout the playoffs and the Colts have secured the vital second bye. The Packers and Cowboys have both clinched byes in the NFC, but with identical 12-2 records, home field is still up in the air. Dallas owns the tiebreaker against Green Bay by virtue of its head to head victory, so if the Cowboys win out (at Carolina, at Washington), the top spot will be theirs.

After that it gets complicated. Eight teams will be playing wild card weekend, with three (Tampa Bay, Seattle, San Diego) already clinching their respective divisions. While the Bucs, Seahawks and Chargers are in, it remains to be seen whether those teams will end up with #3 or #4 seeds. That leaves four teams (Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Jacksonville and Tennessee) battling for three spots in the AFC, and four teams (New York, Washington, Minnesota and New Orleans) duking it out for two spots in the NFC. So who’ll still be playing football on the first weekend of 2008?

NFC

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) at San Francisco; versus Carolina

Best case scenario NFC #3 seed

It’s likely that…The Bucs will be the #4 seed and host a wild card game. They’ve already capped off another zany NFC South season in which the last place team from the previous year wins the division. Though even at 11-5, if they want the third seed they’ll still need help from Seattle, a team they lost to in Week 1. The Bucs defense has a few of the usual suspects (Derek Brooks, Ronde Barber, Greg Spires) from past squads, as well as some new faces (Cato June and Kevin Carter). Combined they’ve led a unit that is tied for best in the NFL in points allowed (15.6) and third in total defense.

Seattle Seahawks (9-5) versus Baltimore; at Atlanta

Best case scenario NFC #3 seed

It’s likely that…The Hawks will beat the NFL implosions better known as the Ravens and Falcons and snag the third seed. Who would have thought that a 20-6 Week 1 victory over the Bucs would be the difference between the #3 and #4 slots in the NFC? Not many. What is established is the Seahawks have proved themselves to be the NFC’s best closing team. Their success over the last four years makes it difficult to label them a “dark horse”, but let’s be clear about one thing: Seattle doesn’t lose postseason games at Qwest Field

Washington Redskins (7-7) at Minnesota; versus Dallas

Best case scenario NFC #6 seed

It’s likely that…A promising season turned-tragic after the loss of Sean Taylor will end just short of the playoffs for the Redskins. To mentally and emotionally regroup enough to win two of three football games after such a trying time is remarkable. Taylor was the probably the team’s MVP before his murder, which has made it even more difficult to bounce back for Washington. For the Skins to have a realistic chance they have to win both of their remaining games. Right now it seems like even a split is implausible.

Minnesota Vikings (8-6) versus Washington; at Denver

Best case scenario NFC #5 seed

It’s likely that…The Vikings beat Washington and lose to Denver, securing the final NFC playoff spot. Behind Adrian Peterson, Minnesota has looked downright frightening throughout their current five-game winning streak. Included in that run were decisive wins against the Giants and Lions, which primed the Vikings for the playoff push they’re in the middle of. It’s tough to sustain that high level of play for an extended period of time. It’s possible the Vikings will sew up a playoff spot this week. Either way, a game in frosty Denver at Mile High against a bitter Broncos team will be a tall order for a young Vikings team.

New Orleans Saints (7-7) versus Philadelphia; at Chicago

Best case scenario NFC #6 seed

It’s likely that…The Saints will break even at 8-8 and end up on the outside looking in. Very rarely does a team start 0-4 and even sniff the playoffs, but that’s exactly what the Saints have done. However there is truly no room for error when trying to rebound from such a horrid first quarter, and the Saints erred big time two weeks ago. When the season is over, they’ll look back at the game they gave away against Tampa Bay as the death blow to their improbable turnaround.

New York Giants (9-5) at Buffalo; versus New England

Best case scenario NFC #5 seed

It’s likely that…The Giants will knock off Buffalo and clinch a playoff berth before using the Patriots game as a bye week to prepare for the playoffs. There has been endless debate in New York about whether or not the Giants should try to prevent history and load up the chambers for a war with the Patriots. While a full-strength Giants team could present a formidable challenge to the Patriots perfect season quest, it makes no sense. Preparing a team to advance in the playoffs is all that matters. Expect Tom Coughlin to follow that script.

AFC

San Diego Chargers (9-5) versus Denver; at Oakland

Best case scenario AFC #3 seed

It’s likely that...The Chargers take the #3 seed after rolling over Denver and Oakland. Lest we forget these are the same players that went 14-2 last year. Norv Turner may not be as good of a regular season coach as Marty Schottenheimer, but there’s no way he can be as bad of a playoff coach as his predecessor. If there’s one divisional round game I’m already looking ahead to, it’s Colts-Chargers. Remember, San Diego is the only team other than New England to beat the Colts this year, and they are playing much better football than they were when the two teams last met, in early November.

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) at St. Louis; at Baltimore

Best case scenario AFC #3 seed

It’s likely that…The Steelers recover from their lull, put Anthony Smith’s ludicrous and juvenile “guarantee” behind them and hold off the charging-Browns in the AFC North, which will give them the fourth seed and a home game in the first round of the playoffs. The Pittsburgh “Steel City” defense has let them down in both crucial facets of the game the last two weeks, against the Patriots and Jaguars. First they watched Tom Brady throw for 399 yards, then they got run over by Jacksonville’s rushing offense, which gained over 200 yards on the ground. Troy Polamalu will be key to the Steelers righting the ship defensively.

Cleveland Browns (9-5) at Cincinnati; versus San Francisco

Best case scenario AFC #3 seed

It’s likely that…The Browns wrap up the final AFC playoff spot with a win against the 49ers. If they hadn’t lost twice to the Steelers, Cleveland would be controlling its own destiny in the AFC North. Regardless, it’s been a special season for Romeo Crennel and Derek Anderson in the city that rocks. It’s appearing more and more unlikely that the Browns and Steelers will meet for a third time in the wild card round, but if that ends up being the case, an old rivalry could really heat up.

Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) versus Oakland; at Houston

Best case scenario AFC #5 seed

It’s likely that…The Jaguars will again be a 12-win wild card team because they’re in a division with the Colts. Most recently, in 2005, the Jags won 12 games (more than each wild card team) and were forced to go on the road to New England in the first round because of the Colts. Even on the road they will be a tough out, as they proved with their win in Pittsburgh last week. Fred Taylor is the most under-appreciated running back of the last decade and David Garrard runs as efficient an offense as there is in the league.

Tennessee Titans (8-6) versus NY Jets; at Indianapolis

Best case scenario AFC #6 seed

It’s likely that…Like last year, the Titans will end up being the AFC team with too little too late. Like the Saints, Tennessee committed the cardinal sin in the NFL by blowing a playoff-like game late in the season. Against San Diego, the Titans had a chance to kill the clock and secure a victory, but failed. Now, unless they win out and get some help, they too will be scorning an opportunity lost.

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