Playoff picture: Pats slide past Steelers for bye

Week 12 brought us movement at the top of the AFC and the bottom of the NFC playoffs seedings, even as we await the first official postseason clinch of 2018. Would you believe that two NFC East teams rank among the top six in the NFC, while the Steelers have — at least for now — played themselves out of a first-round bye.

Here is our weekly look at what the postseason would look like if the season had ended today.


The positive side of last Monday night’s wild loss in Los Angeles: The Chiefs got a bye week to rest, regroup and prepare for the stretch run. Two of their final five games are against the 2-9 Oakland Raiders, an important note as the Chiefs jostle for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Next up: at Oakland Raiders

The Steelers’ loss, combined with help from the always-cooperative New York Jets, boosted the Patriots back into position for a first-round bye. They’ll remain there even if the Houston Texans win Monday night, as the Patriots own the head-to-head tiebreaker between the teams.

Next up: vs. Minnesota Vikings

The Texans face quite a swing game when the Tennessee Titans come to town Monday night. A win would maintain the Texans’ two-game lead over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South and expand their lead over the Titans to three games with five games left to play. A loss, however, would shrink the gap between all three teams to one game. More importantly, the Titans would own the head-to-head tiebreaker if it comes to that.

Next up: vs. Tennessee Titans (Monday night)

It’s fair to wonder if Ben Roethlisberger‘s end zone interception Sunday, scuttling a comeback against the Denver Broncos, will have the same impact as his Week 15 interception last season against the Patriots did, costing the Steelers a chance at home-field advantage throughout the 2017 playoffs. Now they will need some help to earn a first-round bye. Their remaining schedule, including games against the Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers and New Orleans Saints, does not bode well.

Next up: vs. Los Angeles Chargers


ESPN Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler describes the mood in the locker room after turning the ball over 4 times in a 24-17 loss to the Broncos.

The Chargers got themselves back on track with a dominant victory over the Arizona Cardinals and are now as close to a lock for a wild-card spot as a team can be. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives them a 93 percent chance to make the playoffs. Their record is only one game worse than the Chiefs’ in the AFC West race, but FPI gives them only a 6.6 percent chance to wrestle the division away from Kansas City.

Next up: vs. Cincinnati Bengals

Consecutive victories with quarterback Lamar Jackson behind center have pulled the Ravens above .500 and allowed them to keep pace in the wild-card race. At the moment, they’re holding off the 6-5 Colts because of a better conference record. Ravens coach John Harbaugh won’t say whether Jackson will keep the job when starter Joe Flacco (hip) returns, but among the factors to consider is the Ravens’ tough remaining schedule. It includes trips to Atlanta, Kansas City and the Los Angeles Chargers. The regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns is no joke, either.

Next up: at Atlanta Falcons

In the hunt: Indianapolis Colts (6-5), Tennessee Titans (5-5), Miami Dolphins (5-6), Cincinnati Bengals (5-6), Denver Broncos (5-6)


It has been evident that the Saints were the top team in the NFC since a Week 9 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. Now it’s reflected in the standings, thanks to Thursday’s victory over the Atlanta Falcons combined with the Rams’ bye. The Saints can clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs by winning out, no matter what the Rams do, by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker. In the shorter term, they could clinch the NFC South as early as next week if they beat the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night and the Carolina Panthers then lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Next up: at Dallas Cowboys (Thursday night)

The Rams were within a field goal of clinching the NFC West on their bye week, something that hasn’t happened since the current playoff format began in 2002. But the Seattle Seahawks remained alive in the division race with a last-play victory over the Panthers. A division title is just a matter of time, however. The Rams have only one game remaining against a team with a winning record (Week 14 at the Chicago Bears). But because of the head-to-head tiebreaker, they’ll need help from the Saints to win NFC home-field advantage.

Next up: at Detroit Lions (in Week 13)

You were wrong if you thought the Bears would stumble last Thursday on an extremely short week and without their starting quarterback. A 23-16 victory over the Lions concluded a season-defining stretch that produced three NFC North victories in a 12-day span. Only two games remain against teams that currently have winning records, and the division title — their first since 2010 — is within sight. ESPN’s FPI gives them an 80.5 percent chance to win the NFC North, and a 95.3 percent chance to reach the playoffs, independent of Sunday’s results.

Next up: at New York Giants

A third consecutive victory, coinciding with the Redskins’ third loss in four games, has the Cowboys in first place in the NFC East for the moment. It’ll get tougher in Week 12, when the Cowboys host the Saints. But if the Redskins’ fall continues, and the Philadelphia Eagles fail to catch fire, do the Cowboys win the division by default?

Next up: vs. New Orleans Saints


Darren Woodson discusses the dynamics of the Cowboys’ offense and how the division is up for grabs after Alex Smith’s injury.

It was difficult to imagine a path to the playoffs without a home win against a depleted Green Bay Packers team. In that context, the Vikings earned a win they had to have Sunday night. It kept them a pace ahead of the rest of the NFC wild-card field and within striking distance of the NFC North lead if the Bears collapse in December. But they are about to hit a rough stretch of their schedule and would do well to split consecutive road games against playoff contenders on opposite coasts.

Next up: at New England Patriots

The Panthers’ loss Sunday elevated the Redskins in the wild-card race. They own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Panthers and have a better conference record than the Seahawks. It’s more than fair, however, to question whether the Redskins can maintain this spot. Colt McCoy, for one, inspired no confidence in last Thursday’s loss to the Cowboys that he can pilot this team to the playoffs.

Next up: at Philadelphia Eagles

In the hunt: Seattle Seahawks (6-5), Carolina Panthers (6-5), Philadelphia Eagles (5-6), Green Bay Packers (4-6-1), Atlanta Falcons (4-7)

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