With two weeks to go there are four division races down and four more to go, and the four remaining are far from sewn up. There are 10 teams involved in the chase for those divisions – which is a problem since there are only eight remaining playoff berths.
The wild-card race this year, in fact, is so strong that it’s possible there’ll be at least one 10-win team in each conference that doesn’t make the playoffs. In the NFC there’s a possibility that an 11-5 team will be left out. That’s why winning the division seems more important than ever.
So here’s a look at those all-important races in the four divisions that are up for grabs:
AFC NORTH: Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1), Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5), Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
There was a time earlier this season when the flawed Cleveland Browns were sitting atop the standings that this didn’t look like one of the better divisions in football. But these three teams have made a strong, late-season push. And it could all come down to the Bengals game in Pittsburgh in Week 17.
The Bengals play against the Denver Broncos this week, which makes that finale almost a must-win for them, especially since the Steelers warm up for that game by playing host to the Kansas City Chiefs.
It’s the Ravens, though, who might be in the drivers’ seat. Winners of four of the last five, they have a soft, season-ending schedule with a game at Houston and home against the Browns. They haven’t looked great the last few weeks, and it’s worth noting that they lost back-to-back games to the Bengals and Steelers before this streak began.
The Steelers own the tie-breaker over the Ravens, but they might be forced to win both of their last two games.
Forecast: 1. Steelers 11-5, 2. Ravens 11-5, 3. Bengals 9-6-1
NFC EAST: Dallas Cowboys (10-4), Philadelphia Eagles (9-5)
The Cowboys’ Week 15 win over Philly was absolutely huge, because their tie-breaker scenarios meant they were going to be in danger of not only losing the division, but maybe even missing the playoffs had they lost. Instead, they looked terrific, as they have for much of the season. They may be hampered by the broken hand to RB DeMarco Murray, but early indications are that it's not serious, which could be a boost to get them on a roll.
Their only problem, though, is they have a very difficult game against the Indianapolis Colts this weekend, while the Eagles have an incredibly easy season-ending stretch against Washington and the Giants, the two worst teams in the NFC East.
So while it looks like the bubble sure has burst on QB Mark Sanchez, which doesn’t bode well for the playoffs, they still can win the division by winning their final two games and hoping the Cowboys lose once. If the Cowboys beat the Colts on Sunday, though, the division race is all but over.
Forecast: 1. Eagles 11-5, 2. Cowboys 11-5
NFC NORTH: Detroit Lions (10-4), Green Bay Packers (10-4)
Until the Packers’ shocking loss to the Bills last weekend they looked to be on the Polar Express toward Super Bowl XLIX. And they might still be, especially if it’s the flawed Lions standing between them and at least one, maybe two, playoff games in Lambeau Field.
The Lions, though, have a real chance to win the division. It’s game over for the Packers with one Lions win and one Packers loss. If the Packers beat Tampa Bay on Sunday, though, then no matter what it all comes down to the season finale in Green Bay. Since the Lions play at Chicago this weekend, it’s a good bet they’ll both be 11-4 heading into that winner-take-all game.
Forecast: 1. Packers 12-4, Lions 11-5
NFC SOUTH: New Orleans Saints (6-8), Carolina Panthers (5-8-1), Atlanta Falcons (5-9)
The worst division in the NFL doesn’t deserve a winner, but at least it’s only going to get one playoff berth. The Saints have the easiest path and can clinch by beating the Falcons on Sunday if the Panthers lose. They also have the safety net of a game against the Bucs in their finale – as if anything is really “safe” in this miserable division.
The Falcons can win their last two games and do some damage in the division, since they play the Saints and Panthers. A win over the Saints this weekend would be huge, since it would give them a season sweep and the tiebreaker advantage.
None of them have played particularly well lately and all of them have their issues, so really this division is “anything goes”. They’d be lucky to get a team into the playoffs with a .500 record. It’s hard to see whoever represents them being anything but one and done.
Forecast: 1. Saints 8-8, 2. Panthers 7-9-1, 3. Falcons 6-10