Week 13 brought some drama to the NFL playoff race. We have a new-look NFC field, complete with a change at the top, and a three-way tie in the ridiculous AFC West. Let’s get right to it.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-2)
Monday night’s last-play victory over the Bengals allowed the Steelers to maintain the top spot in the AFC. At the moment, the tiebreaker with the Patriots comes down to strength of victory. Ultimately, however, the teams should be able to break the tie with the head-to-head matchup. But the Steelers will have to hold serve in Week 14 against the Ravens, at Heinz Field, to ensure they keep pace.
2. New England Patriots (10-2)
One week remains before what likely will be the AFC (seedings) championship game -- with New England and Pittsburgh facing off in Week 15 at Heinz Field. Before that, however, the Patriots could wrap up the AFC East with a win next Monday at Miami or a Bills loss at home to the Colts.
3. Tennessee Titans (8-4)
The Titans retained their spot atop the division -- a lead based for now on their Week 2 victory over the Jaguars -- and now head into a stretch that could result in their first division title in nine seasons. Their next two opponents, the Cardinals and 49ers, have a combined 7-17 record. Then the Titans finish with two games at Nissan Stadium, against the Rams and the Jaguars. If they're within one game of Jacksonville in Week 17, they can clinch the division with a season-ending win.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (6-6)
The Chiefs officially have no more breathing room in what once appeared to be a runaway race for the AFC West title. Their loss to the Jets, combined with wins by the Raiders and Chargers, has created a three-way tie atop the division. If the season ended Sunday night, the Chiefs would still win the division, based on a better division record. They have one further advantage: They will host the Raiders and Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium during the next two weeks. That's why ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) gives them a better chance to win the division -- about 50 percent -- than either the Chargers or Raiders.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-4)
The Jaguars already have secured their first non-losing season since 2010 and appear destined for their first playoff berth since 2007. FPI is projecting a nearly 100 percent likelihood of at least a wild-card appearance, given the lackluster AFC field. They are at least two games up, with four to play, on the four teams closest to them in the race. And as noted earlier, they remain very much in the AFC South title discussion.
6. Baltimore Ravens (7-5)
Three consecutive victories have allowed the Ravens to climb above .500 and into a decent spot in the wild-card race. The degree of difficulty will rise in Week 14, when they'll travel to Pittsburgh, where they have lost three of their past four. But their schedule lightens up thereafter, with a game at the Browns (0-12), followed by home dates against the Colts (3-9) and Bengals (5-6).
1. Minnesota Vikings (10-2)
The Eagles’ loss Sunday night gave them a record identical to the Vikings, but Minnesota would win the tiebreaker at the moment because of a superior strength of victory. Minnesota's winning streak extended to eight games with Sunday’s triumph in Atlanta, and for the first time in this space, we’ll note that home-field advantage in the playoffs for the Vikings would extend to the Super Bowl -- to be played at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. No matter what happens with the top seed, FPI is giving the Vikings nearly a 90 percent chance to have a first-round bye. The Vikings' game next week at the Panthers is a major opportunity to bolster future tiebreakers with the Eagles for conference record and common opponents.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (10-2)
The Eagles stumbled at the start of what was already going to be the most difficult portion of their schedule. They got knocked around by the Seahawks, snapping a nine-game winning streak, and missed a chance to clinch the NFC East. They’ll have another opportunity in Week 14, but it will have to come against an equally difficult opponent in the Rams. The Eagles are making the playoffs, almost certainly as the NFC East champions, but it won’t come as easy as they might have hoped.
3. Los Angeles Rams (9-3)
The Rams have rebounded nicely after a Week 11 loss to the Vikings, winning consecutive games to ensure their first winning season since 2003 -- which also happened to be their last playoff appearance. But the Seahawks’ victory on Sunday was a reminder that the Rams have precious little breathing room. Holding on to a one-game lead in the NFC West, the Rams will host the Eagles in Week 14 and then travel to Seattle in Week 15.
4. New Orleans Saints (9-3)
Sunday was huge for the Saints, whose victory over the Panthers gave them a season sweep over Carolina and in essence a two-game lead in the NFC South with four games to play. They also are up two games in the loss column over the Falcons and will have a chance to bury Atlanta in the first of the teams' two late-season matchups in Week 14 at New Orleans. The Saints don't have anything wrapped up yet, but they are in a commanding position in the division.
5. Seattle Seahawks (8-4)
The Seahawks’ win Sunday night put the NFC, and really the NFC West, up for grabs. Assuming they keep pace with the Rams in Week 14, the Seahawks can overtake them with a victory at CenturyLink Stadium in Week 15. But they’ll need to get there first. Week 14 brings a tougher-than-expected trip to Jacksonville, where the Jaguars are on the brink of a making the playoffs themselves.
6. Carolina Panthers (8-4)
The Panthers' chances to win the NFC South took a big hit with their disappointing performance on Sunday in New Orleans. At least two games separate them from teams looking to climb into the wild-card spot, but they have one of the NFC's most difficult remaining schedules, starting with a Week 14 game against the Vikings, followed by a matchup with a Packers team that could have quarterback Aaron Rodgers back in the lineup. They'll finish the season with a game at the Falcons, a contest they might need to win to secure a playoff berth.