NFL Playoff Projections: AFC West a tossup, NFC leaders bunching up

So much for Separation Sunday. After 13 weeks, there are still 21 teams either in the playoff mix or within a game of the final wild-card slot in their respective conferences. Let’s hear it for parity! Or mediocre football, whichever.

With just four games remaining in the season, we have exactly no confirmed playoff teams. That hasn’t happened since 1974, so you know we’re in uncharted territory here. (Note: stat was made up and may not be true.)

This is when the NFL schedule starts to become interesting: matchups you wouldn’t have pegged as interesting back in Week 1 suddenly become critical ones. Jacksonville vs. Seattle, New Orleans vs. Minnesota, Philadelphia vs. the L.A. Rams … all of these are critical matchups for playoff positioning. No more gimmes, no more off weeks; any team that wants to make a postseason run needs to get the momentum going now.

At the other end of the spectrum, pour one out for the Chicago Bears, the fourth team eliminated from playoff contention this season. Seeya next year, Bears.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the playoff scenarios:

AFC
1. New England Patriots (10-2, next game: at Miami)
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-2, next game: Monday at Cincinnati)
3. Tennessee Titans (8-4, next game: at Arizona)
4. Kansas City Chiefs (6-6, next game: vs. Oakland)

Wild-card contenders
5. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-4, next game: vs. Seattle)
6. Baltimore Ravens (7-5, next game: at Pittsburgh)
7. Los Angeles Chargers (6-6, next game: vs. Washington)
8. Buffalo Bills (6-6, next game: vs. Indianapolis)
9. Oakland Raiders (6-6, next game: at Kansas City)
10. New York Jets (5-7, next game: at Denver)
11. Miami Dolphins (5-7, next game: vs. New England)

Breakdown: New England once again sets the beat for the entire conference, and the Patriots can clinch yet another division title with a victory next week against Miami. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, can keep pace with New England with a win on Monday night. The hot spot here is the AFC West, where the top three teams are all 6-6 and bunched up like cats in a sack. (Please don’t put cats in a sack.) Of all these teams, the Chargers look the most reliable, and you’d have gotten laughed at if you’d suggested that as recently as Halloween. Something’s going to give, with Oakland and Kansas City playing and Los Angeles facing a winnable Washington matchup.

The Vikings are feeling fine these days. (Getty)
The Vikings are feeling fine these days. (Getty)

NFC
1. Minnesota Vikings (10-2, next game: at Carolina)
2. Philadelphia Eagles (10-2, next game: at Rams)
3. Los Angeles Rams (9-3, next game: vs. Philadelphia)
4. New Orleans Saints (9-3, next game: at Atlanta)

Wild-card contenders
5. Seattle Seahawks (8-4, next game: at Jacksonville)
6. Carolina Panthers (8-4, next game: vs. Minnesota)
7. Atlanta Falcons (7-5, next game: vs. New Orleans)
8. Detroit Lions (6-6, next game: at Tampa Bay)
9. Green Bay Packers (6-6, next game: at Browns)
10. Dallas Cowboys (6-6, next game: at Giants)

Breakdown: Philadelphia’s reign atop the NFC is suddenly looking a touch shaky. The Rams loom, and the Vikings and Saints are rolling. From home-field throughout the playoffs to losing out on that first-round bye in just a couple weeks … it could happen in an eyeblink. Meanwhile, the NFC South is a squabbling fiesta, and New Orleans has the inside line. The Falcons did themselves no favors with an anemic performance against Minnesota. Meanwhile, look who’s sneaking in there at the bottom of the deck! Green Bay’s got a gimme against Cleveland and Dallas has a W against New York, and guess who might just be coming back for the Packers in Week 15, and the Cowboys in Week 16? (Hint: not the same person.) It’s a long shot for either of them to make the playoffs, but they’re going to make it interesting, and that’s all we want.
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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