The NFL Playoffs seem like they are still a long way off, and there is a lot of football left between now and the postseason. Even now, though, bettors need to be aware of the race for the playoffs and the implications that it can have. Teams in the playoff hunt can have an extra incentive each time out. Teams that have no playoff future may not be as sharp as they could be. You need to be aware of playoff situations to give yourself an extra edge in your handicapping - any edge helps. Here's a look at the situation in each of the eight divisions:
This one is all but over. The Patriots will clinch the division title with a win and a loss or tie by the Jets. If they don't clinch it now they will obviously get it done soon. There essentially is no race here. For the Patriots the focus is on home-field advantage. They have a one-win advantage over the Bengals and Broncos - though they don't have the tiebreaker advantage over the Broncos. The Jets have to look at the wild card. There are five teams at 6-5 right now, and that is currently the mark it takes for a wild-card spot. The Bills at 5-6 are still alive in the wild-card hunt, but their margin of error is very small.
The Bengals have a three-game lead over the Steelers. They can't clinch anything yet, but with probably two more wins the rest of the way they would have the division taken care of. It is all but inevitable at this point. The Steelers are another one of those 6-5 wild-card teams. For the Ravens and Browns it's all about next year.
This one is a two-horse race. Both the Colts and Texans are at 6-5. They need to fight not just for the division but also to stay in the wild-card hunt. The Colts beat the Texans first time out, so their rematch in three weeks could easily define this race. Both teams are in the best form of the season - the Texans have won four in a row, and the Colts have three wins in a row - so it's a shaping up to be a strong race. Jacksonville and Tennessee are no longer relevant.
The Broncos have a three-game lead on the Chiefs, so their situation is the same as Cincinnati's - they can't clinch anything now, but it is probably inevitable as long as they don't go on a five-game losing streak. The issue here for them is keeping pace with the Patriots and Bengals - they are a team that could really use a playoff bye. The Chiefs are yet another 6-5 team in the wild-card hunt. With five wins in a row they are very dangerous. Oakland is a contender, too. They are 5-6, so they can't stumble anymore, but they could get hot at the right time and make things interesting.
You could say that this division is a total mess, or you could be more optimistic and say that it is the most competitive race out there. The Redskins and Giants are both 5-6, and the Eagles are 4-7. Washington and New York split their season series, so the potential of drama the rest of the way is high. Neither team is very good, so it could be the team that can limp to the finish line fastest that wins. There is a 7-4 team and two 6-5 teams, so both of these squads are still in the wild-card hunt if they can finish strong, too. The Eagles are only a game back from the Redskins and Giants, but it feels like they are a million miles back given the circus that surrounds them.
Shockingly, it's the Vikings and not the Packers who are in command here. They have a one-game lead over the Packers. Unfortunately, they lost badly to the Packers last time out, so their margin for error is small. The two teams finish their season in Green Bay in what could be a truly massive game. The Packers are also the wild-card leaders at 7-4. Chicago is on the fringe of the wild-card hunt at 5-6. The Lions are red hot right now, but at 4-7 their hole is likely too deep.
Carolina is the one team that completely controls their destiny this week. With a win or a tie, or a loss or tie from Atlanta, the Panthers wrap up the division. That will obviously happen at some point. More interesting is their quest for the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They have a two-game advantage on the Cardinals and three games on the Vikings, so they are in command here. The Panthers don't play either of those teams, so heads-up play won't be a factor. The Falcons are in the heart of the wild-card hunt at 6-5, but their four-game losing streak isn't helping. Tampa Bay is still on the fringes at 5-6. New Orleans is irrelevant.
The Cardinals have a three-win advantage over the Seahawks, and they have won in Seattle already, so they are clearly in the driver's seat. Two more wins would likely wrap up the division, and a big game at home against Seattle to finish the season could be very significant. The bigger game, though, could come in two weeks when they host the Vikings. Arizona has a one-game lead over the Vikings, so that game could essentially be a one-game playoff for a first-round bye. Seattle is tied with Atlanta for the second playoff spot and given current form should have the big edge.
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