Breaking Down the NFL Wild-Card Races

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With four weeks left in the regular season, the race for the NFL playoffs is heating up in both conferences. Only 12 teams make the postseason annually, and 21 of the 32 teams in the league — 12 in the AFC and nine in the NFC — still have a legitimate shot at playing playoff football in 2014. With only two wild-card spots up for grabs in each conference, it is highly likely that there will be a 10-win team that misses the playoffs altogether this season. Here’s a breakdown of the wild-card races in both the AFC and NFC.

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AFC wild-card race

The AFC wild-card race is going to come down to the final week of the regular season. As it stands now, 12 of the conference’s 16 teams are still in playoff contention, and technically, every division is still up for grabs. Here’s a look at the current AFC playoff standings:

  1. New England Patriots (9-3), AFC East division leader
  2. Denver Broncos (9-3), AFC West division leader
  3. Cincinnati Bengals (8-3-1), AFC North division leader
  4. Indianapolis Colts (8-4), AFC South division leader
  5. San Diego Chargers (8-4), wild card
  6. Miami Dolphins (7-5), wild card
  7. Kansas City Chiefs (7-5)
  8. Buffalo Bills (7-5)
  9. Baltimore Ravens (7-5)
  10. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5)
  11. Cleveland Browns (7-5)
  12. Houston Texans (6-6)

The wild-card race in the AFC is convoluted, to say the least. We will get a clearer picture in the coming weeks as the contenders play each other and teams are gradually eliminated from contention. If the season ended today, the Chargers and Dolphins would make the AFC playoffs as the wild-card teams. San Diego has an outright one-game lead on the field of contenders, and both Miami’s conference record (6-3) and division record (3-1) give the Dolphins the edge in tiebreakers over their conference competition.

The Houston Texans face the unfortunate reality of having to win every remaining game on their schedule to stay in contention, while the rest of the AFC contenders, who all control their own playoff destinies, can likely absorb one more loss without being completely eliminated from the wild-card race. Based on remaining schedules, it would be safe to bet that the two AFC wild-card spots will come down to the Dolphins, Chiefs, or Chargers, and whichever team emerges out of the incredibly deep AFC North.

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NFC wild-card race

The wild-card race in the NFC is much less complicated than that of the AFC. There are nine teams in playoff contention, but two of them — the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints — will only make the playoffs if they can win the NFC South division title. That leaves seven teams competing for five playoff spots, with every division title still up for grabs. Here’s a look at the current NFC Playoff standings:

  1. Arizona (9-3), NFC West division leader
  2. Green Bay (9-3), NFC North division leader
  3. Philadelphia Eagles (9-3), NFC East division leader
  4. Atlanta Falcons (5-7), NFC South division leader
  5. Seattle Seahawks (8-4), wild card
  6. Detroit Lions (8-4), wild card
  7. Dallas Cowboys (8-4)
  8. San Francisco 49ers (7-5)
  9. New Orleans Saints (5-7)

In the race for the two NFC wild-card spots, the Seahawks and Lions hold the edge over the Cowboys due to both their conference records and division records. The 49ers have an uphill battle, with three of their four remaining games coming against teams currently projected to make the playoffs this season. The Seahawks also have a tough schedule ahead of them, but due to the head-to-head tiebreaker they hold over the 49ers, Lions, and Cowboys, they can afford to lose one of their remaining games and still be in playoff contention.

The Cowboys have two remaining games against teams projected to make the 2014 playoffs, but will need the Lions or Seahawks to lose for them to have a chance. The Lions have the easiest remaining schedule of the NFC wild-card contenders, but do have one remaining game against the Green Bay Packers, the hottest team in the NFL right now.