For the majority of the teams in the National Football League, the playoff picture is beginning to take shape. On the AFC side, things are relatively clear-cut. The New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Denver Broncos have clinched the AFC East, South and West, respectively, and the Baltimore Ravens have claimed the North.
The New York Jets, the ugly step-sister in the eyes of New Yorkers infatuated with the Giants are out of the playoffs, and have benched their quarterback. The big-sister Giants, don't forget, won the Super Bowl last year in a dramatic fashion.
On the NFC side of the football divisions, the Green Bay Packers have secured the North, as has become habit for the publicly-owned team. The Packers are looking as strong as ever, but perhaps not as strong as the San Francisco 49ers, who have sealed at least a playoff berth in the NFC West, and are well thought-of in the ESPN Power Rankings. The 49ers and the Packers both have favorable schedules to end the season.
The Atlanta Falcons have ruled the NFC South's roost so far and sent a bruising message last week to the Giants and, perhaps, the rest of the NFC East as well. But that's where things get confusing.
The Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys and those champs from last year, the New York Giants, are all tied at the top of the NFC East with records of 8-6, leaving this competitive division as the last playoff knot to untie. And with only two weeks of regular season games left to play, the schedule makers have done football fans a huge favor by making sure that, even if next week is relatively calm, exciting rivalries are short in coming.
The last week of the regular season will bring over-hyped (and almost mathematically eliminated) Philly to the home of the Giants and, most importantly, Dallas to Washington. By scheduling these division rivalries at the end of the season, the NFL succeeds in two respects. First of all, neither the Cowboys nor the Redskins will be resting any players who should otherwise be playing. They'll want every able body to fight for playoff position. Secondly, we get super-compelling TV to watch, even when some of the other games that week (The Jets in Buffalo, anyone?) aren't going to be very interesting.