One National Football League official says figuring out this year's 16-team playoff tournament makes Rubik's Cube look simple.
With only two regular-season games left, only four teams definitely are in the playoffs: Washington (6-1), Dallas (6-1) and Atlanta (5-2) in the National Football Conference and the Los Angeles Raiders (6-1) in the American Football Conference.
And only four teams--Denver (2-5), Baltimore (0-6-1) and Houston (1-6) in the AFC and the Los Angeles Rams (1-6) in the NFC--are already making plans for next season, since they've officially been eliminated from the playoffs.
There are some teams on the verge of qualifying, some on the verge of elimination and a bunch in between. But it's certain that 20 coaches this week still are dangling playoff possibilities, no matter how remote, in front of their players' eyes.
This is what the playoff picture looks like:
In the NFC, seven teams still are competing strongly for the five remaining berths.
Green Bay (4-2-1), Minnesota (4-3) and St. Louis (4-3) are one victory away from virtually locking up a spot. New Orleans (3-4), the New York Giants (3-4), Detroit (3-4) and Tampa Bay (3-4) can't afford another loss.
San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia, all 2-5, haven't been eliminated by the computer, but logic tells them to wait before printing playoff tickets. They would need a two-week collapse by Green Bay, Minnesota and St. Louis.
As for home-field advantage, which goes to the four top-seeded teams, forget it for now. Again, Washington, Dallas and Atlanta should be sure things, but there are enough remote possibilities left to dissuade the league from declaring them host cities. This is certain: one more victory by Dallas and Washington and they are home free.
Green Bay faces a difficult final two weeks, playing at both Atlanta and Detroit. Minnesota has two home games remaining, but has to play the New York Jets and Dallas. St. Louis plays host to the Giants this week, then must finish in Washington. And New Orleans has home games against Washington and Atlanta.
In the AFC, nine teams remain in serious contention for the final seven playoff spots.
San Diego, the Jets, Cincinnati, and Miami, all 5-2, are one victory away from qualifying. Since none of the four play each other this week, the AFC situation could become clear by Tuesday morning, after the Miami-Buffalo Monday night game.
Buffalo, New England and Pittsburgh are all 4-3 and not secure. The Patriots and Steelers play in Pittsburgh Sunday while the Bills have that difficult game at Miami the next night. Two of the three could finish the weekend with 4-4 records, which would help the playoff hopes of both Cleveland (3-4) and Seattle (3-4). The Browns are playing at Houston, the Seahawks at Cincinnati.
Kansas City (2-5) has hope, but that probably won't be enough.