With three weeks to go in the NFL regular season, only seven teams have been mathematically eliminated from making the playoffs. An eighth team, defending champion Denver, is technically still alive under a complicated series of improbable scenarios.
Suffice to say, the Broncos are unofficially out, along with Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. But hope remains eternal in 23 towns for a Super Bowl championship, as improbable as that might sound for teams such as the 5-8 New York Jets and Chicago as well as 6-7 Baltimore, Oakland, San Diego, Arizona and Carolina.
This much is known. Only the St. Louis Rams have clinched a division title, accomplishing that feat in the NFC West last week. Dick Vermeil's 11-2 team--with no victories against a winning team--still has plenty to play for on Sunday when the Giants come to town. The Rams can clinch home field throughout the playoffs with a victory against a 7-6 New York team still tied with the Dallas Cowboys for second in the NFC East, only a game behind the Redskins.
NFC East: If the Cowboys and Redskins tie for the NFC East title, Dallas would win by virtue of its two victories over Washington. The Redskins are 5-3 in the division, with the Cowboys 4-3 and the Giants 3-4. Dallas and New York meet in the regular season finale. If the Redskins and Giants tie for the division lead, Washington would win the division with its two regular season victories.
NFC Central: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-4) have a one-game lead over the Detroit Lions and can clinch a playoff berth with a victory in Oakland on Sunday, but the division title and a first-round playoff bye won't be possible until the following week.
The 8-5 Lions technically can clinch a playoff spot Sunday in Chicago, but only with another series of ifs and buts that would fill a Rockville Yellow Pages. Minnesota and Green Bay both are 7-6 and play each other in Minnesota Monday night, but because the NFC East is so muddled, four NFC Central teams still could make the playoffs.
NFC West: Carolina (6-7) is still alive for a wild-card spot after its stirring victory over the Packers Sunday. The Panthers easily could win their last three games against San Francisco, Pittsburgh and New Orleans, all eliminated. The 49ers and Saints games will be in Charlotte, and the Panthers, with a 9-7 record, could sneak in the back door.
AFC East: The 11-2 Colts clinched a playoff berth Sunday with their 20-15 triumph over New England. They can clinch the division title and a first-round playoff bye with a victory or tie at home Sunday against the Redskins or a Buffalo loss to Arizona or a Kansas City loss to Pittsburgh and a Seattle loss or tie against Denver. Got that?
Buffalo and Miami, both 8-5, are realistically playing for wild-card spots. The Bills finish against Arizona, New England and Indianapolis; the Dolphins, losers of four of their past five games and just 5-9 in December under Jimmy Johnson, close against San Diego, the Jets and Redskins. New England is just barely alive at 7-6 and finishes against Philadelphia, Buffalo and Baltimore.
AFC Central: The 12-1 Jaguars already had clinched a playoff berth going into last night's game against Denver. A victory over the Broncos and Cleveland next week would clinch the division title, coupled with a Tennessee loss or tie against Atlanta on Sunday.
The Titans can clinch a playoff spot with a victory over the Falcons or a Kansas City and a Seattle loss or a Miami loss and a Buffalo win. Those plucky Ravens could make Art Modell a most happy fella by winning their final three games against New Orleans, Cincinnati and New England for a 9-7 finish that also could sneak the team into the postseason, a startling development considering Tony Banks is the starting quarterback.
AFC West: Three straight Seahawks losses have brought Kansas City back into the division title race, with both teams at 8-5. The title should be decided when the teams meet in Seattle the day after Christmas. The Chiefs play Pittsburgh this Saturday and end the season at home against Oakland on Jan. 2. The Raiders, 6-7, will have a tough road to a wild-card spot, facing Tampa Bay and San Diego, also 6-7. The Chargers finish at Miami, at home against the Raiders and at Denver.
And speaking about the Broncos, last week the NFL ruled them mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Yesterday, the league looked at its abacus and said they've still got a pulse. But not for long.