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NFL playoff forecast: Saints, Ravens challenging for top seeds

New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton and wide receiver Michael Thomas during Sunday's win over Tampa Bay. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)

Every week will be a virtual playoff game for some teams, either a loss that ends their season or a victory that allows them to continue. On Monday night in Mexico City, the Los Angeles Chargers suffered a loss that didn’t officially knock them out of playoff contention, but dropped them to 4-7 and effectively ended the competitive portion of their season. That time of year is here.

You can find the latest league standings here, but how will they look when the regular season ends? Here is how we think the playoff field will shake out.


How they will finish (with current record):

1. New Orleans Saints, 8-2

Remaining schedule: Panthers, at Falcons, 49ers, Colts, at Titans, at Panthers

2. Seattle Seahawks, 8-2

Remaining schedule: at Eagles, Vikings, at Rams, at Panthers, Cardinals, 49ers

3. Minnesota Vikings, 8-3

Remaining schedule: at Seahawks, Lions, at Chargers, Packers, Bears

4. Dallas Cowboys, 6-4

Remaining schedule: at Patriots, Bills, at Bears, Rams, at Eagles, Redskins

5. Green Bay Packers, 8-2

Remaining schedule: at 49ers, at Giants, Redskins, Bears, at Vikings, at Lions

6. San Francisco 49ers, 9-1

Remaining schedule: Packers, at Ravens, at Saints, Falcons, Rams, at Seahawks

In the hunt:

Philadelphia Eagles, 5-5

Remaining schedule: Seahawks, at Dolphins, Giants, at Redskins, Cowboys, at Giants

Los Angeles Rams, 6-4

Remaining schedule: Ravens, at Cardinals, Seahawks, at Cowboys, at 49ers, Cardinals

Hanging on: Carolina Panthers, 5-5

Technically alive, but not happening: Chicago Bears (4-6), New York Giants (2-8), Washington Redskins (1-9), Detroit Lions (3-6-1), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-7), Atlanta Falcons (3-7), Arizona Cardinals (3-7-1)

The math is simple and, for most teams, dire. Take out the NFC East, which somebody has to win, and there are five NFC playoff spots. Five NFC teams will enter Week 12 with three or fewer losses. The NFC field is just about set, and even after the Rams won Sunday night, the defending conference champions aren’t in it.

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The NFC East probably will be decided in Week 16, when the Eagles host the Cowboys. Even though Philadelphia gets the game at home, Dallas has had its number in recent seasons, and despite plenty of the Cowboys’ own flaws, they’re the better team.

The 49ers have been the NFC’s best team all season, but their next three games — Packers, at Ravens and at Saints — could make them vulnerable in their division. The stretch looks even more treacherous after the banged-up 49ers barely beat the Cardinals on Sunday. The Seahawks already beat them once, and they get to host the 49ers in the season’s final week.


How they will finish:

1. Baltimore Ravens, 8-2

Remaining schedule: at Rams, 49ers, at Bills, Jets, at Browns, Steelers

2. New England Patriots, 9-1

Remaining schedule: Cowboys, at Texans, Chiefs, at Bengals, Bills, Dolphins

3. Houston Texans, 6-4

Remaining schedule: Colts, Patriots, Broncos, at Titans, at Bucs, Titans

4. Kansas City Chiefs, 7-4

Remaining schedule: Chargers, bye, Raiders, at Patriots, Broncos, at Bears, Chargers

5. Buffalo Bills, 7-3

Remaining schedule: Broncos, at Cowboys, Ravens, at Steelers, at Patriots, Jets

6. Oakland Raiders, 6-4

Remaining schedule: at Jets, at Chiefs, Titans, Jaguars, at Chargers, at Broncos

In the hunt:

Pittsburgh Steelers, 5-5

Remaining schedule: at Bengals, Browns, at Cardinals, Bills, at Jets, at Ravens

Indianapolis Colts, 6-4

Remaining schedule: at Texans, Titans, at Bucs, at Saints, Panthers, at Jaguars

Tennessee Titans, 5-5

Remaining schedule: Jaguars, at Colts, at Raiders, Texans, Saints, at Texans

Hanging on: Cleveland Browns (4-6)

Technically alive, but not happening: Jacksonville Jaguars (4-6), Los Angeles Chargers (4-7), Denver Broncos (3-7), New York Jets (3-7), Dolphins (2-8), Bengals (0-10)

The AFC South outcome will shape so much about the conference playoff field. The Raiders need to root for the Texans to beat the Colts to win the division because if the final spot comes down to the South loser and Oakland, the Raiders own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Indianapolis, but Houston holds it over them.

The Patriots’ track record suggests they’ll solve their offensive issues, and their final three games are all against doormats. But the Ravens hold the tiebreaker, and if the Patriots drop just one game while they figure it out, the Ravens could take the top seed from them.

The Titans, playing well since Ryan Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota, could make their season in the next month. They play the Jaguars at home, then face the Colts, Raiders and Texans — three teams they’re in direct competition with for a playoff spot.

Read more:

Clayton: The AFC is changing, with Lamar Jackson leading the charge

NFL power rankings Week 12: The Ravens are on a roll and they move to the top

Brewer: The Eagles are the NFL’s biggest enigma just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl win

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