Analysis: NFL playoff picture tightens up after Week 16

Dec 24, 2022, 10:04 PM | Updated: Dec 25, 2022, 12:05 pm
Dallas Cowboys' DaRon Bland celebrates his interception with teammates during the second half of an...

Dallas Cowboys' DaRon Bland celebrates his interception with teammates during the second half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Minshew Mania is on hold. The Philadelphia Eagles couldn’t wrap up the NFC East and the No. 1 seed with their backup quarterback, tightening the playoff picture in a wide-open conference.

The Eagles (13-2) need only one more win to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs but a 40-34 loss at Dallas (11-4) on Saturday kept alive the Cowboys’ slim hopes of securing the top spot.

Philadelphia beat Dallas at home with Jalen Hurts in the lineup and backup Cooper Rush starting for the Cowboys. The Cowboys returned the favor with Dak Prescott under center and Minshew in for the injured Hurts.

The teams could be headed for a rubber match in the playoffs with Hurts and Prescott facing off for the first time this season.

“I think this is a really (ticked)-off team right now,” Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said after the Eagles twice blew 10-point leads. “We didn’t like the outcome of what went on. We know the type of club that we are and I think this team is really (ticked) off.”

The Minnesota Vikings (12-3) and San Francisco 49ers (11-4) already have clinched their respective divisions and are fighting for positioning. Both teams can finish anywhere in the top three spots.

While the No. 1 seed earns a first-round bye, the No. 2 team has an opportunity to host at least two playoff games.

“I think we’re all aware of the importance of trying to get the right seed position, but there’s a lot in that that’s out of our control,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said after Greg Joseph kicked a 61-yard field goal to give Minnesota a 27-24 victory over the Giants on Saturday. “There’s certainly a large part that’s in our control. You just got to play each game and really let the chips sort where they may at the end of the year. You try to go win all these games and go from there.”

Overall, four division titles remain up for grabs and seven teams have a shot at the No. 1 seed in both the NFC and AFC with two weeks remaining.

The Buffalo Bills (12-3) maintained their hold on the top spot in the AFC with a 35-13 win in Chicago on Saturday. But they have a tough matchup next Monday night in Cincinnati. The defending AFC champion Bengals (11-4) have won seven in a row and still have a chance to earn the No. 1 seed. They also could fall out of first place with a loss, and the AFC North may come down to Week 18 when the Baltimore Ravens (10-5) visit Cincinnati.

The Kansas City Chiefs (12-3) will be rooting for Joe Burrow and the Bengals to beat Buffalo. The seven-time AFC West champs would secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with wins over Denver and Las Vegas and a loss or tie by the Bills.

“Obviously we don’t control our own destiny as far as the No. 1 seed, but we want to put ourselves in the best position to be at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium as much as possible in the playoffs, and that takes us getting better as a team every single week,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “You want to be playing your best football going into the playoffs and I feel like that’s where we have to continue to get better and better is let’s put that full game together — offense, defense, special teams and I thought we did a pretty good job of it (Saturday), but we can be even better going into these last two weeks.”

Two losing teams could end up winning the NFC South and AFC South.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8), Carolina Panthers (6-9) and New Orleans Saints (6-9) are fighting for the NFC South title. The division likely will be decided when Tom Brady and the Buccaneers host the Panthers on Jan. 1.

The Jacksonville Jaguars (7-8) have surged past the stumbling Tennessee Titans (7-8) in the AFC South. The division winner will be determined in Week 18 when the Jaguars host the Titans.

In an NFL season filled with close games and comeback wins, it’s fitting that only eight teams have been eliminated from playoff contention entering Sunday’s games.

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/robmaaddi

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Analysis: NFL playoff picture tightens up after Week 16