For the vast 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, the Houston Texans and the Denver Broncos have clinched the AFC East, South and West, respectively, and the Baltimore Ravens are making the playoffs in the AFC North.
The New York Jets, the ugly step-sister in the eyes of New Yorkers infatuated with their other team are out of the playoffs, and they've benched their quarterback. Their cousin, so to speak, the New York Giants, don't forget, won the Super Bowl last year in dramatic fashion.
On the NFC side of the football divisions, the Green Bay Packers have clinched their division, 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 clinched a playoff berth at least in the NFC West, and are well thought-of in at least 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 at least the Giants as well as, perhaps, the rest of the NFC East. But that's where things get confusing.
The Washington Redskins, the 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. The only place with this knotting up, then, is in the NFC East. And with only two weeks of regular season games left to play, the schedule makers have done all football fans a huge favor by making sure that, even if next week is relatively calm, when Washington plays at Philly, New Orleans at Dallas and the New York Giants go to Baltimore, the last week of the regular season brings overhyped (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.