NFL

Predicting The NFL Playoff Bracket Heading Into Week 14

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Predicting The NFL Playoff Bracket

NFL Playoffs
Kirby Lee - USA TODAY Sports

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

It’s week 14 of the NFL season, and the last month of the professional schedule is always the most exciting. So far, only one team has even clinched a playoff spot – that would be the 11-1 Seattle Seahawks. Plenty of other teams, including the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, and New Orleans Saints, appear to be in prime form for the postseason too.

Of course, the teams that are already on top aren’t necessarily what make this final stretch so fun to watch. No, this is the time of year when the last few spots are truly decided. There are still several divisions and, really, the entire Wild Card picture that will still shape up. It seems almost inevitable that at least one team that’s little more than an afterthought right now could make a run like last year’s Baltimore Ravens, from Wild Card also-ran to Super Bowl champion.

The matchups on tap this week are going to go a long way toward finalizing key playoff seeding. There are three or four games in each conference that could be make-or-break moments for some teams. Case in point: even the 5-7 San Diego Chargers, losers of four of their last five games, haven’t been eliminated from playoff contention yet. Should Philip Rivers lead the Bolts to a home win over the New York Giants and get some help, anything is possible. One misstep, though, and the season will be over in a flash.

With all that said, it’s time to take a look at how I think the playoff bracket will shake out over the next few weeks. Like what you see? Feel like I left your team out? Sound off in the comment section or Twitter and let me know!

Brandon Raper is a golf writer and NFL contributor for RantSports.com. “Like” him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter @Brandon__Raper, and join him on Google+.

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6) AFC Wild Card - Baltimore Ravens

Ravens
Evan Habeeb - USA TODAY Sports

The toughest spot in the entire playoff picture to pick, I looked for every reason to put San Diego here, but the Chargers likely need to win out to make it happen. The Ravens are in the driver’s seat right now, the only question is if they can get to nine wins.

The Ravens face the Minnesota Vikings this week, and while that should be a relatively easy win, Baltimore then faces three division leaders down the stretch, dealing with Detroit, New England, and Cincinnati. If they falter, the winner of the Pittsburgh-Miami game could be right there to put the pressure on. 9-7 is the magic number for this sixth slot, but Baltimore holds the advantage in case of a tie – for now.

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5) AFC Wild Card - Kansas City Chiefs

Chiefs
John Rieger - USA TODAY Sports

After a 9-0 start, the Chiefs have come back to earth and are riding a three-game losing skid. 3-9 Washington could be the cure, but Denver isn’t looking back anytime soon in the AFC West. They’ll certainly know what they’re playing for – or not playing for – by week 16 at Indianapolis. Their defense is playoff-ready, but they could use this time to improve their offensive output.

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4) AFC North Champion - Cincinnati Bengals

Bengals
Christopher Hanewinckel - USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals certainly don’t have the AFC North locked up yet, but they have three of their final four games at home. Pittsburgh may be officially out of contention if they lose to Miami this weekend, making the week 15 trip to Heinz Field a bit less intimidating. Two wins in the final four weeks get the Bengals to 10-4, which should be enough to earn the division crown.

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3) AFC South Champion - Indianapolis Colts

Colts
Brian Spurlock - USA TODAY Sports

Suddenly, this weekend’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals is huge. The two teams have matching 8-4 records, so not only will this game separate the two division leaders, but it will give the winner the tiebreaker for the higher seed if needed. The Colts have the lowly Texans and Jaguars still on the schedule, but a Week 16 game against Kansas City looms. The Chiefs should be locked into the fifth seed by then, but if not, that could be a huge momentum-shifting game heading into the postseason.

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2) AFC East Champion - New England Patriots

Patriots
Matthew Emmons - USA TODAY Sports

New England is 9-3 entering week 14, with what should be a relatively easy game against the Cleveland Browns on tap. The Patriots’ win over the Broncos in Foxboro means they still have a shot at the top seed, but settling for the second slot after their early season offensive struggles shouldn’t be too bad. They may drop one on the road to either Miami or Baltimore, but 12-4 looks like worst they finish barring some unforeseen struggles.

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1) AFC West Champion - Denver Broncos

Broncos
Denny Medley - USA TODAY Sports

Denver is a stellar 10-2 right now, with remaining games against Tennesee, San Diego, and at Houston and Oakland to end the year. The Broncos can’t coast into the top seed just yet, but they don’t have a single game left against a legit playoff contender. Peyton Manning has the offense running at full bore, and the expectation should be for the Broncos to win out leading into their playoff bye.

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6) NFC Wild Card - San Francisco 49ers

Niners
Cary Edmondson - USA TODAY Sports

Although they’re just 2-2 since the bye, the home stretch is incredibly favorable for last season’s NFC champions. This weekend, they host the red-hot Seahawks. A win against the league’s top team would all but seal a playoff berth for San Francisco, with games against Tampa Bay and Atlanta also on the schedule. They’re getting Michael Crabtree back in the lineup and the defense is playing well at the right time.

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5) NFC Wild Card - Carolina Panthers

Panthers
Sam Sharpe - USA TODAY Sports

Is this even the same team I thought might fire its coach by year’s end? The Panthers have a tough road ahead with both games against New Orleans still on the horizon. Even going 2-2, Carolina will reach 11 wins and, with that defense and Cam Newton’s leadership, they could be a dangerous force in the postseason.

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4) NFC North Champion - Detroit Lions

Lions
Tim Fuller - USA TODAY Sports

This is the year the Lions absolutely need to win the division, or else just about everybody on the coaching staff and in the front office should be looking for new work. Honestly, behind the top two teams in the NFC, it’s a pick-your-poison mashup of teams who could all beat each other on any given day. It’s going to be an all-out aerial assault in this weekend’s matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, owners of the league’s worst pass defense. If the Lions come out on top this weekend, they have a clear path to the NFC North crown.

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3) NFC East Champion - Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys
Matthew Emmons - USA TODAY Sports

Everything in my being says to pick against Tony Romo in these situations, but running the table is a distinct possibility here, especially with Sean Lee’s expected return to the defense this weekend. Their remaining schedule includes a Chicago team coming off two devastating losses, the possibly Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers in Dallas, a sunken Washington squad, and a home finale against Philadelphia. Three wins to reach 10-6 should lock up the third seed.

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2) NFC South Champion - New Orleans Saints

Saints
Steven Bisig - USA TODAY Sports

Locked in an unexpected division battle with Carolina, the Saints hold the edge when they host the Panthers and the league’s best defense this weekend. This really comes down to the belief that New Orleans will win out, or at the worst go 3-1 and split with Carolina. It won’t be enough to overtake Seattle, but they’ll still be playing a home game after a first-round bye. Drew Brees and the Saints' explosive offense are next to impossible to stop at the Superdome.

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1) NFC West Champion - Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks
Joe Nicholson - USA TODAY Sports

After the beating the ‘Hawks laid on the Saints on Monday night, I don’t know who stops these guys in the NFC. Their defense is as stout as any in the league, even with some injuries and suspensions hanging over their heads. They’re nearly invincible at home, where they’ll likely have the benefit of playing all of their playoff games. They still have three division games down the stretch, so you know Pete Carroll isn’t ready to let off the gas.