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NFL Playoff Projections: All eyes on the NFC South

When the sun swells to a bloody red orb and the oceans boil, when all life on earth withers and dies, the Patriots will still be there, hanging yet another AFC East Champion banner. We will never, ever escape them.

Once again, a challenger had the opportunity to knock the Pats back on their heels. And once again, the Patriots stepped in and pulled out the challenger’s heart with a smile on their faces. The Steelers now almost certainly have to go through Massachusetts to get to Minnesota, and nobody wants to do that.

Over in the NFC, everyone north of Charlotte got their houses in order, and we’re just waiting for the big ol’ family reunion that is the NFC South to sort itself out. No matter how much the NFL and network execs would like to see Aaron Rodgers and the Cowboys in the postseason, it ain’t gonna happen.

On the other end of the standings spectrum, the bell tolled at last for the Jets, Bengals, Texans, and Cardinals. And hey, pour one out for the Jets, also eliminated this week. They lasted all the way to Week 15, and most of the planet had picked them to be eliminated before October.

Let’s take a closer look at the two conferences:

AFC
1. New England Patriots (11-3, next game: vs. Buffalo)-Clinched division
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3, next game: at Houston)-Clinched division
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4, next game: at San Francisco)-Clinched playoff berth
4. Kansas City Chiefs (8-6, next game: vs. Miami)

Wild-card contenders
5. Tennessee Titans (8-6, next game: vs. Rams)
6. Baltimore Ravens (8-6, next game: vs. Indianapolis)
7. Buffalo Bills (8-6, next game: at New England)

Breakdown: The Chiefs picked a good time to wake up, dealing a near-deathblow to the Chargers’ playoff hopes. Four teams are currently 8-6, and three are going to make it into the playoffs. The Bills have the toughest road to travel, going through Foxborough, so the teams now in the top six are likely to be the teams in the final six. Also, spare a thought for Jacksonville, having to travel across the country for a now-almost-meaningless game against San Francisco, scheduled back when nobody really cared what the Jaguars did.

Once again, Brady and the Patriots came out on top. (AP)

NFC
1. Philadelphia (12-2, next game: vs. Raiders) – Clinched division, first-round bye
2. Minnesota Vikings (11-3, next game: at Green Bay) – Clinched division
3. Los Angeles Rams (10-4, next game: at Tennessee)
4. New Orleans (10-4, next game: vs. Falcons)

Wild-card contenders
5. Carolina Panthers (10-4, next game: vs. Tampa Bay)
6. Atlanta Falcons (8-5, next game: at Tampa Bay, Monday)
7. Detroit Lions (8-6, next game: at Cincinnati)
8. Seattle Seahawks (8-6, next game: at Dallas)
9. Dallas Cowboys (8-6, vs. Seahawks)

Breakdown: And here we go: all eyes on the South. New Orleans, Carolina, and Atlanta are all in the mix for a playoff spot and a division title, all of them batting poor Tampa Bay around like it’s the second-to-last scene of a nature documentary. The Falcons/Buccaneers game Monday night carries some huge significance for that sixth playoff spot; the Lions, Cowboys, and Seahawks all have designs on that final spot.

At the top of the standings, the Eagles, Vikings, and Rams are all basically locked into their slots. They’ve got three winnable games on the slate, but they’ll need to avoid traps, since that precious first-round bye and/or home-field advantage is still at least statistically in play for all three of them.
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.