(Dec. 26, 2006) -- Table for three. That's the final NFL New Year's Eve reservation.
As the league plays the final week of its season this weekend, more than a third of the league (11 teams) is still in contention for the final three playoff spots available.
Can it get any tighter than this? Looked at in another way, 20 teams are still in contention for Super Bowl XLI, the most ever with one week left to the season since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978.
"Teams that are playing the best at the end of the season are the teams that win," said defensive tackle Darwin Walker of the 9-6 Philadelphia Eagles, who have won four in a row and five of seven in the second half of the season.
There's a bunch of hot teams vying for that "table for three." The Titans have won six in a row, the Jets four of their past five, the Packers three in a row and the Rams their past two.
How the playoff field stacks up for the final week:
|WEEK 17 PLAYOFF LANDSCAPE|
|Homefield Can Be Won||Baltimore, San Diego|
|First-round Bye Won||New Orleans, San Diego|
|First-round Bye Can Be Won||Baltimore, Indianapolis|
|Division Title Won||Chicago, Baltimore, Indianapolis, New England, New Orleans, San Diego, Seattle|
|Playoff Berth Won||Dallas, Philadelphia|
|Division Can Be Won With Win||Philadelphia|
|Division Can Be Won With Win and Help||Dallas|
|Playoff Berth Can Be Won With Win/Tie||Denver, NY Jets|
|Playoff Berth Can Be Won With Win and Help||Atlanta, Carolina, Cincinnati, Green Bay, Jacksonville, Kansas City, NY Giants, St. Louis, Tennessee|
A division-by-division breakdown of the NFL playoff races (Week 17 tiebreakers were published on December 26):
Pats have won it, Jets are close.
That sums up the division. The NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (11-4) captured their fourth consecutive AFC East crown last week, and the fifth in Pats QB Tom Brady seven-year career. In those four years, New England has compiled a 49-14 (.778) record -- tying the Indianapolis Colts for the best mark in the league in that time.
"Winning the division is our first goal," New England LB Tedy Bruschi said. "We've accomplished something now. Then you go from there."
The goal for the NEW YORK JETS (9-6) this week is to make the playoffs. They can do so with a victory or tie at home against Oakland. Rookie head coach Eric Mangini has more than doubled the team's victory total (4-12 in 2005) and can join Herman Edwards (2001) as the only coaches in Jets history to lead the team to the playoffs in their first year.
"We like controlling our own destiny and not having to rely on someone else to help us," says Jets DE Shaun Ellis.
Buffalo and Miami have been eliminated from playoff contention.
The division-champ BALTIMORE RAVENS (12-3) go for homefield. It's either them or San Diego for the coveted spot in the AFC.
Baltimore, on an 8-1 streak since the end of October, has matched the franchise record for victories reached by the Super Bowl XXXV champion Ravens.
"We're in a prime position to get homefield advantage," Ravens LB Ray Lewis said. "With the way we're playing defense and the way our offense is clicking, we're going to be a hard team to beat in the playoffs."
The team Baltimore lost to in its streak was the division-rival CINCINNATI BENGALS, one of four 8-7 AFC teams going for the playoffs. Cincy has to win this week and get help to earn its second successive playoff berth. "You hate to have to root for another team," Bengals DT Bryan Robinson said.
Cleveland and Pittsburgh have been eliminated from playoff contention.
One in, two seeking to get there.
The INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (11-4) have won their fourth division title in a row, matching New England for the best such active streak. They can clinch a first-round bye with a victory and a Baltimore loss.
But Indy has lost three of its past four -- not the desired way to enter the playoffs. "This is a critical time for us," Colts QB Peyton Manning said. "As a team, we need to stay together and guys just need to do their jobs a little bit better across the board in all three phases of the game."
Among the six AFC teams vying for the last two conference playoff spots are the JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS and TENNESSEE TITANS, both 8-7.
The Titans, with six consecutive victories, are the second-hottest team in the league (after San Diego with nine in a row). With a victory and other results, the Titans will become the first team in history to make the playoffs after an 0-5 start.
The Jaguars began their season with two victories followed by two losses, and have repeated that record in the past four weeks. They have to win this Sunday, plus have other scenarios go their way, to earn their second successive playoff berth. Houston has been eliminated.
The division with the team that ties the Chicago Bears for the best record in the league -- the SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (13-2). A big reason for that is that San Diego boasts the most 2007 Pro Bowl selections in the NFL -- nine.
The Bolts can earn homefield advantage -- their first since 1980 -- with a victory or tie against Arizona. They already have their first first-round bye since 1994 and have set a team record for victories in a season. Homefield beckons.
"You have to be able to win at home on a consistent basis," Chargers All-Star RB LaDainian Tomlinson said. "That's where you make your mark."
The DENVER BRONCOS (9-6) have won their past two games with new starter Jay Cutler at the helm. The rookie has become the first quarterback in history to throw for multiple touchdowns in each of his first four games. A victory or tie will earn the Broncos their fifth playoff berth in a row.
The KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (8-7) can clinch their first playoff spot in three years with a victory against Jacksonville and other scenarios. Oakland has been eliminated.
Two tied at the top, another one scrambling to get in. Just another NFC East donnybrook.
With the Christmas victory by the PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (9-6) against the DALLAS COWBOYS (9-6), Philly returns to the playoffs after a one-year absence and is now the third seed in the NFC. With a victory in Week 17, it will earn its fifth division title in the past six seasons.
"We've had a playoff mentality for the past four weeks now," said Eagles QB Jeff Garcia, who is 4-1 as the club's starter. "Everyone's accountable on this team."
The Cowboys need a victory and a Philadelphia loss or tie, or a tie and an Eagles loss to win the division. The NEW YORK GIANTS (7-8) have a set of scenarios that must unfold -- including the strength-of-victory tiebreaker -- to reach the playoffs. Washington has been eliminated.
Homefield to the Bears!
The CHICAGO BEARS (13-2) have clinched the first homefield advantage in their history and tie San Diego for the league's best record. Plus, they take a four-game winning streak into Week 17 and definitely want to keep it going entering the playoffs.
Chicago will play the league's final game of the regular season. Their matchup against the visiting GREEN BAY PACKERS (7-8) has been moved to 8:15 p.m. ET on NBC on New Year's Eve. "We want to finish out the season with another victory," Bears WR Rashied Davis said. "That's it."
The Packers must defeat the Bears and have other scenarios go their way to enter the playoffs. Detroit and Minnesota have been eliminated.
The division might have the story of the year in the NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (10-5).
From the tribulations of Hurricane Katrina and a 3-13 record to a "worst-to-first" division crown thanks to the tripling of its victory total, the Saints of new head coach Sean Payton and newcomers Drew Brees and Reggie Bush have written a true comeback story.
New Orleans topped off its division crown last week by earning a first-round bye. "With all the turnover, a new coach, new assistants, a lot of new faces, including myself, when you have a good group of people and you come together for one purpose, it's amazing what you can accomplish," Brees said.
The ATLANTA FALCONS and CAROLINA PANTHERS, both 7-8, can take playoff spots with victories and other scenarios. Tampa Bay has been eliminated.
Division titlist for the third year in a row.
That's the SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (8-7). And in spite of losing their past three, the 'Hawks are in a positive playoff mood.
"I am more on the upbeat side than the downbeat side," Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren said. "Our first goal was to win the division, and we won the division. I'll take it."
The ST. LOUIS RAMS (7-8), winners of their past two, will take what they are entitled to this week. They have to win or tie in their game at Minnesota and benefit from other results to earn a playoff spot.
Arizona and San Francisco have been eliminated.