The top seed in the NFC is going to be a massive advantage. Not because the Rams have a great home-field advantage, but because taking away the Saints' home-field advantage is the surest way to beat them. And now the Saints are in perfect position to secure home-field throughout the playoffs thanks to a Monday night victory in Charlotte,.
New Orleans (12-2) is a full game up on the Rams (11-3) in the standings, but the Saints have an extra half game because of their head-to-head tiebreaker over the Rams. Which means a Saints win against the Steelers next week in New Orleans would lock up home field throughout in Week 16 and make the Saints' Week 17 game against the Panthers meaningless (Carolina isn't eliminated yet but is pretty close).
In a week that saw the Rams fall and the Patriots fall and the Chiefs fall, the Saints might very well be the biggest clear-cut contender left standing. The Bears are great too, but New Orleans is in a class by itself.
Maybe most telling about this year's setup for the Saints -- this would be the first time the Saints had home field throughout the playoffs since 2009, if they can manage to clinch. If you don't remember what happened that year, the Saints were a mauling NFC behemoth running through the competition.
The Saints offense hasn't been perfect the last three weeks, but they just emerged from a three-game road trip 2-1, with both of those wins over division rivals. They looked ugly against the Cowboys, but that's alright. This is a battle-tested team capable of winning in multiple ways. If they get home field, look out.
Here's how the rest of the NFL playoff picture looks, as well as a snapshot of some games that could impact what it looks like after Week 15 and beyond.
AFC: Who's in
1. (x) Kansas City Chiefs (11-3)
The Chiefs loss to the Chargers on Thursday spices things up across the board. Kansas City can win out and still clinch the No. 1 seed as well as the AFC West. But if the Chiefs slip up again (they have the Seahawks on the road and the Raiders at home left), the Chargers could steal the top seed, as could the Patriots or Texans. The AFC looked over a week ago and now turmoil abounds.
2. Houston Texans (10-4)
The Texans came out strong against the Jets on Saturday night before New York jumped up and made things interesting. The Texans closed strong, though, and they are a star-laden team that can create some issues for teams.
3. New England Patriots (9-5)
The Patriots saw their dreams of a first-round bye potentially go up in smoke on Sunday afternoon when the Steelers took care of them in Pittsburgh. Tom Brady got the ball in the red zone, trailing by four points ... and threw an interception. Then New England got the ball back trailing 17-10 and couldn't pull off the comeback. The defense struggled to slow down the Steelers late, Gronk looked mortal and Brady missed several big throws when it mattered. The Patriots probably have to go on the road in the second round and won't get a bye unless Houston drops a game.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1)
The Steelers won a CLOSE one against the Pats on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, a game that felt like an incredible thriller and could be a preview of a future playoff matchup. The Steelers didn't blow out the Pats by any stretch, but they put together impressive play on both sides of the ball and made big plays in huge spots to save their playoff lives. Pittsburgh hasn't won the division, but it's likely to make it as a wild card at this point at minimum.
5. Los Angeles Chargers (11-3)
The Chargers shocked the world with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns against the Chiefs, clinching a playoff berth, giving hope to the Philip Rivers MVP campaign and keeping alive the possibility of an AFC Championship Game in the StubHub Center. Los Angeles is as dangerous as it comes in the AFC right now: drawing them as a four seed in the wild-card round is a nightmare.
6. Baltimore Ravens (8-6)
Baltimore looked like it was going to get out-physicaled by the Buccaneers for stretches of Sunday's game, but eventually just ponied up and ran the ball down Tampa's throat. Gus Edwards and Lamar Jackson looked lethal in various aspects and the Ravens just kept fighting for yardage and first downs. We'll see how they look against the Chargers, but this is an interesting team over the last few weeks. They're finding their groove in a different way -- win out and they can take the AFC North.
AFC: Who's out
7. Indianapolis Colts (8-6): What a performance by the defense on Sunday -- the Colts shut out the mighty Cowboys, silencing their five-game winning streak and keeping Indy's hopes of winning the division and making the postseason as a wild card. They're going to need some help, but the Colts would be a dangerous team to see come into someone's stadium as a wild card. Indy holds the tiebreaker over the Titans based on their head-to-head matchup.
8. Tennessee Titans (8-6): Tennessee put a stranglehold on the Giants in nasty New Jersey December weather, shutting down Saquon Barkley and snuffing out the Giants playoff hopes. Derrick Henry put on another show, rushing for 100 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Titans are behind the Colts based on their head-to-head record, but the teams do play in Week 17 again.
9. Miami Dolphins (7-7): That probably does it for the Dolphins, who were playing pretty far above their head for the last few weeks. This is a well-coached team that keeps finding ways to play close games but it got smashed by the Vikings -- credit where credit is due, Miami was down 21-0 in the first quarter and actually clawed back into the game before losing by nearly 30 points and giving up nick sacks of Ryan Tannehill. Miami has to win out and needs a lot of help from other teams to make the postseason.
10. Cleveland Browns (6-7-1): The Browns' dream of winning the AFC North died despite a win in Denver on Saturday, as both the Ravens and Steelers won. Technically the Browns can still make the postseason as a wild-card team: they have to win out, the Titans and Colts both have to lose in Week 16 and then the Colts and Titans, who play each other in Week 17, MUST TIE. Good luck with that. Seriously, good luck. I'd love it to happen.
AFC: Who's Eliminated
NFC: Who's in
1. (y) New Orleans Saints (12-2)
The Saints snuck out a 12-9 win in Charlotte that gives them a leg up on chasing the No. 1 seed.
2. (y) Los Angeles Rams (11-3)
The Rams got manhandled by a defense on the second straight Sunday night, raising questions about Sean McVay's offense and bringing into play the idea they might not land the bye, should they continue to struggle. Los Angeles should be fine, and they've already clinched their division, but this is not how you want to go into the postseason.
3. (y) Chicago Bears (10-4)
What a win, in the biggest possible spot. The Bears were Eagles fans on Sunday night, and are hoping to chase down a first-round bye after the Rams loss.
4. Dallas Cowboys (8-6)
The Cowboys finally took an L, and it wasn't a pretty one, with former Cowboys assistant Matt Eberflus engineering a game plan that absolutely dominated Dak Prescott and Co. The Cowboys hadn't been shut out since 2003 and now have a little bit less wiggle room in their pursuit of a division title (although it should end up happening -- they're not losing out and the Redskins aren't winning out, right ...?).
5. Seattle Seahawks (8-6)
The Seahawks lost to the 49ers on Sunday afternoon in overtime, so credit to Vegas for making the 49ers just a 3.5-point dog, because that line STUNK and the 49ers never looked like they were getting blown out. The Seahawks are still in very good shape to make the playoffs: nine wins will get it done most likely, and they have the Chiefs at home next week and the Cardinals at home the week after that.
6. Minnesota Vikings (7-6-1)
The Vikings got MAD about losing to Seattle so they came out and smashed the ball down the Dolphins throats, running for 200+ yards and unleashing Dalvin Cook for the first time all year. If that's the Minnesota team we see the rest of the year, they're going to be dangerous.
NFC: Who's out
7. Philadelphia Eagles (7-7): The Eagles stunned the world and stunned the Rams on Sunday night, taking care of business on the line of scrimmage and putting tons of pressure on Jared Goff. Philly's playoff hopes are very much alive now, and of course it's happening with Nick Foles at quarterback. The Eagles have the tiebreaker over the Redskins by virtue of their head-to-head record.
8. Washington Redskins (7-7): The Redskins somehow went into Jacksonville and beat Cody Kessler with Josh Johnson. If they can get to eight or nine wins, Jay Gruden might deserve some low-end chatter for Coach of the Year. And they do have division-winning hopes still alive, as well as a shot at the wild card.
9. Carolina Panthers (6-8): The Panthers brought out a kitchen sink game against the Saints on Monday night but it wasn't enough to pull off the win and now the Panthers are all but eliminated. They need to win out and have a lot of things break their way.
NFC: Who's Eliminated
(x) - clinched playoff berth
(y) - clinched division
(z) - clinched first-round bye
(*) - clinched home-field advantage