John McClain: A look at the NFL playoff races as we head down the stretch

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ron Schwane/AP/Shutterstock (13602741cp) Cleveland Browns quarterback Jacoby Brissett (7) dives into the end zone for a touchdown with Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson (55) defending during the second half of an NFL football game in Cleveland Bengals Browns Football, Cleveland, United States – 31 Oct 2022

John McClain: A look at the NFL playoff races as we head down the stretch

December is crunch time in the NFL when playoff contenders are separated from pretenders. With four games left in the season, teams are competing for division titles and playoff berths with the ultimate prize, a victory in Super Bowl 57 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

Before we analyze the playoff race, let’s review Super Bowl 56 at SoFi Stadium, where the Rams defeated the Bengals 23-20. The Rams are 4-9 and have missed a chance to become the first team to repeat as champion since the Patriots after the 2004 season.

Unlike the Rams, the Bengals are on a roll. They have a 9-4 record, a five-game winning streak, and they are tied with Baltimore for first place in the AFC North. Cincinnati has an opportunity to become the first Super Bowl loser other than New England to win the next year since the Dolphins lost to Dallas in Super Bowl 6 and rebounded to defeat Washington in Super Bowl 7.

Now, let’s look at the playoff picture as teams head for the stretch drive, and we’ll start with the AFC. Buffalo (10-3), Kansas City (10-3), and Tennessee (7-6) are in first place and moving toward division titles. The Bengals (9-4) and Ravens (9-4) have the most interesting race going, and they close the season at Cincinnati.

The Bills have a two-game lead over the Dolphins in the AFC East and host Miami on Saturday night. The Bills have a four-game winning streak. They also have the inside track to home-field advantage in the playoffs by virtue of their victory over Kansas City.

The Chiefs are sailing to another AFC West title. They’ve lost three games by a total of 10 points, including three-point defeats to Buffalo and Cincinnati. Kansas City has an easier closing schedule than Buffalo. The Chiefs play the Texans and Raiders on the road and the Seahawks and Broncos at home. The Bills host the Dolphins, visit the Bears and Bengals, and finish at home against the Patriots.

As for the hotly contested battle for the top spot in the AFC North between Cincinnati and Baltimore, the Ravens beat the Bengals 19-17 in October, and when they end the regular season at Cincinnati, the game could determine the division title and which team gets to host a playoff game.

Both teams have been exceptional lately. The Bengals have a five-game winning streak. The Ravens have won four of five even though quarterback Lamar Jackson has been injured, and they’ve had to rely on backup Tyler Huntley. The Ravens have the easier schedule. Before they play at Cincinnati in the last game, they travel to Cleveland and entertain Atlanta and Pittsburgh. The Bengals visit the Bucs and Patriots before hosting the Bills and Ravens.

The Titans lead the worst division in the AFC. They have injury issues, a controversy over last week’s firing of general manager Jon Robinson, and a three-game losing streak. They haven’t scored more than 22 points in nine consecutive games, and they’re minus-35 in point differential. Their closing schedule is at Chargers, Texans, Cowboys, and at Jaguars. They should be one-and-done in the playoffs.

As for the AFC wild-card teams, the Baltimore-Cincinnati loser for the AFC North title should be a cinch for the playoffs barring a monumental collapse. That would leave the Dolphins (8-5), Patriots (7-6), Jets (7-6), and Chargers (7-6) competing for the last two spots.

Now, let’s jump over to the NFC, where Philadelphia (12-1) has the NFL’s best record. The Eagles, Vikings (10-3), 49ers (9-4), and Buccaneers (6-7) are the division leaders.

In the NFC East, the Eagles have a two-game lead over the Cowboys; a team Philadelphia defeated 26-17 at Lincoln Financial Field in October. The Eagles are plus-138 in point differential, and third-year quarterback Jalen Hurts is favored to be voted the NFL Most Valuable Player award. In their last four games, the Eagles visit Chicago and Dallas and host New Orleans and the Giants.

The Vikings will dethrone the Packers as NFC North champions, despite a minus-1 point differential. That’s the first time in league history a team with 10 victories after 13 games has a negative point differential. The Vikings have an easy closing schedule: Colts, Giants, at Packers, at Bears. The Giants are the only remaining playoff contender in that group.

The 49ers are the hottest team in the NFC with a six-game winning streak and the best defense in the NFL. Injuries at quarterback have caused them to start rookie Brock Purdy, the last player drafted in the 2022 draft. Despite injuries that cost them starting quarterbacks Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers have outscored opponents by 120 points. After playing at Seattle, they host Washington, travel to Las Vegas, and host Arizona.

Tampa Bay leads the worst division in the NFC. The Bucs are the only division leader with a losing record, despite having Tom Brady as their starting quarterback. Even with Brady, they’ve scored 30 fewer points than their opponents. They have a one-game lead over the Panthers and Falcons. After hosting Cincinnati, the Bucs play at Arizona, entertain Carolina and close at Atlanta.

The Cowboys (10-3) should be the NFC wild-card team with the best record. That would leave the last two spots a competition among the Commanders (7-5-1), Giants (7-5-1), Seahawks (7-6), and perhaps the Lions (6-7), who have won four of five.

Detroit could be the feel-good story of the season. The Lions have one playoff victory (1991 season) since the 1950s. They’ve lost eight consecutive playoff games. The worst playoff story could be Tampa Bay blowing its NFC South lead and allowing the Panthers or Falcons to win the division with a losing record.

(John McClain writes four columns a week for He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on

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