NFL: Some runaway winners
WASHINGTON — Three more teams clinched playoff berths on Sunday, and by next week, most of the remaining playoff slots likely will be filled.
The Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts each earned at least one playoff game by winning handily on Sunday.
Matt Hasselbeck threw for four TDs to lead Seattle to a 42-21 romp over the Arizona Cardinals for the NFC West title; Peyton Manning threw four TD passes as the Colts pounded the Baltimore Ravens 44-20; and Ryan Grant ran for 156 yards and a TD as the Packers clinched the NFC North by routing the Oakland Raiders 38-7.
None of the group was a surprise; most fans had already penciled them in to play past week 17.
They joined the Dallas Cowboys, who already had secured a playoff berth but locked up the NFC East title and a first-round bye on Sunday with their comeback, 28-27 victory over the Detroit Lions.
In the AFC, where the Colts secured a playoff spot but not a division title, New England, which had already clinched its division crown, earned a first-round bye with Sunday’s 34-13 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Of the seven playoff slots remaining, four more could be taken next Sunday, if not sooner.
Tampa Bay and San Diego can clinch division titles by winning on Sunday, and the Bucs will win the NFC South if New Orleans loses Monday night to Atlanta.
The Chargers also can win their division — the AFC West — before playing again if the Denver Broncos lose at Houston on Thursday. If not, Denver and San Diego square off for the title on Christmas Eve.
A division championship would cap a remarkable turnaround for the Chargers, who were 1-3 and were only at .500 in late November.
The New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers will lock up wild-card berths by winning Sunday, although the Steelers still have a one-game lead and hold the tiebreaker over Cleveland in the AFC North race.
The Giants need just one more victory in their last three games to become the NFC’s top wild-card entry, thanks to their 16-13 triumph over Philadelphia. And even if they drop their last three against the Washington Redskins, Buffalo Bills and Patriots, their nine victories are likely enough to get them a berth.
The Steelers’ Sunday opponent, the Jacksonville Jaguars, also will be playing for a playoff slot: The Jags need some other AFC teams to lose, but a victory Sunday gives them a commanding lead for a wild-card berth.
Even the loser of that game will still have a strong chance of playing past the regular season, but the final wild-card slots in both conferences likely won’t be set until late on Dec. 30.
Eight AFC teams still have a chance for that berth, and only the St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers had been mathematically eliminated from the NFC playoffs.
All the playoff-bound teams still have something to play for, too. The Colts still sit only a game ahead of the Jaguars in the AFC South, and the Cleveland Browns still can catch the Steelers for the AFC North title.
Just one more victory this season will give the Patriots (13-0) home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, and a Cowboys victory and Packers loss next Sunday would leave Dallas as the NFC’s No. 1 seed. And the Packers and Seahawks need wins to improve their seeding too.
That sets up a chaotic end to the regular season with nearly every game carrying some postseason weight.