By BARRY WILNER
Barring ties in Week 17 — and there are some wild scenarios should certain games end in draws Sunday — the road to the playoffs is quite straight in the NFC. The path to a first-round bye in the AFC has a bunch of curves in it.
Already in are NFC division winners Dallas (East), New Orleans (South), Chicago (North) and the Los Angeles Rams (West). AFC divisions clinched belong to New England in the East and, well, nobody else. But there are clear leaders .
Seattle owns an NFC wild card, and the LA Chargers have one in the AFC, though they can still win the AFC West.
“You either believe in something or you don’t,” says coach Pete Carroll, whose 9-6 Seahawks made the postseason in what was considered a rebuilding year. “I think just staying the course and knowing we’re on to something. Believing in the history. We know what we’re capable of doing. We’ve shown it over a lot of years. You’re always adapting, but it’s staying what you’re true to. I think that’s what is happening. We look like a team that we have seen before, and that’s powerful.”
Most powerful so far has been New Orleans, with the league’s best record at 13-2, and a dynamic offense led by Drew Brees. The Saints have home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
The Rams (12-3) get the other opening-round bye if they beat San Francisco on Sunday. If they lose and the Bears win at Minnesota, Chicago (11-4) earns the week off and Los Angeles drops to the third seed.
A Bears win also could keep the Vikings (8-6-1) out of the postseason, providing defending champion Philadelphia (8-7) wins at Washington. Only the Vikings or Eagles can get the second NFC wild card.
“We’ve got to empty the bucket, and that’s the way we’ve got to play next week at home,” Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph says. “I’m really looking forward to that environment.”
In the AFC, seeding is more muddled. Any of four teams could be the top or second seed.
The simplest route is if Kansas City (11-4) and New England (10-5), currently the top two in the conference, both win Sunday. But if the Chiefs lose at home to Oakland and the Chargers (11-4) win at Denver, Los Angeles moves into the top spot.
Houston (10-5) also could wind up No. 1 in the AFC with losses by the Chiefs, Patriots against the Jets, and Chargers. New England, the only unbeaten team at home this year, would get the first seed with a victory and losses by the Chiefs and Chargers.
And get this: Houston doesn’t even own a division title. If the Texans fall at home to Jacksonville, the winner of the Colts at Titans game in Tennessee takes the AFC South, and the Texans become a wild card, joining either the Chiefs or Chargers.
Texans coach Bill O’Brien, whose club began the season 0-3, is intrigued by the division being so ensconced in the playoff picture this year.
“I think that’s an interesting question because I can remember the question was, two years ago, ‘Why is the AFC South so bad?’” he says. “Now, ‘Why is it so good?’
″…I’ve never thought it was bad. I think every year it’s been extremely difficult to win games in the division. I just think there’s a lot of great coaches. You’ve got Frank (Reich) in Indy, Mike (Vrabel) in Tennessee, Doug (Marrone) in Jacksonville. You’ve got a lot of great players, quarterbacks, so you’ve got a tough division.”
The AFC division often looked at as the toughest has been the North, which, not surprisingly, has come down to Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh. Except the Ravens (9-6) host the Browns, while the Steelers (8-6-1) must beat visiting Cincinnati and hope their archenemies from Cleveland sidetrack Baltimore, either beating or tying the Ravens.
Neither the Ravens nor the Steelers can be a wild card — except if Pittsburgh ties the Bengals, then Indianapolis and Tennessee also tie. Then the Steelers are in.
Of course, Pittsburgh also can win the North with a draw and a loss by Baltimore.
Your head spinning yet?