NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE

NFL playoff picture still blurry heading into Week 16

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The cardboard boxes have a home game this week.

You just know the New England Patriots have dragged them down and up the Eastern Seaboard - boxes of AFC East champion T-shirts and hats - first hoping to break them out in Miami, then in Pittsburgh.

But the Patriots lost to the Dolphins in that wild ending two weeks ago, then at the Steelers on Sunday, so there was no occasion for locker-room festivities. That 10th consecutive AFC East title is still bound up in packing tape, to be liberated by a box cutter Sunday, presumably, when the Patriots play host to Buffalo.

Heading into Week 16, the plight of the Patriots is like the state of the NFL as a whole. So much is undecided. With two games to go, no one in the AFC has clinched a division or secured a particular seeding. All we know for sure is the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs are in, but they could wind up the Nos. 1 or 5 seeds, two starkly different fates.

The NFC picture is clearer, but intrigue remains. The seedings are still up for grabs, as is the NFC East, although the Los Angeles Rams (West), New Orleans Saints (South) and Chicago Bears (North) have all clinched their divisions.

All that points to Week 16 being the most important and decisive slate of games this season, with several critical matchups that will help clear the fog shrouding the postseason picture.

Baltimore is playing at the Chargers on Saturday night, with the Ravens a half-game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North. The game is critically important to both teams involved, as the Chargers have a chance to overtake Kansas City for the division crown and No. 1 seed at the slightest stumble by the Chiefs. (Kansas City plays at Seattle on Sunday night, and plenty of visitors have stumbled there over the years.)

Meanwhile, the Ravens could inch ahead of Pittsburgh if they were to win at StubHub Center, and the Steelers were to lose at New Orleans on Sunday.

Houston, which plays at Philadelphia, can secure the No. 2 seed (hence a first-round bye) with wins over the Eagles and Jacksonville. The Texans have never finished ahead of New England in a given year, and by winning out could force the Patriots to play a first-round game. The Patriots, who lost their inside track on the No. 2 seed Sunday, have never made a Super Bowl in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era without earning one of the AFC's top two seeds.

The Rams clinched a playoff spot so early, it looked at the time as if they'd be coasting across the finish line by now, maybe even resting their starters and getting some snaps for their reserves. But losses to Chicago and Philadelphia _ the first back-to-back defeats in Sean McVay's two seasons _ mean Los Angeles has to win out against the Cardinals and San Francisco to be assured of a first-round bye. More important, the Rams need to find their groove again after sleepwalking through the three games that followed their bye. That 54-51 win over Kansas City feels like half a lifetime ago.

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