MICKLES: Let talk of playoffs get under way

Now that every team in the NFL has at least eight games under its belt, we can start thinking about the upcoming playoffs - including the chase for first-round byes.

Heading into Thursday’s game between Oakland and San Diego, 12 playoff spots were very much up for grabs with 20 of 32 teams boasting at least a .500 mark - with 14 having fewer than three losses.

It’ll make for an interesting final 50 days of the regular season, which ends on New Year’s Day.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how the conference races for playoff berths are shaping up (current record in parentheses):

NFC

Sure things: Green Bay (8-0), San Francisco (7-1), New York Giants (6-2).

At this point, those three look pretty good - and with good reason because they lead their respective divisions. All three should coast to division titles - the Packers because they’re well ahead of the other teams, and the Giants and 49ers because the rest of their divisions stinks.

Good bets: New Orleans (6-3), Detroit (6-2), Atlanta (5-3), Chicago (5-3).

Either the Saints or Falcons will take a major step forward when they clash Sunday in the Georgia Dome, while the Lions and Bears will duke it out in the NFC North to finish second to the Packers.

Hanging in: Tampa Bay (4-4), Dallas (4-4), Philadelphia (3-5).

Of this group, the Bucs seem to have a good chance because they have already faced the Saints twice and Falcons once. The Cowboys and Eagles have been way inconsistent, but could get hot.

No chance: Washington (3-5), Carolina (2-6), Minnesota (2-6), Seattle (2-6), Arizona (2-6), St. Louis (1-7).

The less said about this group the better, but at least Carolina has shown signs of life and could shoot for a six-win season.

AFC

Sure things: Baltimore (6-2), Houston (6-3), Pittsburgh (6-3).

The Ravens showed some signs of shakiness earlier in the season, but are stout. The Texans’ improved defense has them on top in a weak division, and the Steelers should get there with a better offense.

Good bets: Cincinnati (6-2), New England (5-3), N.Y. Jets (5-3), San Diego (4-4).

The jury is still out on the Bengals because they have all four games left with the Ravens and Steelers. The Patriots or Jets will have four losses by Sunday night, and the Chargers should prevail out west.

Hanging in: Buffalo (5-3), Tennessee (4-4), Oakland (4-4), Kansas City (4-4).

These teams have an outside shot, but the Raiders and Chiefs have the best chances because of a jumbled-up West Division. The Bills and Titans may sneak in, but might have to hope other teams stumble.

No chance: Denver (3-5), Cleveland (3-5), Jacksonville (2-6), Miami (1-7), Indianapolis (0-9).

Jan. 1 can’t come soon enough, although the Broncos and Browns have to be looking at six or seven wins as a successful season.