Unpacking the NFL playoff picture with 3 weeks to go

An incredible 23 teams can still make the playoffs! What’s at stake for every team and every plausible scenario.


The NFL playoffs are under a month away, and still we know almost nothing. We thought the Rams, Saints, and Chiefs were top three, but two of them stopped scoring and the third almost lost to Lamar Jackson. We thought the Patriots and Steelers were back, but then they lost in Miami and Oakland. We thought the Cardinals were awful and, well, even we get one right every now and then.

Still, the playoff picture is a mess. An astonishing 23 teams are still alive in the playoff race with only three games left — 72% of the league! The Browns can still make the playoffs! The Giants can make the playoffs! Josh Johnson can still make the playoffs, and he hadn’t played professional football since 2011!

We all know how to read the standings, but somebody had to do the hard work of analyzing the 48 remaining games and unscrambling this playoff mess. I am that someone. Below is what’s likely to happen for each remaining playoff spot. I ruled out the implausible scenarios and looked at only the most likely outcomes. Let’s hop into the ESPN playoff machine and get to it.


AFC 1-seed

The Chiefs are 11–2. They’re two games ahead of the Patriots and Texans, and they’re effectively a 1.5 games ahead of the Chargers, thanks to the division tiebreaker. Kansas City survived against the Ravens, then saw the 2-, 3-, and 4- seeds all lose, so they are sitting pretty for the 1-seed.

In all likelihood, only the Chargers can stop them. They’d need to win Thursday in Kansas City, win their other two games, and have the Chiefs lose once more, probably in Seattle Week 16 since the Chiefs host the Raiders in the finale. This scenario would drop Kansas City all the way to the 5-seed and means three road games to get to the Super Bowl, so it’s pretty disastrous. A Chiefs win against the Chargers just about clinches the 1-seed. Any other Chiefs win or Patriots loss would secure it.

The Patriots still have a shot, but it’s unlikely. They need the Chiefs to lose to the Chargers, then lose in Seattle, see the Chargers lose to Baltimore or Denver, and win out. The Texans are an even longer shot. They need the Chiefs to lose all three, plus a Patriots and Chargers loss, plus three wins of their own.

Heavy favorite: Chiefs
Realistic path: Chargers
Long shot: Patriots
So you’re telling me there’s a chance: Texans


AFC 2- and 3-seeds

The difference between the AFC 2- and 3-seed is big. The 2-seed gets a bye week instead of a game, and they also host the presumed AFC semifinal between the two teams.

In all likelihood, the race for the 2-seed and second bye week is between New England and Houston. Both are 9–4 right now. New England still has home games against the Bills and Jets. Houston also plays the Jets and hosts the Jaguars. Nothing is certain, but those look like pretty likely wins. That brings both teams up to 11 wins. No one from the AFC North can get to 11 wins, so that locks the AFC North winner into the 4-seed.

That leaves two key road games: New England at Pittsburgh this Sunday and Houston at Philadelphia in Week 16.

Remember, the teams are tied right now, and the Pats hold the tiebreaker thanks to a Week 1 head-to-head victory. They still control their destiny for the 2-seed, even after the Miami Miracle. If they win in Pittsburgh this week, they will almost certainly lock up a bye week. Bill Belichick teams don’t blow a potential bye week at home against Sam Darnold or Josh Allen.

If New England loses, then Houston controls its destiny but still likely has to win out. They’re on the road the next two weeks against the Jets and Eagles, though Philadelphia will likely be on the brink of elimination since they’ll likely be 6–8 after a presumed road loss to the Rams this Sunday night. Houston has a solid chance of winning out, but they need some help from the Steelers.

Oh, and one more note: Tom Brady is 11–2 against the Steelers in his career. He’s 6–2 in Pittsburgh, and two of those wins came in the playoffs.

The 2-seed favorite: New England
Need three wins and help from Pittsburgh: Houston


AFC 4-seed

In all likelihood, the AFC 4-seed belongs to the AFC North winner. The Patriots and Texans both have a pretty easy path to at least 11 wins, and no one in the AFC North can get to 11 wins.

Pittsburgh is 7–5–1 right now, while Baltimore is 7–6, both coming off tough losses. The Steelers tie keeps them ahead of the Ravens since it’s better than a loss — Baltimore needs to finish with more wins than Pittsburgh to take the division.

It’s not going to be an easy road for either of them. Pittsburgh hosts the Patriots this week, and remember, Tom Brady is 11–2 lifetime against them. They then travel to New Orleans, who’s in a dogfight for the NFC 1-seed, before hosting the banged-up Bengals in the finale. You never know what Pittsburgh will do. This team can beat anyone or lose any game. They should certainly beat Cincinnati at home, so that gets them to eight wins. The ninth or tenth will be tough.

Baltimore is home against the Bucs before a roadie against the Chargers and a home finale versus the Browns. They’ll be favored in both road games but face feisty opponents. The Chargers road game is not an impossible task; L.A. has no real home-field advantage, and the Chargers could be effectively locked into the 5-seed by next week unless they beat the Chiefs Thursday.

This race is tough to call, but I lean Pittsburgh’s way. The Steelers play to the level of their opponent, and that should help them down the stretch. I think they beat the Pats or Saints. If they do, they likely get to 9–6–1 and that forces the Ravens to win out to top them. That’s a tough ask of Lamar Jackson.

Of course, the Steelers just lost to the Raiders, Big Ben is banged up, they don’t have any healthy running backs, and they face the toughest remaining schedule of any playoff contender, so who knows? I say with their backs against the wall, they find a way to win one of these next two.

Note: the Browns and Bengals are actually both still alive in the division. Both would have to win out, see the Ravens lose at least twice more (one would be against Cleveland or Cincinnati), and have the Steelers lose out. If you look at the schedules, it’s not as crazy as you think. If the Browns win in Denver then beat the Bengals, and if the Steelers lose to Pats, Saints, and Bengals, Cleveland could host Baltimore Week 17 for the division. Thanks to Luke Goodman for the reminder.

Slight favorite: Pittsburgh
Probably depends more on Pittsburgh than them: Baltimore


AFC 5-seed

Look, this is very likely the Chargers. And if it’s not the Chargers, then it means the Chiefs blew their season and dropped all the way to the 5-seed. Those are the options.

The Chargers have a brutal schedule against three teams still fighting. They’d need to win in Kansas City and Denver and also beat the visiting Ravens. They’d also need K.C. to lose again, likely in Seattle. That’s all possible, but just about any other plausible scenario leaves them as the 5-seed. Even if they beat the Chiefs Thursday, they’re still the most likely 5-seed.

Lock it in: Chargers


AFC 6-seed

This one is an absolute mess. It could realistically be the Colts, Titans, Dolphins, Ravens, Steelers, or Broncos. And yes, the Browns and Bengals are still mathematically alive but they’d need to win out and have every one of those teams finish 8–8 or worse, so I’ll pass on that scenario.

The Broncos and Steelers also look like unlikely 6-seeds. Denver is 6–7, one win short of everyone else on the list after blowing this week’s game to the 49ers, and that probably cost them any real opportunity. They need to win out against the Browns, Raiders and Chargers, which is admittedly realistic, but they need plenty of help too. The Steelers tie kills them in the 6-seed race. If they win twice and get to nine wins, they probably take the division. If they lose to both the Pats and Saints and only get to eight wins, one of these teams will almost certainly pass them.

That leaves the Colts, Titans, Dolphins, and Ravens, all currently sitting at 7–6. These are the upcoming schedules for each:

Indianapolis: Cowboys, Giants, AT Titans
Tennessee: AT Giants, Redskins, Colts
Miami: AT Vikings, Jaguars, AT Bills
Baltimore: Bucs, AT Chargers, Browns

If any of these teams wins out and gets to 10 wins, they’ll likely get the final playoff spot. Remember, 10 wins for Baltimore probably means a division title, and the Titans and Colts can’t both get to 10 since they play each other in the finale.

The Ravens control their destiny for the playoffs. If they win out, they’re at least the 6-seed. If the Ravens or Steelers lose a game, then the Colts control their destiny. Add in a Colts loss and Miami is next in line. The Titans are last among most tiebreak scenarios right now.

The Dolphins game in Minnesota this week is a key matchup. Ryan Tannehill is questionable, and it’s tough to see Brock Osweiler getting it done on the road against a tough defense. A Miami win this week would leave them big favorites for the 6-seed.

Since a Miami loss seems more likely, the Colts-Titans matchup in Week 17 looms as a possible play-in game for the playoffs. A Miami loss means both Indy and Tennessee likely control their destiny (barring the Steelers and Ravens both winning out).

This whole thing is a mess, but I like the Titans’ path best. If they can go to New York and beat the Giants this week, they’ll be a heavy favorite against Washington and then host the Colts in a win-and-in scenario. The Colts are in a solid spot too. There’s a decent chance they could lose either of the next two games and still face a win-and-in scenario.

Baltimore’s path is toughest, especially since a Week 17 game against the hated rival Browns could add an extra edge to any playoff race. Still, two Baltimore wins gives them a pretty good chance of making the playoffs.

The Dolphins have the most definite path, but I just don’t believe in them. They have so many fluky wins. I see a couple losses eliminating them from the picture and opening up the race for others.

In the end, I think it’s fairly likely we may end up with a Week 17 Sunday night matchup of Indianapolis at Tennessee as a de facto play-in game for the 6-seed.

The favorite I guess: Dolphins
The easiest path: Titans
My pick: Colts
Better chance to win the division: Ravens
Need lots of help: Broncos and Steelers
Snowball’s chance in Cleveland: Browns and Bengals


NFC 1 and 2-seed

This is pretty easy. The Saints and Rams are both 11–2. New Orleans beat L.A. a few weeks ago, so they win the head-to-head tiebreaker and control their destiny. If they win out, they get the 1-seed.

The Rams are going to win out. They host the Eagles on Sunday night, then finish with games against the Cardinals and 49ers. They’re so much better than all of those teams, and they’re going to get to 14–2. But their stinker in Chicago means they’ll need a Saints loss to move up.

New Orleans visits Carolina on Monday night, a team whose hopes are on life support with a five-game losing streak. They then host the Steelers and Panthers to close out the season. As bad as Carolina has been, so too the rest of the NFC, so they still have every chance to make the playoffs. The Saints have three games against desperate teams (maybe two, if the Panthers are out of it totally by Week 17). If New Orleans loses twice and the Bears win out, they could still fall out of the bye weeks entirely, but that seems unlikely.

I think the Rams are very likely to win out while the Saints have a pretty good chance of losing again. New Orleans isn’t playing as well lately, and these next two weeks are pretty big hurdles.

My 1-seed favorite: Rams
Control their destiny: Saints


NFC 3-seed

The Bears are the very likely 3-seed. At 9–4, they’re two games back of both the Rams and Saints. To get a bye week, they’d need to win out and also see one of those teams lose twice. They’re also unlikely to fall down in the standings. They’re a game ahead of the Cowboys and appear likely to keep the tiebreaker on win percentage in common games. That means they’d probably have to lose twice and have Dallas win out to fall below them.

Chicago hosts the Packers this week before hitting the road for the 49ers and Vikings to end the season. They technically haven’t even clinched a playoff spot, but any win or Vikings loss clinches the NFC North and almost assures them of the 3-seed.

Heavy favorite: Bears


NFC 4- and 5-seed

It looks like you can pretty much pencil in one of the first-round playoff matchups. The 5-seed Seattle Seahawks should visit the 4-seed Dallas Cowboys in a rematch of a Week 3 game the Seahawks won 24–13 in Seattle.

Dallas is 8–5 and up two games now on both Philadelphia and Washington in the NFC East, and they hold the tiebreaker over each. The only way Dallas doesn’t win the division is if they lose out and one of those teams wins out. Not happening. Dallas has an outside chance of moving up to the 3-seed, but they look very likely to be the 4-seed.

Seattle may be even more locked into the 5-seed. At 8–5 after a win Monday night, they’re now two games up on any opponent and hold the tiebreaker over most of them. To be anything but the 5-seed, they’d probably need to lose out … and they still face the 49ers and Cardinals, the latter at home in Week 17 just in case they need one more win.

Lock in Troy Aikman and Joe Buck for opening weekend. We have our first playoff matchup.

Heavy 4-seed favorite: Cowboys
Heavy 5-seed favorite: Seahawks


NFC 6-seed

There are technically 11 teams that could still be the NFC 6-seed. Three of them are the Bears, Cowboys, and Seahawks, who we’ve already penciled into spots above. The Redskins also have a theoretical chance, but I’m not giving them much hope. Washington would have to see their fourth QB of the season lead them to wins in Jacksonville and Tennessee the next two weeks after getting obliterated by the Giants. That team is done. Tampa Bay, Detroit, and New York are all still technically alive, but at 5–8, they’d each need to win out and get a sizable amount of help.

Really, this is a four-team race between the Vikings, Panthers, Eagles, and Packers. And unlike the AFC race, these teams are not all tied. Minnesota leads the race at 6–6–1, and they also win any head-to-head tiebreaker against the 5–7–1 Packers. Carolina and Philly are in the middle at 6–7. Let’s take a look at the schedules.

Minnesota: Dolphins, AT Lions, Bears
Carolina: Saints, Falcons, AT Saints
Philadelphia: AT Rams, Texans AT Redskins
Packers: AT Bears, AT Jets, Lions

Although the NFC Wild Card race looks wide open, the Vikings remain a decent favorite. They control their destiny, and they also have by far the easiest path. They have two home games remaining, including one against a Week 17 Bears team that will very likely have nothing to play for. Win all three, and Minnesota is in. Even winning two gives them a very good chance.

The Panthers are on a five-game losing streak. Could they suddenly flip the script and beat a division rival three straight times? It’s certainly possible but doesn’t seem likely. They really have to win Monday night against the Saints to have any chance. The added bonus of beating New Orleans is that it means the Bears would still have something to play for in Week 17 against the Vikings … but that also means the Saints have something to play for against, oops, these Panthers. Carolina’s path is rough.

Philadelphia somehow still isn’t dead, but it’s really hard to see them winning on the road against the Rams on Sunday night with their porous defense. That loss drops them to 6–8. From there, they’d need two Vikings losses, a Packers loss, and a Panthers loss — and of course they’d need to beat the Texans and Redskins themselves. That’s a pretty unlikely path. If Philadelphia can somehow win in L.A., everything changes. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Believe it or not, the second most likely NFC 6-seed might actually be the Mike-McCarthy-less Packers. Green Bay has to go to Chicago this week and get a win. They have to, or they’re out. Aaron Rodgers is 7–2 lifetime in Chicago, but the Packers are 0–6 on the road this season. If Rodgers can pull off the win, Green Bay will suddenly be the team everyone is fearing. They’d suddenly be big favorites to beat the Jets and Lions and get to 8–7–1, and that puts them ahead of the current 6–7 teams unless they win out.

In that scenario, it would come down to the Vikings or Packers. Remember, Minnesota holds the tiebreaker, and they’re up a game too, so the Vikings would have to lose twice. Let’s say they lose one of the next two games. That sets up a very realistic scenario where the Bears would play the Vikings in Week 17 knowing that they can basically pick their first playoff opponent. Chicago likely has nothing to play for at that point. Beat the Vikings and they likely invite Aaron Rodgers for a playoff visit. “Rest starters” and lose and they let Kirk Cousins visit instead. You tell me which path you’d prefer.

The favorite: Vikings
Not dead yet: Packers
Go beat the Rams and we’ll talk: Eagles
Might have to beat the Saints twice: Panthers
Stop, stop, they’re already dead: Redskins
Sure, let’s get crazy: Bucs, Giants, and Lions


So there you have it, a full playoff breakdown. Here’s our most likely playoff scenario when the dust settles in three weeks.

AFC

(1) Chiefs, (2) Patriots
(6) Colts at (3) Texans
(5) Chargers at (4) Steelers

NFC

(1) Rams, (2) Saints
(6) Vikings at (3) Bears
(5) Seahawks at (4) Cowboys

Of course, it’s the NFL and anything can happen. The Patriots just lost to the Dolphins on the longest final winning play in NFL history. The Steelers just lost to the Raiders. The Rams and Saints offenses both farted into the wind over the last two weeks. That’s the beauty of a 16-game schedule. Anything can happen any week, and one domino changes everything.

Can’t wait to see it all play out.


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