We’re just three weeks away from the regular season being wrapped up and as I went through the remaining schedule, there’s literally just one game left with zero playoff implications and two others that by all likelihood will have no impact at all. Therefore, I decided to break down a bunch of these different scenarios, by formulating five questions that are most prevalent as it pertains to the ultimate playoff picture, and handing out my predictions for how I believe things will play out.
Once again, I want to thank playoffpredictors.com, for helping me not go completely insane as I went through this exercise, working through all the different possibilities and having to go down the steps of tie-breaking procedures, depending on two or three teams having the same record, etc.
I decided to not make a separate point for “who will earn the final Wildcard berth in the AFC”, since the Chargers have a playoff probability of about 80+ percent and the Ravens sit above 98% right now. So really it should be a three-headed race between the AFC East teams not named Buffalo, and since I don’t have much belief in the Patriots, this will most likely come down the season finale between the Dolphins and Jets, as the atter would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with a win and same record ultimately. A paragraph was enough to cover this and maybe I’ll do a full preview of that contest anyway, if things break the right way.
Now let’s get to my five actual questions:
Do we see a change at the top of either conference?
Now, the NFC is pretty much wrapped up I would say, if nothing highly unforeseen happens. The Eagles would need to go 0-3, whilst the Cowboys go 3-0, in order for a switch at the top of the NFC East – and then Dallas would still need the 49ers to lose at least one game, in order to jump all the way to the top of the table. So really the question is if San Francisco gets a chance to capitalize on Philly collapsing, because once again, if they run the table and “the Birds” don’t win another contest, they’d hold the tie-breaker of a better in-conference record over the Cowboys. Either way, that seems very unlikely, considering that after the rematch in Dallas, they get to host the Saints and Giants, while the Cowboys still travel to Tennessee and Washington in that order, while the Niners do have a good chance to take care of their business (vs. Washington, at Las Vegas and vs. Arizona), but once again would need a lot of help. The Vikings are still part of this mix as well, although they’d also need to go 3-0 whilst the Eagles go 0-3, since Philly holds the head-to-head tie-breaker from back in week two.
With that being said, the AFC’s top seed is really still completely up in the air, I would argue. Other than the AFC South, where the Titans at best could win ten games, while Buffalo and Kansas City already sit at eleven (and would have the direct tie-breaker anyway). However, with those two all-around front-runners of the conference, the Bills hold the direct tie-breaker and really only one legit challenge still ahead, when the travel to Cincinnati in week 17 (along with at Chicago and vs. New England). Meanwhile the Chiefs are home the next to weeks against the Seahawks and Broncos, before travelling to Las Vegas, where the Silver & Black most likely will only be able to play spoiler, since even if they go 3-0 the rest of the way, would need plenty of help to somehow sneak into the Wildcard. For the Ravens, they’d need the Bills lose their remaining three contests and the Chiefs can’t win more than one game, if they even want an outside shot at the number one seed, by running the table themselves. However, the squad very much still in this race is the Bengals, who already have the direct tie-breaker over Kansas City and have a chance to earn the same over Buffalo in week 17, before closing out with a home game against the Ravens, that will likely decide the AFC North. So that at that point, if they take care of business, all they’d need is for the Chiefs to stumble once more (a tie would not be enough).
The two factors that could really make things interesting here is if Jalen Hurts misses the final three weeks with that shoulder sprain and Gardner Minshew can’t ride the ship against a pretty challenging lineup, at Dallas this Sunday, before hosting the Saints and Giants. That would open the door for the 49ers, Vikings and Cowboys. On the AFC side of things, if the Bengals beat the Bills in week 17, that now opens the door for them and the Chiefs overtake the conference’s top seed. Then everything would most likely come down to week 18 – which would be really fun.
Prediction: Buffalo Bills (14-3) over Kansas City Chiefs (14-3)
I believe both teams run the table, but the Bills remain at the top, thanks to the direct tie-breaker over Kansas City.
Who the hell wants to win this NFC South?
Since we were just talking about the elite teams on either side of the bracket, let’s talk about which of these highly flawed groups takes the NFC South, sort of by default. Right now the Bucs lead the way at 6-8, while the other four teams are currently 5-9 – and yet all of them are still alive in this race. Tampa Bay and Carolina are the two of those, who still bafflingly control their own destiny. The Bucs would obviously maintain that top spot, if they just run the table (at Arizona, vs. Carolina, at Atlanta). Meanwhile, the Panthers would overtake them in that regard, if they do the same (vs. Detroit, at Tampa Bay, at New Orleans), thanks to the head-to-head matchup between the two sides, as Carolina already took care of business against Tom Brady & company at home. Other than that, of course with the Bucs up by a game right now they’d still be fine if them and the Panthers go 2-1 or 1-2 respectively. So to simplify this – Carolina needs to win the same amount of games as Tampa, along with their direct matchup.
So how in the world can the Saints or Falcons still sneak in, when they are both 5-9, with 2-3 and 1-4 records respectively inside their division? Well, considering they could at best get to a final record of 8-9 and the Bucs and Panthers are already 3-1 inside the South, the Falcons would pretty much need a miracle – Tampa not winning another game and neither of the other two groups winning another one of their games, as they are still set to face each other, seems very unrealistic. So most likely Atlanta would need to run the table (at Ravens, vs. Cardinals, vs. Bucs), while the Bucs only win one more game and neither of the other two go 3-0 themselves. For the Saints, the road is a little bit easier, because they go to Cleveland this Saturday, then probably face a Jalen Hurts-less Philadelphia team and finally host Carolina in week 18. So if they just beat the Panthers, they’d hold the tie-breaker over those guys and the Falcons, in case they finished with the same records. What they can’t have is the Bucs winning more than one game they have left, since Tampa has already secured the tie-breaker over New Orleans, thanks to that last-second comeback on Monday Night a couple of weeks ago.
The craziest part about all of this is that we could have all four teams finish with 6-11 or 7-10 records and if at that point what will decide the division is who comes out victorious from that week 17 matchup between the Panthers and Bucs – a tie would favor Carolina. Either way, unless the Bucs run the table, nobody in this division finishes with a record of .500 or above
Prediction: Tampa Buy Buccaneers (8-9) over Carolina Panthers (7-10)
I believe the Panthers do sweep the Bucs in their season series, but due to losing this Sunday against Detroit, the Bucs beating the Cardinals and Falcons gives them the better overall record.
How does the battle for the AFC North crown play out?
Something I don’t think is discussed is that while the AFC and NFC East respectively have been the best divisions in football this year, the AFC North is not too far behind, with the Bengals at 10-4 and Ravens at 9-5 ahead of the Browns and Steelers, who now both sit at 6-8. Obviously with three weeks left, that eliminates the latter two from taking home the crown, but depending on who wins their direct matchup in week 18, either group could still go 9-8 and theoretically be in playoff contention, although both teams having lost to the Jets and Dolphins respectively would demand Miami to not win another game and New York to only win one more contest.
Let’s now focus on that battle between Cincinnati and Baltimore for the division title however. Most likely it will come down to week 18, when the Bengals play host to the Ravens. Before they meet again, the Bengals travel to New England and then host Buffalo, while the Ravens are home for the Falcons and Steelers. Since they’re now up by one in the win column, Cincinnati could already secure the division title before those two sides even meet, if they take care of business, whilst Baltimore loses either one of their two matchup. The two scenarios that would make things very interesting – if the Bengals win their next two, but the Ravens run the table, including that direct matchup in week 18, or the Bengals lose their next two whilst the Ravens win theirs, and then the Bengals win that season-finale. In those cases, the Ravens would hold the direct tie-breaker at 12-5 or 11-6 respectively, either having swept Cincinnati in that season series or even if they were to finish with the same record, due to a better in-division resume, Baltimore would have the edge. So no matter how you turn it, the Bengals need to have an extra point in the win column in order to repeat as AFC North champs.
The Ravens won the first iteration of this rivalry back in week five on Sunday Night Football, on a Justin Tucker field goal with time running out, to make the final score 19-17. Having come into that matchup at 2-2 on both sides, the Ravens have gone 6-3 since then, while the Bengals have probably been the hottest team in the NFL, only losing one of their ensuing nine contests. The Ravens passing offenses has sort of devolved, thanks in part due to injuries at receiver, but also Greg Roman misusing some of the personnel he does have at hand and just not installing passing concepts that stress the structure of defensive coverages, along with Lamar making more ill-advised decisions than we’re used to from him (and now also being hurt). However, with their top two running backs returning, they’ve been much more effective when handing the ball off recently, and their defense has improved massively from 15th all the way to 8th now in DVOA. Meanwhile, the Bengals have transformed into nearly a pure shotgun approach offensively, which has made them one of the most effective rushing and passing offenses, looking at success and EPA metrics. And while they don’t stand out in terms of sacks or takeaways, Cincy’s defense has been one of the most consistent units, under the guidance of DC Lou Anarumo.
Prediction: Cincinnati Bengals (12-5) over Baltimore Ravens (11-6)
I believe the Ravens take care of business during their two-game home stint against the Falcons and Steelers, while the Bengals beat the Patriots but lose to the Bills. Therefore, the North comes down to week 18, where in an exact counterpart to their week five matchup, this team it’s Evan McPherson kicking a game-winning field goal.
Can the Jaguars steal the AFC South?
Unlike the head-to-head it’s felt like for most of the season in the AFC North, the South has been pretty much a forgone conclusion, since the Titans’ 0-2 start, as they won seven of their next eight matchups and built up a massive 3.5-game lead on the Colts – who have since completely fallen into dysfunction, as they fired head coach Frank Reich and replaced him with a TV analyst, with no coaching experience beyond the high school level, and they have now lost four straight since a shocking win over the almost equally frustrating Raiders in his debut – and a four-game lead on the Jaguars actually. However, since then, Tennessee has lost at Philadelphia, in their first matchup with Jacksonville and at the L.A. Chargers. Meanwhile, the Jags have gone 3-1 since their bye week, including heroic comebacks over the Ravens and just now the Cowboys, along with beating the Titans in the first rendition of this rivalry. That all has led to the two groups being separated by just one win on the record table.
So unless the Titans win their next two – at home versus the Texans and Cowboys respectively – this should once again come down to a direct matchup between those two sides in week 18. Houston has been very competitive these last two weeks, where it felt like they kind of threw the game against the Cowboys up by three with goal-to-go inside the two-minute warning, and then taking the Chiefs to overtime just now. Those guys have given Tennessee plenty of trouble in recent years, as they’ve split the season series every year since 2016, expect in 2020, when those games where still decided by a field goal and in overtime respectively. Considering the Texans aren’t in a ton of danger to lose the number one pick, as Chicago is the only other team with three wins or less, I’m sure they would love to spoil the party for a division-rival. And then of course, the Cowboys will have plenty to play for the week after most likely, with a chance of locking up the top Wildcard berth on the NFC side of things.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville is travelling to New York, to take on the Jets on Thursday Night, and then also host the Texans the following week. Even if they were to win both those matchups, while the Titans lose their two remaining, it would still come down to whoever wins that season-finale, as Tennessee would hold the divisional tie-breaker with a win in week 18. Yet, at the same time, the Jags could of course afford losing one of their two remaining matchups before the rematch in Tennessee, as long as those guys also lose one of their remaining games, since they could then secure the head-to-head tie-breaker in that season finale.
Unlike what we saw from Tennessee during that highly impressive eight-week run, they just haven’t been able to utilize the same formula that we’re used to from them. Even though they haven’t been super-efficient running the ball all year, when Derrick Henry has at least been involved and forced defenses to keep their eyes on him, Ryan Tannehill has been able to punish defenses with those deep shots off play-action, but now with a banged-up foot, his mobility and the velocity to drive the ball are mostly absent. Their defense is still exceptional stopping the run despite some of the lightest boxes in the league, but opponents have been able to isolate those back-up corners anyway and produced explosive plays through the air. For the Jags, it’s all about the development of Trevor Lawrence into one of the premiere young signal-callers, while the pass-catchers around him have stepped up, and the defense has at least been opportunistic, in order to get the ball back.
Prediction: Jacksonville Jaguars (8-9) over Tennessee Titans (8-9)
And I believe that’s exactly how it plays out, as both teams beat the Texans each, but lose to the Jets and Cowboys respectively. Then in week 18, the Jags’ firepower on offense once again is too much for the Titans to stick with a Derrick Henry-centric gameplan, and we get Trevor Lawrence leading a dangerous Jacksonville group to the playoffs.
Who will grab the final two Wildcard berths in the NFC?
Now, for the final question here, let’s establish some ground rules – I’m not going to include teams that are at least two games below .500, such as the Packers or any of the NFC South teams, since they would all most likely need to go 3-0 and still need some help. Green Bay also has this miracle scenario, where they lose this week at Miami, but win their final two divisional games (include the Lions in week 18), while Seattle wins no more than one game, along with Washington and Detroit going 0-3. Ties wouldn’t help either. And as long as Washington wins at least one of their remaining three contests, none of those other franchises should really come into play, because they’ve beaten the two teams even in contention for this discussion (Packers and Falcons) and their tie would give them a better record than the three teams from the South, who could at best finish 8-9 (compared to the Commanders at 8-8-1). The only scenario where any of those teams mentioned become viable in this discussion, other than both Washington and Seattle going win-less the rest of the way, would be a tie between the Panthers and Bucs in week 17, where they both finish at 7-9-1 (or 8-8-1 potentially for the Bucs) and either the Commanders go 0-3 or the Seahawks go 0-2-1. Enough of the absurdity. Let’s talk about the relevant teams now – the Giants, Commanders, Seahawks and Lions.
With their huge victory at Washington this past Sunday Night, the Giants massively boosted their chances of making the playoffs, as Football Outsiders has them with a probability of 89.6% heading into week 16. Thanks to tieing the Commanders at home two weeks prior, they now hold a 1.5-game lead on both Seattle and Detroit, while even if Washington ends up winning one more game than them the rest of the way, with a tie basically counting as half a win, they’d hold head-to-head tie-breaker at 1.5-to-0.5. And looking at New York’s remaining schedule, they do have to travel to Minnesota this Saturday (for whatever that’s worth), before they host the dysfunctional Colts and then head to Philadelphia, where the Eagles may be resting several starters, due to having number one seed wrapped up already.
For Washington, that loss to the Giants obviously makes things a lot harder, as they’re now only half a game up on the two remaining contenders and have a trip to San Francisco on the slate next. However, they get to stay home for the final two weeks – against the Browns and Cowboys, who could once again be resting starters, if they have the fifth-seed secured already. In that case, them using that as a de-facto bye actually makes even more sense, since they don’t have another week off and risk their players looking rusty, as we’ve seen at times in the past. Chase Young supposedly finally being set to come off IR, could give them a boost down the stretch.
The Seahawks are the team among these four that clearly has the arrow pointing downwards, as they were once 6-3 and have now lost four of their past five contests. The most alarming detail about this stretch has been the fact that they’ve been outgained on the ground in all of those games, by an outrageous average of 139.6(!) yards. They now face a seemingly impossible task, as they travel to Kansas City on Saturday, before staying home for a Jets that, which is still fighting for their playoff lives on the AFC side of the table, and a Rams team, which is already eliminated, but will have nothing to lose and even with backups in the lineup, would certainly love to spoil the party.
And finally, the Lions are the hottest teams of this group, as they’ve flipped their 1-6 start and have now improved all the to 7-7, with a loss on a walk-off field goal by the Bills on Thanksgiving being the only loss during that stretch. They’ve been one of the most balanced and clever-designed offenses in the NFL under OC Ben Johnson and their defense has been able to create those must-have stops, as they’ve held opponents to scoring on just 34.3% of drives and forced 12 takeaways (compared to only one giveaway outside of the Buffalo game). Detroit is now set to face easily the weakest remaining schedule among these four teams in question, as all three of their opponents (at Panthers, vs. Bears, at Packers) all are at least two games below .500 and combine for a winning percentage of just .33.
There are a couple of crazy scenarios, which include multiple ties, but if you read through this carefully, you should get the jist of it. Believe me, some of this nearly broke my brain.
Prediction: 5th seed – Dallas Cowboys (12-5), 6th seed – New York Giants (10-6-1), 7th seed – Detroit Lions (9-8)
Since it would take the Giants going 3-0 the rest of the way, if the Cowboys win just one of their remaining games, I think they’re pretty much locked in for a matchup with whichever flawed team emerges from the NFC South. The Giants should take care of business against the Colts at home and like I mentioned, could benefit from Philly sitting some of their starters, to secure the sixth seed. And then I believe the Lions at least go 2-1, while the Seahawks and Commanders both go 1-2 the rest of the way.