The NFL Playoff Predictions: Where Still a Lot Could Happen

With only two weeks to go in the season you might think that a lot of the playoff picture is set.  And while that’s true in practice, there are still a lot of theoretical ways for teams to be alive.  I’ll be using nfl-forecast with the predictions from my model for the last two weeks, making no extra considerations for injury or rest.  Let’s start in the AFC.  The Patriots have the best chance at the number 1 seed, followed by the Texans.  However, the Texans’ most likely spot is the 3 seed, with the 2 going to the Ravens.  The 4th seed will likely be the Broncos despite their loss this weekend, and the 5 and 6 seeds will be the Steelers and either the Bengals or the Jets.  My model gives preference to the Bengals.  In the NFC the Packers have a virtual lock on the number 1 seed and the 49ers will probably end up at number 2.  That puts the Saints at 3 and the Cowboys at 4.  The likely 5 and 6 seeds are the Falcons and Lions, but the Giants, Eagles, Cardinals, Seahawks, and Bears are all still alive, as are the Raiders, Chiefs, Chargers, and Titans in the AFC.  Let’s see how this could play out.

Let’s start in the AFC West.  The Chiefs need to win out (which would involve beating the Broncos in week 17) and have the Bills beat the Broncos this weekend.  So three games have to swing their way: they beat the Raiders, Bills beat Broncos, and they beat the Broncos.  If any of those don’t happen, they’re out.  Let’s say the Bills and Chiefs win next week but the Broncos win in week 17; Denver makes it regardless of the Chargers-Raiders week 17 game.  If the Broncos lose both their games and the Raiders win both of theirs, the Raiders will go to the playoffs.  And the Chargers can make it if they win both of their games while the Broncos lose theirs.  So the Broncos control their own destiny and only need to win one game.  If they lose both, it opens the door to the winners of the Chiefs-Raiders, Chargers-Lions, and Chargers-Raiders games.  Oakland also has a tiny chance of making it as the 6 seed at 9-7, but it takes quite a confluence of events.  If the Raiders get to 9-7 along with the Jets, Bengals, and Titans, the Raiders would win the tiebreaker and make the playoffs.  The Chargers are actually in the same boat if they get to 9-7.  And if by some small chance the Jets, Bengals, Titans, and Broncos all end up at 8-8, the Broncos would make the playoffs as the 6 seed.  The Broncos also have a tiny chance at the 3 seed; one such scenario would be if they win out and the Texans lose to both the Jaguars and Titans.  However, the Ravens can’t lose to the Browns or that puts the Texans back at 3.  Tiebreakers are odd things.

In the AFC South, the Titans have a small chance of getting in.  They need to beat the Jaguars and Texans to get to 9-7.  They would then be fighting the Bengals and Jets for the 6 spot.  Fortunately for the Titans, they would have the tiebreaker over the Bengals at 9-7, so they need the Bengals to lose to either the Cardinals or Ravens.  They also have the tiebreaker over the Jets, so the Jets need to lose to at least one of the Giants or Dolphins.  But it’s unlikely the Titans will beat the Texans unless the Texans rest people (and given their injuries, haven’t they essentially been doing that and winning anyway?), and it’s unlikely the Bengals and Jets will manage to go 0-4.

In the AFC East, the Jets need to do as well as the Bengals.  If they both get to 10-6 the Jets will go, and if they both get to 9-7 the Jets will go (unless the other stuff mentioned above happens).  However, the Jets host the Giants and then go on the road to Miami, both of which are tough games.  The Bengals, on the other hand, host the Cardinals in a pretty winnable game before hosting the Ravens.  For that reason, my model prefers the Bengals.

Finally in the AFC North the Ravens and Steelers are both going, although they could end up anywhere from 1 to 5.  The Ravens have the tiebreaker over the Steelers and face the Browns this weekend; unfortunately, the Steelers play the Rams then the Browns.  So the Ravens will probably need to beat the Bengals in week 17 to stay ahead of the Steelers.  If Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Houstan all end up at 12-4, the Ravens will be the two seed.  But if the Patriots also slip to 12-4, the Texans would take the 1 seed.  With both games at home though, the Patriots are likely to be 13-3 and can’t be caught.

Now to the NFC.  The 49ers have the West locked up and can only be the 1, 2, or 3 seed.  They can get to number 1 if the Packers lose both games and they win both games; the 49ers would take the tiebreaker over the Packers and Saints at 13-3.  With games against the Seahawks and Rams, the 49ers should end up at 13-3 whereas the Saints have to play the Falcons, so 12-4 is a possibility; the 49ers are in a better spot than the Saints.  There is still some chance for the Cardinals or Seahawks to make the playoffs though.  If the Seahawks beat the 49ers and the Cardinals, they’ll be 9-7.  If the Lions lose to both the Chargers and Packers the Seahawks would make it.  Conversely, if the Cardinals beat both the Bengals and Seahawks while the Lions lose both games, they would make it at 9-7.

Moving to the North, the Packers can only be 1 or 2 (they have the tiebreaker over the Saints at 13-3) and the Lions are in if they win one game against the Chargers or Packers.  But the Bears aren’t dead yet.  If they beat the Packers and Vikings to get to 9-7, they would make it over the 9-7 Lions or Cardinals.  However, they would not make it over the 9-7 Seahawks if that scenario plays out.  If the Falcons only go 9-7, the Seahawks would in fact be the 5 seed while the Bears get the 6.  If the Falcons go 9-7 while the Cardinals and Bears do as well, the Bears can make the 5 seed while the Cardinals get the 6.  There’s even a way for the Cardinals to get the 5 seed.  That is all very unlikely, however; the Bears, Cardinals, and Seahawks each have less than a 1% chance at the 5 seed (and obviously the Cardinals and Seahawks can’t both make it).  The Lions can only get the 5 or 6 seed; to get the 5 they need to end up ahead of the Falcons.  The best way for that to happen is for the Saints to beat the Falcons while the Lions play a resting Packers squad (and, obviously, the Lions beat the Chargers).

In the NFC South, things are simple.  The Saints will be the 3 seed unless they end up with a better record than the 49ers, which is unlikely.  They could end up in 5th if they lose to both the Falcons and Panthers (in which case the Falcons will take 3rd), but the Saints are at home for both games and unlikely to choke that away.

So finally we come to the NFC East, where the Cowboys are most likely to make it (and even have some unlikely 5 or 6 seed scenarios) but the Giants and Eagles still have a chance.  The Eagles are easy; they need everyone to end up at 8-8.  That means they beat the Cowboys, the Jets beat the Giants, and they beat the Redskins while the Giants beat the Cowboys.  That’s how it has to play out.  The Giants can make it if they beat the Cowboys and they both get to 9-7, since the Giants would have the head-to-head tiebreaker.  So the Giants really need to beat the Jets.  But it can all be over if the Jets beat the Giants and the Cowboys beat the Eagles.

I think that covers pretty much all the scenarios.  In the AFC, 4 teams can be 1 or 2; 5 can be 3; 6 can be 4 but only 2 can be 5; and 6 could be 6.  In the NFC 2 can be 1 and 3 can be 2, 3 or 4; but 7 could be 5 and 6 could be 6.  So there are still technically a lot of events in play.  After this weekend, however, a lot of potential futures will be cut out.  And then this post next week will be much shorter.

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2 Responses to The NFL Playoff Predictions: Where Still a Lot Could Happen

  1. Matt says:

    Are you saying that the Broncos, should they win out, and the Texans lose out, would hold the tie-break? On what basis?

    • Alex says:

      I’m going by the ESPN playoff machine ( It says, either with or without picking any other games, that the Broncos get the 3 seed at 10-6 and the Texans the 4 at 10-6. Both teams would be 8-4 in conference play if that happened, so that can’t be the tie-breaker. They would also both be 3-2 in games against common opponents if I counted correctly, and both be 4-2 in their respective divisions. The Texans have a much better strength of victory, so I really have no idea. For what it’s worth, the playoff machine also says the Broncos would be the two seed if Pittsburgh and Baltimore lose out and they all end up at 10-6. I guess it must be Tebow.

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