So, we are now one week from the playoffs, and, as usual, the season’s final games are rife with what ifs and endless playoff permutations. As much as possible, I’ll try to cut through the murkiness and present a reasonable idea of how things will shake out and what you can look for as the weekend develops.
Almost always, come the last day of the season, there are teams that will take the game as an opportunity to rest some people heading into the playoffs. The Chiefs will be doing this. The reigning world champs will give quarterback Patrick Mahomes and, probably, several other key contributors the day off. That decision matters little, as KC has clinched the top seed in the conference, and their opponent (the LA Chargers) are not in contention for a playoff spot.
Pittsburgh, also, has chosen rest over the possibility of securing the number two seed – they will rest Ben Roethlisberger in favor of Mason Rudolph. This is quite a significant decision, not only because it lessens Pittsburgh’s opportunity to achieve the second seed, but because it breathes new life into the playoff chances of the Cleveland Browns – a team whose loss to the Jets last week should have doomed it to another year of watching the playoffs on TV.
Since the AFC is less muddy than the NFC, let’s start there.
First of all, let’s make the following assumptions. Baltimore (playing 4-10-1 Cincinnati) and Indianapolis (playing 1-14 Jacksonville) will both win. That will make both of those teams 11-5, putting Baltimore in and leaving Indianapolis on the cusp of making it in.
Other teams likely to finish 11-5 are Tennessee (who will have to beat 4-11 Houston) and, now, Cleveland with Pittsburgh in rest mode. This scenario gives the Titans the division title (they will have lost only once in their division), and make Indy the second place team in that division. Baltimore also slots in ahead of Cleveland because they swept them in the season series.
So all of this leaves us with Kansas City, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Indianapolis, Baltimore and Cleveland as teams with at least 11 wins. That’s seven – the number of playoff teams.
That all makes the Miami-Buffalo contest on Sunday the AFC’s most compelling game this week. The most likely occurrence is that Buffalo (currently 12-3 and playing their best ball of the season) will close out Miami (currently 10-5 playing in a cold weather locale and now without Ryan Fitzpatrick available to come off the bench in case starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa struggles – FitzMagic went on the COVID list yesterday).
Assuming that this is the scenario, here is how the AFC will seed out for the playoffs: 1 – Kansas City (already clinched); 2 – Buffalo (probably 13-3); 3 – Pittsburgh (12-4 in this scenario); 4 – Tennessee (11-5). Then, we come to the three 11-5 second and third place teams. As the third-place team, the Browns will take a back seat to the Ravens. With a head-to-head victory over the Colts, the Baltimore will claim the fifth seed. Cleveland also has a head-to-head win against Indy, so they will slot in at six, leaving the Colts as the seventh seed.
This is the most likely resolution, leaving Miami (10-6 in this scenario) out in the cold – literally and figuratively. In this scenario, the Wildcard Round would shape up like this: Buffalo hosting Indianapolis, Pittsburgh playing Cleveland for a second straight week – but this time in Pittsburgh; and another edition of Tennessee vs Baltimore – this time in Tennessee.
Possible variation #1 – Miami Wins
Miami isn’t without a chance against Buffalo. They do have a top defense (one that has produced more than their share of touchdowns) and their special teams have made big plays in several games. Tua hasn’t been a revelation, yet, at quarterback, but he has mostly played mistake free (he’s thrown just 2 interceptions). If Miami manages the upset, that probably won’t affect Buffalo – assuming Pittsburgh still loses, but it will add a fifth 11-5 team into the wild-card mix.
Now, we would have three second-place teams at 11-5. The win against Buffalo would vault the Dolphins into the fifth seed, as it would make their conference record 8-4 (both the Ravens and the Colts would finish at 7-5). Then we would have the Ravens at six and the Browns at seven (remember, both have beaten Indy this season) with the Colts being left out.
Now your WildCard Round would look like this: Buffalo hosts Cleveland, Pittsburgh gets another game against the Ravens, and Tennessee hosts Miami.
Possible Variation #2 – Pittsburgh Wins
Resting a lot of their key people will certainly play to Cleveland’s favor, but it doesn’t guarantee that Pittsburgh will lose. It’s within the realm of the somewhat plausible that Pittsburgh could win this game, anyway.
Should that happen, the top four are still KC, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Now, though, we only have two 11-5 second place teams: Baltimore and Indy. Here, as before the Ravens are number 5, with Indy getting the sixth seed. If both Miami and Cleveland lose, Miami’s conference record will still be better than Cleveland’s, so the Dolphins claim the last spot, leaving the Browns to wait for next year.
Now the Wildcard Round is: Buffalo hosting Miami for the second straight week, Indianapolis at Pittsburgh, and Baltimore at Tennessee.
Possible Variation #3 – Miami and Pittsburgh Both Win
Since neither of these teams is likely to win its game, wins by both of them make this the least likely AFC scenario. Note that this is the only combination that drops Buffalo from the second seed. In this permutation, the Steelers would finish 13-3 and the Bills would be 12-4. Now, you would have three 11-5 second-place teams that would be the Wild Card invitees. Miami, with the conference record, would claim the fifth seed, with Baltimore sixth and Indy seventh. Here, again, the Browns would be out. There are no favorable playoff scenarios for Cleveland that do not begin with them beating Pittsburgh.
Under this final scenario, WildCard Weekend would be Pittsburgh hosting Indy, Buffalo would get Baltimore (what a fascinating matchup that would be), and Miami would go to Tennessee.
By comparison, the NFC is somewhat less straightforward..
Let’s start with the East Division. This is a small universe unto itself. With Washington’s loss to Carolina, there is now no chance for any of these teams to finish at .500. They will send their champion to the dance, and that team will go in as the fourth seed. There will be no wildcard team from this division. Three of the four teams still are in play, with only the Eagles being eliminated. Conveniently, they all play each other on the season’s last day.
The Cowboys/Giants will be the undercard – they will play the early Sunday game, with the Eagles and the Football Team playing on Sunday night. The winner of the first game will inherit the title if Washington should lose. If Dallas and Washington both win, both will finish 7-9. In that event Washington get the crown. They swept the two games against the Cowboys this year. If the Giants and Eagles win, then Washington, Dallas and New York all end up 6-10. That would give the Giants the division, based on division record – they would be 4-2 against their brethren, with Washington 3-3 and Dallas 2-4.
So, to keep it simple, Washington wins and they’re in. If they lose, the winner of the other game takes the crown. I believe it is more likely than not that Washington wins – but only if Alex Smith (who was taking snaps with the first team yesterday) is healthy enough to start. Dallas is playing the best ball in this division right now, so if the Football Team falters, Dallas is the better bet to represent the mighty NFC East in the playoffs.
The other three division titles have already been claimed. Green Bay (12-3) is the North champion, New Orleans (11-4) has won the South, and Seattle (11-4) is your NFC West champion.
A Packer win in Week 17 gives them the number one seed and the accompanying bye. That is also true if they lose and the Saints and Seahawks lose as well. If the Pack and the Saints lose and Seattle wins, then the Seahawks and Packers end with identical 12-4 records and Seattle claims the first seed by virtue of their record against common opponents – the Seahawks would finish 5-0 against those teams, while Green Bay – with an earlier loss to Minnesota – would only be 4-1.
If the tie is between Green Bay and New Orleans, the Packers hold that tie-breaker due to a head-to-head victory over the Saints. But the Saints gain the top seed if all three teams tie at 12-4, because they will finish 10-2 in the conference, while the other two will end 9-3.
All three teams end the season against tough but beatable division opponents. Seattle’s might be the toughest, as they play San Francisco. The 49ers (6-9) are a wounded but still dangerous club – and one that has had success against the Seahawks. New Orleans’ path may be the softest – they face Carolina. Very hard to see the Saints losing this one.
The most interesting of these matchups is Green Bay’s. The Packers end their season against Chicago – a team that is also still in contention. After a six-game losing streak brought them to the brink of elimination, the Bears – behind a revived Mitchell Trubisky – have won three straight – and they have scored at least 30 points in four straight games. This has put Chicago in a position to claim a spot with a win.
The reservations I have with the Bears are two-fold. First, their resurgence – as impressive as it has been – has all come at the expense of struggling teams (Houston, Minnesota and Jacksonville). Beating these guys is a far cry from beating the Packers.
Secondly, for Chicago, they will be getting the Packers’ best effort on Sunday. Unlike the Steelers and the Chiefs, there will be no “rest” mode for Green Bay. The Pack desperately wants that top seed. They want the bye week that comes with it, and they want just as much to have the rest of the NFC come through Lambeau to get to the Super Bowl.
So, as I contemplate this contest, I ask myself, can the Bears handle Green Bay’s best game? Until they prove me wrong, that answer is no. It should be noted here that a loss won’t necessarily knock Chicago (who will finish 8-8 if that happens) out of the playoffs.
For all the scenarios involved, the most likely outcomes will keep the top four teams the same and in the same order: Green Bay (13-3); New Orleans (12-4); Seattle (12-4) and Washington (7-9 *if Alex Smith starts, otherwise this could be Dallas). The conference record that would put the Saints ahead if all three first-place teams finished tied is the factor that keeps them ahead of Seattle if both teams either win or lose.
Tampa Bay currently sits in the fifth slot with a 10-5 record. They finish up against Atlanta. I have this unshakable feeling that Atlanta will rise up and upset the Buccaneers. I wrote a little about this yesterday, how this game means more to the Falcon franchise than it does to the Bucs.
Atlanta won’t be able to knock Tampa Bay out of the playoffs, but they can knock them down a peg, depending on what happens elsewhere.
If I’m wrong, here, and Tampa Bay wins, then their result is simple. They finish as the five seed regardless of anything that happens anywhere else, and will journey into Washington or Dallas. Because this hunch is strong, I’m going to proceed with the rest of this assuming that Tampa will fall to 10-6 leaving their final seeding – along with the fate of the Bears – to ride on the Ram-Cardinal game.
Arizona at Los Angeles (Rams) becomes the watershed game of the bottom four NFC playoff hopefuls. The Rams are 9-6 with a previous victory over the Cardinals. Arizona is 8-7.
A Los Angeles victory will vault them into the fifth seed (they have an earlier victory against Tampa Bay), and drop Tampa Bay to sixth. It will also drop Arizona (now at 8-8) into a tie with Chicago for that final spot.
In this scenario, the Bears get the tie-breaker by virtue of a better record against common opponents. They will finish 3-2 in those games (wins against Detroit, the Giants and Carolina with losses to the Rams and Detroit), while Arizona will finish 1-4 against those opponents (their win over the Giants offset by losses to Detroit, Carolina and the Rams twice).
In this scenario, the WildCard round will give us Chicago at New Orleans, Tampa Bay at Seattle, and the Rams at Washington/Dallas.
If Arizona wins this pivotal game, then both they and the Rams finish 9-7, and both make the playoffs. Tampa Bay retains its fifth seed, and Chicago is out. Arizona (with the better division record) would slip ahead of the Rams into the sixth seed, and LA would finish seventh.
Under this scenario, WildCard Weekend would give us the Rams at New Orleans, Arizona at Seattle, and Tampa Bay at Washington/Dallas.
Which of these scenarios is the most likely is a difficult question to answer, as both starting quarterbacks are faced with health issues. The Rams Jared Goff – who broke his thumb last week against Seattle – has already been ruled out of the game, and Arizona’s Kyler Murray has a lower leg injury that had him questionable earlier in the week. The latest I understand about the situation is that Kyler has been upgraded to probable, but the seriousness of the situation cannot be overstated.
So much of Murray’s game is his ability to move. If he is at all limited in his ability to scoot outside of the pocket, then Kyler will be a liability against an elite Ram defense.
As LA has more injury/COVID issues than just their quarterback (they will also be down their top two running backs and their top receiver and some key defensive people) – along with the fact that they will be starting, in John Wolford, a man who has never thrown an NFL pass – I am going to lean toward Arizona in this one.
The only major re-write of this script that is reasonably likely would be for the Bears to find a way to get past Green Bay. If that should happen – and if Arizona should win – that would leave the Bears and the Cardinals with identical 9-7 records. (The Rams wouldn’t enter into the initial tie-breakers because they would be the third-place club.) Now it would be the Bears as the sixth seed (Tampa Bay would still be fifth), dropping Arizona to seventh, and now it’s the Rams who are waiting for next year
WildCard Weekend under this scenario is New Orleans with the bye, Arizona at Seattle, Chicago back in Green Bay for the second week in a row, and Tampa Bay at Washington/Dallas.
If we get the Bears and the Rams winning their final games, the final NFC seeding would be: 1 – New Orleans; 2 – Seattle; 3 – Green Bay; 4 – Washington/Dallas; 5 – Los Angeles; 6 – Tampa Bay; and 7 – Chicago. Arizona is the odd man out, here. The Wildcard schedule here would be Chicago at Seattle, Tampa Bay at Green Bay, and the Rams at Washington/Dallas.
Note please that for all of the whinging about the inclusion of an NFC East team in the playoffs, the presence of either Washington or Dallas won’t deny a spot to any really worthy competitor. The most likely loser in these scenarios would be an 8-8 team (either Chicago or Arizona) who would only have a marginally better claim over either East competitor (which will likely bring a 7-9 record into the playoffs).
The greatest injustice that the playoff structure is capable of would be the awarding of a playoff spot to a 6-10 NY Giants team, while denying one to a 9-7 Rams squad – and this would be the least likely scenario.
My “simplified” version of the playoff picture (which still runs to nearly 2800 words) doesn’t take into account the major upsets that could take place (Cincinnati beating Baltimore, for instance), so there is a remote possibility that these scenarios I’ve painted will be totally upended. But these are the most likely ways that all of this plays out over the season’s last week, with a look at the most likely first round pairings.
And once the playoffs start, the chaos begins in earnest.