NFL playoff picture: What changed in the AFC and NFC brackets after Sunday’s games

NFL

Now we’re getting somewhere. Four more NFL teams clinched playoff spots Sunday, bringing the grand total to six with 33 games remaining in the season. The Chiefs, Buccaneers, Rams and Cardinals have joined the Packers and Cowboys in the 14-team field. The Seahawks, Giants and Panthers, on the other hand, joined a relatively short list of teams that have been eliminated. All told, 24 teams are still mathematically alive to go to the playoffs and potentially win Super Bowl LVI, the second-most with two weeks left in a season in the past 31 years.

Suffice it to say, a ton of drama remains to play out between now and Jan. 9. What follows is a preview of our weekly snapshot of the NFL’s playoff picture, incorporating ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) and a bit of our own instincts to give you a sense of the stakes. We’ve threaded playoff and/or division clinching scenarios for a handful of teams, and we’ll update how it all worked out on Monday, when the Dolphins play the Saints in the final game of Week 16.

Note: X denotes a team that has clinched a playoff berth, Y shows a team that has clinched its division and Z indicates a team that has secured a first-round bye.

Jump to: AFC | NFC

AFC

FPI chances to make playoffs: Clinched
FPI chances to win division: Clinched

The Chiefs became the first AFC team to officially make the playoffs, much less win their division, after Sunday’s dominating victory over the Steelers. A few months ago, some were questioning whether the league had figured out the Chiefs. Eight consecutive wins later, they’re not only in the playoffs and the AFC West champion for the sixth consecutive season but also in a pretty strong position to clinch home-field advantage for the third consecutive season. They can clinch it in Week 17 with a win at Cincinnati and a Titans loss to the Dolphins. ESPN’s FPI is giving them a 64% chance to lock it up.

Remaining schedule: at Bengals, at Broncos


FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%
FPI chances to win division: 95%
Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Ravens

The Titans had lost three of their past four games before Thursday night’s comeback victory over the 49ers. The win knocked them up one spot in the AFC standings, and they remained there Sunday after the Bills beat the Patriots. The Titans missed a chance to clinch the AFC South on Saturday, when the Colts beat the Cardinals, but they can clinch it Week 17 with a win over the Dolphins or a Colts loss to the Raiders. Even if they lose to the Dolphins, the Titans can clinch a playoff spot with losses by the Ravens and Chargers, or losses by the Ravens and Patriots, or losses by the Chargers and Patriots, or losses by the Ravens and Dolphins (in Week 16), or losses by the Chargers and Dolphins (in Week 16). And Tennessee remains a threat to catch the Chiefs for the top seed in the conference — ESPN’s FPI says it has a 31% chance.

Remaining schedule: vs. Dolphins, at Texans


FPI chances to make playoffs: 80%
FPI chances to win division: 72%
Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Patriots

The Bengals’ two-game winning streak has lifted them into the top spot in the division at a time when the Ravens have lost four consecutive games, the Browns have lost twice in a row and the Steelers have dropped four of their past six games. Although it will be a tough task, the Bengals can actually clinch the AFC North next week if they beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium and the Steelers lose to the Browns. At the moment, they’re ahead of the Bills in the AFC standings based on a better conference record.

Remaining schedule: vs. Chiefs, at Browns

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Bengals QB Joe Burrow throws for 525 yards against the Ravens, marking the third-most passing yards in a game in NFL history.


FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%
FPI chances to win division: 88%
Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Colts

The Bills thumped the Patriots on Sunday to take a measure of control in the AFC East. They’re ahead of the Patriots for now based on a one-game advantage in division record (4-1 vs. 3-2). No one can clinch the division title in Week 17, which means the AFC East will go down to the final week of the season. But the Bills are now in the best spot to clinch. If they win their remaining games — and they are both very winnable — they will take the AFC East title. ESPN’s FPI loves their chances. They can also clinch a playoff spot in Week 17 with a win and a Ravens loss, or with a win and losses by the Raiders and Chargers.

Remaining schedule: vs. Falcons, vs. Jets


FPI chances to make playoffs: 95%
FPI chances to win division: 5%
Current projected first-round matchup: at Bills

The Colts produced a pretty amazing victory Saturday night in Arizona, playing without most of their starting offensive line as well as star linebacker Darius Leonard, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the day. The win allowed the Colts to stay alive in the AFC South race — they would have been eliminated with a loss — and strengthened their bid for a wild-card spot. ESPN’s FPI considers a playoff spot a near-lock at this point. In fact, the Colts can clinch a playoff spot with a Week 17 win over the Raiders. Indianapolis has won six of its past seven games, and with two more very winnable games on the schedule, it could enter the playoffs on quite a run of success.

Remaining schedule: vs. Raiders, at Jaguars


FPI chances to make playoffs: 97%
FPI chances to win division: 12%
Current projected first-round matchup: at Bengals

The Patriots have lost two consecutive games after a seven-game winning streak. And while they don’t trail the Bills by much — Buffalo has a one-game advantage in the division-record tiebreaker — the Pats have lost control of the division. No one is going to clinch in Week 17, but the Bills can clinch in Week 18 if they win their final two games. Both teams have very manageable schedules the rest of the way, and ESPN’s FPI has dropped the Patriots’ chances to win the division to 12%. The Patriots can clinch a playoff spot, though, with a win over the Jaguars and a Raiders loss, or a win and a loss by the Dolphins (either Week 16 or 17).

Remaining schedule: vs. Jaguars, at Dolphins


FPI chances to make playoffs: 37%
FPI chances to win division: 9%
Current projected first-round matchup: at Titans

The Ravens had quite a day Sunday. Severely outmanned on both sides of the ball because of injuries and COVID-19 cases, they were trounced by the Bengals, and in the process, they lost their fourth consecutive game. But losses by the Chargers and Steelers and a win from the Raiders left three teams at 8-7, and the Ravens came out ahead in the tiebreaker because they had a head-to-head advantage over the Chargers. (The Raiders were eliminated first because they lost to the Chargers, a division foe, in Week 4.) Even so, the Ravens will fall out of the No. 7 spot Monday night if the Dolphins beat the Saints.

Remaining schedule: vs. Rams, vs. Steelers


In the AFC hunt

Los Angeles Chargers (8-7)

The Chargers suffered a terrible loss Sunday in Houston and tumbled all the way out of the playoff picture, thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Ravens. Their remaining schedule includes games against the AFC West foes Denver and Las Vegas, and their playoff chances have dropped to 39%, per ESPN’s FPI.

Las Vegas Raiders (8-7)

Two consecutive wins, by a total of six points, have kept the Raiders on the outskirts of the playoff picture. With remaining games against the Colts and Chargers, the Raiders have a 19% chance of getting to the postseason, according to ESPN’s FPI.

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7-1)

As bad as the Steelers have been lately — they’ve lost four of their past six games — they still have a fairly direct path to the AFC North title. They’ll need to win their remaining games against the Browns and Ravens, and then have the Bengals lose their final two games. ESPN’s FPI gives that scenario a 6% chance of happening. And Pittsburgh’s overall playoff odds lie at 12%.

Miami Dolphins (7-7)

The Dolphins can move into the No. 7 spot with a win Monday night over a depleted Saints team that will be starting rookie quarterback Ian Book. But they are underdogs in the game, according to ESPN’s FPI, which gives them a 37% chance to win. Regardless, ESPN’s FPI has Miami’s playoff odds at just 9% at the moment.

Cleveland Browns (7-8)

Saturday night’s loss to the Packers didn’t eliminate the Browns from the playoffs, and the truth is that they will win the AFC North if they win their final two games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. ESPN’s FPI estimates a 12% chance of that happening — and a 13% chance of getting into the playoffs at all.

Denver Broncos (7-8)

The Broncos weren’t mathematically eliminated after losing to the Raiders, but ESPN’s FPI is giving them less than 1% chance.

NFC

FPI chances to make playoffs: Clinched
FPI chances to win division: Clinched

The Packers faced a pretty wild and divergent set of circumstances on Saturday night. Had the Browns completed their comeback and left Lambeau Field with a win, the Packers would have faced the strong possibility of falling out of the top seed in the NFC. All it would have taken was the Cowboys winning a home game against Washington, an outcome that would have elevated the Cowboys to No. 1. Instead, the Packers held off the Browns and kept themselves in strong position to ensure home-field advantage in the playoffs (84% likely, per ESPN’s FPI). They are now 7-0 at Lambeau Field this season and 20-3 since coach Matt LaFleur was hired in 2019. And now Green Bay can clinch the the No. 1 overall seed next week with a win over the Vikings and a Cowboys loss to the Cardinals.

Remaining schedule: vs. Vikings, at Lions


FPI chances to make playoffs: Clinched
FPI chances to win division: Clinched
Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Eagles

The Cowboys clinched the NFC East even before stepping on the field Sunday night, thanks to an unusual strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Eagles that was triggered by the Raiders’ victory over the Broncos. The only thing left for the Cowboys is determining their final seed. Do they have a legitimate chance to leapfrog the Packers for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs? ESPN’s FPI is giving them an 10% chance. The easiest path is winning their remaining two games and having the Packers lose to either the Vikings or Lions.

Remaining schedule: vs. Cardinals, at Eagles


FPI chances to make playoffs: Clinched
FPI chances to win division: 70%
Current projected first-round matchup: vs. 49ers

The Rams clinched at least a wild-card spot and took control of the NFC West with Sunday’s victory over the Vikings. Even with quarterback Matthew Stafford is still turning in shaky performances — he threw three interceptions Sunday — the Rams have recovered from a three-game losing streak to reel off four consecutive wins. They can clinch the NFC West in Week 17 with a win over the Ravens and a Cardinals loss to the Cowboys.

Remaining schedule: at Ravens, vs. 49ers


FPI chances to make playoffs: Clinched
FPI chances to win division: Clinched
Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Cardinals

The Buccaneers clinched the NFC South with Sunday’s victory over the Panthers, their first division championship since 2007. (Remember: They won the Super Bowl last season as a wild-card team.) The only thing left to decide now is their seeding, and really, the only one that matters is No. 1 overall. ESPN’s FPI gives them a 4% chance to supplant the Packers, so it’s probably time to stop thinking about that one.

Remaining schedule: at Jets, vs. Panthers


FPI chances to make playoffs: Clinched
FPI chances to win division: 30%
Current projected first-round matchup: at Buccaneers

In a weird twist, the Cardinals clinched a playoff spot Sunday by virtue of a Rams victory that cemented the Cardinals’ spiral out of the top spot in the NFC West. There is still plenty of football left to be played, but the Cardinals’ three-game losing streak opened a door that they might not be able to close. The Rams are now a strong FPI favorite to win the division, and the Cardinals will need them to lose at least one game over the final two weeks to have a chance to reclaim the NFC West lead. Otherwise, they would be facing a wild-card assignment despite a 7-0 start to the season.

Remaining schedule: at Cowboys, vs. Seahawks


FPI chances to make playoffs: 68%
FPI chances to win division: Eliminated
Current projected first-round matchup: at Rams

Despite Thursday night’s loss to the Titans, the 49ers remained squarely in the NFC wild-card race.The Vikings’ loss on Sunday allowed San Francisco to remain in the No. 6 spot. Moving forward, the Niners are fortunate to have the Texans up next on the schedule. If they can’t beat Houston at home in Week 17, then they probably don’t deserve to be in the playoffs. Assuming they beat the Texans, they’ll clinch with either losses by the Saints in Week 16 and 17, or losses by the Eagles and Saints (Week 16) plus wins by the Falcons and Saints (Week 17).

Remaining schedule: vs. Texans, at Rams


FPI chances to make playoffs: 54%
FPI chances to win division: Eliminated
Current projected first-round matchup: at Cowboys

The Eagles swapped spots with the Vikings after dispatching the Giants with a second-half rally. Their ascendance into a wild-card spot should not be a surprise for those who have watched the NFC race during the second half of the season, especially given the favorable schedule Philadelphia has been dealt. The Eagles have now won three consecutive games and six of their past eight, and only one of those opponents currently has a winning record (the Chargers, who beat the Eagles 27-24 in Week 9). They’ll actually move up to No. 6 if the Saints win Monday night and will remain at No. 7 if they lose. And they can clinch a playoff spot next week with a win over Washington, along with losses by the Vikings, 49ers and Saints (in Week 17).

Remaining schedule: at Washington, vs. Cowboys

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Jalen Hurts finds DeVonta Smith next to the pylon for an Eagles touchdown.


In the NFC hunt

New Orleans Saints (7-7)

The Saints will try to stay in the race Monday night with rookie Ian Book starting at quarterback. Even if they beat the Dolphins, however, they won’t overtake either the Eagles or 49ers. But ESPN’s FPI is giving New Orleans a 55% chance to reach the postseason.

Minnesota Vikings (7-8)

The Vikings had it all in front of them: Win their final three games and get into the playoffs. They stumbled Sunday in the first of those three, and ESPN’s FPI now gives them just a 13% to recover and get into the playoffs. They’ve got their work cut out for them in Week 17 at Lambeau Field, where the Packers haven’t lost this season.

Atlanta Falcons (7-8)

Why, yes, the Falcons are back on this list even if nothing about their 20-16 win over the Lions suggested they are a playoff-caliber team. But with games remaining against the Bills and Saints, and with a 4-7 conference record that puts them behind in most tiebreakers, the Falcons have just a 1% chance to clinch a wild-card spot, per ESPN’s FPI.

Washington Football Team (6-9)

Washington wasn’t eliminated from the playoffs Monday night, and with games remaining against the Giants and Eagles, its chance with ESPN’s FPI of moving into a wild-card spot (5%) is slightly better than the Falcons’.

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