NFL Playoff Scenarios, Week 16: Bengals-Steelers a monster in AFC
The AFC playoff race, thanks to the Jets dropping from sight with a putrid loss Monday night in Tennessee, has some clarity. Miami still has an extreme long-shot chance to sneak into the field, but we’re really down to seven teams for six slots — with four (Houston, Denver, New England and Baltimore) already making playoff plans.
If the Colts can sidestep a letdown in Kansas City this week, most of the mystery in the AFC revolves around the North division. Will Pittsburgh or Cincinnati grab the final wild-card spot? Can Baltimore hold on to first place?
We may know those answers as soon as Sunday, if Cincinnati and Baltimore win.
As for the NFC … bedlam.
Three berths have been claimed there, by Atlanta, San Francisco and Green Bay, but nary a team knows which seed it will be come playoff time, and nine teams still have a shot at that final trio of spots.
Which teams have the best shots at joining the postseason party? This week’s playoff picture picks through everything that’s up for grabs:
* means team has clinched a playoff spot.
No. 1 seed: Houston Texans (12-2)* — vs. Vikings (8-6), at Colts (9-5)
The Texans clinched the AFC South last week and can wrap up the conference’s No. 1 seed by winning either of their final two games. Losses by both the Broncos and Patriots would get the job done, too. Houston can only fall out of first-round bye position if it finishes 0-2 and both the Broncos and Patriots finish 2-0. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 10
No. 2 seed: Denver Broncos (11-3)* — vs. Browns (5-9), vs. Chiefs (2-12)
The Broncos overtook the Patriots in the first-round bye race, thanks to San Francisco’s win over New England. A Broncos win coupled with a Patriots loss or tie would give Denver a week off to open the playoffs (a Denver tie plus New England loss would do the job as well). Denver lost to Houston earlier this season, so the Broncos must finish one game up on the Texans to claim the AFC’s top seed. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 10
No. 3 seed: New England Patriots (10-4)* — at Jaguars (2-12), vs. Dolphins (6-8)
The Patriots will not know their final playoff seeding until Week 17. As the AFC East division champs, they’re guaranteed to be somewhere between No. 1 and No. 4. But because New England beat Denver and Houston but lost to Baltimore this season, there remains a lot of wiggle room. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 10
No. 4 seed: Baltimore Ravens (9-5)* —vs. Giants (8-6), at Bengals (8-6)
Last week, Baltimore became the fourth AFC team to claim a playoff berth, despite a loss. The Ravens can clinch the AFC North in Week 16 with a win (or with a tie and Cincinnati loss/tie), but a loss could leave them needing a victory next Sunday to fend off the Bengals and Steelers. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 10
No. 5 seed: Indianapolis Colts (9-5) — at Chiefs (2-12), vs. Texans (12-2)
The Colts blew their chance at an AFC South championship by losing in Houston last week, so the focus now is on getting into the playoffs. A win or tie against the 2-12 Chiefs would get the job done (as would losses or ties from both Pittsburgh and New York). Getting that victory also would lock the Colts into the No. 5 seed — Indianapolis has the tiebreaker edge over Cincinnati. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 9.5
No. 6 seed: Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) — at Steelers (7-7), vs. Ravens (9-5)
The Bengals can punch their postseason ticket in Week 16 if they win. Cincinnati also could still swipe the AFC North with a 2-0 finish and 0-2 finish from Baltimore, both of which would require a Week 17 Bengals win over the Ravens. A loss in Pittsburgh would be a devastating blow for the Bengals — they would need a win over Baltimore and a Cleveland upset of Pittsburgh. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 6
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7) — vs. Bengals (8-6), vs. Browns (5-9)
The Steelers’ situation is simple: win out and they’re in — and in as division champs if they, the Bengals and Ravens all finish at 9-7. The Steelers would be eliminated with a Week 16 loss; they could finish 1-1 with a Week 17 loss and sneak in at 8-8, but only if the Bengals also lose in Week 17. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 6
Still alive: Dolphins (6-8)
Eliminated: Jets (6-8), Browns (5-9), Chargers (5-9), Bills (5-9), Titans (5-9), Raiders (4-10), Jaguars (2-12), Chiefs (2-12)
No. 1 seed: Atlanta Falcons (12-2)* — at Lions (4-10), vs. Buccaneers (6-8)
One Falcons win or losses by both San Francisco and Green Bay would secure the NFC’s No. 1 seed for Atlanta. A Packers loss would lock up a first-round bye for the Falcons, regardless of their outcome in Detroit — and there is no scenario that would prevent Atlanta from heading to Week 17 in control of its destiny. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 10
No. 2 seed: San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1)* — at Seahawks (9-5), vs. Cardinals (5-9)
The 49ers have a playoff berth in their back pockets now, but they could go one step further and claim the NFC West by knocking off (or tying) Seattle. A win plus a Green Bay loss or tie would pen the 49ers into a first-round bye. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 10
No. 3 seed: Green Bay Packers (10-4)* — vs. Titans (4-9), at Vikings (8-6)
The NFC North race is over, so the Packers can now focus their attention on a first-round bye. They’ll need a loss by San Francisco or two losses by Atlanta to have a chance though. A Green Bay win over Tennessee would lock the NFC East champion into the No. 4 seed — if the Packers finished 10-6, either the Redskins or Giants could leapfrog them for the No. 3 spot. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 10
No. 4 seed: Washington Redskins (8-6) — at Eagles (4-10), vs. Cowboys (8-6)
Washington can clinch a playoff spot with losses by the Giants, Vikings and Bears. Save that, the Redskins will have to wait until Week 17 to get the job done. They cannot be eliminated from playoff contention this week, so their game with Dallas in Week 17 will loom enormous, no matter how the Redskins’ trip to Philadelphia goes. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 7
No. 5 seed: Seattle Seahawks (9-5) — vs. 49ers (10-3-1), vs. Rams (6-7-1)
Seattle would join the playoff party officially by beating San Francisco, which also would keep the NFC West undecided heading into Week 17. The Seahawks could clinch a berth with a loss too, but that path would require losses from Washington, Minnesota and Chicago. There are a bunch of Week 16 scenarios in which Seattle could tie San Francisco and clinch, but we’ll worry about those if another NFC West deadlock occurs. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 7.5
No. 6 seed: Minnesota Vikings (8-6) — at Texans (12-2), vs. Packers (10-4)
Minnesota cannot clinch a wild-card spot in Week 16 — and, because of the NFL’s tiebreaker rules, can only stay in this sixth position heading to Week 17 with either: a) a win plus losses by two of the NFC East teams in contention (Washington, Dallas, New York); or b) a loss plus matching losses from all three NFC East teams and the Bears. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 4
Chicago Bears (8-6) — at Cardinals (5-9), at Lions (4-10)
Like the Vikings, Chicago cannot clinch a playoff spot in Week 16. In fact, the Bears’ only shot at controlling their destiny in Week 17 is if they beat Arizona and the Vikings plus either the Giants or Redskins lose. The Bears could be eliminated from the race with a loss plus: a) a Minnesota win; b) wins by the Giants and Redskins. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 4.5
Dallas Cowboys (8-6) — vs. Saints (6-8), at Redskins (8-6)
The Cowboys are the lone NFC East team still alive that cannot clinch a spot in Week 16. But … if Dallas wins its last two, it would win the division. The Cowboys also cannot be eliminated this weekend so they could drop Sunday’s game to New Orleans and take a slim shot to Week 17. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 5.5
New York Giants (8-6) — at Ravens (9-5), vs. Eagles (4-10)
The Giants have the most wildly fluctuating situation of the NFC East teams. They can clinch a playoff berth Sunday with a win plus losses by the Redskins, Cowboys, Vikings and Bears. But they also could be eliminated if they lose and the Redskins, Cowboys and Seahawks all win (Seattle could tie and bounce New York in that scenario as well). The defending champions, despite being in third place in the NFC East and ninth in the conference, are in if they finish 10-6. Likelihood of making the playoffs (out of 10): 5
Still alive: Rams (6-7-1), Saints (6-8),
Eliminated: Buccaneers (6-8), Panthers (5-9), Cardinals (5-9), Lions (4-10), Eagles (4-10)