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How Week 16 Changed the NFL Playoff Picture

The Bears are now poised to secure a wild-card berth. The Colts are on the outside looking in. And the Cowboys have a real chance to win the NFC East. Let’s break down the various scenarios entering the regular season’s final week.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Week 16 changed the NFL playoff race. The Browns could win 10 games and miss the postseason. The Colts could win 11 games and miss out while an NFC East team makes the playoffs with a losing record. Almost a half-dozen teams enter the final week of the regular season facing win-and-in scenarios. Considering every team plays a division rival in Week 17, next Sunday feels like the real divisional round. Let’s go through everything Week 16 did to the playoff picture and assess the stakes for Week 17.

NFC

The Bears are … going to make the playoffs?

Everyone knows a couple who is always breaking up and getting back together. In the NFL, that couple is the Bears and Mitchell Trubisky. Chicago opened the season 5-1 and had almost an 80 percent chance of making the postseason, according to the New York Times playoff predictor. Then the Bears lost six games in a row, dropping their odds to less than 10 percent. But those odds were resuscitated this week. Chicago is competing with Arizona for the last NFC wild-card spot, and on Saturday the Cardinals lost to the 49ers to fall to 8-7. On Sunday, the Bears routed the Jaguars to improve to the same record. The Bears now have a 72 percent chance of getting into the playoffs, and they’re in if they beat the Packers next week. Even if they lose, they would still make the playoffs if the Cardinals lose to the Rams.

How is Trubisky on track to make the playoffs while Kyler Murray is not? Well, since taking his starting job back from Nick Foles, Trubisky has played the best football of his professional life. He has thrown for seven touchdowns and just two interceptions over the past month. Wide receiver Allen Robinson’s body language no longer screams “I deleted all the Bears logos from my Instagram.” And it’s not just the passing game that has improved. Trubisky has lifted Chicago’s entire offense. Running back David Montgomery also has had the best month of his career, racking up six touchdowns in his past five games. The Bears have scored 30-plus points in four consecutive games for the first time since Lyndon Johnson was president.

Trubisky has played so well that some league executives now believe the Bears should consider re-signing him this offseason, according to a report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter. That would be a classic case of getting back with your ex after a couple of text conversations remind you of all that you missed. Odds are that Big Mitch will make the playoffs, though, so Trubisky has a chance to leave a lasting impression.

There’s plenty of uncertainty out west

The Rams enter Week 17 with an 82 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to the New York Times playoff predictor. The Cardinals’ odds sit at just 46 percent. Yet Arizona has a simpler path to the postseason. If the Cardinals beat the Rams on Sunday, they are in. If they lose, they are out. Their performance in that game could depend on the health of Murray, who got “leg-whipped” with 14 seconds left in Saturday’s loss to the Niners. Murray is expected to play in Week 17, yet the Cardinals offense has hardly looked exciting even when he has been on the field. Kliff Kingsbury has yet to make Murray’s job look easy in two years as Arizona’s head coach. Kyler missing the playoffs while Trubisky makes them would be, uh, concerning for Kingsbury’s long-term outlook.

The Rams’ fall from grace may be even more concerning. Two weeks ago the Rams embarrassed the Patriots and appeared poised to win the NFC West. Then they lost back-to-back games to the Jets and Seahawks. In Week 16, the Los Angeles offense failed to reach the end zone until late in the third quarter; in Week 17, it managed just nine points. The Seahawks clinched the division with Sunday’s win, but the Rams would still make the playoffs if they beat the Cardinals in Week 17. L.A. would miss the playoffs if it loses to Arizona and if the Bears beat the Packers.

Beating Arizona may not be so easy. Rams quarterback Jared Goff broke the thumb on his throwing hand Sunday and is unlikely to play in Week 17. Goff’s backup, John Wolford, has never thrown a pass in an NFL game. Wolford sounds like the school that is sometimes a sleeper pick in March Madness, not like the name of a quarterback on the verge of playoff glory. The most interesting (and least inspiring) thing about Wolford is that he’s the guy who took Wake Forest’s starting quarterback job from Kendall Hinton in 2016. The Guy Who Started Over Kendall Hinton may be tasked with getting the Rams to the postseason. Sean McVay’s coaching reputation did not die for this.

The Cowboys are suddenly playoff relevant again

How ’bout them Cowboys? Apparently they can still win the NFC East. After starting 3-9, Dallas has rattled off three straight wins, capped by an impressive victory over the Eagles. Dallas fell behind Philadelphia 14-3 on Sunday but rallied to win 37-17. The result puts the Cowboys in position to win the league’s worst division.

According to the New York Times playoff machine, Dallas has a 27 percent chance of winning the NFC East. But its odds feel significantly better than that. The almighty algorithm does not seem to account for Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins recently going to a strip club without wearing a mask, getting stripped of his captainship, and then playing poorly enough against the Panthers that he was benched for Taylor Heinicke. The algorithm also doesn’t seem to account for Washington’s next-best quarterback option being Alex Smith, who is dealing with an injury to the leg that previously required 17 surgeries. Washington would clinch the division by beating the Eagles next Sunday. Yet Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts is playing so well that the Eagles are listed as Vegas favorites in that game.

If Washington loses in Week 17, the winner of the Cowboys-Giants matchup would emerge from the NFC East. Those teams are trending in opposite directions. The Cowboys offense has started to click and moved the ball well against the Eagles after defensive tackle Fletcher Cox left with a stinger. The Giants defense has lost its way and let the Ravens do whatever they wanted in a blowout win this weekend. Three months after losing Dak Prescott to injury, the Cowboys are finally finding their footing. Don’t be surprised if Dallas hosts Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in Jerry World come January.

Three teams could still win the race for the no. 1 seed

The NFC’s divisions are mostly wrapped up. The Packers have clinched the NFC North, the Saints have clinched the NFC South, and the Seahawks have clinched the NFC West. (Don’t worry about the NFC East, Simba. It is beyond our borders. You must never go there.) The only pressing question left at the top of the NFC playoff picture is who gets the no. 1 seed. Given that only one team gets a first-round bye in each conference this season, the top seed matters more than ever before.

The Packers have the inside track for that spot. Green Bay’s win over Tennessee on Sunday gives it a one-game advantage in the standings. The Packers are 12-3 while the Saints and Seahawks are both 11-4. If Green Bay beats Chicago next week, it’ll secure the no. 1 seed. Even if the Packers lose that game, they would still get the no. 1 seed if the Seahawks lose to the 49ers.

There are only two scenarios in which the top seed would go elsewhere. Both involve the Packers losing to the Bears. If the Packers, Saints, and Seahawks all finish 12-4, the Saints would get the no. 1 seed by virtue of winning percentage in conference games. (Even though the Saints lost to the Packers in Week 3, they’d win a three-way tiebreaker.) If only the Packers and Seahawks finish 12-4, the Seahawks would get the no. 1 seed since both teams would have the same conference record but Seattle would have a better record against common opponents.

AFC

Five teams are vying for four spots

The AFC’s divisional drama is mostly over. The Chiefs have won the AFC West and locked up the no. 1 seed. The Steelers have fallen ass backward into clinching the AFC North. And no matter what happens on Monday night, the Bills have already clinched the AFC East.

That leaves five AFC teams at 10-5, none of whom have clinched a playoff berth. Four of those face win-and-in scenarios for Week 17:

  • If the Titans beat the Texans, they win the AFC South.
  • If the Dolphins beat the Bills, they get a wild-card berth.
  • If the Ravens beat the Bengals, they get a wild-card berth.
  • If the Browns beat the Steelers, they get a wild-card berth.

The last 10-5 AFC team is the Colts. Indianapolis needs to beat the Jaguars and have one of the above teams lose to make the playoffs. If the Titans, Dolphins, Ravens, Browns, and Colts all finish 11-5, Indy will be left on the outside because of a combination of head-to-head losses (to Baltimore and Cleveland) and conference record.

Things would get more complicated if two or more of the above teams lose next week. In that case, multiple teams would have 10-6 records and other tiebreakers would come into play. The Dolphins would win tiebreakers against the Ravens, Browns, and Colts, so Miami could lose next Sunday and still make the playoffs so long as one of that trio of teams also loses. Baltimore has the tiebreaker over Cleveland and Indy, while the Browns have the tiebreaker over the Colts. The math may seem convoluted, but the takeaway is simple: There are four available AFC playoff spots, and each of these five teams but the Colts can ensure it gets one of them if it takes care of business.

A couple of these teams had chances to clinch playoff spots in Week 16 but blew it. Indianapolis had a 21-7 lead over Pittsburgh but lost 28-24. The Browns lost to the Jets 23-16 one day after their entire starting receiver corps was ruled out due to the NFL’s COVID-19 policy about close contacts. Entering Week 17, some teams could face backups. The Steelers could rest their starters against Cleveland since they are unable to get a first-round bye. It’s possible the Bills could do the same against Miami with the AFC East wrapped up.

The team that misses the postseason will be devastated. The Dolphins are one of the best stories of the season. The Ravens once again look like the Super Bowl contender they were expected to be. And the Colts are able to match up with any team in the league, including the Chiefs. But the most devastating outcome would be Cleveland—which hasn’t made the playoffs since the 2002 season—missing out. That would happen if:

  • Pittsburgh beats Cleveland
  • Baltimore beats Cincinnati
  • Indianapolis beats Jacksonville
  • Miami beats Buffalo
  • Tennessee beats Houston

Those are five very specific outcomes, but individually they’re all plausible. It would be extremely Cleveland for the Browns to have their best season in 20 years, enter Week 16 with a real shot at winning the AFC North, and then miss the playoffs altogether—largely because their starting receivers were ruled out of a game on one day’s notice. May the playoff gods show some mercy.