My favorite holiday tradition is not buying red cups of coffee or watching any of the Hallmark Channel’s 33 (!) new Christmas movies. It’s sitting down and figuring out the NFL’s playoff scenarios. In any given season, the last three weeks bring about plenty of chaotic situations, and if there’s any year in which some of the fringe possibilities come to fruition, it’s going to be 2017. The presumptive top seed in the NFC, the Eagles, just lost their starting quarterback. The most talented quarterback in the NFL, Aaron Rodgers, has three weeks to save his team’s season and sneak in as a wild card. At this point, not even the Jets are eliminated from playoff contention.
This uncertainty makes playing around with the playoff machine especially fun this year. We can’t say I’m the Picasso of the playoff machine because that is trademarked, but I’m definitely aiming to be, say, the Matisse.
Now, there are a lot of different playoff machines. The ESPN version is by far the best because it’s the simplest: You play around with the results and then you figure out who plays whom. The New York Times version is slightly more complicated, and it offers far more depth. I was trying to get a handle on how the Jets can make the playoffs and instead ended up accidentally taking the SAT.
Anyway, I spent a few hours on the machines and came up with my favorite scenarios. If you don’t have a dog in the fight, keep these in mind during the next few weeks:
The Patriots and Chiefs Play in the Wild-Card Round
I’m not a Patriots fan, but one of my favorite memories of the Tom Brady–Bill Belichick run is when, avenging a 31–0 season-opening loss to the Bills in 2003, the Pats pasted Buffalo 31–0 in the last week of the regular season. Patriots revenge games are amazing, because Brady and Belichick go into full John Wick “You killed my dog” mode.
In the opening game of this season, the Chiefs dismantled the Patriots 42–27, which led us to question the Patriots dynasty and anoint Alex Smith as a deep-passing maven. You probably know what’s happened since then: After a hot start, the Chiefs aren’t a lock to even make the playoffs, and the Patriots figured out how to not have the worst defense in the NFL.
You know Belichick has been thinking about getting revenge on Andy Reid and Co. since Week 1, and he might get his chance. This is my favorite potential matchup, too: If NFL teams with better records win the remainder of their games against teams with inferior marks and if the Chargers beat the Chiefs on Saturday, it means the Chiefs would get the 6-seed. This scenario also means that the Steelers would beat the Patriots and the Jaguars would win out. ESPN says the Jaguars would get the tiebreaker over the Patriots via conference record. That would rule. The Patriots would get to destroy the Chiefs before jetting off to Jacksonville for a weird game against Blake Bortles. This is both chaotic and hilarious. Tom Brady on the road against Bortles coming off a playoff bye? I’m in heaven.
Nathan Peterman Plays in the Playoffs
Before I get into the scenario, I want to briefly talk about the Nathan Peterman online store. Look at this stuff. Throw pillows with Nathan — excuse me — Nate Peterman’s face on it. Cellphone cases for both Samsungs and iPhones. My theory is that if Peterman continues to play as poorly as he did in Los Angeles over the remainder of his career, then Peterman throw pillows and cellphone cases will sell so well as gag gifts that he will become the richest man in America.
Anyway, Peterman played last week against the Colts, and although he left the game with a concussion, both Peterman and Tyrod Taylor practiced this week. The Bills stand a 1-in-5 chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight. Let’s say it’s a coin flip whether Taylor is healthy come the postseason; that means there’s a 1-in-10 chance we’ll see Peterman in the playoffs. To be clear, I want to see Taylor in the playoffs; I think he’s really good. But this is about chaos, and Peterman is chaos.
The scenario for the Bills to get in is straightforward: If they win out (which would include an unlikely win over the Pats), they will probably get in. The scenario for Peterman, who threw five interceptions in the first half of his first career start, would involve Taylor’s bruised knee not fully recovering, or perhaps the Bills’ coaching staff deciding again that Peterman is inexplicably their starter. But again, this is all about chaos. And throw pillows.
Green Bay Gets a Generous Path to the Super Bowl
Aaron Rodgers said this week that he’s not coming back to “save this team,” which is exactly what someone about to save his team would say. Rodgers has been out since Week 6 with a broken collarbone and will return this week against the Panthers. Green Bay has a brutal schedule: at Carolina, vs. Minnesota, and at Detroit. But the Packers are equipped to run the table because running the table is Rodgers’s shtick.
Even still, three straight wins wouldn’t guarantee Green Bay a playoff berth. Right now, FiveThirtyEight gives the Packers a 6 percent chance of making the postseason, but if they win out, they could snag the 5-seed and play the Seahawks or (more likely) the Rams in the wild-card round. At this point, I would rather play either of those teams than the potential NFC South–champion Saints. Now, I understand the Rams are first in DVOA and have some of the most talented players in football with Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley. Neither is particularly easy, but going through Los Angeles (with a ton of Packers fans in the stadium) sounds way more manageable than going into the Superdome against Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara.
Fans of NFC playoff teams should be frightened if Green Bay finds a way into the postseason. If the Packers upset the Rams or Seattle (and how much of an upset would it be if Rodgers is healthy?), they’d likely face the top-seeded (barring an implosion over the next three weeks) Eagles in the divisional playoff. This, of course, isn’t as intimidating as it was a week ago. Carson Wentz’s ACL tear gives the Packers a clear edge at quarterback between Rodgers and Nick Foles, and although the Eagles have one of the more talented rosters in football, I’m not ready to say that the defense is good enough to contain Rodgers in a playoff game. As for the NFC title game, I think the conference is so up for grabs that it could be anyone. The likeliest option would be the presumptive 2-seed Minnesota Vikings, who are quarterbacked by Case Keenum. Like the Eagles, the Vikings have a ton of talent. They just don’t have Aaron Rodgers.
The Jaguars Visit the Chargers at the StubHub Center
Earlier this month, I went to a game at StubHub and came away not feeling particularly charitable toward the Chargers and their place in the Los Angeles sports landscape. Since the Chargers don’t have a massive fan base in Los Angeles, which is a city populated by transplants, the stadium fills up with visiting fans and even fans wearing jerseys of unrelated teams. Everyone remembers the Eagles’ takeover of the stadium earlier this season, but similar takeovers have occurred with the Dolphins and even the Browns.
However, the playoffs would provide a nice opportunity for football in Los Angeles. If the Chargers run the table and win the AFC West, they are due to host the 5-seed, which looks likely to be the loser of the AFC South title race: either Jacksonville or Tennessee. There are, uh, not a lot of transplants from either of those places in Los Angeles, and there probably aren’t enough local fans of either team willing to jet across the country for a wild-card game. So what do we get? The smallest stadium in modern NFL history — it is a cool place to watch a football game — filled with, presumably, 100 percent Chargers fans. I’m guessing they can sell 27,000 tickets to a playoff game.
Aside from that, Jaguars-Chargers would be a fun game. The Jaguars secondary is historically good; A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey have combined for 10 interceptions and 33 passes defensed this season. They’d be facing a talented offense with Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen. It would be less intriguing to see Bouye and Ramsey against, say, Alex Smith.
Jay Cutler Makes the Playoffs
FiveThirtyEight has two teams with between a 5 and 10 percent chance of making the playoffs. As we’ve already said, one is the Packers, and who doesn’t want to see Aaron Rodgers destroy a bunch of defenses and turn their wild card into a Super Bowl? The other such team (7 percent) is the Miami Dolphins, who are … the opposite of everything we just said about the Packers?
Miami has two remaining games against the Bills and one against the Chiefs. Since both of those teams are wild-card contenders, running the table would give the Dolphins crucial tiebreakers and/or knock a couple of their direct opponents out of postseason contention. They already vanquished the Titans and Chargers, but they would still need some help after winning their last three: The Ravens, who beat them by 40 points, would need to tank, but that’s possible because no matter what their record is or numbers are, Joe Flacco is still the man who fields each one of their offensive snaps.
There’s been a lot of griping about the 2017 season, especially in this space — it’s been wracked with injuries, internal-affairs scandals regarding conference calls among owners, and uneven play. But the perfect cap on a grim 2017 would be the Miami Dolphins roaring into the playoffs and Jay Cutler bringing his unmatched brand of excitement to the biggest stage.
Who doesn’t want that in the playoffs?