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Chaos Theory: The Most Absurd NFL Playoff Scenarios Still Possible

Aaron Rodgers dragging Green Bay to the playoffs? Baker Mayfield on wild-card weekend? Mark Sanchez starting a playoff game? It’s all still on the table.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Introduce a little anarchy,” the Joker tells Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. “Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.”

The universe is always in a state of chaos. It’s the second law of thermodynamics and the first law of the National Football League, where parity, upsets, and disorder reign supreme. Even when it seems like everything is going according to plan—the Rams clinched the division and the Chiefs clinched the playoffs in Week 14—it takes only one shocking New England loss to remind us that control is an illusion. For those who still cling to the self-delusional belief that we can predict the future, remember that just 11 months ago the Jacksonville Jaguars hosted the Buffalo Bills in a playoff game in which Blake Bortles finished with 87 passing yards and won. This world has no rules.

Armed with The New York Times and ESPN playoff machines and a healthy disregard for the established order, we can become our own agents of chaos. Below are seven playoff scenarios that are still mathematically possible. Embrace a world without rules. Embrace NFL anarchy.

The Browns Win the AFC North

How It Happens: Cleveland runs the table, Pittsburgh collapses, and Baltimore helps.

Week 15: Patriots defeat Steelers, Browns defeat Broncos
Week 16: Saints defeat Steelers, Browns defeat Bengals, Chargers defeat Ravens
Week 17: Browns defeat Ravens, Bengals defeat Steelers

The Chaos: Interim head coach Gregg Williams is kept on full time after leading the Browns to their first division title since 1989. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is fired the day after the season ends, prompting Pittsburgh’s third coaching search since Richard Nixon was president. The Browns play a playoff game for the first time in more than 15 years against the Los Angeles Chargers—and win. A statue of Baker Mayfield is erected outside of FirstEnergy Stadium.

The Patriots Miss the Playoffs

How It Happens: This is the recipe for Miami to win the AFC East:

Week 15: Steelers defeat Patriots, Dolphins defeat Vikings
Week 16: Bills defeat Patriots, Dolphins defeat Jaguars
Week 17: Dolphins defeat Bills

Add in the following outcomes, and the Pats miss the playoffs altogether:

Week 15: Titans defeat Giants, Texans defeat Jets
Week 16: Titans defeat Washington
Week 17: Titans defeat Colts, Texans defeat Jaguars

The Chaos: After blowing a 99.9 percent win probability to the Dolphins in Week 14, New England blows a 98 percent chance at the playoffs with the Patriots’ first four-game losing streak since 2002. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick miss their first playoffs together since 2002, and whispers of Brady’s decline reach a fever pitch when ESPN’s Seth Wickersham reports that the rift between Brady and the coach is wider than ever after the 41-year-old quarterback discovers the organization has zeroed in on Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa in the 2020 NFL draft. Rumors swirl that Brady’s trainer, Alex Guerrero, is pushing Brady to play for his hometown San Francisco 49ers and beat out quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for the starting job.

Aaron Rodgers Leads Green Bay to the Playoffs

How it Happens: Aaron Rodgers puts the team on his back.

Week 15: Packers defeat Bears, Rams defeat Eagles, Saints defeat Panthers, Dolphins defeat Vikings
Week 16: Packers defeat Jets
Week 17: Packers defeat Lions, Bears defeat Vikings, Eagles defeat Washington

The Chaos: Nobody thought Rodgers could outdo his “R-E-L-A-X” plea in 2014 and his pledge to run the table in 2016. Even after the team dismantled Atlanta in Week 14, Green Bay had just a 5 percent shot at the playoffs, which is statistically negligible. Yet Green Bay runs the table again, finishing 4-0 after head coach Mike McCarthy was fired to snag the final wild-card spot from the division rival Vikings, who sputtered to a 1-2 finish. Rodgers leads the Packers to a stunning wild-card round win against the Chicago Bears. Green Bay loses to the Saints in the Superdome, but there’s a consolation: Two weeks later Rodgers is named MVP for the third time in his career. McCarthy (at this point an ESPN analyst) declares Rodgers the greatest quarterback of all time.

The Road to the Super Bowl Runs Through the StubHub Center

How It Happens: The Chargers get the no. 1 seed in the AFC and the Rams get the no. 1 seed in the NFC.

Week 15: Chargers defeat Chiefs
Week 16: Chargers defeat Ravens, Seahawks defeat Chiefs
Week 17: Chargers defeat Broncos

The Chaos: After the Chiefs established themselves as perhaps the best team in football for the first three quarters of the season, a two-game skid against the Chargers and Seahawks relegates them to a wild-card matchup. Playing on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round, the Chiefs jump out to a 24-0 lead early in the second quarter, but the Steelers come back and win the game 41-38 after Andy Reid uses his final timeout with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter.

It leads to one of the most embarrassing moments in NFL history. The Chargers “host” the Steelers in a divisional-round game at the StubHub Center, which is dominated by Steelers fans waving Terrible Towels. Los Angeles’s offensive line commits five false starts due to crowd noise obscuring the snap count. The Chargers prevail, but the Patriots bring an even larger crowd to the AFC championship game the following week. New England prevails when Bill Belichick successfully ices Chargers kicker Mike Badgley on a potential game-winning kick, preventing a Rams-Chargers Super Bowl and allowing Boston fans to celebrate a victory in a Los Angeles stadium for the second time in four months. After an NFL owners meeting in March, the Chargers announce they are moving back to San Diego.

Mark Sanchez Starts a Playoff Game

How It Happens: Butt Fumble, meet the Butt Fumble Recovery.

Week 15: Washington defeats Jaguars, Broncos defeat Cowboys
Week 16: Washington defeats Titans, Bucs defeat Cowboys
Week 17: Washington defeats Eagles, Giants defeat Cowboys

The Chaos: Everyone had considered Washington out of the playoff race, but the Sanchize didn’t get the memo (perhaps he fumbled it). Playing in relief of Josh Johnson, who is benched at halftime of the team’s Week 15 game against the Jaguars, Sanchez leads Washington to a come-from-behind win to kickstart a three-game winning streak and snatch the NFC East from Dallas, which trips to an 0-3 finish. Washington hosts the Minnesota Vikings in a wild-card playoff matchup when Kirk Cousins returns to D.C., and the Vikings lose when Cousins fails to get the snap off before a delay-of-game penalty turns a fourth-and-goal from the 2 into a fourth-and-goal from the 7, which Minnesota fails to convert. Washington fans leave the stadium chanting, “You hike that?”

Washington loses to the Saints in the divisional round, 50-7, but Sanchez is so likeable in his return to relevancy that he is offered Jason Witten’s spot on Monday Night Football for 2019.

The Best First Round Imaginable

Playoff nirvana. In the AFC, we get Chiefs-Patriots II following their epic tilt in New England in Week 6, plus Steelers-Browns III after their Week 1 tie ended the Browns streak of not winning and their second game led to Hue Jackson getting fired (perhaps the Steelers should have took the loss for a long-term win). In the NFC, we get a Packers-Bears rematch after one of the best games of the season ended with a Rodgers miracle victory on Sunday Night Football in Week 1. Also, Seattle plays Dallas, which is cool, I guess.

The Worst Playoff Bracket Imaginable

This Salvador Dalí take on the playoff picture happens if the Chargers defeat the Chiefs and the Jets defeat Texans and the Browns defeat Broncos and the Lions defeat Bills and the Titans defeat the Giants and the Dolphins defeat the Vikings and Washington defeats the Jaguars and the Colts defeat the Cowboys and 49ers beat the Seahawks and the Steelers and Patriots tie and the Eagles beat the Rams and the Panthers beat the Saints and the Bears beat the Packers in Week 15 [deep breath] and Washington ties the Titans and the Chargers beat the Ravens and the Colts beat the Giants and the Eagles beat the Texans and LaVar Ball is named White House Chief of Staff and the Dolphins beat the Jaguars and the Browns beat the Bengals and the Buccaneers beat the Cowboys and the Lions beat the Vikings and the Bills beat the Patriots and the Bears beat the 49ers and the Cardinals beat the Rams and the Saints beat the Steelers and the Seahawks beat the Chiefs and the Broncos beat the Raiders in Week 16 [copy editor pauses, contemplates life choices while reading this paragraph] and the Browns beat the Ravens and the Dolphins beat the Bills and Washington beats the Eagles and the Titans beat the Colts and the Lions beat the Packers and the Bears beat the Vikings and the Jets beat the Patriots and the Panthers beat the Saints and the Giants beat the Cowboys and the Bengals beat the Steelers and the 49ers beat the Rams and the Chargers beat the Broncos in Week 17.

That would be a hell of a parlay.