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The Most Chaotic NFL Playoffs Still Possible, Ranked

We mostly know the teams that will be playing in January, but a lot of wild stuff could happen before we get there

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The second law of thermodynamics states that the universe trends toward chaos. So does football. There are just two weeks left in the NFL season, but there are still plenty of chaotic playoff scenarios that can take shape, even though the playoff race is mostly down to 14 teams for 12 spots. Here are the things we know for sure:

AFC

  • The Ravens have clinched the AFC North
  • The Chiefs have clinched the AFC West
  • The Patriots and Bills have clinched playoff spots

NFC

  • The Saints have clinched the NFC South
  • The Seahawks, 49ers, and Packers have clinched playoff spots

Everything else is up for grabs. Let’s rank the most chaotic scenarios we can engineer using ESPN’s and FiveThirtyEight’s playoff simulators, beginning with …

7. The Cowboys go 8-8, win the NFC East

Week 16: Cowboys over Eagles
Week 17: Washington over Cowboys

It’s easy to forget now, but Jason Garrett was once as synonymous with 8-8 as Jeff Fisher is with 7-9. Dallas finished 8-8 in each of Garrett’s first three full seasons. A 12-4 season in 2014 gave him a winning record, but the next season Dallas went 4-12, dropping Garrett’s record to 40-40 after five years. Garrett’s Cowboys went 32-16 from 2016 to 2018, but the team won just one playoff game in that span. Another 8-8 season in 2019 would bring Garrett’s Cowboys tenure full circle. It would also make a lot of football fans angry. The 8-8 Cowboys could host the 11-5 or 12-4 Seahawks or 49ers and spark another debate about whether playoff seeding needs to change. But the past two times a division winner was .500 or worse—7-9 Seattle in 2010 and 7-8-1 Carolina in 2014—both of those teams won their first playoff game. The Seahawks’ win over the Saints featured Marshawn Lynch’s Beastquake, and doubts about playoff seeding were put to rest. It could be Seattle on the other end of that situation nine years later. If the 49ers beat Seattle in Week 17, the Seahawks will likely travel to Dallas for Round 1. Dallas beat Seattle in last year’s wild-card round, and could even be favored to win this year’s rematch. The Cowboys may not have a winning record, but they might have their best chance to advance to the NFC championship game in years if things break right for them. Facing San Francisco could be a tall task in the divisional round, and while the Saints wouldn’t be an easy matchup, the Cowboys have played them as well as any team over the past two years. In Dallas’s past two games against New Orleans, the Cowboys are 1-1 and have outscored the Saints 23-22. If the Cowboys do advance to the NFC championship game, they would double the number of playoff wins they’ve had to this point under Garrett.

6. The 8-8 Eagles host the 12-4 49ers

Week 16: Eagles over Cowboys, Seahawks over Cardinals, 49ers over Rams
Week 17: Giants over Eagles, Washington over Cowboys, Seahawks over 49ers

The Cowboys hosting the Seahawks would be a somewhat palatable resolution to this NFC East fiasco. The Eagles hosting the 49ers would not. Through 15 weeks, San Francisco has outscored its opponents by 161 points. The Eagles have outscored their opponents by six points. The 49ers crossing the country to play in Philadelphia would be an outrage, though they no longer control their playoff seeding after losing to Atlanta this week.

5. The Seahawks and Vikings get first-round byes

Week 16: Vikings over Packers, Rams over 49ers, Bears over Chiefs
Week 17: Vikings over Bears, Seahawks over 49ers, Panthers over Saints, Lions over Packers

The Vikings have not been treated like a true NFC heavyweight this season, but they have a serious chance to finish the season 12-4 and win the NFC North if they can beat the Packers this week. They’ll need the Packers to drop their Week 17 game to the Lions, but Green Bay has been unable to decisively beat inferior opponents for a month. The Packers barely beat Washington 20-15 in Week 14, Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey came within inches of scoring a touchdown in the final minutes of Green Bay’s 24-16 win at Lambeau in Week 10, and last week the Bears came shockingly close to catching a Hail Mary with nine seconds left and then scoring a touchdown on a last-gasp lateral play down 21-13 with one second left. (Pitch the ball to Allen Robinson! He’s open!)

The Packers have been on the verge of losing control of the NFC North for six weeks. If the Vikings win out and Detroit can beat the Packers in Week 17, the 2012 quarterback draft class would be well represented in the playoffs: third-rounder Russell Wilson and fourth-rounder Kirk Cousins would each get first-round byes, plus Robert Griffin III would get a bye as Lamar Jackson’s backup in Baltimore. (Now someone just needs to sign Brandon Weeden.)

Seattle has had one of the strongest home-field advantages in pro football for the past two decades, but the Seahawks are just 4-2 at home this year versus 7-1 on the road (this mirrors how home-field advantage is down across the league). Minnesota, on the other hand, is 6-0 at home and has the second-best home winning percentage, after New England, across the past three seasons. It could be a difference-maker for the Vikings.

4. The Houston Texans get a first-round bye, the Patriots do not

Week 16: Texans over Buccaneers, Bills over Patriots
Week 17: Texans over Titans, Dolphins over Patriots, Jets over Bills, Chargers over Chiefs

There is a 0.1 percent chance the Texans get the first first-round bye in franchise history.

New England has earned a first-round bye for an NFL-record nine consecutive seasons and 13 times since 2001, more than the next-best teams (Pittsburgh and Denver) combined.

A Texans first-round bye would knock the Pats into the wild-card round for the first time in a decade. It could also give New England déjà vu. The Patriots have been around for so long that they have a history with just about every AFC team that matters, especially with whomever they’ll face in the playoffs this year. The Ravens are the only team who’ve consistently whooped the Pats in Foxborough in the Brady-Belichick era (including that previous wild-card game, which Baltimore won 33-14). Andy Reid’s Chiefs have scored 40 points on the Patriots three times—every other team has done so a combined four times in the past 20 years. The Patriots could also play the Steelers, with whom they have one of the most storied non-divisional rivalries in this century.

In this specific scenario, the Patriots would face the Titans, who are led by former Patriots linebacker and current Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel and GM Jon Robinson, the former head of college scouting for New England (not to mention running back Dion Lewis and cornerback Malcolm Butler). If the Pats advance, they could play Houston, whose head coach is former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and whose defensive coordinator is former Pats coordinator Romeo Crennel. Whoever New England plays, there will be a ton of history. Perhaps that’s why the Patriots try to play as few games as possible, and prefer to be in front of their own fans when they do it.

3. Ravens-Steelers play on wild-card weekend

Week 16: Browns over Ravens, Chiefs over Bears, Patriots over Bills
Week 17: Steelers over Ravens, Chiefs over Chargers, Patriots over Dolphins

Imagine the Browns upsetting Baltimore (which already happened in Week 4) while the Patriots and Chiefs win in Week 16. The Ravens and Steelers would then meet in Week 17 with high stakes. A Ravens win would give them the no. 1 seed and likely knock the Steelers out of the playoffs. A Steelers win would get them a playoff matchup against Baltimore the next week. An immediate playoff rematch between the fiercest rivals in the AFC would be epic (now that we’re approaching a new decade, we can say “epic” again).

2. Cleveland makes the playoffs

Week 16: Browns over Ravens, Chiefs over Bears, Saints over Titans, Patriots over Bills, Texans over Buccaneers, Colts over Panthers
Week 17: Browns over Bengals, Ravens over Steelers, Chiefs over Chargers, Patriots over Dolphins, Texans over Titans, Colts over Jaguars

Cleveland has less than a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight. It would be spectacular if every single one of these things happened and then the Browns lost to the Bengals in Week 17.

1. The Buffalo Bills win the AFC East

Week 16: Bills over Patriots
Week 17: Bills over Jets, Dolphins over Patriots

The last time the Bills won the AFC East was in 1995. Michael Jordan had recently given up on baseball and returned to the Bulls, Microsoft had just released Windows 95, and O.J. Simpson had just been found not guilty of double murder. Josh Allen had not yet been born. In the past 18 seasons, the Patriots have won the AFC East 16 times. They are on pace for their 17th division title, but the Bills could still wrestle it from them with two wins and a little Miami Magic. It’s unlikely, but goddamn it would be fun.