Getting an NFL playoff spot is like getting a seat in musical chairs: When the Christmas songs begin, the music is about to stop. With four weeks left in the regular season, there are about a half dozen teams on the fringes of the playoff race that will soon be left standing. In the AFC, 10 teams are competing for seven spots. The NFC has basically the same math, but things are more complicated because of the NFC East’s shenanigans. As we head into the home stretch, let’s assess the playoff picture in a little more detail than we got Sunday from Steve Kornacki, whom NBC apparently keeps chained to a giant video touchscreen.
Remember, the NFL added a third wild-card spot for each conference this season, so 14 teams will make the playoffs. (This is separate from the NFL’s contingency plan to have 16 playoff teams if the season can’t be played in full. It’s 2020—forgive yourself if you are unsure how many teams make the playoffs.) To account for having one extra playoff team in each conference, the league also tweaked the format so that only the top seed in each conference gets a first-round bye. That adds some drama to the top of the race. In the AFC, the 11-0 Steelers (who host Washington on Monday night) and 11-1 Chiefs have vise grips on their divisions and are fighting for the bye. In the NFC, the 10-2 Saints and 9-3 Packers are the only teams with a realistic shot at clinching the top seed.
But the Chiefs, Steelers, Saints, and Packers all have their divisions locked up, so there is not much intrigue. Let’s check on everyone else in the race and break down who is on pace for a playoff berth and who might get left out. All playoff odds come from FiveThirtyEight.
Division Title Contenders
Tennessee Titans (8-4, 88 percent chance to make the playoffs)
Indianapolis Colts (8-4, 70 percent)
Buffalo Bills (8-3, 89 percent)
Miami Dolphins (8-4, 43 percent)
Let’s start with the AFC South. The Titans and Colts have the same record and split their two head-to-head games, but the Titans hold the tiebreaker because they are 3-1 in the division while the Colts are 2-2. It’s funny that the teams are this close. Just a week ago, the Titans smacked the Colts 45-26, and it looked like Derrick Henry and Co. would run away with the division. But on Sunday the Titans were on the wrong end of a smacking. They fell behind Cleveland 38-7 by halftime, and the 41-35 loss exposed their vulnerabilities. Tennessee’s defense is awful, especially on third down and in the red zone. Its special teams might be even worse. Behind Henry, Ryan Tannehill, A.J. Brown, and Corey Davis (who had a career-high 182 receiving yards Sunday when Brown tweaked his ankle), the Titans offense is strong. But that group keeps having to save the rest of their team.
The Colts have the opposite problem. Indy’s strong defense makes up for its lack of reliable skill-position players. The offense lacks impactful receivers (T.Y. Hilton recorded his first 100-yard game in two years on Sunday) and has gotten maddeningly inconsistent production out of rookie running back Jonathan Taylor. The Titans have Tannehill, a mobile quarterback blossoming at a late age; the Colts have Philip Rivers, a quarterback so old that he is subbed out for QB sneaks.
For all of these teams’ differences, though, their schedules down the stretch are similar. They each have a game left against the Jaguars and Texans. The Titans’ other two games are against Detroit (easy) and Green Bay (not easy), while Indy’s other two are against Las Vegas (a good bad team) and the Steelers (a bad undefeated team). Indy’s matchup against the Raiders next week will be crucial, since Las Vegas is also competing for a wild-card spot. A Colts win next week gives them a nearly 90 percent chance of making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight. A loss drops them below 50 percent and seriously hurts their division chances.
Then there is the AFC East. Over the past 20 years, the Patriots have won this division more consistently than Michael Jordan made free throws. But now Brady is gone, and so is New England’s hegemony. The Bills play the 49ers on Monday Night Football, and a win gives Buffalo a nearly 90 percent chance of winning the AFC East. Even if the Bills lose to the 49ers and drop their next two games, they would still have the inside track for the division. A title would be Buffalo’s first in the AFC East since 1995. A third of Buffalo’s players were not alive when that happened.
Almost as amazing as the Bills leading the AFC East is that the second-place team is the Dolphins, not the Patriots. Last year, the Dolphins lost their first seven games and set the record for players used in a single season. This year, Miami would get the second wild-card spot if the season ended today. That is a Coach Steve–level come-up. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, they play the Chiefs next week. Barring a huge upset, their chances at winning the AFC East are slim. But the Dolphins can still make the playoffs even if Kansas City beats them. Head coach Brian Flores’s roster plays disciplined defense and sound special teams, and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the offense are solid. That makes Miami more well-rounded than several other teams in the wild-card hunt.
Cleveland Browns (9-3, 92 percent chance of making the playoffs)
Las Vegas Raiders (7-5, 47 percent)
Baltimore Ravens (6-5, 55 percent)
In a non-pandemic year, the Browns getting off to their best start since 1994 would be one of the biggest stories of the season. But these Browns seem happy to have a level of anonymity. Their 2019 season was derailed in Week 1, when they lost to Tennessee by 30 points. Their 2020 season was punctuated on Sunday, when they walloped the Titans en route to a 38-7 halftime lead. (Please ignore how they barely hung on for a 41-35 win. We are trying to be positive.)
New general manager Andrew Berry—the youngest GM in NFL history—fixed the offensive line this offseason by improving the talent at both tackle spots. Under first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland’s offense now looks completely rejuvenated. The Browns are protecting Baker Mayfield (they have the highest pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus) and paving the way for running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (they also have the highest run blocking grade on PFF). They lead all teams in rushing (158 yards per game), including the Ravens, who set all sorts of rushing records last season. Against Tennessee, Mayfield had his best half of football since the 2017 Oklahoma–Oklahoma State game. The defense has excelled too. Pass rusher Myles Garrett is the only player in the league who averages more than a sack per game. His outstanding play has supported a secondary that has been ravaged by injuries.
Regardless of how Pittsburgh fares against Washington on Monday, Cleveland’s odds of winning the AFC North are remote. But Cleveland leads the wild-card race and would have to completely face-plant down the stretch to miss the playoffs. Even if the Browns beat only the Jets and lose their other three remaining games (against the Ravens, Giants, and Steelers), they are likely to make the playoffs for the second time since they were reincarnated in 1999.
The Raiders are a different story. Three weeks ago, Derek Carr nearly won a shootout against Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City. Vegas lost that game but won our respect. It promptly gave it away. This team was blown out by the Falcons (43-6) two weeks ago, and followed that up with something worse: an almost-loss to the Jets on Sunday. The Raiders needed a Hail Mary to come out on top, which worked because Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams called for an all-out blitz with no safety help. Relatedly, Williams was fired on Monday morning. Forget a Hail Mary. Why pray to God when you can pray to Gregg Williams?
Two of Las Vegas’s next three games are against the Colts and Dolphins. Those matchups that have major wild-card implications. We’ll find out what kind of team these Raiders are during that stretch, and whether this franchise has really made progress in Jon Gruden’s first three seasons at the wheel of the pirate ship.
Then there are the Ravens. How the mighty have fallen. Last year Baltimore was the toast of the league. Now its season has been turned upside-down by the coronavirus. But the truth is that Lamar Jackson and the Ravens looked like a shell of their 2019 selves before half of their starters landed on the COVID list. Baltimore would not make the playoffs if the season ended today, but its schedule might save it. The Ravens play Dallas on Tuesday (yes, Tuesday) before finishing with games against the Browns, Giants, Jaguars, and Bengals. Even if Cleveland and New York are not pushovers, Jacksonville and Cincinnati should be. That schedule is why Baltimore is still projected to make the playoffs in most statistical models.
Technically Still in the Mix
New England Patriots (6-6, 16 percent chance of making the playoffs)
This is the part of the horror movie where the serial killer falls 50 stories and everyone assumes he is dead without checking on the body. The Pats have just a 16 percent chance of making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight, but would have a 94 percent chance if they go 4-0 the rest of the way. Their toughest remaining test comes against the Rams this Thursday, but Bill Belichick has embarrassed Sean McVay before. New England’s other three games are against the rest of the AFC East. The Patriots are probably dead. Right? Right?
Division Title Contenders
Los Angeles Rams (8-4, 98 percent chance of making the playoffs)
Seattle Seahawks (8-4, 96 percent)
The Seahawks just blew their chance to take the NFC West lead by losing to Colt McCoy and the Giants. Now the Seahawks and Rams are tied atop the division and find themselves in similar spots: Each team is virtually guaranteed to make the playoffs, but neither is likely to get a first-round bye. So is it better to win the division and host a playoff game or go on the road during the wild-card round? Normally, having home-field advantage in the playoffs would be a big deal, but without fans in the stands, it feels less important. Would you rather (a) win the NFC West and host the Buccaneers, Vikings, or Cardinals in the first round or (b) finish second in the division and travel to play the winner of the NFC East?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5, 82 percent chance of making the playoffs)
Minnesota Vikings (6-6, 38 percent)
Arizona Cardinals (6-6, 34 percent)
San Francisco 49ers (5-6, 38 percent)
The Vikings opened the season 1-5 and looked cooked. But they’re 5-1 since their bye week, clawing their way to a .500 record and the thick of the playoff race. Kirk Cousins is tied with Patrick Mahomes for the league’s second-most passing touchdowns since the bye in Week 8. The Minnesota defense has turned things around too, going from allowing 32 points per game before the bye to 23 points per game after. It’s hard to talk about Minnesota without repeating bye, bye, bye, but ever since then they have gotten N’Sync.
Now the Vikings will prepare for their biggest game of the season, against the Buccaneers … who are coming off their bye. A Minnesota win would put the team ahead of Tampa Bay in the standings and give the Vikings a nearly 71 percent chance of earning a wild-card spot. A loss would drop the Vikings’ playoff chances to less than 25 percent.
The Bucs can only hope to improve after their bye as much as Minnesota did. Their 27-24 loss to the Chiefs in Week 12 exposed how this roster has not yet jelled. Tom Brady’s rapport with receiver Mike Evans is like a shoddy Bluetooth connection. “You don’t have a spring at all or a real training camp, it’s hard on the quarterback, especially when you’ve done something for 20 years and then throw all these guys at him,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said of Brady two weeks ago. “I think the lack of practice time and everything, and learning of everything, from spring through camp is still showing up.”
Tampa Bay doesn’t have to fix things immediately. Even if the Bucs lose to Minnesota, they are still likely to reach the playoffs. Their schedule after that is a road game in Detroit sandwiched between two games against the Falcons. Beating the Vikings this week would all but assure the Bucs a playoff spot, though, and could provide a preview of how this team will perform when it matters most.
The Cardinals are on a three-game losing streak that coincides with Kyler Murray hurting his shoulder against the Seahawks in Week 11. Murray has downplayed the issue, but he’s been consistently listed on the injury report and has appeared to be in pain during games. Murray’s adjusted yards per throw was roughly league average through Week 10 (7.6 yards per pass); in the last three weeks, he’s fallen to Nick Foles/Carson Wentz territory (5.4 yards per pass). The rest of the offense has declined too. Since the Hail Murray, DeAndre Hopkins has just 158 yards. Remove the Hail Murray, and he has less than 55 receiving yards per game since the start of November. The Cardinals’ past three games represent three of their bottom four games by total yardage.
Meanwhile, the 49ers will play Buffalo on Monday Night Football, and the game has huge ramifications for their playoff chances. A win and the Niners would have a 51 percent chance of making the playoffs; a loss and those chances would be about 27 percent. But San Francisco’s next two games are extremely winnable matchups against Washington and Dallas. Winning those two would set Kyle Shanahan and Co. up for a Week 16 clash against Arizona that could have a playoff spot on the line.
Technically Still in the Mix
Chicago Bears (5-7, 9 percent chance of making the playoffs)
Detroit Lions (5-7, 2 percent)
These teams are not mathematically eliminated, but they were spiritually eliminated long ago.
The NFC East
New York Giants (5-7, 69 percent chance of making the playoffs)
Washington Football Team (4-7, 18 percent)
Philadelphia Eagles (3-8-1, 8 percent)
Dallas Cowboys (3-8, 6 percent)
The NFC East requires its own section. These teams have no chance at a wild-card berth, so their only hope is to be the king of a sad, depressing, and sometimes comical trash heap. The Giants have emerged as the favorites to wear that crown. They took the division lead Sunday with their win in Seattle. And they won both head-to-head matchups against second-place Washington, giving the Giants a key tiebreaker that could come into play if Washington upsets the Steelers on Monday.
More importantly, the Giants no longer look like a doormat.
Head coach Joe Judge and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham have built a defense out of football clichés: This group outhustles its opponents, doesn’t beat itself, and plays sound football. If Daniel Jones can stop turning the ball over so much when he returns from a hamstring injury (a big if), this team might not be an easy out in the playoffs. Depending on how things shake out in the coming weeks, it is entirely possible that the Giants could host the Bucs in the first round. Someone ask Steve Kornacki about the odds of the Giants upsetting Brady in the playoffs for the third time.