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Resetting the NFL Playoff Race in One of the Most Unpredictable Seasons Yet

We’re almost through Week 12 of this NFL season, and yet we might know less about teams and the standings than we did in early September. So who’s going to make the playoffs? And which team will take home the Lombardi Trophy?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Every week, the aim of this Monday column is to make sense of what we watched on Sunday. As you can probably imagine, that has often felt like a futile endeavor this NFL season.

It’s been a Benjamin Button–ass year in pro football, where the further we get into the calendar, the less we seem to know about this big, dumb league. Week 12’s fresh batch of confounding results did nothing to change that—but that won’t stop me from using this space to try to predict how the next two months of NFL football will play out. Here are my picks for how the playoff field will shape up. And since we’re already throwing out predictions, I’m offering up a Super Bowl pick in the process.

AFC Division Winners

1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)
2. New England Patriots (12-5)
3. Baltimore Ravens (12-5)
4. Tennessee Titans (11-6)

As someone in the content business, I’d like to thank the Chiefs for giving us plenty of material to work with this season. We got our “What’s wrong with the Chiefs?” articles out last month, and now we’re seemingly a week or two away from a wave of “How the Chiefs turned things around” pieces.

Kansas City currently sits a game back of the Ravens in the race for the AFC’s no. 1 seed and just a half-game back of the Patriots for the no. 2 spot. And while Baltimore and New England have tricky schedules ahead, the Chiefs have the league’s 24th-hardest slate the rest of the way, according to Pro Football Focus, including three straight divisional games coming up. I’m making this pick based on the assumption that Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid will get the offense going again. The defense has started to figure things out in recent weeks, but the offense has scored more than two touchdowns in a game just once since Week 7. If Kansas City is going to make me look smart for picking it, Reid had better come out of the bye week with new strategies for beating the zone defenses his team has been seeing every week. Some improved turnover luck for Mahomes wouldn’t hurt, either.

The Chiefs aren’t the only AFC contender with a suspect offense. In fact, all four of my division winners have big question marks on that side of the ball. The Ravens haven’t reached the 20-point mark since Week 9; the Titans are completely lost without Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones; and for all the love Mac Jones has received during his successful rookie campaign, he still ranks 20th in expected points added per dropback among qualified passers, according to TruMedia. The difference between those three teams and Kansas City? They don’t have Mahomes and Reid pulling the strings.

I think we can all agree that Tennessee is out of the running for the no. 1 seed after it followed up a shocking defeat to the lowly Texans with an uncompetitive showing in New England on Sunday. But the Titans still have the AFC’s best odds of being a division winner, according to FiveThirtyEight, thanks to the massive margin they cultivated last month. The Colts are probably the best overall team in the South, but Sunday’s tough loss to Tampa Bay pretty much ended their chances of catching Tennessee in the standings. Even if Indy is able to finish 4-1, which would require a split of games against the Cardinals and Patriots, the Titans would have to go 1-4 over that same span against this schedule:

Week 14: Jaguars (home)
Week 15: Steelers (away)
Week 16: 49ers (home)
Week 17: Dolphins (home)
Week 18: Texans (away)

It’s possible. But not likely.

The race is much tighter in the AFC North, which could be decided by the Bengals-Ravens matchup in Cincinnati the day after Christmas. But in order for that game to matter, the Bengals will have to navigate a brutal schedule down the stretch. Four of their last six opponents have at least a 50 percent chance of earning a postseason berth, according to FiveThirtyEight. And the two “easy” games will be on the road in Denver, which is always a tough assignment, and in Cleveland against a Browns team that has already beaten the Bengals once this season. The Ravens’ schedule isn’t much easier, but their toughest remaining games—against the Packers and Rams—are in Baltimore, and they already have a one-game cushion over the Bengals. Cincinnati could prove to be the better team over these next four weeks and still lose the division.

In the AFC East, things are far less complicated. The two remaining Bills-Patriots matchups will decide the division, which probably tips this in New England’s favor. That’s not to say that the Pats are the better team—I’d lean toward Buffalo given the choice between the two—but I can’t think of a worse matchup for this particular Bills group. That is especially true for Buffalo’s defense, which has had issues against power running teams all season. Making matters worse, the Bills will likely have to sweep the two matchups to repeat as division champs.

AFC Wild-Card Teams

5. Buffalo Bills (11-6)
6. Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)
7. Los Angeles Chargers (10-7)

With the Bills and Bengals firmly in control of the first two wild-card berths (if they don’t win their respective divisions), the final spot will likely come down to the Chargers and Colts. And once again, the deciding factor for me is the schedule. While Indianapolis has tricky games against the Cardinals and Patriots looming, Los Angeles just needs to win the games it will be favored in. Even if the Chargers drop next week’s game against the Bengals and the Week 15 home game against the Chiefs, wins over the Giants (home), Texans (road), Broncos (home), and Raiders (road) would be enough to get them over the finish line. This conversation would be a lot different if the Colts had been able to beat the Bucs on Sunday, and we wouldn’t even be having this discussion if they hadn’t thrown away the Titans game (and the division) in Week 8. But such is life when Carson Wentz is your quarterback.

NFC Division Winners

1. Green Bay Packers (14-3)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14-3)
3. Arizona Cardinals (14-3)
4. Dallas Cowboys (13-4)

As wild as this NFL season has been, the NFC’s divisional races probably won’t be very interesting over the next four weeks. According to FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model, the NFC East is the only division still up for grabs, as the Packers, Buccaneers, and Cardinals all have at least a 95 percent chance of coming out on top. And after the Eagles lost to a Giants team missing half of its receiver depth chart, I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Cowboys are the clear favorites to win the East.

That doesn’t mean these four teams don’t have plenty left to play for. The coveted no. 1 seed—and the bye that comes along with it—is still in play for each of them. But as strange as this may have sounded a few weeks ago during Aaron Rodgers’s foray into public health, the Packers look like the most stable team in the conference. Green Bay has won nine of its past 11 games started by the 2020 MVP, and I’m not sure we’ve seen the best of this offense, which ranks eighth in passing DVOA and 12th in rushing DVOA. Those aren’t bad marks, but this unit was top-five in both categories a year ago and is arguably more talented now than it was then. The defense, meanwhile, has transformed into one of the more reliable units in the conference, thanks in large part to a secondary that has stepped up in the absence of star corner Jaire Alexander. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry has coaxed good play out of Kevin King and Rasul Douglas, which should allow him to use Alexander as more of a roving chess piece when he returns. So if the special teams can get its shit together—I’m looking at you, Mason Crosby, and [insert whichever punt returner the Packers decide to trot out there next]—Green Bay should cruise to the no. 1 seed.

Of course, Green Bay still has to catch Arizona in the standings. The Cardinals hold a half-game lead over the Packers, but Green Bay owns a tiebreaker thanks to its victory in Arizona last month. That Kliff Kingsbury’s team has managed to maintain its lead in the conference with both Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins sidelined with injuries is a minor miracle, but the Cardinals’ remaining schedule includes games against the Rams, Colts, and Cowboys. Murray and Hopkins will have to pick up right where they left off before the injuries if the Cardinals are going to hold on to the top seed. That’s a tough ask.

The Bucs have an even rockier path to the no. 1 seed. If both the Packers and Cardinals take care of business, the defending champs will have to win out just to stay even with them in the standings … and that still won’t be enough, as the tiebreaker would leave Tampa Bay with the no. 3 seed. With visits upcoming from the Bills and Saints, who always seem to give Tom Brady issues, it’s looking like the Bucs will have to win multiple road playoff games to get back to the Super Bowl. That wasn’t an issue last season—but the NFC is a little stronger at the top this time around.

NFC Wild-Card Teams

5. Los Angeles Rams (12-5)
6. San Francisco 49ers (10-7)
7. New Orleans Saints (9-8)

The first two wild-card spots are pretty much locked up. The Rams would have to implode to lose the no. 5 seed, and the 49ers’ win over Minnesota on Sunday helped them leapfrog the Vikings and raised their odds of making the playoffs to 72 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Here’s where things get interesting: The 5-6 Vikings are currently clinging to the final wild-card spot in the conference, but there are seven teams within one game of them, including the Falcons, Bears, and Giants. It isn’t the most impressive bunch, but there is one team that could rise from the muck and overtake Minnesota for the final spot. You read the header above this section, so you know I’m talking about the Saints.

I know, I know. It’s a tough sell, especially after that showing on Thanksgiving. But hear me out: While you were busy watching way too much football on Sunday, Alvin Kamara, Ryan Ramczyk, and Mark Ingram were quietly returning to practice, and they appear to be in line to play on Thursday against a Cowboys team that will be missing its head coach due to COVID protocols. New Orleans doesn’t even have to win that game to keep its playoff hopes alive. Hell, it can even lose the Week 15 game against Tampa Bay and the math still works out. The rest of the remaining schedule isn’t all that difficult:

Week 14: Jets (away)
Week 16: Dolphins (home)
Week 17: Panthers (home)
Week 18: Falcons (away)

Sure, the Saints are still relying on Trevor Siemian to make this work, but his job will be a lot easier with Kamara back. Just force-feeding no. 41 touches isn’t an ideal strategy, but it’s a hell of a lot better than whatever the Saints have been doing in his absence.

The Vikings’ remaining schedule isn’t much harder than New Orleans’, but it does include a trip to Green Bay and a visit from the Rams. There are also very losable games against the Bears and Steelers sprinkled in, and the loss in San Francisco erased any margin for error. With Dalvin Cook suffering another injury in the loss and the depth issues on the defensive line, there is a lot of pressure on Kirk Cousins to carry this team. Those are words you never want to hear.

Super Bowl: Packers Over Chiefs

Is this my attempt to speak the first Rodgers-Mahomes matchup into existence? Perhaps. But the Packers are the most complete team in the league right now. They should earn the all-important bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and Rodgers looks like the best quarterback in a league where quarterback play dictates everything. If you’re a Bucs fan, I can’t blame you for being upset with this pick after what happened in January. But Tampa Bay’s secondary, which played such a big role in the NFC title game last season, has taken a massive step back, while Green Bay’s secondary, which also helped decide that game, is much improved. That will be the difference in a potential rematch.

As for the Chiefs pick … I know it doesn’t really make sense. The defense is playing better, but there are still holes all over the roster. And the offense only appears to work against units coached by Gus Bradley. But Reid and Mahomes have earned the same benefit of the doubt we used to afford the Brady-led Patriots when they struggled, and picking New England was rarely a bad move.

Kansas City’s experience (and home-field advantage) might be enough to get it through a flawed AFC, but the Packers (or whichever team emerges from the NFC) won’t be so easy to overcome. So Green Bay is my pick to take home the Lombardi Trophy. A championship-parade speech by Rodgers would be the most fitting way to cap off this nonsensical season, after all.