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The Seven Questions That Will Decide the NFL Playoff Race

With two weeks left in the regular season, 24 teams are still vying for playoff berths. How will things shake out? Here are the factors to watch—and the potential chaos scenarios to consider.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

This NFL season feels like a marathon. We’re still two weeks away from the first Week 18 ever, and the longest season in history already seems like it’s gone on forever. Two head coaches have left their teams in disgrace. The Ravens just started a quarterback who couldn’t crack that Jets’ lineup a few months ago. Matt Rhule has grown so desperate that he’s resorted to using a college-style quarterback rotation. The writers are running out of ideas.

What I’m saying is that it’d be in all of our best interests if we fast-forwarded to the playoffs. But with 24 teams still in postseason contention, there is plenty to sort out over the next two weeks. To help guide you through it, we’ve come up with seven questions that will shape the playoff bracket.

How Important Is Ian Book to the Playoff Race?

If you thought you were done watching Ian Book playing meaningful football, I’ve got terrible news: The 2021 fourth-round pick out of Notre Dame is not only set to start a nationally televised game on Monday night, but he’s also set to start one of the most important games left on the schedule. With Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian both out on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Sean Payton is turning to Book in a Saints-Dolphins game that could decide the respective playoff fates of New Orleans and Miami.

A Lot Is at Stake on Monday Night Football

Team Playoff odds With win With loss Difference
Team Playoff odds With win With loss Difference
Saints 53% 72% 34% 38%
Dolphins 18% 34% 4% 27%
Odds via FiveThirtyEight

Payton was so desperate to avoid starting the rookie that he reached out to the retired Drew Brees to ask whether he was willing to suit up, according to Jeff Duncan of the Times-Picayune. On behalf of the NFL-watching world, we thank you for your effort, Coach. Alas, Brees turned Payton down, so Book will get the start against Brian Flores’s blitz-heavy defense. I’m not going to pretend like I’ve spent any amount of time grinding film of the 23-year-old, but I did peruse his pre-draft scouting report on NFL.com, and found these listed in the “Weaknesses” section:

  • Needs to get through his progressions faster.
  • Has issues with indecisiveness at times.
  • Carries ball low in the pocket and throws with a windup.
  • Not a natural anticipatory thrower.

Those aren’t exactly ideal traits for a quarterback who will make his first career start against an aggressive defense that ranks first in blitz rate, according to Pro Football Reference. Unsurprisingly, many sportsbooks have the Dolphins as three-point road favorites. I’m not sure that is high enough.

Even if Payton is unable to pull off this minor miracle—Netflix and Kevin James are standing by with Home Team 2: By the Book, just in case—there is still hope in New Orleans. The Saints will close out the season with games against Carolina and Atlanta; the former is a few weeks away from Rhule letting a fan get a few reps at quarterback, and the latter has the NFC’s second-worst point differential, behind only the Lions. If New Orleans can sweep its divisional rivals, that should be enough to get the Saints back to the playoffs regardless of Monday’s result—but a win would make things a whole lot less dicey.

Miami, on the other hand, can start planning for the offseason if it loses on Monday. In that scenario, the Dolphins would need to both beat the Titans and Patriots in weeks 17 and 18 and get help from the Raiders and Broncos to earn a playoff berth.


What’s the Remaining Potential for Chaos in the AFC North?

Based on Week 16’s results, you wouldn’t know that this is one of the tightest division races in NFL history. The Bengals, fresh off a 41-21 rout of the battered Ravens, look like the only AFC North squad worthy of making the playoffs, and Sunday’s win raised their odds of winning the North to 72 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model. And yet, every team in the division still has a fairly realistic shot at coming out on top.

The Bengals can wrap things up with a victory in either of their next two games: They host the Chiefs in Week 17 and visit the Browns in Week 18. But if Cincinnati falls to Kansas City and then Cleveland beats the Steelers next Monday, that Week 18 Bengals-Browns matchup would be for the division crown—unless Baltimore is able to win out against the Rams and Steelers. If the Bengals lose their final two games and the Browns and Ravens both run the table, then Baltimore would be your division champ. And if Pittsburgh beats the Browns and Ravens in weeks 17 and 18, the Steelers will win the division if the Bengals drop both of their next two. Got all that?

If you’re a fan of chaos, your Week 17 rooting guide is simple: You want the Chiefs, Ravens, and Browns all to win next week (sorry, Pittsburgh), which would both set up the first meaningful Battle for Ohio in recent memory and provide the Ravens with yet another chance to break hearts in Cleveland. If you’re a fan of watchable football, however, you should root for the Bengals to clinch the division as expeditiously as possible, so that we don’t have to watch Ben Roethlisberger, Baker Mayfield, or this patchwork Ravens roster play another critical game this season.

If Cincinnati is able to take down Kansas City next week, then we’ll have an entirely different discussion heading into Week 18. The Bengals would’ve clinched the AFC North, and they’d have a real chance to secure the no. 1 seed and a first-round bye. The Bengals would have to win out, the Chiefs would have to lose their regular-season finale in Denver, and the Titans would have to lose one of their next two against the Dolphins and Texans. Weirder things have happened this season.

What’s the Patriots’ Outlook Now That the Division Is Likely Out of Reach?

The Patriots had positioned themselves atop the AFC East with a wind-aided victory over Buffalo in Week 13. Two games later, they’re looking up in the standings. After losing to the Colts in Week 15 and then falling to the Bills in Week 16, the Pats have a mere 11 percent of winning the division, per FiveThirtyEight. New England is still within a game of leapfrogging Buffalo, so the AFC East title is technically within reach. Here’s the issue: The Bills would need to lose to either the Falcons or Jets for the Pats to have a shot. So, yeah, New England will likely play a road wild-card game for the first time since 1998, when Bill Belichick still worked for the Jets.

If the Patriots hope to make a 12th Super Bowl appearance, the path to that point will now be difficult to navigate. Beating both Kansas City and Buffalo on the road is probably too much to ask of a team that has clear limitations and is led by a rookie quarterback, but if these next two weeks unfold the right way, New England could avoid playing the Bills and Chiefs next month. A playoff path that travels through Cincinnati, Tennessee, and Indianapolis wouldn’t seem so daunting.

In order for that to happen, the Bengals would need to upset the Chiefs next Sunday. That would put the Titans in the driver’s seat for the AFC’s top seed, and set up these matchups in the wild-card round:

(7) Chargers at (2) Chiefs
(5) Colts at (4) Bills
(6) Patriots at (3) Bengals

The Chargers have already beaten the Chiefs in Arrowhead, and the Colts ran the Bills off their field last month. But even if Kansas City and Buffalo proved able to avenge those losses, the Pats would avoid both teams in the divisional round, with the Titans drawing the lowest remaining seed. Tennessee would represent a winnable matchup for New England.

How Would It Reshape the Landscape If the Titans Got the First-Round Bye?

There isn’t a team that needs the no. 1 seed more than the Titans. With Derrick Henry still working his way back from a foot injury, Tennessee having a first-round bye could spell the difference between a quick postseason exit and a deep playoff run.

Running backs may not be the focal point of the 31 other offenses in the NFL, but the Titans are the exception. Their offense has taken a nosedive since Henry went down against the Colts in Week 8. Over the first half of the season, the Titans ranked ninth in Football Outsiders’ rush DVOA and 23rd in pass DVOA. From weeks 10 through 16, their rush DVOA ranks 22nd, and their pass DVOA has been the worst in the league.

Tennessee’s injury issues extend far beyond the running back position. Top receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones have been in and out of the lineup due to myriad injuries, as Brown missed most of December, and Jones was sidelined almost all of November. But even when those two have been on the field at the same time, the passing game hasn’t been nearly as effective without Henry forcing defenses to load up the box snap after snap.

The Titans defense has kept the team afloat in Henry’s absence, but its success largely has been fueled by the mistakes of opposing offenses. Coaxing mistakes out of bad quarterbacks won’t be a sustainable blueprint in the playoffs, especially against the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, or Joe Burrow. Tennessee will need to score points if it’s going to make a deep playoff run, and that’s not going to happen if it has to lean on Ryan Tannehill to carry the offense.

FiveThirtyEight gives the Titans a 24 percent chance of getting the no. 1 seed, so this isn’t a completely unrealistic outcome. If the Chiefs lose to the Bengals next week and the Titans beat the Dolphins and Texans in weeks 17 and 18, Tennessee would become the AFC South champion and earn that all-important bye to provide Henry with an extra week to recover. If the NFL’s best back is 100 percent healthy, the Titans have to be included on any list of top Super Bowl contenders. We’ve already seen that version of Tennessee beat the Chiefs, Bills, and Colts (twice), and its odds of winning it all would jump to the third-highest in the league with the no. 1 seed in hand, per FiveThirtyEight.

Who Should the NFC’s Top Contenders Root for Over the Next Two Weeks?

The race for the NFC’s top seed seems all but settled. Following this week’s win over the Browns, the Packers have an 85 percent chance to earn the first-round bye, according to FiveThirtyEight. Green Bay can clinch it by beating the Vikings and Lions to close out the regular season, or by winning one of those two and hoping Dallas drops a game against either Arizona or Philadelphia. So for the other top teams in the conference, the next couple of weeks are mainly about positioning themselves to avoid bad matchups in the wild-card round.

The Buccaneers, who seem bound for either the second or third seed, will want to avoid a playoff matchup with the Saints. Tom Brady has beaten New Orleans just once in five tries since he arrived in Tampa Bay, as Dennis Allen seems to be the only defensive coordinator capable of making Brady look like a man in his mid-40s. The Bucs should root hard for Miami on Monday night. If the Saints win that one, Tampa Bay would have to rely on the Panthers or Falcons to help it steer clear of New Orleans, which would capture the no. 6 seed if it’s able to win out. If the Cowboys also win out, that would set up a wild-card game between the NFC South rivals.

The rest of the NFC’s upper crust would probably welcome a chance to face Taysom Hill in the playoffs, but there is one team that the Rams would surely want to avoid: the 49ers. San Francisco has won five straight against Los Angeles, which could up the stakes of their Week 18 showdown. If the 49ers beat the Texans next Sunday, it would fall to the Rams to keep San Francisco out of the playoffs. If they can’t, we could see a do-or-die rematch the following week.

There isn’t one wild-card team that should scare the Cowboys if Dak Prescott is completely healthy, as Dallas has a highly adaptable offense and an active defense that matches up well with virtually any opponent. It may not want to play the Eagles just days after seeing them in Week 18, though; that could factor into the Cowboys’ decision-making process about potentially resting their starters in Philly.

What Is the Ripple Effect If the Raiders Win Out?

I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing before we get started.

You all good? OK, let’s talk about the Raiders, who kept their faint playoff hopes alive with an, uh, inspiring win over a Broncos team that was led by Drew Lock. With a 17 percent chance of earning a postseason berth, per FiveThirtyEight, the Raiders now have better odds of making the playoffs than the Browns, Steelers, or Vikings do. They just have to beat the Colts on the road and the Chargers at home to do it.

In the unlikely scenario that Las Vegas runs the table, it’s in the playoffs; given its advantage in the tiebreakers, it would require no help from other teams to punch its ticket. And the Raiders getting in would totally change the dynamic of the AFC wild-card race. For instance, if the Dolphins beat both the Saints and Titans, the Raiders’ success could turn the Week 18 matchup between New England and Miami into a play-in game—that’s right, the Raiders could keep the Patriots out of the playoffs, exacting a measure of revenge for the Tuck Rule Game 20 years earlier.

The Raiders winning out would also virtually guarantee that Justin Herbert and the Chargers would miss the playoffs. On second thought, I never should have brought this hypothetical up. If we’re stuck watching Derek Carr throw checkdowns on Nickelodeon in three weeks, I’ll take full responsibility.

Which Non-Playoff Teams Have the Best Chance to Play Spoiler?

Most NFL fans have probably spent the past two months ignoring the Falcons and Broncos, but it’ll be a lot harder to do that over the next two weeks. Neither team is going to make the playoffs—both have odds of 2 percent or less, per FiveThirtyEight—but both could play spoiler and reshape the playoff bracket with an upset win or two.

With games remaining against both the Bills and Saints, the Falcons have the power to shuffle things up on both sides of the bracket. An Atlanta win in Buffalo would open the door for New England to win the AFC East, while a win over the Saints could keep their bitter rivals out of the postseason. Look, I’m not picking Atlanta to win either of those matchups, but it wouldn’t be the first time that Falcons nonsense worked out in the Patriots’ favor.

The Broncos are much more likely to play the role of spoiler over the next two weeks. They can all but eliminate the Chargers with a win Sunday in Los Angeles, and they’ll get an opportunity to knock Kansas City out of the AFC’s top seed in Week 18 at home. Teddy Bridgewater’s availability will play a large factor in determining just how realistic either of those outcomes is. The veteran quarterback suffered his second concussion of the season in Week 15, and Denver coach Vic Fangio said the team will do “whatever is best for his health moving forward,” so playing him in two meaningless games is probably unlikely.

That’s right: Drew Lock is set to play a pivotal role in determining the AFC playoff field. If that isn’t proof this regular season needs to end as quickly as possible, I don’t know what is.