After 16 weeks of nonsensical results, the 2021 NFL season finally provided us with some clarity on Sunday. Entering the day, 24 teams still had a mathematical chance of landing a playoff berth, and 11 had a shot at earning a first-round bye. But after yesterday’s results, 11 of the 14 postseason spots are locked down; the Packers took the top seed in the NFC; and the Titans pulled within one win of doing the same in the AFC. With the Colts just a win over the last-place Jaguars away from clinching their berth, only two slots should be up for grabs in Week 18. The Chargers and Raiders will play for one on Sunday night, and the Saints and 49ers will be going after the other in their respective games next week.
But even though we generally know which teams will be participating in the postseason, there is still plenty of seeding to be determined in the final week of the season. And given how wide open the race for the Super Bowl seems to be—FiveThirtyEight gives 12 teams at least a 1 percent chance of winning it all—the bracket itself could go a long way toward determining which teams are playing in SoFi Stadium on February 13. Avoiding particularly bad matchups or having to play in bad-weather cities could prove just as important as a team’s seeding—so even if your favorite team has its postseason spot secured, next Sunday’s results could help decide its fate. That’s why we’ve put together this handy rooting guide for Week 18, which will cover the ideal postseason bracket for each of the (realistic) playoff contenders, and the results that would help set it up.
To make things a bit less complicated, we’ll carry out this exercise under the assumption that Tennessee is going to beat Houston on Sunday. It’s not the safest assumption to make, given that the Texans won the first matchup between these teams this season, but the Titans are much healthier now and they’ve opened up as 11-point favorites for a reason. And because we don’t want to project too far out into the future, we’ll leave both the Packers and Titans out of this.
With that out of the way, let’s start with the defending champs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Don’t let Antonio Brown’s, um, I’m not really sure what to call it, distract you from the fact that the Buccaneers nearly lost to the Jets on Sunday. Tampa Bay allowed 150 yards on the ground, which continues a troubling trend for a run defense that was historically dominant a season ago and has been closer to mediocre in 2021. And with Tom Brady now missing two of his top receiving targets—Chris Godwin is done for the season after tearing his ACL in Week 15, and according to Bruce Arians, Brown is off the team—and the rest of the defense regressing (mostly due to injury), this year’s Bucs feel pretty beatable. A wild-card exit wouldn’t be the most shocking development for the reigning champs.
Fortunately for Tampa Bay, a wild-card matchup with the Saints—who have famously given Brady issues over the last two years—is mathematically impossible. New Orleans needs a 49ers loss to even have a shot at the 7 seed, and the Rams would be locked into the 2 seed by beating San Francisco on Sunday, moving Tampa Bay down to no. 3. That means the Saints would have to make it to the NFC title game to see the Bucs in the playoffs. But there is one reason to keep an eye on that Rams-49ers game if you’re a Tampa Bay fan: A Rams loss combined with a Cowboys win would knock Los Angeles down to the 4 seed and reduce the chances of the Bucs seeing Sean McVay’s team in the divisional round. Brady’s Bucs are 0-2 against the Rams since he arrived in Tampa, and the 44-year-old quarterback has looked his age in both matchups.
What to root for in Week 18: A win over the Panthers; a 49ers win over the Rams; and a Cowboys win over the Eagles.
Kansas City Chiefs
Following a 34-31 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday that knocked Kansas City out of the top spot in the AFC, the Chiefs can approach Week 18 in one of two ways: They can pin their hopes on the Texans pulling off the upset, or they can be realistic and resign themselves to the fact that Davis Mills probably isn’t beating the Titans, keeping the no. 1 seed out of reach. Things are a lot less complicated with that first option: Kansas City needs a win and a Tennessee loss to get that first-round bye. But if they go that second route, then maaaaaaaaaybe they should consider throwing Saturday’s game against the Broncos.
I know. It’s an odd suggestion, but hear me out: A loss combined with wins by the Bengals and Bills would drop the Chiefs down to the fourth seed. And while that might increase the team’s degree of difficulty in the wild-card round, it would help Kansas City avoid a divisional-round game against Cincinnati or Buffalo and set the Chiefs up with a matchup against the overachieving Titans, who came into the week ranked 20th in DVOA. The downside to this, of course, is that the Chiefs would have to go on the road in the AFC title game, but that might be preferable than having to beat the Bengals and Bills in consecutive weeks—if they can get past a potential matchup with Justin Herbert’s Chargers in the first round, that is.
What to root for in Week 18: A win over the Broncos and a Texans win over the Titans.
What to actually root for in Week 18: A loss to the Broncos; a Bills win over the Jets; and a Bengals win over the Browns.
Los Angeles Rams
With the Cardinals still alive in the NFC West race, the Rams can’t afford to manipulate their seeding. They’ll need a win over the 49ers in order to wrap up the division and avoid going on the road in the wild-card round. It’s the no. 2 seed or bust for the Rams.
If they can secure second place, then the Eagles-Cowboys and Saints-Falcons games become a whole lot more interesting for L.A. fans. Depending on the results of those games, the Rams could see Philadelphia, New Orleans, or San Francisco in the wild-card round. Here are all the possible combinations:
- Eagles and Saints win: Rams play the Saints
- Eagles and Falcons win: Rams play the 49ers
- Cowboys win: Rams play the Eagles regardless of Saints/Falcons result
The Eagles and Saints offer up similar challenges, so the Rams likely wouldn’t have a preference between those two teams. But you’d think they’d like to avoid the 49ers at all costs. San Francisco has won five consecutive games in the matchup despite having the inferior team in the last three. Kyle Shanahan has had his way with this Rams defense, and Sean McVay can’t seem to crack the Niners. In other words, go Cowboys!
What to root for in Week 18: A win over the 49ers and a Cowboys win over the Eagles or a Saints win over the Falcons.
With the no. 1 seed officially off the table, the Bills really don’t have much to play for in Week 18. Sure, getting the no. 2 seed would increase the likelihood of a home game in the AFC Championship, but a lot would have to break Buffalo’s way for that to happen, including losses by the Chiefs and Bengals this weekend. That’s probably not going to happen, so Bills fans can turn their attention to avoiding the Colts and Jonathan Taylor, who ran wild in a 41-15 win over Buffalo back in November. If the Bills had their way, they’d probably end the season right now and take the current playoff bracket, which matches them up against a Patriots team they just manhandled in late December.
What to root for in Week 18: A win over the Jets; a Chiefs win over the Broncos; a Bengals win over the Browns; and a Patriots win over the Dolphins.
Good news, Cowboys fans: Even after Sunday’s narrow defeat to the Cardinals, the NFC’s no. 2 seed is still within reach. But here’s the bad news: The possibility is dependent on the Panthers beating the Bucs on Sunday. And even if Carolina is able to pull off that minor miracle, Dallas would still need help from the Seahawks and 49ers. So, yeah, it’s looking like the Cowboys will have to settle for the 4 seed and a game against the NFC West runner-up. That means either a rematch with Arizona or a matchup with a Rams team that has won five games in a row. Despite Sunday’s loss, I’d prefer the first option.
What to root for in Week 18: A Rams win over the 49ers.
For a young Bengals team with hardly any playoff experience, home field advantage matters just a little bit more. Their thrilling win over the Chiefs on Sunday clinched a home game in the wild-card round, but they’ll need a little help if they’re going to secure a second one. I’ve already suggested that the Chiefs should think about losing on Saturday in Denver, and I’m sure the Bengals would endorse that idea. If Kansas City loses, Cincinnati would just need to avenge a Week 9 loss to the Browns to lock in home field for the divisional round.
If the Chiefs take care of business on Saturday night, seeding doesn’t matter all that much for the Bengals. They’re likely to play the same number of home playoff games whether they’re in the third or the fourth spot. But dropping down to no. 4 could set up a matchup with the Pats—and while Cincy would be the better team, I wouldn’t feel too confident with a Belichick vs. Zac Taylor coaching showdown in the playoffs.
What to root for in Week 18: A win over the Browns and a Broncos win over the Chiefs.
Winning the NFC West would make Arizona’s dwindling Super Bowl hopes far more realistic, and that doesn’t happen without the Rams losing to the 49ers on Sunday. So that’s where the Cardinals’ rooting guide starts. If they are able to steal the division, they’ll be guaranteed the 3 seed with a chance to climb to the no. 2 spot if Carolina can upset Tampa Bay. If none of that happens, the Cardinals will have to make a return trip to Dallas on wild-card weekend. And their prize for winning that game would be a trip to Lambeau Field.
It’s hard to envision this version of the team making it past that mini gauntlet. But if Arizona can leapfrog the Rams in the division, its path becomes a bit more manageable. Should Arizona survive a home wild-card game and a trip to Tampa, Deandre Hopkins and J.J. Watt could make it back for the conference championship round. Sunday’s results could be the difference between making a deep playoff run and crashing out after one game.
What to root for in Week 18: A win over the Seahawks; a 49ers win over the Rams; and a Panthers win over the Buccaneers.
New England Patriots
The Patriots are still alive in the AFC East race, but it’s worth asking whether they should even want to win the division. Doing so would set up a rematch against Buffalo, a team that beat the Pats 33-21 in Week 16 (and the game wasn’t even as close as the score indicates). Avoiding another matchup with Josh Allen is worth the cost of giving up a home game in the wild card. But in order to avoid Allen and the Bills, the Patriots are going to need a bit of help. They’ll need the Browns to pull out a home win over the Bengals, which would bump Buffalo up to the no. 2 spot and push Cincinnati to the 4 seed. As I said earlier, if we’re getting a Belichick vs. Taylor coaching matchup, it’s going to be hard to pick against the Pats.
What to root for in Week 18: A win over the Dolphins; a Browns win over the Bengals; and a Bills win over the Jets.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers will likely need to beat the Rams to make the playoffs, and if they do that, they’ll have beaten L.A. six times in a row. I think that would qualify as a “good matchup” for Shanahan’s team if they are able to get it in the wild-card round. To set that up, the Rams would have to win the NFC West in spite of the loss to San Francisco while also holding off the Cowboys for the no. 3 spot. It’s not impossible. If Philly can beat Dallas and Seattle can upset Arizona, the 49ers get their matchup with the Rams. That’s right, 49ers fans: For one week only, you have to root for the Seahawks.
What to root for in Week 18: A win over the Rams; a Seahawks win over the Cardinals; and an Eagles win over the Cowboys.
The Colts are still fighting for their spot in the playoffs, but with the Jaguars next up on the schedule, it shouldn’t be too tough. That win, combined with a Raiders loss, would give Indy the no. 6 seed in the AFC and set it up for a game against the third-place team. Assuming the Chiefs try to beat the Broncos, that leaves the Bengals and Bills as the two most likely opponents. Given the strengths and weaknesses of those teams, a game against Buffalo might be the Colts’ best option. We’ve already seen what Indy’s run game is capable of against a weak Bills front—the Colts ran for 264 yards against Buffalo in November—and the Bengals are far more stout, ranking no. 7 in run defense DVOA.
What to root for in Week 18: A win over the Jaguars; a Chiefs win over the Cardinals; and a Browns win over the Bengals.
Regardless of the outcome of their Week 18 game against Dallas, the Eagles can narrow their potential first-round opponents down to a group of three: the Buccaneers, Cardinals, or Rams. Philly would probably want the Bucs least, given the team’s experience. And while the Rams haven’t been playing their best football of late, they just keep winning games. The same cannot be said of the Cardinals, who have gone a mediocre 4-5 since starting the season 7-0. Seems like an easy choice.
What to root for in Week 18: A Cardinals win over the Seahawks; a 49ers win over the Rams; and a Panthers win over the Buccaneers.
Los Angeles Chargers
If we rule out the possibility of the Jaguars beating the Colts—and we probably should—the Chargers will have to settle for the 7 seed in the AFC. They’ll just need to win or tie their game against the Raiders to clinch their spot in the postseason, and by the time that game kicks off on Sunday night, the rest of the field will be set. If Kansas City loses on Saturday and falls out of the no. 2 spot, that opens the door for either Cincinnati, Buffalo, or New England to move up. Out of those four teams, the inexperienced Bengals are probably the best option for a Chargers team that also lacks playoff experience.
What to root for in Week 18: A win over the Raiders; a Broncos win over the Chiefs; and a Bengals win over the Browns.
Las Vegas Raiders
This one’s pretty simple: Just beat the Chargers. If the Raiders are able to do that, they’ll lock themselves into the no. 5 or 6 seed, though no. 6 is probably the best spot for them. If the Chiefs take care of business against a reeling Broncos team and the Bengals are able to beat a Browns team with nothing to play for, that would set Vegas up for a matchup with Cincinnati. I have a hard time seeing the Raiders winning that game, but it sure beats traveling to Kansas City or Buffalo.
What to root for in Week 18: A win over the Chargers; a Chiefs win over the Broncos; and a Bills win over the Jets.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints don’t know whether they’ll be playing in the first round of the playoffs, but they do already know which team they would be going up against if they make it. New Orleans can only get the no. 7 seed, and it needs the Rams to beat the 49ers to get in—which would clinch the no. 2 seed in the NFC for L.A. Sunday is really just about making it to the postseason for New Orleans, so this one isn’t too complicated.
What to root for in Week 18: A win over the Falcons and a Rams win over the 49ers.