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The NFL Playoff Race Survival Guide

Which postseason hopefuls increased their chances of making it this weekend? Which drastically hurt theirs? And what do all these teams have to do over the next two weeks to get in?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Do any of these teams want to make the NFL playoffs? That was my question after watching almost every team that’s vying for a wild-card spot lose over the holiday weekend. In the NFC, the Lions, Commanders, Seahawks, and Giants all went down. Over in the AFC, it was the teams from the East, with the Pats, Jets, and Dolphins all losing.

Now with just two weeks left in the regular season, and almost every divisional race nearly decided, nine teams are battling for just four wild-card spots (assuming the Chargers take care of business against Indianapolis on Monday night and lock up their postseason berth). What follows is a guide to how those teams can survive the race and earn a place in the postseason.

New York Jets, playoff odds: 14 percent

Required results:

Beat the Seahawks next week
Beat the Dolphins in Week 18
Patriots lose to either the Dolphins in Week 17 or the Bills in Week 18

Key to survival: Get Mike White healthy or make things easier for Zach Wilson.

There’s no coming back from getting benched for Canadian Taysom Hill. If the Zach Wilson era wasn’t already nearing its conclusion in New York, it certainly seemed to reach that point on Thursday when the 2021 second overall pick was booed by fans and replaced by former CFL quarterback Chris Streveler in an unsightly 19-3 loss to Jacksonville. Not only was that game bad for Wilson, it was also the fourth consecutive defeat for a team that’s now sitting at the bottom of the AFC East standings.

Mike White is getting his ribs scanned Monday and hopes to be cleared for contact and a Week 17 return. The Jets need to beat Seattle in that game and then the Dolphins the following week just to have a shot at making the postseason. They’ll also need some help from New England: If the Jets win out and the Pats upset the Dolphins on Sunday, that would be enough to end New York’s playoff drought. But if White’s ribs are still injured, it’ll be Wilson back under center. And while Jets coach Robert Saleh told reporters that Wilson didn’t actually get benched for Streveler in the Jaguars game, Saleh’s reasoning for the switch—that the Jets had planned to use the mobile backup in a Taysom-like package and just decided to roll with it for the rest of the game—sure sounded a lot like a benching.

If Wilson does need to suit up again this week, the coaching staff needs to do a better job of protecting him. Against the Jags, pre-snap penalties and overly ambitious play calls on early downs left Wilson in precarious situations far too often. The Jets needed an average of 12.5 yards to reach the first-down sticks on Wilson’s 21 dropbacks. That’s the highest mark for any starting quarterback who’s taken at least 20 dropbacks in any game this season, per TruMedia. Wilson wasn’t good on Thursday, but he wasn’t given much of a chance to succeed. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur needs to get this run game going—ideally without involving Streveler, who just isn’t an NFL-level passer—and design more early-down layups in the passing game. Whether Wilson can consistently make those layups is another matter, but Joe Flacco can barely move at this point, so trying to make the failed first-round pick function is really the only viable plan they have until White returns.

New England Patriots, playoff odds: 20 percent

Required results:

Beat the Dolphins next week
Beat the Bills in Week 18

Key to survival: More creative play-calling (or just bench Mac Jones for Bailey Zappe).

Somehow, after all of that, the Patriots enter the final two-week stretch in control of their own destiny: Wins over Miami and Buffalo (which could be resting starters or still fighting for the no. 1 seed in the AFC) would have this New England team—which has Matt Patricia coordinating its offense and has literally fumbled away wins in two consecutive weeks—on your televisions on wild-card weekend. This dark future shouldn’t be feasible, and yet here we are.

If New England is going to crash the postseason party, it’ll need more from its offense. And that goes for everyone involved—not just Patricia, who has become an easy target for ridicule given his complete lack of experience calling offensive plays. Mac Jones’s dissatisfaction with the offense has been palpable. Cameras have caught him yelling at coaches and sulking when a teammate botches a play. But he’s also played an important role in the unit’s demise. His trademark accuracy and decision-making have been inconsistent at best, he’s been reckless with the football, and his arm looks even worse than it did during his rookie season. The situation around Jones has been bad, but the same can be said of his own performance.

With two weeks left in the regular season, we’re way past the point where we can even pretend the offense is salvageable. But Bill Belichick’s defense is good enough to keep games against Miami and Buffalo competitive if Patricia and Co. can just get out of their own way. Receiver Kendrick Bourne sparked the team in the close loss to Cincinnati over the weekend, and his involvement seemed to coax more aggressiveness out of Jones in the downfield passing game. Some added creativity in the run game and an increased dosage of play-action passing could be just enough to give the Pats a shot these next two weeks.

And if all else fails, Bailey Zappe didn’t look so bad in his two starts. Just throwing that out there.

Detroit Lions, playoff odds: 24 percent

Required results:

Beat the Bears next week
Beat the Packers in Week 18
The Commanders and Seahawks each lose one game

Key to survival: Fix the run defense immediately.

Well, that was fun while it lasted. After starting 1-6, Dan Campbell’s Lions clawed back to .500 with a bulldozing running game and a hyperactive defensive front. Unfortunately, it was that combination that may have ended their season Saturday when the Panthers set a franchise record with 320 rushing yards in their 37-23 win. Carolina punished the edges of Detroit’s front seven with counter runs, toss plays, and option designs, and the Lions defensive staff couldn’t find an answer. Not to mention the Detroit offense, which failed to find its own success on the ground. The game was essentially over by halftime.

The loss won’t undo all the progress Campbell’s program has made this season, but it has eliminated any margin for error the Lions might have enjoyed over the next two weeks. Now they must win out against two teams that are suited to attack their vulnerabilities in the run game—the Bears with Justin Fields; the Packers with Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon—and then root for the Commanders and Seahawks to lose at least one more game.

Tennessee Titans, playoff odds: 26 percent

Required results:

Beat Jacksonville in Week 18

Key to survival: Use Malik Willis as a runner.

It’s all so simple for Tennessee: Beat the Jaguars in Week 18 and they’re in. Of course, having to do so without starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is expected to miss the remainder of the season with an ankle injury, complicates things. But at least the main objective is clear.

Tannehill’s replacement, rookie Malik Willis, severely limits what the Titans can do in the passing game, as we saw in a 19-14 loss to the Texans on Saturday that extended the team’s losing streak to five. Willis averaged 4.3 yards per attempt, threw a pair of interceptions, and took four sacks. Tennessee couldn’t move the ball through the air. But in theory, Willis should expand its options in the run game. He’s a legit threat with the ball in his hands and proved it against Houston with a 14-yard touchdown run on an option design.

Tennessee hasn’t really leaned on that ability when Willis has been out there, however. In his three starts, the Titans have called only 18 option run plays, per Pro Football Focus. Those plays have gone for 160 yards and three touchdowns while producing an average of 0.38 EPA per attempt. Which means they’re working! The Titans should be running a lot more of them—and taking more play-action shots downfield off of option fakes. Tennessee has two weeks to figure out how to design an offense around its limited rookie quarterback. The solution seems obvious.

Green Bay Packers, playoff odds: 27 percent

Required results:

Beat the Vikings next week
Beat the Lions in Week 18
Giants lose out or Commanders lose once

Key to survival: Get Aaron Rodgers on the move.

We should have known Aaron Rodgers wouldn’t go quietly. A month after the Packers and the league’s reigning MVP were left for dead, Green Bay now has a long but realistic path to the playoffs. The scenario is simple: Win out against the Vikings and Lions, and have the Commanders lose one more game or the Giants lose out. From there, anything is possible with Rodgers under center.

OK, that’s not actually true: This roster is tremendously flawed and the 39-year-old has taken a clear step back. But over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a sprier Rodgers; one who’s more willing to get outside of the pocket and create out of structure. In the 26-20 win in Miami on Sunday, the old quarterback picked up a key first down with his legs and tied a season high with seven dropbacks that ended up outside of the pocket. It was the third consecutive week he hit that mark, per TruMedia.

Matt LaFleur’s offense finally looks somewhat dangerous. Rodgers is on the move more often, rookie receiver Christian Watson has emerged as a true weapon, and the run game is utilizing a wider variety of concepts to get Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon in the open field. The Packers have been a top-10 offense by EPA and DVOA in the second half of the season, which has sparked this late rally for a postseason berth.

The defense seems to be hitting its stride, too, after creating three turnovers in the fourth quarter to lock up the win on Christmas. That was the third consecutive game in which they have held an opponent to 20 points or fewer. Turnovers have been the main catalyst for this little resurgence, and with Kirk Cousins and Jared Goff next up on the schedule—and playing in the cold at Lambeau Field—there’s no reason to expect that luck to flip. Both guys will give the defense a chance to catch the football. If Packers defenders can continue to capitalize on those opportunities—and if the gains we’ve seen from this offense are real—there’s still a chance.

Washington Commanders, playoff odds: 29 percent

Required results:

Beat the Browns next week
Beat the Cowboys in Week 18

If Washington goes 1-1: The Lions, Packers, and Seahawks all lose at least one game

Key to survival: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: Hand the keys to Carson Wentz.

The Commanders have evolved past Taylor Heinicke. There was a time early in the season when he was exactly what Washington needed: The offense was ineffective and boring, and Heinicke, with disregard for his own safety and an irrational confidence in his very limited skillset, provided a spark. But that came to an end on Sunday after pregame reports suggested Ron Rivera was contemplating a move at quarterback if Heinicke’s bout of bad decision-making continued against the 49ers. And following two second-half turnovers, Rivera made that call. Carson Wentz was back in the lineup.

Wentz led Washington on a scoring drive in the fourth quarter that cut their deficit to 37-20, and Rivera said after the game that he’ll reevaluate the quarterback position going into Week 17. That’s because the talent disparity between Wentz and Heinicke was stark on Saturday. Wentz is bigger, stronger, and faster. His throws have more zip, and he can get them off with bigger defenders in his face. Talent has never been the issue with Wentz. Decision-making has, but with Heinicke coughing up the ball at a troubling rate, there’s almost no reason for Washington to stick with him over the better player—especially when it still has a shot at the postseason.

Seattle Seahawks, playoff odds: 29 percent

Required results:

Beat the Jets next week
Beat the Rams in Week 18
The Commanders and Packers lose at least one game

Key to survival: Realizing Pete Carroll’s vision for the defense.

The Seahawks offense is dealing with some issues—the young offensive line has hit a wall, the running game is inconsistent, and Geno Smith’s warts are starting to show. But Seattle’s fate will ultimately be decided by its defense. In back-to-back weeks, the defense has held its own against elite competition, letting up just 21 points to the 49ers and 24 to the red-hot Chiefs. And now the schedule lightens up with the Jets and Rams next up on the slate. But while both of those teams are in the midst of some major offensive struggles, we have seen this Seattle defense challenged by teams that can run the football and hit on shot plays off of play-action—the types of offenses Carroll built this unit to stop.

These next couple weeks will not only determine how this surprisingly exciting, yet frustratingly disappointing Seahawks season ends, but it could also decide how much confidence the organization has in Carroll going forward. He’s rebuilt both the offense and defense over the last two calendar years to win the games Seattle needs to finish off this improbable run to the postseason. The offense is sputtering now, but the aging defensive coach has a chance to prove he’s still got it.

Miami Dolphins, playoff odds: 67 percent

Required results:

Beat the Patriots next week
Beat the Jets in Week 18

If they lose one of those: Depending on which game they lose, either the Seahawks beat the Jets next week or Bills beat the Patriots in Week 18

Key to survival: Tua Tagovailoa stops turning the ball over.

Let’s start with the good news, Miami: Over the past two weeks, the offense has had no problem moving the ball up and down the field. Sure, this team that was once 8-3 and looked like a lock for the playoffs has lost four consecutive games, including a 26-20 defeat to the Packers on Christmas. But we can pretty much end any talk of there being a “blueprint” for stopping the Dolphins’ high-powered passing game. Well, unless that blueprint is turning Tua Tagovailoa into a turnover machine, as Green Bay did in the fourth quarter on Sunday.

Tagovailoa threw three interceptions in the final frame, which all but handed the game to the still-struggling Packers, and he’s now thrown five picks during this monthlong slump after having thrown only three in the games leading up to it. The key to stopping this slide and locking down a postseason berth seems rather simple: Tua just needs to stop giving the ball to the other team.

Now, the bad news: Tua’s been throwing the ball to the other team all season; they just hadn’t been catching those passes previously. In fact, during the losing streak, his turnover-worthy play rate has been lower than it was during Miami’s hot start to the season. We’re not witnessing some downturn in Tagovailoa’s play; we’re merely witnessing regression toward the mean. More likely than not, the Tua we see going forward will be somewhere in between the quarterback who tore up defenses early in the season and the one he’s been over the past month. The jitters under pressure, the floated passes into traffic, the unsuccessful forays outside of the pocket when things break down—those plays won’t just disappear. Mike McDaniel has to do his best to limit them. Or maybe defenders will start dropping picks again.

Fortunately, Miami’s early-season success provided the team a generous margin for error. Even after this four-game skid, the Dolphins have a 67 percent shot at making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight. Winning out would lock up a spot, but they can afford to lose one more game and still make it if other games break right for them.

New York Giants, playoff odds: 89 percent

Required results:

Don’t lose to both Jeff Saturday AND the Eagles backups.

Key to survival: Seriously, don’t lose to both Jeff Saturday AND the Eagles backups.

This past week was a freebie. Sure, the Giants lost a winnable game in Minnesota in heart-breaking fashion, but that had almost no bearing on the team’s postseason chances, given that many of the NFC’s other wild-card contenders also lost over the weekend. The goal remains the same: New York just needs to win a game over the next two weeks, and they have Jeff Saturday’s Colts and an Eagles team that will likely be resting starters next up on the schedule. Brian Daboll’s staff has been pushing the right buttons and churning out smart gameplans all season, so there’s little reason to suspect a possible fumble of the bag here. Give Saquon Barkley the ball 50 times a game, or just spam QB keepers for Daniel Jones and that should be enough to beat Nick Foles or Gardner Minshew and a bunch of backups.