NFL Playoff Picture at Christmastime

With two weeks to go we still only know for sure four of the 12 playoff participants; New England and Seattle have clinched division titles while Dallas and Oakland have clinched at least a playoff spot.  We are at the point now where some things are fairly clear, but there are still a number of scenarios, so let’s dive in, starting as usual in the AFC.

  1. New England (12-2)
  2. Oakland (11-3)
  3. Pittsburgh (9-5)
  4. Houston (8-6) (head to head on Tennessee for division lead)
  5. Kansas City (10-4)
  6. Miami (9-5)
  7. Baltimore (8-6) (conference record on Tennessee & Denver)
  8. Tennessee (head to head on Denver)
  9. Denver
  10. Indianapolis (record vs opponents common with Buffalo)
  11. Buffalo
  12. Cincinnati (5-8-1)
  13. San Diego (5-9)
  14. New York (4-10)
  15. Jacksonville (2-12)
  16. Cleveland (0-14)

It continues to be the case that two teams control their destiny for winning both the North & South divisions.  In the North the Steelers would clinch the division by beating Baltimore Christmas evening.  However, the Ravens if they win would have a sweep of the head to head and so would definitely clinch by winning Sunday and their final game against Cincinnati.  That is also to say that, while currently listed as best team out, the Ravens really aren’t a serious factor in the wildcard race because at 10-6 they would win the division.  If the Steelers do lose to Baltimore but beat Cleveland and are failing to win the North at 10-6 however they would then be in the thick of the wildcard race.  Their main problem is they would need Miami to lose at least once and couldn’t be in a two way tie with the Dolphins because of head to head.  However, if Denver wins twice to make a 3-way tie (remember, 2nd place in the South cannot be 10-6 because Houston plays Tennessee in Week 17), conference record would drop Miami from the tie, then the Steelers edge Denver on record vs common opponents.  Alternately, if Kansas City loses twice they would stay ahead of Denver in the division standings; in a 3-way tie conference record again dismisses Miami and the Steelers get the #5 seed because of a head to head win over the Chiefs.  Or, even if Miami wins out to 11-5 if the Chiefs lose twice the Steelers win a head to head tie for the #6 seed.  If Baltimore loses once and is in the wildcard mix at 9-7 they would have a chance at the #6 seed if Miami loses twice and Denver at least once since they would have the superior conference record, or if Denver loses twice the Ravens have head to head over Miami.  The only complication here is if Houston is in the wildcard mix at 9-7 as they would also have a 7-5 conference record.  If applicable we’ll explore this scenario next week.

In the South division Houston can clinch this week if they win and Tennessee loses; the Texans would have tiebreakers on the Titans and/or the Colts.  Otherwise their Week 17 matchup can be for the division title.  For the Colts to win the division they need to win both remaining games, have both Houston & Tennessee lose in Week 16, then have the Titans beat the Texans.  This way, Houston is dropped to 8-8 and the Colts win a tie with the Titans on having swept them.  The Colts may have a shot at a wildcard if the Dolphins lose twice, neither Pittsburgh nor Baltimore is 2nd in the North at 9-7, Denver is no better than 9-7, and the Colts clinch strength of victory over Miami (and Denver if at 9-7).

In the East New England has clinched a bye seed and can clinch the #1 this weekend with a win and an Oakland loss.  Miami is in control of getting a wildcard; they would not be displeased if the Patriots do clinch the #1 this weekend and so are less worried about winning the Week 17 matchup.  If Miami ends up 10-6 because they lost to Buffalo but beat New England they should be fine if Pittsburgh is not involved in the tie because of record vs opponents common with Denver.  But if they’re 10-6 because they lose to the Patriots, their potential tie with the Broncos comes down to strength of victory.  Buffalo is still mathematically alive for the 2nd wildcard; they need two wins plus considerable help.

In the West Oakland is now back in the driver’s seat for winning the division and a bye seed; two wins and they have it.  However, if they lose to either Indianapolis or Denver it would let the Chiefs get back to the top given that Kansas City swept them in the head to head.  Short of winning the division, the Chiefs can clinch a playoff spot this weekend by winning or if Baltimore does not win (clinches that Pittsburgh would not be in the wildcard mix at 10-6).  Denver is still alive; it’s not as hopeless as it may look right now being listed 9th in the conference because at 10-6 they would jump 2nd place in the South and potentially 2nd place in the North.  But since they cannot end up ahead of Kansas City (division record tiebreaker at 10-6) they can only get the #6 seed and only if Miami loses the New England game and the Broncos have strength of victory tiebreaker (and Pittsburgh is not 2nd in the North at 10-6) or if Miami loses twice (and Pittsburgh is not 2nd in the North at 10-6).  This could be a year that a team, perhaps even two, in the AFC go 10-6 but miss the playoffs; a +3 over the NFC in cross-conference games plus teams padding records with wins over Cleveland and Jacksonville being among the culprits.

And now for the NFC:

  1. Dallas (12-2)
  2. Seattle (9-4-1)
  3. Atlanta (9-5) (strength of victory on Detroit)
  4. Detroit
  5. New York (10-4)
  6. Green Bay (8-6) (strength of victory on Tampa)
  7. Tampa
  8. Washington (7-6-1)
  9. Minnesota (7-7)
  10. New Orleans (6-8) (record vs opponents common with Carolina)
  11. Carolina
  12. Arizona (5-8-1)
  13. Philadelphia (5-9)
  14. Los Angeles (4-10)
  15. Chicago (3-11)
  16. San Francisco (1-13)

Green Bay is currently listed in a wildcard spot, but they will almost certainly not end up as a wildcard.  If they win their two remaining games they would win the North division title.  So Tampa with two wins is still likely to end up in the playoffs; the only thing that could block them is if Detroit beats Dallas but loses to Green Bay (after the Packers beat Minnesota) as Detroit would have a superior record vs opponents common with Tampa.  This is why the scenarios that have Tampa clinch a playoff spot this weekend all involve both the Lions and Packers losing this weekend so that 2nd in the North would then be 9-7.  It can also be noted that Tampa could survive Detroit being 2nd in the North at 10-6 if New York loses both remaining games.  Washington still has a chance at the wildcard if they win out to 9-6-1; they need Tampa to lose once (or Atlanta twice) and for Detroit to not be 2nd in the North at 10-6.

Dallas will clinch the East division and the #1 seed once they win once more or New York loses once more.  New York clinches a playoff spot with one more win or if someone of Detroit, Green Bay, Atlanta, or Tampa loses this weekend to ensure at least one of those divisions won’t have its 2nd place team be 10-6.

Atlanta, to use a baseball term, has a Magic Number of 2 to win the South division.  However, if they lose once more than Tampa down the stretch the Buccaneers would win a tie on division record.  If you watched Monday Night Football the infinitesimal scenario for Carolina to make the playoff was outlined.  If they’re still alive in a week we’ll explore it then.

Minnesota can still make the playoffs, but they need two wins plus Tampa losing twice and Washington losing once.  New Orleans needs two wins plus what Minnesota needs plus the Vikings losing to the Bears after beating the Packers and the Packers losing to the Lions.

Seattle should be able to lock up the #2 seed with games with Arizona and San Francisco remaining.  However, if they do lose it could open the door for Atlanta or Detroit.  Two losses could even open the door for Green Bay or Tampa Bay to jump all the way up to the #2 seed.

And now for Games to Watch in the coming dozen days:

Thursday December 22nd: Giants @ Eagles.  New York can clinch a playoff spot.  A loss clinches the #1 seed for Dallas, which could be great news for Detroit and bad news for anyone hoping Detroit loses to Dallas.

Saturday December 24th: Miami @ Buffalo.  Minnesota @ Green Bay. Tampa @ New Orleans. Indianapolis @ Oakland.

Sunday December 25th: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh.  Either the Steelers clinch the North or Baltimore retains control of its destiny (and teams that don’t want Pittsburgh 2nd in the North at 10-6 get nervous).  Denver @ Kansas City.  Either the Chiefs clinch a wildcard and keep hope alive to win the West and Denver is eliminated or the Broncos keep hopes alive while perhaps handing the West to the Raiders.

Monday December 26th: Detroit @ Dallas.  Cowboys perhaps trying to lock down the #1 seed.  Lions can clinch the North if Green Bay lost, or can be trying to preserve their 10-6 wildcard scenarios.

Sunday January 1st: Green Bay @ Detroit. New England @ Miami. Houston @ Tennessee. Perhaps other games as well, but the Green Bay and the Houston games seem at this time to be the two candidates for being flexed into Sunday Night Football.

And finally the official clinching scenarios for Week 16 copy/pasted from


Dallas clinches division title and home field advantage throughout playoffs:
1) DAL win or tie
2) NYG loss or tie

Seattle clinches a first-round bye:
1) SEA win + DET loss + ATL loss or tie

NY Giants clinch a playoff berth:
1) NYG win or tie
2) DET loss or tie
3) GB loss or tie
4) TB loss or tie
5) ATL loss

Detroit clinches division title:
1) DET win + GB loss or tie
2) DET tie + GB loss

Detroit clinches a playoff berth:
1) DET win + TB loss or tie
2) DET tie + TB loss
3) DET tie + TB tie + ATL win
4) WAS loss or tie + TB loss + ATL win or tie

Atlanta clinches division title:
1) ATL win + TB loss or tie
2) ATL tie + TB loss

Atlanta clinches a playoff berth:
1) ATL win + ATL clinches strength of victory tiebreaker over DET
2) ATL win or tie + GB loss or tie
3) ATL win + DET loss or tie
4) ATL tie + DET tie
5) WAS loss or tie + GB loss
6) WAS loss or tie + GB tie + DET loss

Green Bay clinches a playoff berth:
1) GB win + WAS loss or tie + TB loss + ATL win or tie + GB clinches strength of victory tiebreaker over TB

Tampa Bay clinches playoff berth:
1) TB win + GB loss + DET loss + WAS loss
2) TB win + GB loss + DET loss + WAS tie + TB clinches strength of victory tiebreaker over DET


New England clinches home field advantage throughout AFC playoffs:
1) NE win + OAK loss or tie
2) NE tie + OAK loss

Oakland clinches division title and a first-round bye:
1) OAK win + KC loss or tie
2) OAK tie + KC loss

Pittsburgh clinches division title:
1) PIT win

Kansas City clinches a playoff berth:
1) KC win or tie
2) BAL loss or tie

Houston clinches a division title:
1) HOU win + TEN loss

Miami clinches a playoff berth:
1) MIA win + DEN loss or tie
2) MIA tie + BAL loss + DEN loss + HOU loss or tie
3) MIA tie + BAL loss + DEN loss + TEN loss or tie


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