Understanding the Wild NFL Playoff Picture

We are a week out from the 2020 NFL regular season wrapping up and there is still plenty of possible movement in the standings. While the AFC is a lot clearer than the NFC the tight race for the final few Wild Card spots is nearly too close to call. That won’t stop us from trying tough so read until the end to see Unbenched’s final seeding prediction and all the scenarios that could lead us there. 

AFC

Clinched 

  • Kansas City Chiefs (Division Champions)
  • Pittsburgh Steelers (AFC North)
  • Buffalo Bills (AFC East)

Currently in the Picture

Tennessee Titans

After being obliterated by the Packers in Prime Time, the Titans let their best chance to lock up the AFC South. That being said, they can still clinch their division with a win over Houston in Week 17 or via a loss by Baltimore, Indianapolis, or Miami. 

It’s an incredibly favourable scenario for the Titans given that they are in full control of their destiny heading into an incredibly winnable game. The Texans are down and out, and to see that look no further than J.J. Watt’s post-game tirade after their most recent defeat. 

All that being said, the Pro Football Index gives the team a 91% chance at making the playoffs on top of a 64.2% chance to win their division. 

Miami Dolphins 

Thanks to a Fitzmagic miracle the Dolphins pulled out a win over Vegas to keep them in the AFC playoff picture. The improbable victory could be what pushes a team like the Browns to the outskirts of meaningful January football. The AFC East might be out of reach but the Dolphins can qualify for an AFC Wild Card spot if they can pull off a win over the division champion Bills. 

If the Bills beat them, the Dolphins could still make it with a loss by the Ravens, Browns, or Colts. This puts their playoff chances at a solid 84.1%.

Baltimore Ravens

For a time it looked like the Ravens would be lucky to even still be in the playoff hunt, yet now they look like a team that nobody would want to face. With their emphatic win over the Giants and the Browns’ loss to the Jets, Baltimore is right back in the conversation. To guarantee their trip back to the postseason, they just need to beat the Bengals. Granted over the past two weeks that has been a lot easier said than done. 

Should the Bengals pull off a third straight win, the Ravens can still fly into January football if Cleveland or Indianapolis lose. With this in mind, Pro Football Index gives Baltimore a 91.6% chance at making the postseason. 

Cleveland Browns

The only thing that took a bigger hit than the Browns’ pride after losing to a one-win team were their playoff chances. Their loss to the Jets has them hanging on to the last wild card spot thanks to the tiebreaker over Indianapolis, but they don’t have the easiest path to cement themselves there. 

The most straightforward way for the Browns to clinch a playoff berth for the first time 2002 would be to beat the Steelers on Sunday afternoon. It’s not that this can’t be done, Washington, Buffalo, and Cincinnati have all accomplished the feat, but it won’t be easy. Being a divisional matchup with such heavy implications, it can be guaranteed that the Browns will be more than fired up. 

If Cleveland can’t come out on top, the next easiest path to snapping their streak of missing the postseason would be through a Colts loss. If that doesn’t happen then a Titans loss combined with wins by Baltimore, Indianapolis, and Miami. Taking all of that into consideration, the Browns have a 53% chance of making the playoffs.

Still in the Hunt

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts’ collapse in Pittsburgh pushed them to the outside of the playoff picture, though not for good. Unfortunately for Indy, they have tiebreaker disadvantages to three of the teams they’re chasing, in Tennessee, Miami, and Cleveland. All of this combines to mean that the Colts cannot make the playoffs without a little help. 

Step one is beating Jacksonville, that’s what they can control. In theory this shouldn’t be all too hard, but with the first overall pick secured, you can be sure the Jaguars will throw everything and the kitchen sink at the Colts to try and end the season on a high note. If they can do this and get any of the four teams ahead of them (Miami, Baltimore, Tennessee, or Cleveland) to lose, they’ll be in the playoffs. 

An important note is that should the Colts win and the Titans lose, not only will the Colts make it, but they’ll win the AFC South. Everything amalgamates to an 80.4% chance of the Colts participating in postseason football. 

NFC

Clinched

  • Green Bay Packers (NFC North)
  • New Orleans Saints (NFC South)
  • Seattle Seahawks (NFC West)
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Wild Card) 

Fight for the Bye

Green Bay Packers

Because of victories by both Seattle and New Orleans, Green Bay’s win over Tennessee wasn’t enough to secure them the elusive bye. That being said, they are still in the driver’s seat for it, as a win over the Bears would lock them into top spot without needing help. 

Should Chicago take down their division rivals, the Pack can still be playoff-bound if the Seahawks lose to the 49ers. Pro Football Index lists Green Bay as having an 82% chance to lock up the conference. 

New Orleans Saints

The Saints will earn themselves a first round bye if they can beat the Panthers, have the Seahawks come out on top against San Francisco, and have Green Bay lose to Chicago. It’s a multi-step process, with just a 13% chance of happening, which means that in all likelihood New Orleans will get the number two seed. 

Seattle Seahawks 

If you thought the Saints’clinching scenario was unlikely, brace yourself for Seattle’s; PFI gives this one just a 5% chance of coming to fruition. If both New Orleans and Green bay lose, then the Seahawks would be awarded the bye. This is thanks to them having the tiebreaker over the Packers and the Saints. Unlikely, but not impossible. 

Currently in the Picture

Washington Football Team

According to NFL rules, someone from the NFC Least has to make the playoffs. And with the way things stand at this point in time, that team will be the Football Team. Their path is simple: win and you’re in. If they lose to the Eagles, then whoever wins between Dallas and New York will sneak into the postseason. With a 58.7% chance at making the playoffs, Washington is in the more favourable spot. 

For the history buffs out there, whoever makes it out of the NFC East will only be the third team in the Super Bowl era to participate in the playoffs despite being under .500 (the others were the 2010 Seahawks and the 2014 Panthers). Additionally, it would be the first time in NFL history that a team who started 2-7 or worse will become a playoff team. 

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams entered Week 16 with a 96.2% chance at making the playoffs. Then they forgot how to play offence against the Seahawks and now that number is at 86.4%, not bad odds, but given the fact that they could have won their division a few short days ago that one hurts. 

They still are in control of their own destiny, with a win over Arizona being enough to get them across the line. Even if they lose, a Chicago loss will do the trick. 

Chicago Bears

The Bears have been the textbook example of a hot and cold team this year. They started 5-0 and then couldn’t buy a win for months. Suddenly, Trubisky has been revived off the bench and has the team in a win-and-you’re-in situation. The win won’t be easy, not by any means, as they’re facing the Green Bay Packers, but still. 

If Trubisky and Co can’t get the better of Rodgers, then having the Rams beat the Cardinals will also be enough. That being said, they have a comfortable 72.9% shot at making it to the postseason. 

In the Hunt

Arizona Cardinals 

After not being able to get past San Francisco, the Cardinals need a win and some help to make the playoffs. Their first order of business is beating the Rams, and with this being a must win for both teams, get your popcorn ready because we’re in for a show. 

The second part of the Cardinals scenario is a Bears loss to the Packers. Having the tiebreaker disadvantage to Chicago is why a win is not enough for the Cards. Luckily for them, the Bears have the harder matchup. This all adds up to a 40.7% chance at making the playoffs. 

Dallas Cowboys/New York Giants 

This one’s easy: if Washington loses then whoever wins this game wins the division and the right to play in the postseason. For the Giants, this translates to a 24.4% chance and the Cowboys get a 16.9% shot. 

Final Seeding Predictions 

Given all the aforementioned scenarios, contingencies, and plan B’s, here is what I think the playoff picture will look like out of both conferences:

AFC

  1. Kansas City Chiefs 
  2. Buffalo Bills
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers
  4. Tennessee Titans
  5. Baltimore Ravens
  6. Cleveland Browns
  7. Indianapolis Colts

NFC

  1. Green Bay Packers 
  2. New Orleans Saints
  3. Seattle Seahawks 
  4. Washington Football Team
  5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  6. Arizona Cardinals
  7. Los Angeles Rams

There you have it, my seeding prediction heading into the 2020 NFL Playoffs and all the situations that can get us there. Only in 2020 could a 10 win team be on the outside looking in and a team of the calibre coming out of the NFC East be good enough to be a division champ. What do you think the playoffs picture will look like?

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