COMMENTARY | This time of year the NFL playoff picture always gets a little murky. With all of the tiebreakers that are in place, things are a little confusing for even the biggest fans. I’m here today to try to clear it up for you.
With the Monday night game not taken into account (it doesn’t matter too much as the 49ers clinched their division weeks ago and the Steelers are a lock for the playoffs and it is only important for seeding), neither conference has a clear-cut picture, but this is how it looks as of right now. The AFC is led by the Patriots. The Steelers can take over that first seed due to the head to head win in week 8, so that is on the line right now. However, the next two games are crucial to determining the No. 1 seed as the Patriots, Steelers, Ravens, and Texans are all in position to make a play.
The Patriots have two home games against Miami (5-9) and Buffalo (5-9). They handled the Dolphins in Week 1, but the Dolphins have been playing better under the direction of QB Matt Moore. The Bills have been crumbling lately and despite the upset in week 3, they probably won’t hang with the Patriots for more than a quarter. Pittsburgh does hold the tie-breaker over New England, so the Patriots have to hope for a Steelers loss.
The Steelers are in San Francisco (10-3) tonight, then face St. Louis (2-12) at home and then travel to Cleveland (4-10) for the final game of the season. Their biggest concern is winning more games than the Ravens who hold the division edge on them. Even if they finish with the same record, their two losses to the Ravens mean that they cannot rank higher than fifth. If they beat San Francisco, their schedule gets very easy with the hapless Rams and the Browns, whom they beat last week still to go. Injuries could play a part and though it won’t be pretty, Pittsburgh has a tendency to play well this time of year.
The Texans go to Indianapolis (1-13) next week and host Tennessee (7-7) the final week of the season. The Colts got their first win this weekend over the Titans, but neither team is playing well right now. If rookie QB T. J. Yates can avoid costly mistakes, the Texans running game and defense could easily win both games. The Texans hold the head-to-head tie-breaker over Pittsburgh (from their Week 4 matchup), but the Ravens hold the advantage from the Week 6 matchup.
Baltimore hosts Cleveland (4-10) before heading to Cincinnati (8-6). Though they have probably the hardest schedule for the last two weeks, they also hold tie-breakers over Houston and Pittsburgh, meaning if Pittsburgh stumbles against San Francisco, the Ravens control their destiny.
In short, the top four teams all have fairly easy schedules, with the Steelers having the easiest in 16 and 17.
You may have noticed that one of the divisions wasn’t represented in the discussion above. That is because the AFC West is up for grabs right now. After their loss to the Patriots on Sunday, the Broncos are still in the lead, but barely. Denver has games at Buffalo and hosts Kansas City (6-8). Oakland (7-7) goes to Kansas City (can you say Arrowhead?) then hosts San Diego (7-7). San Diego heads to Detroit for a tough matchup with the Lions (9-5) before heading to Oakland. As you can see above, Kansas City hosts Oakland before a Week 17 showdown in Denver (but they are eliminated from contention as I’ll show below).
If Denver wins both games, they win the division. Oakland and San Diego have to hope for a Denver loss and then if either wins both games (they play in week 17 so they cannot both win out) then it goes to tiebreakers. Even if Kansas City wins out, and Denver loses at Buffalo leaving both teams at 8-8, with a tie in head-to-head, they lose the conference record tie-breaker, so they cannot win the division nor make the playoffs. Denver has split games with San Diego and Oakland, so there is no head-to-head advantage, so the tie-breakers get really complicated. San Diego winning out with a Denver loss at KC, or Oakland winning out with a Denver loss at KC will win based on division record. If either team loses one game, they are hard pressed to make the playoffs.
The wild card picture is starting to clear up. One spot is to either Ravens or Steelers (they have both clinched a wild card). The second spot is between Jets, Bengals, and then behind them the Titans, Raiders, and Charges hoping they will stumble. The Jets face the Giants (7-7) (both at their home stadium) and then go to Miami (5-9). The Bengals face Arizona (7-7) and Baltimore (10-4), both at home. Neither of these schedules are cakewalks, so don’t be surprised if San Diego or Oakland (assuming that Denver wins the division), or the Titans, who host Jacksonville (4-10) and then travel to Houston (10-4) to face a rookie QB, could pass them. There are more scenarios than I can outline in this article, but if the Jets (who have a slightly easier schedule than the Bengals) win out, they are in.
The NFC is slightly less complicated. Green Bay and San Francisco have both clinched their divisions. The Saints can do so with a win or a Falcons loss. The Packers can clinch the No. 1 seed with a win or a Saints loss. The Number 2 seed is between the 49ers and the Saints, with the Saints holding a slight edge. There is no head-to-head, but San Francisco holds the conference edge (8-2) vs (7-3), so assuming San Francisco wins out, or loses tonight and wins the rest of the year, they will clinch number 2 seed.
The troubling NFC East has the Cowboys at 8-6 leading the division with the Giants in second (7-7). The Giants currently hold the tiebreaker for head to head, but need to win out to overtake the Cowboys. If the Cowboys win their week 17 matchup, then they will win the division.
The Falcons and Lions both control their playoff destiny. They both sit at 9-5 and will make the playoffs if they don’t lose more than 1 game. Atlanta has a tough matchup in New Orleans, but should be able to handle struggling Tampa Bay (4-10) at home in week 17. Detroit has a tougher time facing San Diego (7-7) (who are starting to get hot right now) at home and then going to Green Bay (13-1) for a week 17 matchup. The Packers may not be as imposing if they decide to rest their starters in the last week of the season, but division rivalry may inspire them to play hard. If the Lions do lose both games, the Seahawks (traveling to the 49ers this week), the Bears (playing with their second string QB and RB), Giants (facing rival Cowboys in week 17 for the second time in 4 weeks), and Cardinals (facing Bengals and Seahawks) could all make a play for the spot, but they all have a lot of cards that need to fall into place for them to get the spot.
If the season ended today, New England and Pittsburgh get the byes in the AFC (Baltimore if Pittsburgh loses tonight) and Houston would host the Jets while Baltimore (or Pittsburgh) would go to Denver.
On the other side of things, the Packers and Saints would get the byes (or San Francisco with a win tonight) while the 49ers (or Saints) would welcome the Lions and the Cowboys would host the Falcons.
Stay tuned fans, things are about to get very interesting.