Unlike in other sports, the NFL playoff race often comes down to the very last day of the season. The seeding is hardly set thus far with two weeks remaining, and things can change a great deal between now and January 1 – the day the season ends.
As it stands right now, the NFC North and AFC South will both likely be determined in Week 17. The AFC North will probably come down Sunday’s Christmas Day meeting between the Steelers and Ravens, while the Buccaneers still have an outside shot at winning the NFC South.
Considering how fluid the situation is, we predicted exactly how things will shake out in the final two weeks. Here’s what we believe the playoff picture will look like.
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NFC: 1. Dallas Cowboys (14-2)
The Cowboys have the inside track to the No. 1 seed, as they’ve had for weeks. All they need is a win or a loss by the Giants to clinch the NFC East as well as home-field advantage in the NFC. The Giants could easily win out, but don’t expect the Cowboys to lose their next two. The top seed is theirs.
Remaining schedule: DET (W), PHI (W)
2. Seattle Seahawks (11-4-1)
The Seahawks looked like their dominant selves against the Rams, and it’s solidified their place as the second-best team in the NFC. Arizona might give them trouble this week, but it’s in Seattle so expect them to win. And San Francisco isn’t beating the Seahawks with a first-round bye on the line – don’t kid yourself.
Remaining schedule: ARI (W), @SF (W)
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3. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
Despite Carolina’s recent success, the Falcons have a favorable schedule coming up. They should finish the year 11-5 and shore up the No. 3 seed, setting up a possible first-round meeting with the Lions (or Buccaneers). They’re emerging as one of the best teams in the NFL, scoring more than 40 points in back-to-back weeks without Julio Jones.
Remaining schedule: @CAR (W), NO (W)
4. Green Bay Packers (10-6)
The Packers are the trickiest team of the bunch. They can finish anywhere from the No. 3 seed to out of the playoffs, but finishing fourth is their comfiest spot. That’ll happen with wins in the final two games, clinching the NFC North. Even if the Lions beat the Cowboys on Monday night, the Packers will still win the division with two victories.
Remaining schedule: MIN (W), @DET (W)
5. New York Giants (12-4)
The Giants will be the latest example of the NFL’s need for a change when it comes to playoff seeding. They won’t be anything better than the No. 5 seed despite the likelihood of them finishing with a 12-4 record. The Eagles are not a good team, and the Redskins were shut down by Carolina’s defense. Imagine what New York’s will do.
Remaining schedule: @PHI (W), @WAS (W)
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6. Detroit Lions (9-7)
The Lions can lose out and still make the playoffs as the six seed. Yes, seriously. It’s probably going to happen, too. In this scenario, the Buccaneers lose to the Saints in Week 16 and beat the Panthers in the finale, but Detroit holds the tiebreaker based on winning percentage in common games. This also assumes the Redskins lose to the Giants in Week 17 after beating the Bears.
Remaining schedule: @DAL (L), GB (L)
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AFC: 1. New England Patriots (14-2)
Surprisingly, the Patriots are still in danger of losing their No. 1 seed. They need to win both of their final games to lock it up, preventing the Raiders from swiping home-field advantage. If the Patriots somehow lose to the Dolphins in Week 17 and the Raiders win out, the AFC will go through Oakland. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. We just don’t expect it to happen.
Remaining schedule: NYJ (W), @MIA (W)
2. Oakland Raiders (13-3)
The Raiders were the biggest beneficiaries of Week 15. They came back to beat the Chargers while the Chiefs were upset by the Titans at home. That gave the Raiders the fast track to winning the AFC West, and they’ll do so with two wins to close out the year. Saturday’s game against the Colts figures to be a shootout, and Denver won’t be able to keep pace offensively in the finale.
Remaining schedule: IND (W), @DEN (W)
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3. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
The Steelers’ playoff seeding will come down to this Sunday’s game against the Ravens. A win essentially locks up the North for them, with Cleveland being their Week 17 opponent, while the Ravens have to play the Bengals in the finale to have a shot at a wild-card berth. Steelers-Ravens could be the game of the year on Christmas Day.
Remaining schedule: BAL (W), CLE (W)
4. Tennessee Titans (10-6)
The Titans should roll to a win over the Jaguars this week before facing the Texans in a potential win-or-go-home showdown on New Year’s Day. The Texans are a mess at quarterback, while Tennessee has improved greatly on defense. The Titans should be able to seal the AFC South – it just won’t come easy. Their win against the Chiefs was absolutely huge for their playoff hopes.
Remaining schedule: @JAX (W), HOU (W)
5. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
The Chiefs may have lost to the Titans, but they’re still in good shape. The Broncos have a bottom-third offense and will struggle to move the ball on Kansas City. The Chargers in Week 17 will find a way to give the Chiefs a victory in the fourth quarter because that’s just what they do. Expect the Chiefs to win both games and get in as the No. 5 seed.
Remaining schedule: DEN (W), @SD (W)
6. Miami Dolphins (10-6)
Matt Moore is going to lead the Dolphins to the playoffs, isn’t he? It certainly looks that way. Unlike the other teams contending for a wild card spot, the Dolphins can split their final two games and still get in. That’s what will happen, too. They’ll handle the Bills this week before losing to the Patriots in Week 17. If the Patriots clinch home-field this week with a Raiders loss, the Patriots could even sit their starters and ease Miami’s path to the postseason.
In this scenario, the Ravens lose to the Steelers but beat the Bengals, the Texans split their final two games and the Broncos lose out. If it plays out this way, the Dolphins won’t even need to rely on a tiebreaker.