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Introduction (please read!)
With only 3 weeks to go, the playoff picture is becoming increasingly clear. With that said, we have at least one clear path for any team that has not yet clinched and is not yet eliminated to make the playoffs. This post is here to show one way for each team to make the playoffs. Note that the scenarios listed here are not exhaustive - there may be other ways for these teams to reach the playoffs. The scenarios listed here are the simplest way for each team (in terms of either needed help or avoiding tiebreaker silliness). There will only be one scenario listed for each team, as the goal of this post is to show the path of least resistance, not all the possibilities. With a few exceptions for teams close to clinching, every scenario begins with the team in question winning out.
PHI & DAL have already clinched playoff berths
WAS has already been eliminated from playoff contention
- NYG wins out
- SEA loses out
- LAR loses weeks 16 & 18
- NO loses weeks 17 & 18
- GB defeats CHI
- GB loses a game week 16 or 17
- ATL loses a game week 16 or 17
While there are multi-way ties that we can use to get NYG in with fewer losses for some teams. This is a simple setup. The teams they have head-to-head losses against are knocked down below them in record, leaving only NYG, LAR, ATL, and GB, and MIN as the only possible ties with NYG for the 6 & 7 seeds. MIN would advance on common games if they finished at the same record as NYG and the others, giving them the 6 seeds, but NYG is guaranteed to finish ahead of LAR, ATL, and GB due to head-to-head and/or conference record.
- DET wins a game
- MIN wins out
- GB wins out
- DET defeats MIN (week 16 or 18)
- ATL loses a game
- NO loses a game
- LAR loses a game
- CHI wins out
- NO loses out
- LAR loses week 17 & 18
- SEA loses week 18 & one other week
- NYG loses a game
- MIN wins week 17 & one game against DET
DET clinches their division unless they lose out
MIN controls their own destiny by owning tiebreakers against LAR & SEA.
For GB, get MIN out of our hair on record. Having NO & ATL lose a game ensures that the only team that could finish in the wildard race at 9-8 is NO, who loses head-to-head to GB. GB also has head-to-head on LAR. We ignore SEA here because they are a bit more obnoxious. But we don’t care what they do, as we are leaving the 6 seed free, so they can get the 6 seed. However, if they finish with the same record as LAR, LAR will finish ahead of them on head-to-head, so they’re out of the tiebreaker picture anyway.
For CHI, week 16 between LAR & NO is a big inflection point. Either result can work in their favor, but each result requires a different set of tweaks. NO really only needs to lose 2 games, but they do have head-to-head, and even though it’s likely to be passed in a multi-way tie, to avoid any shenanigans with teams doing worse than expected and forcing head-to-head to come into play, we just make them lose out to get out on record. MIN’s win over GB in week 17 & winning another game are to get any tiebreaker shenanigans related to division opponents. MIN gets the 6 seed outright here. CHI will have the conference record on LAR & on SEA if SEA loses week 18. They also have head-to-head and conference record on ATL. Ultimately, this setup leaves LAR, SEA, and ATL as the only teams that could finish at 8-9 in contention for the 7 seed, and CHI has tiebreakers on them all.
CAR has already been eliminated from playoff contention
- TB wins weeks 17 & 18
- NO wins out
- ATL wins out
- TB loses 2 games
All of these are for clinching the NFC South. TB & NO control their own destinies, as they play each other week 17. And if TB wins weeks 17 & 18, they’ll clinch the division regardless of week 16 result. ATL has as sweep of NO if they win out, but TB gets a bit obnoxious. If NO defeats TB in week 17 and then all 3 teams finish at 9-8, ATL would advance on 3-way head-to-head, but if NO doesn’t cooperate, TB will have the 2-way tiebreaker, so we threw them out in this one. NO winning weeks 16 & 17 would be equally useful for ATL.
SF has already clinched the NFC West division title
ARI has already been eliminated from playoff contention
- LAR wins out
- SEA wins out
- LAR or MIN loses a game
The only possible wildcard contenders at 10-7 would be LAR, SEA, and MIN. They have both the 6 & 7 seeds available to them. LAR has a sweep of SEA, and since division ties are always broken first, they are guaranteed to finish ahead of SEA. No other help needed. On the other side, MIN has conference record on both of them, so SEA loses the tiebreaker to MIN & LAR. Thus, we just need to drop one of those down a game, and SEA’s got a clear path.
NE & NYJ have already been eliminated from playoff contention
- MIA wins a game
- BUF wins out
- MIA loses week 16 or 17
Due to the fact that they are guaranteed to finish ahead of CIN in tiebreakers and the fact that HOU & IND play each other in week 18, guaranteeing the loser of that to be behind on record, any MIA win will advance them. BUF loses a lot of tiebreakers, so for them, the ideal path to the playoffs is just to win their division, since it requires just 1 result beyond them winning out.
BAL has already clinched a playoff berth
- CLE wins 2 games
- CIN wins out
- BUF loses a game
- PIT wins out
- CLE loses 2 games
- BUF loses week 18
- DEN loses a game
For CLE, it’s the same logic as with MIA. CIN is guaranteed to finish behind at 11 wins, and the loser of HOU/IND will finish behind as well, and that’s all they need.
For CIN, they lose pretty much all the tiebreakers and despite their head-to-head win over BUF, their easy way to just force themselves in on record is to let BUF lose a game.
For PIT, they have the division record tiebreaker on CLE, so 2 losses from CLE drops them behind PIT. CIN also falls behind because PIT will beat them in the process of winning out. DEN losing a game takes them out of the mix, While any loss by BUF gets PIT ahead of them, we specify week 18 because that’s vs MIA. The one thing that could cause problems for PIT there is if MIA loses out, and BUF wins the AFC East, throwing MIA into the tiebreak could throw a wrench into things. After all this is done, we have ensured that the only teams that can get ahead of PIT in the tiebreaker race is the 3 relevant AFC South teams (one of which will win their division), leaving the 7 seed free for PIT.
TEN is already eliminated from playoff contention
- JAX wins out
- IND wins out
- HOU wins out
JAX wins the division if they win out. If JAX drops a game, HOU or IND wins the division. HOU is guaranteed to finish ahead of CIN & IND if HOU wins out (CIN on tiebreakers and IND by virtue of the fact that they play week 18). IND is a bit trickier due to their head-to-head loss, but if CIN wins out, CLE wins every game other than their loss to CIN, and BUF wins out, BUF drops out of CLE/IND/BUF on conference record, CLE gets the 5 seed on head-to-head, CIN gets the 6seed on head-to-head sweep on BUF/IND, but then IND gets the 7 seed on conference record. If we let BUF win the division and drop MIA down to the wilcard tie, CLE crushes Strength of Victory for the 5 seed, CIN drops out of CIN/MIA/IND on conference record, and IND gets the 6 seed on common games.
- KC wins week 16 or 18
- DEN wins out
- KC loses weeks 16 & 18
- LV wins out
- KC loses week 17 & 18
- LAC wins out
- JAX loses out
- CIN defeats PIT
- PIT loses week 17 & 18
- IND loses out
- BUF loses week 17 & 18
- 12 or more of the following results
- MIN win week 16
- MIN win week 17
- MIN win week 18
- CHI win week 16
- CHI win week 17 (counts twice)
- CHI win week 18
- NYJ win week 16
- NYJ win week 17
- KC win week 17
- NO lose week 16
- NO lose week 17
- TEN lose week 16
- HOU lose week 16
For Non-LAC teams - this just wins the division, which is massively simpler than going through that AFC quagmire, even if it does require KC to collapse.
For LAC - LAC’s only path to victory involves a Strength of Victory over JAX. There are a lot of ways we get there (you can see that from LAC’s scenarios), but this is one of the more favorable setups for LAC, believe it or not. The reason one result counts twice is because CHI over ATL is +1 for LAC’s SoV, but ATL over CHI is +1 for JAX’s.