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Every NFL Playoff Scenario Heading into Week 18

You read the title correct. We’re taking a look at each and every possible playoff outcome of the NFL Season ahead of Week 18. Buckle up!

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Every NFL Playoff Scenario Heading into Week 18

Estimated Reading Time: 9 Minutes

The NFL playoffs used to be a 12-team affair. With the extended season and a new playoff format, 14 teams now have the opportunity to fly in the postseason. And this has been the year of “nobody seems to really want it”, as every time we think there’s a clear path to the Super Bowl for a team, they shoot themselves in both feet.

The In-FC Crowd

The only team that seems to be rolling into the playoffs with any sort of real consistency is the Green Bay Packers, who sit as the top seed going into the final week. The NFC has some solid teams, but all the rest faltered in one way or another. Arizona was undefeated and have played just about .500 ball since losing their first game. The Rams have barely escaped with wins a couple of weeks in a row despite actually being on a five game winning streak. The Cowboys are the Cowboys, so that could mean…anything. And the Buccaneers are becoming further depleted after barely making it past the New York Jets.

That said, all those teams are in, and the seeding of the top five won’t be settled until the dust clears. It’s going to take a lot to pry that top seed away from Green Bay, particularly since they are up against the Detroit Lions. The Cards, Rams, and Bucs also have very winnable matchups.

Then there’s the Cowboys. Dallas will be traveling to Philly for a prime-time Saturday game. Yes, somehow even the Eagles have already clinched a playoff berth. This could leave Dallas as the odd-team out, and force them to travel in the first week of the playoffs if the Eagles prevail. And I absolutely can see that happening.

If that becomes reality, the top six spots in the NFC playoffs would be as follows:

1. Green Bay Packers (14-3) – BYE
2. Los Angeles Rams (13-4)
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)
4. Arizona Cardinals (12-5)
5. Dallas Cowboys (11-6)
6. Philadelphia Eagles (10-7)

The Final Spot

Only the 49ers (9-7) and Saints (8-8) are vying for that final NFC spot. SF hold their fate in their own hands. Already a game ahead of NO, a win guarantees they clinch. But that won’t be so easy as they have to head to LA to go toe to toe with the division rival Rams. New Orleans also has a division matchup, as they head to Atlanta to take on the Falcons. If the Saints can pull off a win, they’ll need some help from LA to get in.

The Falcons are no slouch though. And that feels really weird to say. They have been riding a roller coaster all season, and find themselves at a semi-respectable 7-9. And that’s been done mostly without star wideout Calvin Ridley. If the Falcons show up, they could slam the door shut on their NFC South foe.

Prediction: The 49ers and Saints both lose, giving SF the final spot in the NFC playoffs.

The AFC playoff possibilities are truly wild

While the NFC looks to be all but decided, the AFC has five teams going after two spots. There’s also a wild possibility that the top five seeds could all be 11-6 going into the playoffs. Steve Kornacki will have his work cut out for him up until Week 18 is decided.

Let’s start with those who have already clinched.

The Titans, Chiefs, Bengals, Bills, and Patriots have all booked their spot in the AFC playoffs. But there are some wild election night-esque scenarios that could come into play. NFL tiebreakers are…WILD.

The 11-6 conundrum

There is a very real, albeit unlikely, possibility that each of these five AFC teams can finish the year with the same number of wins and losses. So, what happens if that becomes the case? Chaos ensues, thanks for asking.

The Bills and Patriots are the only two teams of this bunch who play in the same division. That would mean the very first thing that happens is a division tiebreaker to determine who even gets to be in the top four. This falls to the Bills, who would have a better divisional record by one game. So, in this scenario, the Patriots are your five seed.

Then the remaining four teams would be lined up based on conference record.

  • The Bengals would become the number one seed and get the bye with a 9-3 record.
  • Tennessee would edge out the Bills for the two seed due to having the same 7-5 conference record, but winning their head to head matchup.
  • The Bills would have the three due to a better conference record than the Chiefs.
  • Kansas City would have fallen to the four due to a 6-6 conference record.
  • As I mentioned above, the Patriots would be the five.

If Buffalo loses, but the rest go 11-6

  • New England would get the one seed. They would hold an identical 9-3 conference record, but would edge the Bengals due to win/loss in common games. Both teams played the Jets, Jaguars, Browns, and Chargers. The Patriots went 4-0 in those games (5-0 if you count both Jets games), while Cincy would be 1-3 (2-3 if you count both Browns games).
  • Cincinnati is the two seed due to superior 9-3 conference record.
  • Tennessee gets the three due to a better conference record than the Chiefs at 8-4.
  • Kansas City would have fallen to the four due to a 7-5 conference record.
  • Buffalo eats dust in the five seed

All five teams win their final matchup

If all five teams win their final game, the current seeding will be exactly as it is now.

  • Tennessee
  • Kansas City
  • Cincinnati
  • Buffalo
  • New England

But…what do I think will happen?

I think Tennessee, Cincinnati, and Buffalo will win their matchups, while KC and NE could both lose away to divisional spoilers. In this scenario…

  • Titans get the one seed as they’ll have the best record.
  • Cincy will get the two seed due to a superior conference record over Buffalo and KC.
  • Buffalo will edge out KC with a better conference record.
  • KC will still have a better record than NE, so they’ll get the four.
  • Patriots live in that five spot.

The beauty of the game for KC, Cincy, and Tennessee is that they have all clinched a home game in their first game no matter what. The only two teams that have a home game up for grabs are Buffalo and New England. And, really, the Patriots are the most likely odd man out.

Now it’s time to dive into the five teams who are vying for the final two AFC spots.

The Colts, Raiders, and Chargers are the most likely teams to punch their tickets. The Colts travel to Jacksonville while the Raiders host the Chargers in prime time on Sunday night. Pittsburgh will travel to Baltimore in a matchup best dubbing its winner’s chances as “Highly Unlikely, But Definitely Possible”.

The most absurd way things could turn out…

Okay, I realize that what I’m about to talk about is an absurdly unlikely scenario, but let’s dig into this banger of a scenario first.

First off, the Jags just got roasted by the Patriots. They have an interim coach, are playing RB3s as their top backs, and winning this game would likely boot them out of the number one pick in the 2022 draft. And that, to me, is what makes this delicious. Indianapolis has lost every game that Jonathan Taylor did not rush for at least 100 yards (and one that he did). If Jacksonville can somehow go all out in stopping the rush, forcing the game into Carson Wentz’ hands (LOL), they could actually pull this off. Indy could have sealed the deal last week, but lost at home to the Raiders. So it would be wild to watch them tumble right out of contention.

Now, that game is at 1PM. By then, the Raiders and Chargers will know that a tie would get them both into the playoffs. WHAT!? Yes. Yes, this is beautiful. The idea of both teams draining the clock for a 0-0 tie on Sunday Night Football to close out the season is next-level poetic justice for the NFL who has forced teams to play through COVID.

You’re probably asking yourself, well what about the Steelers and Ravens? In the above scenario, both are irrelevant. If Pitt were to win, Baltimore would be 8-9 and we’d have three teams at 9-7-1. That’s a crazy record to look at. But Pittsburgh lost to both the Raiders and Chargers, giving the AFC West teams the leg up and booking their tickets. If the Ravens were to win, LV and LA would edge them out by half a game.

Tell me you don’t want this to all transpire and I’ll call you a liar.

Okay, but if the Jaguars win and that game DOESN’T end in a tie?

Fine, be boring. Well, not boring, but I would love nothing more than the NFL to have to take a 0-0 primetime game to close out the season on the chin.

Anyway, if Jacksonville somehow does win, that opens the floodgates. The winner of the Raiders/Chargers game would clinch the six seed. But then the seventh could be any of the others.

If the Raiders win…

The Steelers would get in with a win (9-7-1). They would hop a half game ahead of both the Chargers (9-8) and Colts (9-8), and will have eliminated the Ravens (8-9).

The Ravens would be able to get in with a win, as they would move to 9-8 and hold the head to head tiebreaker over the Chargers and Colts.

The Colts are toast.

If the Chargers win…

The Steelers would get in with a win (9-7-1). They would hop a half-game ahead of both the Raiders (9-8) and Colts (9-8) and will have eliminated the Ravens (8-9).

The Raiders (9-8) would get in with a Ravens win (9-8), as they would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over both the Ravens and the Colts (9-8).

The Colts are toast.

But, more likely…

The Colts are going to roll over the Jaguars. And, in that case, a tie would not be good enough for the Chargers or Raiders. They’d have to play to a win to guarantee a spot. The Steelers and Ravens would both be eliminated automatically if the Colts win.

To Recap…

  • Indianapolis is in with a win.
  • Las Vegas is in with a win over the Chargers.
  • Los Angeles is in with a win over the Raiders.
  • Pittsburgh is in if they win, the Colts lose, and the Chargers/Raiders game does not end in a tie.
  • Baltimore is in if they win, the Colts lose, and the Raiders win.

Prediction: Colts and Chargers win and book their tickets to…somewhere against a division winner.

All scenarios in this article are based on the Playoff Picture data as well as the NFL Tiebreaking procedures as stated on

Kevin is an actor, director, playwright, and musician who works in tech. He is die hard New England sports and an avid Tottenham supporter. His qualifications include scoring 1 point in his elementary school basketball career, 4 years of mixed little league results, and breaking his arm with a skip-it days before pre-season workouts started for Freshman football.

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