You’re Saying There’s a Chance? How your team can make the NFL Playoffs

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You’re Saying There’s a Chance? How your team can make the NFL Playoffs

Geoffrey Dean, Chief Data Editor

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For three months NFL fans have cheered, cried, and screamed at the television in support of their team. At some point, fans realize their team no longer has a chance to qualify for the playoffs, and the support wanes. In fact, prior to week 15, almost half of the NFL media market is already rooting for a high draft pick. However, there are still twenty teams that are either locked in or vying for a spot in the NFL playoffs. With three weeks to go in the season, here are the possibilities for each team in the playoff hunt.

Tier I: Start stocking up on the Doritos and Cokes, You’re gonna be partying into late January:
Baltimore (11-2)
Kansas City (9-4)
New Orleans (10-3)

These three teams have locked up their trip to the playoffs, and are all headed back to the playoffs for the second year in a row. All three of them can still clinch home-field advantage through the playoffs, and certainly are top contenders for a first-round bye. Kansas City holds the tiebreaker over Baltimore and New England, but Baltimore is turning out impressive performance week in and week out, so they may be hard to catch. New Orleans has to hope that San Francisco doesn’t match their record if they want to secure home-field advantage after dropping a shootout at home to Kyle Shanahan’s squad and forfeiting the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Tier 2: It’s all but a given at this point:
Both of these teams have a division competitor that could still, in theory, win the division title. Even less likely, but still a mathematical chance, these two teams could both bumble away the division and fall out of the playoffs. Both of these teams are in the middle of the first-round bye and home-field advantage race, though they’ll need a little help to get there. San Francisco has a better shot at grabbing the top seed after their victory over the Saints on Sunday. New England, on the other hand, has dropped games to Baltimore and Kansas City so far, in addition to losing to Houston who could also leapfrog Tom Brady and the Patriots if some odd chain of events took place.

New England (10-3)
How they make it: Win one of their next three games.
How they fall out: Lose at Cincinnati and at home to the Bills and Dolphins. Tennessee splits with Houston and beats New Orleans at home. Houston splits with Tennessee and beats the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay. Pittsburgh wins two of their last three games.

San Francisco (11-2)
How they make it: Win one of their next three games.
How they fall out: Lose out against the Falcons and Rams at home and then to Seattle on the road.
Los Angeles wins out, beating Dallas and San Francisco as the visiting team and winning their week 17 tilt at home against Arizona. Minnesota wins out and Green Bay finishes 2-1, their loss coming on the road against Minnesota in week 16.

Tier 3: You’d really have to mess this up:
These three teams are in a solid position to make the playoffs and just need to take care of business over the last few weeks to make it official. Two of them, Buffalo and Seattle, can lock up a win this weekend and Green Bay seal the deal the following weekend during primetime in Minnesota. The Bills and Seahawks have spent much of their season playing second fiddle to their division rivals in the Patriots and 49ers respectively, but both still have a shot to steal the division title in the closing weeks.

Buffalo (9-4):
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season is the Bills being a serious playoff contender. Their four losses have come at home against the Patriots, Eagles, and Ravens and on the road in Cleveland. All four of these teams could make the playoffs, and Buffalo has held their own in most of these losses. Behind their elite defense, Buffalo could make some serious noise in the playoffs.
How they make it: Beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in Week 15.
How they fall out: Lose out against Pittsburgh, New England, and the New York Jets, Pittsburgh wins out, Tennessee wins at least two games, and Houston finishes the season winning at least one game. In this scenario, Buffalo loses the tiebreaker to Houston based on their conference win percentage.

Seattle (10-3):
With MVP candidate Russell Wilson at the helm, the Seahawks are once again competitive and are looking to secure a playoff spot for the seventh time in eight years. After a somewhat surprising loss to the Rams in Los Angeles, Seattle moves to 10-3 on the year after falling to the Saints and Ravens earlier in the season, both of whom have punched their ticket to the postseason. This Seahawks team did deal San Francisco their first loss of the season, so they are hoping to have similar success in the pivotal week 17 matchup at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

How they make it: Win one more game over this three-game stretch than the Rams.
How they fall out: Lose out, dropping their road game at Carolina and then back-to-back home contests against Arizona and San Francisco. Rams win out or Bears win out.

Green Bay (10-3):
In a season that has seen its ups and downs, the Packers sit comfortably at the second seed in the NFC. This being said, they could still wind up missing the playoffs, but that would require them to lose three consecutive divisional matchups against the Bears at home and the Vikings and Lions on the road, as well as a tremendous performance by the Rams and Seahawks to close out the season.
How they make it: Win two of their next three games.
How they fall out: Lose one of their next three games, Vikings and LA Rams win out, Seattle wins one of their next three games OR Lose out, Bears or Rams or Vikings win out.

Tier 4: Finish Strong and You’ve got it:
Most of these teams are in control of how the rest of the season goes. For the most part, if they win out, they’re in and if they lay an egg over the next three contests, they’re out of the conversation. They can also play the spoiler for many teams. Pittsburgh winning any number of games thins the AFC field considerably.

Minnesota (9-4):
The Vikings are solidly in control of their own fate. Sitting a game ahead of Los Angeles for the six seed, if they can match the Rams’ record over the last three weeks they’re into the playoffs. That being said, Los Angeles holds the tiebreaker over Minnesota, so they have to maintain that one-game lead to stay in the race.

Pittsburgh (8-5):
If they win any of their last three games, they automatically eliminate Denver and Oakland, and if they win two, they’ll automatically eliminate Cleveland. They’ve got the most to lose over the last three weeks given they currently sit at the six seed and Buffalo probably won’t get caught. The two squads face off this week in Pittsburgh.

Tennessee (8-5):
Coming off of a solid second-half performance at Oakland, the Titans have put themselves in a solid place to win the AFC South. They have both of their matchups against the Texans, who are tied with Tennessee for first in the division. If they can beat the Texans at home, they will steal sole possession of the division. They’ll have to continue that performance the following week at home against the Saints who are the NFC South champs. If they can win those two games and Houston falls to the Bucs in Tampa Bay, the Titans secure the division title. If they can’t do that, they’ll have to outperform the Steelers over the last three weeks to secure control of the AFC sixth seed.

Houston (8-5):
After getting thoroughly throttled at home against Denver, the Texans take the road as they visit the Titans who have tied them atop the AFC South standings. They find themselves in a similar position as their Tennessee rivals, needing to win the division or outperform Pittsburgh over the conclusion of the season. Fortunately for Houston, they hold the tiebreaker over Tennessee for the division and over Pittsburgh and Oakland for the six seed, should Houston finish the season with the same record as any of these teams. However, in a strange circumstance where Houston, Pittsburgh, Oakland, and Indianapolis finish at 9-7, Pittsburgh would take the six seed after a series of tie-breaking procedures.

Dallas (6-7) and Philadelphia (6-7):
These two teams are a bit of an anomaly, as the winner of their week 16 matchup could, in theory, win the division with a losing record if they were to drop their other two games. The pair are too far behind Chicago and Los Angeles to compete for the wild card, so their only hope is to win the division. The race will really come down to whoever wins their Sunday afternoon tilt in a couple of weeks. Dallas has a better record in division games, and Philadelphia finishes with three consecutive matchups against divisional opponents, so the week 16 matchup is a must-win to stay competitive. If they don’t win that game, they’ll have to hope Dallas lost this weekend at home against the Rams.

Tier 5: You’ll need some help but it could happen:
Teams with a decent shot at making it, assuming a few things break their way. They’ll all need to keep the pedal to the metal as they close out the season to qualify for the playoffs.

Chicago (7-6):
Inexplicably, Matt Nagy’s Bears could still end up clinching their trip to the playoffs by way of a division title. It would take an utter collapse on the part of the Packers and Vikings, but it’s still a possibility. They could also take the last wildcard spot by winning one more game than the Los Angeles Rams but as with a division title, would need Minnesota to take a nosedive over the final three weeks.
How to make it:
Win Division: Win out, Green Bay loses out, Minnesota goes 1-2 over the last three weeks, their one win coming at home against the Packers.
Wild Card: Win one more game over the final stretch than Los Angeles, Minnesota loses out.

Los Angeles (8-5):
After making it to Super Bowl LIII last season, the Rams have not been the same team they were a year ago. Their home victory over Russell Wilson and the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football was inspiring and a good sign of things to come in the coming weeks. They cannot win the NFC West anymore but are still in contention for a wild card spot. That would require the Rams to finish with the same record or a better record than Chicago and Minnesota.
How to make it:
Wild Card: Finish with the same or better record as Chicago and Minnesota.

Indianapolis (6-7):
Just like Chicago, Indianapolis can still win their division after seemingly falling out of the picture as the season progressed. If the Colts can win their last three games and the Texans and Titans do not win more than one game each, the division title will reside in Indy.
How to make it:
Win Division: Win out, Houston AND Tennessee don’t win more than one game.
Wild Card: Win out, Steelers lose out, Houston or Tennessee doesn’t win more than one game, Cleveland and Oakland don’t win out.

Tier 6: Time to pull out the calculators:
For fans of these teams, the playoffs are something of wild fantasy, hope finding its way into the fan bases like a sliver of moonlight through a crack in the blinds. For the fan bases, it has been years of struggle and frustration marred with ill-fated front office decisions and quarterback failure. Despite all of this, there is still a mathematical chance that each of these teams can qualify for the playoffs.

Denver (5-8)
Following Drew Lock’s sensational performance in Houston on Sunday, in which he threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns, swagger and confidence have returned to the mile-high city. These numbers were the most by a Denver quarterback this year, of which they have had three. In some miraculous sequence of events, the Broncos could return to the postseason for the first time since their Super Bowl 50 title run during Peyton Manning’s final season.
How to make it: Win out, Steelers lose out, Titans OR Texans lose out (Denver holds the tiebreaker over both of these teams), Cleveland doesn’t win out and Indianapolis loses at least two of their last three games.

Cleveland (6-7):
Expectations ran high coming into this season, and Cleveland was pegged as a trendy sleeper pick to win the Super Bowl. That has clearly not panned out thus far. Second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield has underwhelmed this year and the Browns’ big offseason move in acquiring Odell Beckham Jr. has not gone as planned. They’re still in a position to make the playoffs, but they’ll need serious help to get there.
How to make it: Win out, Pittsburgh loses at least two of their last three games, Titans OR Texans lose out.

Oakland (6-7):
Just like their division rival in Denver, the Oakland Raiders are relying on the Steelers to lose out in order to have a shot at the playoffs. If all the stars aligned, the last AFC playoff spot would be reserved for the winner of the Broncos-Raiders game at Mile High Stadium in Week 17.
How to make it: Win out, Steelers and Titans OR Texans lose out, Cleveland doesn’t win out.

To test out your own playoff scenarios, check out ESPN’s Playoff Machine.