- ESPN.com national NFL writer
- ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
- Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008
The dawn of Week 15 brought us another shake-up in the AFC playoff picture. The Chiefs’ thrilling overtime victory Thursday night over the Chargers elevated them to the conference’s No. 1 seed. The Patriots can regain that position with a victory Saturday over the Colts, but for a few days at least, the Chiefs have returned to the spot they spent so much of the previous three seasons in.
Regardless, the NFL’s playoff field is wide open with four weeks remaining in the regular season. Of the league’s 32 teams, 26 are either in a playoff spot or within one game of a berth. There are 24 teams with at least six wins, the most in NFL history through 14 weeks of a season.
What follows is a preview of our weekly snapshot of the NFL’s playoff picture, incorporating ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) and a bit of our own instincts to give you a sense of short- and long-term stakes. We’ve threaded playoff and/or division clinching scenarios for a handful of teams, and we’ll update how it all worked out on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4)
The Chiefs’ seventh consecutive win completed their journey from a losing record to the top spot in the AFC, even if it’s temporary. Just as importantly, they also eliminated the possibility of the Chargers holding a head-to-head tiebreaker in the AFC West race. That’s a good thing, because it’s not like the Chiefs have an easy schedule the rest of the way. They’re playing three AFC wild-card contenders, none of whom are likely to be playing out the string: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Denver. Regardless, this is going to be fun.
Next up: vs. Steelers (Week 16)
2. New England Patriots (9-4)
The Patriots got knocked out of the AFC’s top spot by Thursday night’s outcome, but they can regain it with a win on Saturday. Now the Patriots head into a two-week stretch that could well decide the AFC East title. They could clinch the division if they win Saturday at Indianapolis and then beat the Bills at home in Week 16. To clinch a playoff berth in Week 15, the Patriots would need to win and then get losses from the Dolphins and Browns, and then losses from two of these teams: Ravens, Steelers, Bengals and Broncos.
Next up: at Colts
3. Tennessee Titans (9-4)
Tennessee could clinch the AFC South as early as this week with a win over the Steelers and a Colts loss to the Patriots. And the Titans will continue to be in position to re-take the top spot in the AFC. The Patriots currently hold an advantage in conference record, but the Titans have the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Chiefs. Remember, the Titans have the NFL’s easiest strength of schedule the rest of the way; their remaining games are against the Steelers, 49ers, Dolphins and Texans.
Next up: at Steelers
4. Baltimore Ravens (8-5)
The Ravens have had two consecutive AFC North losses and have fallen from the AFC’s top seed to its fourth over the past two weeks. Baltimore’s remaining schedule — against the Packers, Bengals, Rams and Steelers — is among the league’s toughest. Their lead in the AFC North is down to one game, and while the FPI is still bullish on their playoff chances, it sure doesn’t feel like the Ravens are a playoff team at the moment.
Next up: vs. Packers
5. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6)
The Chargers lost the biggest game they’ve played in years on Thursday night, but they’re back where they started the night: in a good position for a wild-card playoff berth. It would be just their second trip to the postseason in the past eight years. They had a legitimate chance to overtake the Chiefs in the AFC West, and it remains a statistical possibility, but it’ll require help from a team that has developed a bunch of experience in closing out postseason position during the past few years.
Next up: at Texans (Week 16)
6. Indianapolis Colts (7-6)
The AFC South title might be beyond their grasp — the Titans are essentially up three games with four remaining because of their head-to-head sweep — but the Colts are now in good position for one of the AFC’s three wild-card spots. They’ll need to run a difficult gauntlet over the next two weeks, however, with games against the Patriots and Cardinals, before finishing with matchups against the Raiders and Jaguars. A 2-2 split in those games might be enough.
Next up: vs. Patriots
7. Buffalo Bills (7-6)
In a matter of weeks, the Bills have gone from the top of the AFC East to barely clinging to a playoff spot. They’re certainly not getting the outcomes you would expect for a team with designs on a deep playoff run, but only one of Buffalo’s losses has been by more than one score. The Bills have only one game remaining against a team with a winning record — the Patriots in two weeks — and the FPI is still giving Buffalo a really good chance to hang onto one of the wild-card spots.
Next up: vs. Panthers
In the AFC hunt
Cleveland Browns (7-6)
The Browns managed a season split with the Ravens, eliminating a head-to-head tiebreaker with them if it were to come to that for an AFC North title. Yes, the Browns are in both the divisional and wild-card mix. They get the Raiders on Saturday at home.
Cincinnati Bengals (7-6)
The Bengals’ playoff chances have taken a big hit with consecutive losses to the Chargers and 49ers. They’ll face another contending team (Denver) on Sunday.
Denver Broncos (7-6)
The Broncos have now won four of their past six games and have a chance to jump another playoff contender when they take on the Bengals on Sunday afternoon.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6-1)
The Steelers’ remaining schedule is pretty brutal, with games against the Titans, Chiefs, Browns and Ravens awaiting. The only thing left now, it appears, is their inevitable elimination from playoff contention.
1. Green Bay Packers (10-3)
The Cardinals’ loss to the Rams on Monday elevated the Packers to the top of the NFC, courtesy of the head-to-head tiebreaker. And the good news can continue this week. The Packers will clinch the NFC North if they beat the Ravens or if the Vikings lose to the Bears. And if the Vikings beat the Bears, the Packers can still clinch a playoff spot if the Saints and 49ers lose. The Packers have a few areas to shore up, most notably their special teams, but in a flawed league, they have as good of a chance as any team to make a deep playoff run.
Next up: at Ravens
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-3)
The Cardinals’ loss Monday night allowed the Buccaneers to move up a spot, and Week 15 brings some clinching scenarios for Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers could secure both a playoff berth and the NFC South with a win at home against the Saints. They also can clinch a playoff berth with losses by the Vikings and 49ers. It’s worth noting, of course, that the Saints have won all three regular-season matchups between these two teams since Tom Brady signed with the Buccaneers last season. (The Bucs did beat the Saints in the divisional playoffs last season, though.)
Next up: vs. Saints
3. Arizona Cardinals (10-3)
Monday night’s result was a disappointment but not a disaster for the Cardinals. Yes, they could have clinched a playoff spot with a win over the Rams, and that would have given Arizona a chance to secure the NFC West title as soon as this week. But all that stands between the Cardinals and a playoff spot now is a game at the hapless Lions. The loss to Los Angeles certainly threatened the Cardinals’ hopes for having home-field advantage in the playoffs, but it’s worth noting that they are undefeated on the road this season. Even if they lose to the Lions, the Cardinals can clinch that postseason spot with losses by the Vikings and Saints, losses by the Vikings and 49ers or a Packers victory combined with losses by the Falcons and Saints.
Next up: at Lions
4. Dallas Cowboys (9-4)
The Cowboys have a three-game lead in the division, and they can clinch it as early as this week, though it’s a little complicated. First, they’ll need to beat the Giants and have the Eagles lose to Washington. Then Dallas would need to win a strength-of-victory tiebreaker with the Eagles, which would require wins by all five of these teams: Cardinals, Bengals, Dolphins, Vikings and Patriots, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Whether it happens this week or not, the Cowboys’ pending division title appears inevitable. To clinch a playoff berth, the Cowboys need a win over the Giants and a loss by either the Buccaneers or 49ers, or losses by the Vikings, Falcons, Saints and a clinching of the strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Eagles.
Next up: at Giants
5. Los Angeles Rams (9-4)
The Rams are now within one game of the NFC West lead. The Cardinals are still the heavy favorite, as the Rams have a 10.3% chance to capture the division, per the FPI, but the win increased Los Angeles’ chances of making the playoffs to nearly 99%. The Rams’ remaining schedule is tough and includes three opponents who are pushing for playoff spots (Vikings, Ravens and 49ers), but Monday night’s effort showed they are up to the challenge.
Next up: vs. Seahawks
6. San Francisco 49ers (7-6)
The 49ers’ overtime victory in Cincinnati in Week 14 allowed them to put a game’s worth of distance between them and the five NFC teams with 6-7 records, and the FPI has their playoff odds at 77.3%. They could put away one of those teams this week if they defeat the Falcons, but it won’t be easy sledding. The Niners still have games remaining at the Titans and Rams, with a presumably gimme matchup against the Texans in between.
Next up: vs. Falcons
7. Washington Football Team (6-7)
Washington missed a chance to make the NFC East a bit more interesting in Week 14, but let’s face it: The real deal for Washington is the wild card, and Sunday’s loss didn’t knock it out of the top seven. Now, in an NFC field that includes five 6-7 teams, the FPI is giving Washington a 22.6% chance to grab one of the wild-card spots. It’ll play one of its competitors for those berths (Eagles) twice in the next three weeks.
Next up: at Eagles
In the NFC hunt
Minnesota Vikings (6-7)
Two of Minnesota’s four remaining games are against the Bears, including Monday night, so anything’s possible.
Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)
The Eagles return from their bye week very much still in the playoff race, in large part because they have two games remaining against Washington. The first will come Sunday.
Atlanta Falcons (6-7)
All credit to the Falcons for staying in the race with an undermanned team in the first year of coach Arthur Smith’s tenure. But games remaining against the 49ers, Bills and Saints might be too big of an obstacle.
New Orleans Saints (6-7)
The Saints have only one game remaining against a team with a winning record — Sunday at the Buccaneers — but the only team they’ve defeated since the start of November is the woeful Jets.
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