NFL Playoff Picture Review

By Bryan Knowles

With just three weeks left in the NFL season, the playoff picture is finally beginning to come into focus.  In both conferences, ten teams have legitimate playoff chances of one sort or another.  While only three teams—Washington, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta—are mathematically eliminated, it would be a stretch saying that teams like, say, Jacksonville or Houston have any real chance of catching and passing the chain of teams ahead of them.

And, while only Seattle has officially clinched a playoff berth, trying to come up with scenarios where a team like Denver misses the playoffs is a difficult task, indeed.

So, here is the playoff picture entering the week:


  1. Seattle, barring a disaster.

  2. The NFC South winner, be it New Orleans or Carolina

  3. Philadelphia, Dallas, Detroit, or Chicago.   The Eagles are the only team that controls their own destiny for this slot.

  4. Detroit, Chicago, Green Bay, Dallas, or Philadelphia.  If the Packers do rebound and win the division, it would still be nearly impossible for them to pass the NFC East winner.

  5. New Orleans, Carolina, or San Francisco.  The 49ers lose the tiebreaker to both of the NFC South teams, so they'll root for a sweep by either team in their two matchups over the last month.

  6. San Francisco, Arizona, New Orleans, Carolina, or Philadelphia.  There exists a number of scenarios where, for example, the Cowboys, Eagles, 49ers, and Cardinals all tie at 10 wins here.  In such a scenario, Philadelphia would likely trump San Francisco for this final slot due to their superior conference record.


  1. Denver or New England.  New England owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, but Denver's likely to end up with more wins.

  2. Denver, New England, Cincinnati, or Indianapolis.  Very difficult to sort through this particular seed at this point.

  3. New England, Cincinnati, or Indianapolis.

  4. New England, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, or Baltimore.  All the AFC conference races are pretty much locked up, with only the defending Super Bowl champions with a reasonable shot to break up the party.

  5. Kansas City, barring a disaster

  6. Miami, NY Jets, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, or Tennessee.  Believe it or not, no one controls their own destiny for this final spot—each and every team could still miss the playoffs, even if they win out.  This is one where tiebreakers really are going to come into play.

NFL Playoff Picture Review
Oct 27, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) is tackled by Minnesota Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson (21) during the first quarter at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. Photo courtesy by Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports.

Having trouble cutting through your favorite team's tiebreakers?  Here are all of Week 14's games, ranked from least to most important, along with which teams should be pulling for which results.

14-16.  NY Giants @ San Diego, Buffalo @ Tampa Bay, Houston @ Jacksonville

These games are essentially meaningless in the playoff race—the Buccaneers are already eliminated, the Jags and Texans are on the verge of being so, and the Chargers and Giants are behind a ton of other teams in their quest for a wildcard slot.

13. Oakland @ NY Jets

Only Jets fans really care about this matchup; they essentially need to win out to have a chance of winning that last playoff spot at 9-7.  None of the other AFC Wildcard teams need to worry about the Jets quite yet.

12. St. Louis @ Arizona

The Cardinals know that, thanks to their earlier loss to San Francisco, they probably have to win out to have a shot at either wildcard slot, making every game from now on a must win.  Meanwhile, the 49ers should be rooting for the Rams—while they control the tiebreakers with the Cardinals at the moment, an Arizona loss would give them a margin for error.

11. Atlanta @ Green Bay

The Packers are in win-or-go-home mode; 9-6-1 would likely see them win the division, but anything else will most likely leave them on the outside looking in.  Detroit, on the other hand, would breath a lot easier if Green Bay was knocked out here, rather than risking the charge of a resurgent Pack lead by Aaron Rodgers late.

10. Kansas City @ Washington

The Chiefs, of course, want to win—they have a shot at clinching a playoff berth this week if everything falls right.  They'll be opposed by fans of the Broncos and Patriots – Denver wants to remove any doubt of winning the division, while New England would rather be in a potential tiebreak situation with Denver than Kansas City, thanks to the head-to-head victory.

9. Minnesota @ Baltimore

The Ravens aren't dead yet—not by a long shot.  If they lose this game, however, they can kiss any chance of catching the Bengals in the AFC North goodbye.  Of course, the Bengals would love that outcome—the less competition the better, right?  As for the wildcard race, the Dolphins have their weakest tiebreakers against Baltimore, due to the Week 5 loss.  A Minnesota win would help their chances.

8. Seattle @ San Francisco

Of course San Francisco wants to win—a loss here eliminates them from the division race entirely.  A win also puts them up over the 90 percent confidence interval of winning a playoff berth of any kind.  That means they'll have lots of people rooting for them to fall here—Seattle, because it clinches the division and a bye week, as well as the Cardinals, Saints, and Eagles, all of whom would love to see the 49ers slide down a peg or two to avoid potentially awkward tiebreakers—the Saints, while they have the head-to-head victory over San Francisco, could lose a three-way tie break with the 49ers and Eagles.

7. Miami @ Pittsburgh

No need for outside viewers here—this is of sole importance to the two teams involved.  The Steelers are essentially out if they lose from here on out, while the Dolphins have a greater margin for error.  Either way, though, a win not only propels these clubs forward in the race, but gives them a key head-to-head tiebreaker over a rival.  For the other AFC teams, they'll hope the winner of this game loses from here on out, but it matters less as to which team that is.

6. Dallas @ Chicago

The Cowboys control their own fate for the division, but no more than that—unlike Philadelphia, they can't clinch the 3-seed just by winning out.  The Bears, of course, need to win, as any loss from here on out probably knocks them too far down to have a legitimate shot at the playoffs.  The Eagles will root for Chicago, as they already have a head-to-head loss against Dallas, while the 49ers and Panthers will root for Dallas to lose to avoid a nightmare scenario.  If the Eagles, Cowboys, 49ers, and Panthers all tie at 10 wins, the two NFC East teams would take home the playoff berths.  Knocking the Cowboys down a peg is crucial.

5. Detroit @ Philadelphia

The first game on the list to have teams rooting on both sides.  In the Eagles corner, we have the other NFC North teams—the Bears and Packers, who need Detroit to lose to try to catch them.  In the Lions corner, we have the Cowboys, who want to win the NFC East outright, and the 49ers, trying to avoid losing tiebreakers to Philadelphia.  This is a key matchup in multiple races.

4. Tennessee @ Denver

The Broncos are trying to clinch the division and home field advantage, keeping the pressure up to avoid losing tie breakers to the Patriots.  The Ravens and Steelers will be pulling for them, as well, as Tennessee has tiebreakers over both of them.  The Titans have a lot of head-to-head tiebreakers, but that will be meaningless if they don't get a few more wins under their belt.  Everyone else with a chance at winning a division wants to push Denver down—that includes division rivals the Chiefs as well as the Patriots, Bengals, and Colts.

3. Cleveland @ New England

While the Patriots have nearly locked up the AFC East at this point, they could fall anywhere from home field advantage through the playoffs to having to face the Chiefs in the first round of the playoffs.  This month is crucial for their seeding.  The Dolphins have an outside chance of catching New England, but only if the Patriots lose out.  The Broncos, Bengals, and Colts all want those better seeds, and would love nothing more than the Browns to pull the upset here.

2. Indianapolis @ Cincinnati

A loss here probably drops the Bengals out of any serious contention for a bye week, and brings up the possibility that they'll fail to win the division entirely.  That sounds alright for the Ravens, who still hold hopes of hosting a playoff game this year.  The Colts also face the likelihood of losing out on a bye if they lose this game, but in their case, a win clinches the division regardless.  All this talk of losing chances for bye weeks sounds great to New England, but they'll be pulling for Indianapolis, due to their Week 5 loss to Cincinnati.

1. Carolina @ New Orleans

This is, by far, the most monumental game of the week but, oddly, the actual result matters less to the teams not involved.  No matter ifthe Panthers or Saints win, the situation is the same—the winner is well in the driver's seat for the NFC South and number two seed, and likely would win the fifth seed in a worst case scenario.  The loser risks falling all the way down to the sixth seed, as well as having a serious hill to climb to win the division.  The NFC wildcard contenders will want the loser of this game to keep losing, but whether it's the Saints or Panthers specifically matters less in the long run.

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