- With three weeks remaining in the NFL season, there are several tight playoff races worth watching.
- In the AFC, there are two big battles for division leads, with four realistic teams battling for two Wild Card spots.
- In the NFC, the race for the NFC South is particularly gruelling, while the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions gasp for air in the Wild Card race.
There are just three weeks left in the NFL season, and things are going exactly to plan for the league – there are a few great teams and a whole bunch in the middle scrapping for the playoffs.
The AFC is dominated by two teams, the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, but below them is a pack of teams, including a group fighting for the final two spots in the postseason.
And the NFC is even wilder. The loss of Carson Wentz narrows the field between the Philadelphia Eagles and the rest of the conference playoff teams. The NFC currently has seven teams with at least eight wins this year, with a group of 7-6 teams knocking on the door, hoping one of the higher seeds stumbles in the coming weeks.
With three games to go, here’s a look at the crowded playoff picture.
Reminder: the winners of the four divisions make up the top four spots, with the two Wild Card spots going to the next two highest records.
Here are the current AFC standings, cutting off the 11th-place, 5-8 New York Jets.
As mentioned, the Steelers and Patriots are dominating the conference, with the Patriots playing their Week 13 game Monday against the Miami Dolphins. A Patriots win likely eliminating Miami from contention. But the most interesting races come in the AFC South and AFC West.
The Jaguars hold a one-game lead over the Titans, but lost to the Titans earlier in the season. The Titans have the more difficult schedule going forward, with the two teams facing off in Week 17 in what could potentially decide the division winner vs. being a Wild Card team.
The AFC West went from being one of the NFL’s toughest divisions to a joke to being ultra competitive again all in 14 weeks this season. The Chiefs and the Chargers hold the lead over the Raiders, with both teams beating the Raiders this season (the Raiders beat the Chiefs in Week 7).
The Chiefs hold the tiebreaker over the Chargers because of a Week 3 win, but their Week 15 showdown looms large. If the Chargers win in Week 15, then the tiebreak would then move to record in common games, as a Chargers win would given the same division record.
Rest of the pack
The Bills and Ravens remain in the hunt, with the Bills pulling out a win in the “Snow Bowl,” and the Ravens losing a close game to the Steelers in Week 14. Their playoff tiebreak would be decided by conference record, then move onto record in common games. The Bills still have one remaining game against an above-.500 team (the Patriots) while the Ravens don’t have any.
The NFC now seems wide open with the loss of Carson Wentz. Try sorting this mess out: the Eagles have beaten the Panthers and Rams but lost to the Seahawks. The Vikings have beaten the Saints, Falcons, Rams, and Lions, but lost to the Panthers. The Rams have lost to the Vikings, Seahawks, and Eagles but beat the Saints. The Saints have beaten the Panthers. The Panthers have beaten the Falcons and Vikings. The Falcons have beaten the Saints and Seahawks. Confused? So are we. There’s no clear-cut best team here.
The Saints-Panthers-Falcons race is a compelling and perhaps the most meaningful division race in the NFC. Let’s start with the Saints. They have beaten the Panthers twice, but lost to the Falcons in Week 14. They play the Falcons again in Week 16, and currently own the best division record of the three teams. They also play the Jets and Bucs over the next three games, a fairly easy schedule.
The Panthers lost to the Saints twice, beat the Falcons once, and play the Falcons one more time. They also take on the Packers in Week 15 in Rodgers’ welcome-back game. The Panthers have been playing well when it matters, winning five of their last six games.
The Falcons have the toughest road. They may have beaten the Saints, but they lost to the Panthers and play both teams twice, making for a difficult final stretch. Their remaining three games are all division games.
The NFC South tiebreakers go, in order, from: head-to-head records, division records, common games, and then conference games. One of these three teams could very likely have a heartbreaking finish to the season, despite all three posting admirable years.
The Rams hold a narrow one-game lead over the Seahawks, but lost to Seattle earlier this season, with a huge game looming this week. If they split the season series, they would own the same division record after Week 15, meaning their tiebreak would come in record in common games. After Week 15, both teams have one game remaining against an above-.500 opponent.
The Vikings own the division, but the Lions and Packers lurk not far behind. The Packers are set to welcome back Aaron Rodgers this week for a late playoff push but earlier losses to the Vikings and Lions could do them. The Packers play the Vikings and Lions again before the season is over, and those games will have huge ramifications.
The Lions have beaten their division opponents, but have otherwise lost games to the top NFC teams.
Do the Cowboys have a shot?
Unlikely. The Cowboys are back in the win column and are one week away from welcoming back Ezekiel Elliott. But they sit behind the Lions and Packers in the playoffs because they lost to the Packers and sport a worse record in common games than the Lions. The Cowboys finish their season with, in order, the Raiders, Seahawks, and Eagles. That’s tough sledding for a team that entered the year with championship aspirations (at least in Jerry Jones’ mind).
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