Prediction of the NFL playoff picture

There are only 32 games left in the 2021 NFL season, and only six playoff spots have been won. Incredibly, the hope of 24 teams after the season still lives on mathematically. And even with all two weeks left, there are endless changes to how the rest of the regular season could play out and how the playoffs could take shape. But today we predict what will happen with only one scenario: chalk.

We used simulations from ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) to determine the most likely playoff course and seedings. Based on our numbers, there is a 7% chance that the following prediction will hit every team and every seed in the NFC, and a 5% chance of doing the same in the AFC. The probability that both conferences will adapt exactly as follows is only 0.5%. It may seem low for a best guess prediction, but that’s how much uncertainty is left. It was the final position that our FPI simulations produced the most. And we will explain how we got there, complete with expected match results for weeks 17 and 18.

So let’s break down the last two weeks of the 2021 season and the resulting playoff field if the most likely scenario via ESPN’s FPI unfolds. Who got a spot in the 14-team field, who locked up a division title or No. 1 seed, and who was completely left out of the off-season? In addition, we take a quick look forward to the playoffs and what we can expect there. Let’s dig in.

Jump to:
Results: Week 17 | Week 18
Final position: AFC | NFC

Expected results for week 17

LAR-BAL: Rams 27, Ravens 7
ATL-BUF: Bills 38, Falcons 14
NYG-CHI: Bears 34, Giants 27
KC-CIN: Chiefs 10, Bengals 6
LV-IND: Colts 26, Raiders 10
JAX-NE: Patriots 31, Jaguars 13
TB-NYJ: Buccaneers 34, Jets 14
MIA-TEN: Titans 27, Dolphins 10
PHI-WSH: Eagles 41, Washington 21
DEN-LAC: Chargers 16, Broncos 8
HOU-SF: 49ers 34, Texans 7
ARI-DAL: Cardinals 17, Cowboys 16
CAR NO: Saints 23, Panthers 17
DET-SEA: Lions 18, Seahawks 17
MIN-GB: Packers 27, Vikings 26
CLE-PIT: Steelers 30, Browns 27

The story of week 17: Most of the contestants vying for playoff spots took care of the business. The Chargers achieved a decisive 16-8 victory over divisional enemy Denver. Jonathan Taylor led a Colts team without Carson Wentz to a 26-10 victory over the Raiders. Trey Lance and the 49ers wiped out the Texans. And the Saints – now with quarterback Taysom Hill back – managed to scratch a 23-17 victory over the Panthers. The Packers held serv for the No. 1 seed with a one-point victory over the Vikings, while one of their main challengers, Dallas, lost by the same margin to Arizona.

However, not all playoff hopes won. Cleveland, which began with such high hopes, was eliminated with a 30-27 loss to the Steelers. The same was Washington in a blowout loss to the Eagles.

Expected results for week 18

NO-ATL: Saints 30, Falcons 22
PIT-BAL: Ravens 33, Steelers 20
NYJ-BUF: Bills 37, Jets 21
CIN-CLE: Bengals 27, Browns 21
GB-DET: Lions 24, Packers 21
TEN-HOU: Titans 31, Texans 28
IND-JAX: Colts 33, Jaguars 13
CAR-TB: Buccaneers 36, Panthers 26
NE-MIA: Dolphins 10, Patriots 3
CHI-MIN: Bears 17, Vikings 14
WSH-NYG: Washington 54, Giants 31
DAL-PHI: Eagles 28, Cowboys 30
KC-DEN: Chiefs 34, Broncos 7
LAC-LV: Raiders 20, Chargers 19
SF-LAR: 49ers 42, Rams 7
SEA-ARI: Seahawks 34, Cardinals 27

In Week 18, some underdogs pampered a party for their division rivals. Most notably, the Seahawks – at the end of a losing season and a week after the loss to the Lions – toppled the Cardinals to ruin their chance of a late comeback to the NFC West title. The Patriots battled in Miami as they fell in a sleepy 10-3 game against the Dolphins – even though their wildcard bids had already been locked the week before. And the Packers played Jordan Love on QB with the No. 1 seed secured and lost to the Lions.

Projects how the AFC plays out

1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)
2. Tennessee Titans (12-5)
Buffalo Bills (11-6)
4. Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)
5. Indianapolis Colts (11-6)
6. New England Patriots (10-7)
Los Angeles Chargers (9-8)

8. Las Vegas Raiders (9-8)
9. Miami Dolphins (9-8)
10. Baltimore Ravens (9-8)
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8-1)
12. Cleveland Browns (7-10)
13. Denver Broncos (7-10)
14. New York Jets (4-13)
15. Houston Texans (4-13)
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-15)



Marcus Spears says the Mac Jones and Patriots are not coming out of the first round of the playoffs.

Kansas City wins top seed: Chiefs controlled their fate for No. 1 seed, and they took care of business. The KC first drew a bizarre 10-6 defensive victory over the Bengals before blasting the Broncos in Week 18. The Titans held tiebreaker over the Chiefs, and they did their part to keep up the pressure by beating the Dolphins and Texans. But because the Chiefs won twice and finished 13-4, Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid earned the top seed, giving them the coveted farewell. The Chiefs have not had to play a wild card game since 2017 despite last missing the playoffs in 2014.

The Bills Can Handle Pats for AFC East: Buffalo was already a big favorite after beating the Patriots in Week 16, but it sewed the deal up by closing out the season with two wins, while the Patriots stumbled in Week 18 against the Dolphins. Our projection gives the bills 75 combined points over the last two weeks, meaning the offense could get into the playoffs with humming. And as luck would have it, this scenario gives us a third encounter between the Bills and Patriots in the wildcard round.

Bengals win a close AFC North race: The Bengals sealed a huge win in Week 16 – Joe Burrow hung 525 yards and four touchdowns on the Ravens – to an offensive downturn in Week 17. Cincinnati managed just six points in a loss to the Chiefs. But Baltimore’s loss helped soften the sting. The division title was still up for grabs in Week 18, but the Bengals were able to defeat the Browns 27-21 to snatch it. Cincinnati last won the AFC North in 2015 – and it has not won a playoff game since 1990.

Titans hold Colts in AFC South: The Colts won their last two games here, but it did not end up meaning anything in this case. The Titans – currently a match up in the standings – also continued to win over their easily remaining program.

Tiebreakers Gives No. 7 Seeds to Chargers: The Colts and Patriots are virtual locks to reach the off-season, and they both do in that prediction. But the seventh seed? This is where things get interesting. And in this case, it’s the Chargers who grab it, winning a four-way 9-8 draw with the Raiders, Dolphins and Ravens. In the end, the tiebreaker seals with strength to win the berth to Los Angeles. The painful part for the Raiders, Dolphins and Ravens is that they all missed the playoffs at 9-8 after having had 1-1 in their last two games. Had either of them won both of their last two matches, they would have deserved a place.

Jaguars win top draft: You can say this about Jacksonville: This team is losing right. For the second year in a row, the Jaguars achieved No. 1 in the draft. It’s an unfortunate honor, though it may still make Jacksonville a star-pass rusher or a host of choices in exchange. The Jaguars’ 31-13 and 33-13 losses to the Patriots and Colts, respectively, ended a miserable year that brought them to the top spot.

Projects how NFC plays

1. Green Bay Packers (13-4)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)
3. Dallas Cowboys (12-5)
4. Los Angeles Rams (12-5)
5. Arizona Cardinals (11-6)
6. San Francisco 49ers (10-7)
Philadelphia Eagles (9-8)

8. New Orleans Saints (9-8)
9. Washington Football Team (7-10)
Minnesota Vikings (7-10)
Chicago Bears (7-10)
12. Atlanta Falcons (7-10)
13. Seattle Seahawks (6-10)
Carolina Panthers (5-12)
15. Detroit Lions (4-12-1)
16. New York Giants (4-13)

Green Bay secures No. 1 seed early: The Packers actually finished this in Week 17 here, defeating the Vikings by a single point, while the Cowboys lost to the Cardinals by the same margin. Although the Packers continued to lose to the Lions in Week 18 – let’s work on the assumption that they rested starters – and finished with the same record as the Buccaneers, Green Bay had the better conference record and thus earned goodbye. The NFC playoffs roll through Lambeau Field for the second year in a row.

The Rams take on NFC West: This one remained interesting until the end because both the Rams and Cardinals won in Week 17. The Rams were then blown out of the 49ers in Week 18, which opened the door for Arizona if it could just beat Seattle – but it could not. The Cardinals lost and handed the division over to Los Angeles. The result created an NFC West rematch between the Rams and 49ers in the wildcard round.

Eagles beat Saints for last place: The Cardinals are in, so it’s just a matter of the last two places. And in this case, ESPN’s FPI predicts that the 49ers and Eagles will serve them. San Francisco did it convincingly and blew the Texans and Rams out. The Eagles actually dropped their Week 18 competition against the Cowboys, but stuck with the Saints – who won twice – due to a head-to-head tiebreaker with New Orleans after beating the Saints 40-29 earlier this year. The Saints fell short despite doing everything they could over the last two weeks and the Vikings fumbled their small chance by losing twice.

What to expect in the playoffs

Expected joker cards round matchups
(7) Chargers by (2) Titans
(6) Patriots at (3) Bills
(5) Hold on (4) Bengals
(7) Eagles on (2) Buccaneers
(6) 49ers at (3) Cowboys
(5) Cardinals at (4) Rams

Super Bowl ambitions: The Chiefs-Packers would certainly be the most likely Super Bowl matchup, with the two teams earning byes. But who could spoil the party? ESPN’s FPI actually believes that the Bills and Buccaneers are the best teams in their respective conferences.


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