This has been an unpredictable season. The Cardinals and Vikings have winning records. The Saints, Lions, Cowboys and Steelers have losing records. And it seems as if half the teams, including the Patriots and Packers, are 3-3.
Although the playoff picture appears unclear, it’s possible to sort through the murky waters and find some likely scenarios. For example, all it may take to make the playoffs in the NFC is to finish with a winning record (all records through Oct. 20). Looking at their schedules, it difficult to imagine the Falcons (6-0), Bears (4-1), Giants (4-2), 49ers (5-2) and Packers (3-3) finishing with a record worse than 9-7. In fact, all of those teams are likely to finish at 10-6 or better, but I’m hedging my bets a little by making 9-7 the cutoff point.
Some might question the 3-3 Packers being included in this group, but the following analysis of teams’ schedules and their chances will reveal why the Packers are likely to return to the playoffs.
The bottom line is that, if the preceding logic is correct, there will only be room for one more playoff team from the NFC. Will the Eagles be the team to snare the remaining playoff berth?
The AFC is more wide open. With only two teams above .500 entering Week 7, there is more uncertainty. It’s still possible, however, to sort through the field and predict playoff berths.
The following is an examination of each team’s schedule and their chances of making the playoffs. We’ll start with the NFC, where there is likely only one available playoff berth.
We’ll begin with the most disappointing teams.
Saints (1-4): The Saints are one of the most disappointing teams in the NFL. They’ve only been outscored by 13 points, but their record is 1-4. The Saints must beat the Bucs on road Sunday. They can’t fall to 1-5 because the rest of their schedule is so difficult. After playing the Bucs, they play at Denver before returning home for games against the Eagles (on a Monday night) and Falcons. That still leaves a home game against the 49ers and road games at Atlanta, the Giants, and Dallas on their schedule. A 10-6 record seems doubtful. The Saints must slip in the playoffs at 9-7 or hope an 8-8 team makes the playoffs, and then qualify on a tie-breaker. It will be difficult to get to 9-7, but it’s possible. (Playoff chances: 23%)
Panthers (1-4): Another disappointing team. A victory Sunday against the visiting Cowboys is almost a must. The Panthers play the Broncos and Falcons at home, but that’s still a tall task. Remaining road games are at Chicago, the Eagles (Nov. 26), San Diego and, in their regular-season finale, at New Orleans. The playoffs seem to be a stretch. The only possibility is 8-8, and then getting in on a tiebreaker. (Playoff chances: 6%)
Lions (2-3): Last week’s overtime victory over the Eagles gave the Lions new life. But they still have two games apiece remaining with the Bears (on Monday, 8:30 p.m.) and Packers. The Falcons and Texans are also on the schedule, although both those games are at home. The Lions have a shot at 8-8 or even possibly 9-7, but that presumes road wins at Jacksonville, Minnesota and Arizona. Could finish 9-7, but an 8-8 record and a narrow playoff f miss is more likely. (Playoff chances: 16%)
Cowboys (2-3): A win at Carolina on Sunday would be huge. The Cowboys’ schedule the next three weeks consists of the Giants, at Atlanta and at the Eagles. If the Cowboys survive that stretch with their playoff hopes intact, they get the Browns, Redskins and Eagles in three straight home games, with the Eagles coming off Monday night game. The Cowboys finish at Cincinnati, home against the Steelers and Saints, and at Washington. Likely 8-8 or 9-7, with an outside shot at 10-6. The next four weeks, starting with the Panthers, could make or break their season. (Playoff chances: 18%)
EAGLES (3-3): The next few weeks are crucial. If the Eagles lose to the Falcons the week after their bye, they would enter a Monday game in New Orleans in danger of falling two games below .500 and suffering a fourth straight loss. A split with the Falcons and Saints wouldn’t be bad. The remaining home games would be against the Cowboys, Panthers, Bengals and Redskins. A split with the Falcons and Saints would make a 9-7 record and a playoff berth much more likely, although an 8-8 record would still be possible. The Eagles have a decent shot at playoffs if they can cut down on their turnovers. But that’s a big “if.” (Playoff chances: 33%)
Packers (3-3): With a game at St. Louis on Sunday, then home games against the Jaguars and Cardinals the next two weeks, the Packers could improve to 6-3 before their bye week. After the bye, the Packers have two games apiece against the Lions and Vikings, road games against the Giants and Bears, and a home game against the Titans. It’s difficult to imagine the Packers being worse than 3-4 after their bye. At the worst, the Packers should be 9-7. It’s more likely that they’ll be 10-6 or 11-5. (Playoff chances: 90%)
Vikings (4-2): The Vikings better pick up some wins in the four games they have remaining (Cardinals, Bucs, at Seahawks, Lions) before their bye. After the bye, they play the Bears and Packers twice apiece. Their only two home games after the bye are against the Bears and Packers, sandwiched around road games at St. Louis and Houston. Goodnight, Cinderella. A 9-7 record is possible, but 7-9 or 8-8 is more likely. (Playoff chances: 17%)
Cardinals (4-2): The Cardinals host the Vikings on Sunday in a battle of surprising teams, then host the well-rested 49ers and play at Green Bay before their bye. The Cardinals could have a losing record entering their bye week. If they maintain a winning record, they could fall to .500 when they come out of the bye and face the Falcons at Atlanta. Their post-bye schedule features road games at Atlanta, the Jets, Seattle and San Francisco. 8-8, at best. (Playoff chances: 11%)
Redskins (3-3): They play at the Giants and Steelers the next two weeks. Their bye follows a home game against the Panthers. After the bye, the Redskins host the Eagles, the play at Dallas four days later. They complete their NFC East stretch the following week against the Giants. An 8-8 team, at best. A 7-9 mark is more likely. (Playoff chances: 5%)
Rams (3-3): The Rams’ next three games are against the Packers, Patriots and, after their bye, at San Francisco. The Rams could be 3-6 after that stretch. There isn’t a pushover among their five remaining home games (Packers, Patriots, Jets, 49ers, Vikings). Their five road games (at 49ers, Cardinals, Bills, Bucs, Seahawks) aren’t much easier. 6-10 or 7-9. (Playoff chances: 2%)
Seahawks (4-3): Not an awful remaining schedule. After next Sunday at Detroit, the Seahawks will be left with five home games (Vikings, Jets, Cardinals, 49ers, Rams) and three road games (Dolphins, Bears, Bills). 8-8 is possible, but 9-7 more likely. (Playoff chances: 42%)
Bucs (2-3): The Bucs have two games apiece remaining against the Falcons and Saints. They also play the Broncos, Chargers and Eagles. Forget about it. (Playoff chances: 1%)
The Giants, Bears, Falcons, 49ers and Packers are likely to make the playoffs. The sixth team will likely need a winning record, although an 8-8 record is possible. The top possibilities are, in order, the Seahawks, Eagles, Saints, Cowboys, Vikings and Lions.
Only two AFC teams have winning records, and those two 5-1 teams (the Ravens and Texans) play each other Sunday. The Ravens and Texans are likely to make the playoffs, but the jumble of teams at 4-4 makes it much more difficult to narrow down the playoff field than it was in the NFC. Still, we can learn a lot about each team’s chances by looking at its schedule.
Patriots (3-3): Despite the disappointing start, the Patriots are still likely to make the playoffs. They have six home games remaining (Jets, Bills, Colts, Texans, 49ers, Dolphins). Their road games are against the Rams, Jets, Dolphins and Jaguars. That’s not exactly a killer schedule. 9-7, at worst. Could be 11-5. (Playoff chances: 88%)
Jets (3-3): A tough team to figure out. The Jets have two games remaining with the Patriots, including Sunday (4:25 at New England). The Jets have a fairly favorable schedule, although they can’t afford to slip up against worse teams on the road. 8-8 or 9-7. Will that be good enough to make playoffs? (Playoff chances: 31%)
Bills (3-3): The defense has given up 52 (Patriots), 48 (Jets) and 45 points (49ers) in games this year. That problem must be fixed in order for the Bills to make the playoffs. After hosting the Titans on Sunday, the Bills get a bye, then they play at the Texans and Patriots, two likely losses. But Bills have a soft finish: Dolphins, at Colts, Jaguars, Rams, Seahawks, at Dolphins, Jets. 9-7, maybe 10-6. (Playoff chances: 41%)
Dolphins (3-3): Three of their first four games after this week’s bye are on the road (Jets, Colts, Bills, home vs. Titans). The Dolphins are a good story, but two games apiece against the Patriots and Bills, and road games at San Francisco and the Jets spell trouble. 9-7 is best they can do, but 7-9 or 8-8 is more likely. (Playoff chances: 11%)
Steelers (2-3): They still have two games apiece remaining against the Browns and Bengals. They also play the Chiefs and Redskins at home. Could be 8-8, but 9-7 or 10-6 more likely. (Playoff chances: 51%)
Bengals: They have already played the Browns twice, losing the second game. The Bengals completed the easy portion of their schedule 3-3. Their remaining games include two with the Steelers (including Sunday) and one apiece with the Broncos, Chargers, Cowboys, Eagles, Ravens, Chiefs and Raiders. Best record is 9-7, but more likely 7-9 or 8-8. (Playoff chances: 14%)
Titans (2-4): Beaten decisively – between 21 and 24 points – in all four of their losses (Patriots, Chargers, Texans, Vikings). Their wins over the Lions in overtime and the Steelers were both by three points. Little reason to believe. 8-8 possible, but a bit of a stretch. (Playoff chances: 4%)
Broncos (3-3): A historic comeback in their 35-24 triumph over the Chargers sent the Broncos into their bye week on a positive note. It also puts them in a better position to make the playoffs. The Murderers Row portion of their schedule (Steelers, Falcons, Texans, Raiders, Patriots, Chargers) is over, but the rest still isn’t easy. Coming off the bye, the Broncos host the Saints, then play at Cincinnati and Carolina before returning home for a rematch with the Chargers. The Broncos then play at Kansas City, host the Bucs, play at Oakland and Baltimore before finishing up with the Browns and Chiefs at home. At worst, 8-8, maybe as high as 11-5. Most likely 10-6. (Playoff chances: 76%)
Chargers: San Diego has a much-needed bye this week after its collapse against the Broncos. The Chargers’ remaining schedule isn’t overly difficult. It includes home games against the Chiefs, Ravens, Bengals, Panthers and Raiders, as well as road games at Cleveland and Tampa Bay. At worst, 8-8. More likely 10-6 or even 11-5. (Playoff chances: 79%)
Chiefs: A huge disappointment. With road games remaining at San Diego, Pittsburgh and Denver (2 games left vs. Broncos), it’s difficult to imagine the Chiefs finishing better than 8-8. 8-8 … or worse. (Playoff chances: 1%)
Colts (2-3): They’ll need more than Luck . (Playoff chances: 4%)
Raiders (1-4): Highly unlikely in division with Chargers and Broncos. (Playoff chances: 1%)
Jaguars (1-4): You’re not serious, are you? (Playoff chances: 0%)
Browns (1-5): See Jaguars (above).
Barring a complete collapse, the Ravens and Texans will make the playoffs. That leaves four slots. Obviously, someone has to win the East, most likely the Patriots, and either the Broncos or Chargers will win the West. That leaves two teams remaining.
The top contenders are the Jets, Bills, Steelers and the AFC West runner-up. The magic record in the AFC may be 10-6. I don’t envision the Jets getting there. I’ll go with the Steelers and the AFC West runner-up, partly because that’s what I predicted before the season, but the Bills have a shot if they can repair their defense.