Best-, Worst-Case Playoff Scenarios for Every NFL Playoff Contender
In the cold weather which envelopes NFL battlefields during playoff time, stopping the run becomes paramount. Those teams equipped with capable running games and defenses that can shut down opposing running attacks should have a decided advantage.
This slideshow details the best and worst scenarios, within reason, for every NFL playoff contender as we head into the final two games of the regular season.
Surprisingly, only one team has clinched a playoff berth in the NFC so far. This leaves two games to decide how the final five spots will be claimed.
The AFC playoff picture is a bit clearer. Three teams are qualified already, but six teams are pushing and shoving for the final three openings.
Find out where your favorite team stands and what you can expect moving forward...
Denver’s offense has been unquestionably dominant all year long aside from a couple of blemishes. Defensively, the Broncos have been a mixed bag of injuries, suspensions and youth, which has generated quite the inconsistent group. But don’t for a second doubt the level of talent on this side of the ball.
Per Cecil Lammey of Bleacher Report:
Champ Bailey has missed most of this season with a foot injury he suffered in the preseason. Rahim Moore has been put on the Injured Reserve/Designated to return list with a rare lower leg injury called lower compartment syndrome. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been slowed down by a shoulder injury for a brief time this year. Rookie corner Kayvon Webster had to have thumb surgery after getting torched against the Chargers in Week 15.
It would be a glorious string of victories for Peyton Manning to be able to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy for the second time in his illustrious career. He is arguably surrounded by more talent than he ever has been, which is why Denver has been the most impressive AFC team all season.
Manning will have to prove his doubters wrong once and for all and silence those who want to point toward Manning’s 9-11 playoff record. To do this, he must also silence the naysayers who think he can’t win games in cold weather.
Denver's pass defense currently ranks 28th, allowing an average of 266.1 yards per game. That’s a bad sign for any defense and could spell trouble in the playoffs. It’s starting to feel like the Broncos could be past their prime as a team.
The worst possible outcome for Denver would be another first-round loss by Peyton Manning in the playoffs. This would not only sour a dominating regular season, but also the legacy of Manning himself. He would certainly have a difficult time living that down in the offseason and beyond.
New England Patriots
Losing Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo to injury has dramatically altered the face of this team’s defensive front seven. Without these guys on defense or Rob Gronkowski on offense, the Patriots are asking a lot from quarterback Tom Brady.
Brady has looked amazing in the second half of the season. He is currently ranked fifth on this week’s Updated QB Power Rankings and has thrown for over 4,000 yards this season.
Without Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots are nowhere near as dangerous on offense. This means postseason victories are going to have to be extremely hard-fought and executed to near perfection if the Patriots hope to be crowned Super Bowl champs when the smoke settles.
The Patriots should end up with a first-round bye in the playoffs as they wait to play the winner of the Wild Card Rounds. They could end up in a classic rematch with the Baltimore Ravens in what would be an interesting matchup of postseason juggernauts.
If Bill Belichick has taught us anything as head coach over the years, it’s that you can never give up on this team.
The obvious scenario here would be another early exit by Tom Brady and Co. in the playoffs. There’s a good chance for this to happen, and you have to wonder what type of questions it would raise about the future of this storied franchise.
The Patriots are allowing opponents to convert on third down 43.4 percent of the time, good for 29th in the league. This trend of poor secondary play is becoming something of a pattern, which is surprising considering Belichick’s background on the defensive side of the ball.
The Ravens began the season at 4-6 but have since elevated their play during an AFC-best four-game winning streak. Quarterback Joe Flacco and Co. have certainly built some necessary late-season momentum. Three of those four wins were by three points or fewer. This can be viewed as a negative, but as far as playoffs are concerned, it tends to show us that Baltimore knows how to win the close matchups.
As it stands, the defending Super Bowl champs are currently at 8-6 and in control of their own destiny, giving them the rights to the AFC's sixth playoff seed.
We all know what happened with Baltimore last year during playoff time. Flacco turned into a superstar and everything just started to click for the team.
For some reason, Joe Flacco comes alive in the playoffs. Hopefully his knee, which he injured in last week’s victory, won’t get in the way of his postseason magic. Paired with a solid defense, this team could find itself back in the conference championship for the second straight year. However, this time, the Ravens simply don’t have the offensive firepower to get over the hump and into the Super Bowl.
It's incredibly difficult to win the Super Bowl in back-to-back years. The last time it was done was in 2004 and 2005 by the New England Patriots. It becomes increasingly more difficult when kicker Justin Tucker is your most dangerous weapon on offense. In fact, this kicker may just be the team MVP for the 2013 season.
The Ravens are at a serious risk of not making the playoffs. Their remaining schedule, between the Patriots and the Bengals, is not easy. Losing one of those games could spell the end of Baltimore’s season, which happens to be a reality far more likely than any other at this point.
Talent is not an issue for the Cincinnati Bengals this time. They seem ready to make their third playoff appearance in as many years thanks to a solid strategy for team-building and talent acquisition.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has been their X-factor all season long. His inconsistency makes it hard to know just what these Bengals can do.
The Bengals certainly have the potential to pull off a couple of wins this year, but they seem far too young and immature to be Super Bowl contenders just yet. I can see a loss in the conference title game being a big disappointment for Cincy, but also its best-case scenario—that is, as long as Dalton continues to be massively unpredictable.
The Bengals are certainly in danger of not winning a single playoff game, though it seems improbable that they miss the postseason altogether.
Bowing out in the first round would be a huge disappointment for a team that has already spent the last two seasons gaining critical playoff experience. A quick loss could be a huge setback to the development of an evolving franchise.
Kansas City Chiefs
The sole dominance of the AFC has been handed down to another team despite the Chiefs being the last team to remain undefeated.
The defense has trailed off for some reason, but Alex Smith and the offense have stepped up tremendously.
This Chiefs team could be quietly developing into the most complete team in football. With that said, I can see the Chiefs surprising a lot of critics and making it all the way to the Big Dance for the second time in Andy Reid’s career.
I have serious doubts, however, that any team besides the Broncos can beat a team from the NFC in the Super Bowl.
The absolute best scenario would be for Alex Smith to meet his old team, the 49ers, in the Super Bowl against Colin Kaepernick. A victory there would be unlikely, but crazier things have happened, I’m sure.
The Chiefs might end up fizzling out in the Wild Card Round after having to travel to the division winner, even though Kansas City will likely have a better record.
It’s hard to tell how this team will perform in the playoffs considering it had one of the worst records in football just one year ago. Can teams actually make such a dramatic turnaround so quickly?
The Colts are luckily the best team in the worst division in football. Andrew Luck has carried this team on his back for two seasons—a job that few quarterbacks in their first two years would ever be able to do.
One advantage for the Colts as division winners is that they should get home-field advantage.
The Colts are without their best receiver in Reggie Wayne, but magic could strike a team that seems to have an ability to conjure up some last-minute heroics.
Don’t expect the Colts to win any playoff games at this point. They just don’t have the firepower on either side of the ball.
Indianapolis has already won the AFC South, so they are a lock to host a playoff game at some point. In the worst-case scenario, Indy gets blown out so badly that the competition committee decides to change the way it does seeding for the playoffs.
The Dolphins have miraculously found a way to have success amid unparalleled distractions that simultaneously depleted an already-disquieting offensive line. Head coach Joe Philbin deserves a lot of credit for weathering the storm of intense scrutiny and steering his players to a 5-2 record over the last seven games.
Miami still has a decent shot at one of the remaining playoff spots, as it sits at 8-6 with two games remaining. This team has a decent shot at heading into the playoffs at 10-6. I don’t see it winning a playoff game this year, but just racking up double-digit wins and making an appearance would be an accomplishment long overdue for the Dolphins.
The Dolphins could very well miss the playoffs if they are unable to beat the Bills on the road and the Ravens happen to win out. This would be a tough pill to swallow knowing that they beat the Patriots but were unable to seal the deal with wins over two subpar teams with losing records.
Either way, I don’t realistically see the Dolphins winning any playoff games this year.
San Diego Chargers
In case you were wondering if the Chargers are the real deal or not, their Thursday night win over the Broncos should put your mind at ease.
Philip Rivers is playing lights-out football, as the Chargers have won three of their last four games to stay alive in the playoff race.
Philip Rivers has never taken a team to a Super Bowl, and this doesn’t appear to be the team that can do it for him. Just squeezing into the sixth seed of the playoffs would be a tremendous accomplishment at this point.
This team is not likely to do much damage if it happens to make the playoffs. However, the most probable situation is that the Chargers don’t make that final seed, especially given they are in direct competition with the Ravens, who just so happen to own the tiebreaker.
Pittsburgh is basically as good as eliminated already. The only reason it makes this list is because it has not been mathematically eliminated. But the Steelers have been a better team lately and have seemingly found chemistry on offense.
The best-case scenario is that the Steelers win their last two games while they root for every other team on the verge of making the playoffs to lose. Even if that situation were to occur, the Steelers would likely be looking at a one-and-done-type situation in the postseason.
Realistically, Pittsburgh is not going to be a factor in the playoffs and will likely be eliminated before it even plays its final game in Week 17.
There could be some major shakeups on the way this offseason for Pittsburgh.
The Seahawks own the best record in football and are widely considered the most complete team. Shoring up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is just a few wins away. This perk will mean that the road to the Super Bowl will have to go through the "12th Man."
Obviously, the best scenario for the Super Bowl favorites is to win it all. This team has everything it needs to make a run for the ultimate prize.
Losing to the 49ers at home has to be the worst possible scenario for the Seahawks. These two teams genuinely hate each other on many levels. Having their championship hopes destroyed by their enemies would be an absolute disaster that could potentially destroy everything good the Seahawks did all season.
New Orleans Saints
We all know Sean Payton and Drew Brees can put points on the board. What we didn’t know was that newly acquired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was going to turn lemons into lemonade.
The Saints have a solid shot at winning their division and clinching a first-round bye. After that, this team will need a lot of fortunate bounces and one heck of defensive game plan to handle any potential matchup in the NFC.
If Drew Brees plays lights-out and is successfully protected by his new starting left tackle, rookie Terron Armstead, then maybe, just maybe, this team will win the divisional-round matchup. Beyond that, it would take a miracle for the Saints. They lack experience and talent on defense, and only three teams are allowing a higher yards-per-carry average this year.
The Saints could quite possibly end up losing the division to the Carolina Panthers and dropping out early with a loss to the 49ers in the Wild Card Round. The 49ers are not the same team the Saints beat earlier in the season, and there’s no doubt New Orleans would rather avoid them altogether.
Surprisingly, there’s actually a scenario that’s worse than the one already mentioned—albeit a very unlikely scenario. There’s actually still a chance that the Saints miss the playoffs altogether. That remote outcome would require them to lose their remaining two regular-season games and a plethora of other situations. This scenario is too much of a long shot to get too deep into right now.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are looking to return to the big show in hopes to finish what they started last year.
This team is coming together at just the right time, having won its last four games. Receiver Michael Crabtree is back, which has clearly opened up the offense. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick had struggled while waiting for his favorite target to return.
This can be the 49ers' year to hoist the Lombardi trophy. Beating the Seahawks in Seattle would make the Super Bowl victory that much sweeter.
San Francisco might just be the team to beat this season if it can get over Seattle’s daunting home crowd noise.
Believe it or not, the 49ers are actually looking at a real-life scenario in which they could completely miss out on the postseason. The Cardinals are still hot on their trail, while the Saints and Panthers are battling it out in the South. A clear-cut winner from that division still needs to emerge.
If the 49ers lose and the Cardinals win both remaining games, technically San Fran would be jumped by the Cardinals for the final playoff spot.
The Eagles have been one of the more interesting teams to both watch and figure out this season. Chip Kelly’s offense has come through for the most part, catapulting Nick Foles into the upper echelon of starting NFL quarterbacks.
The defense has struggled at times but seems to be improving, unless you count what happened last week against the Vikings. Inside linebackers Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans are missing way too many tackles right now, which has contributed to the team's 30th-ranked defense.
The Eagles may figure out that Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are future building blocks of this rebuilding defense in time to save their season. If this realization occurs, these two men will see a significant boost in their playing time.
Offensively, the Eagles can compete with anyone in the league if they sequence their plays in a way that keeps their opponents off-balance.
At the most, Philly can win a game or two, but it will quickly realize that playoff football requires a level of physicality that this team is just not ready for yet.
How far can a team that surrenders 48 points to the Vikings’ second-string QB and third-string running back actually go?
The next two games against the Bears and the Cowboys are not going to be easy wins. Losing both matchups is very possible and would certainly eliminate the Eagles from postseason contention.
Cam Newton and Co. started their season 1-3 before going on to win eight straight games and proving to the league that they belong in the discussion of Super Bowl contenders.
The Panthers' franchise quarterback is playing the best football of his career and has helped this football team to a 10-4 record.
The sky is the limit for the Panthers, as they still have a chance at a first-round bye and a divisional title. The Panthers also own one of the most potent and intimidating defenses in the NFL. This dominating unit is second in the league, allowing only 14.9 points a game.
Believe it or not, the Panthers have all the pieces necessary not only to go all the way to the Super Bowl, but to win it as well.
Newton is making guys like receiver Ted Ginn Jr. look like the first-rounder he was drafted as.
The Panthers should be a boom-or-bust mystery in the postseason this year. We really can’t accurately predict the way this young defense will hold up on the biggest stage in football.
Carolina's front seven is as good as any in football, but the defensive backs have been the biggest surprise. The worst-case scenario is that this group falls back down to earth and fails to win a single playoff game.
Chicago recently sent one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league to the bench in favor of Jay Cutler. Whether he gives the Bears the best chance to win or not is yet to be seen.
There’s a lot to be excited about in Chicago considering it has the best pair of receivers in football in Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. Both guys have eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark. It also has one of the NFL's most versatile running backs in Matt Forte.
The Bears have averaged more yards per game (470) in their last three games than any other team in the NFL.
But as potent as this offense is, the defense is ranked 27th in yards allowed and has been a glaring weakness all season long.
The Bears are a half-game ahead of the Packers for the division and control their own destiny. This Sunday, they play a big game against the Eagles that should be a high-scoring affair.
Although anything can happen in the playoffs, Chicago is not a Super Bowl-caliber team. Its defense is bound to get the best of it, but it may be able to get past the Wild Card Round before signing out for the year.
The Bears are in serious danger of missing out on the postseason altogether. They could drop their final two games and head home for an early vacation. The worst part about this scenario is that it likely would mean Jay Cutler played poorly, which would confuse things as the Bears look to re-sign their QB.
It could also spell trouble for Marc Trestman, who has been hailed as a genius so far in his first year as the Bears coach. Finishing the season poorly would be sure to leave a horrid taste in the mouths of fans all over.
Arizona has a lot to be proud of, staying in the playoff race this late in the season despite playing in the NFC West. With the Cardinals likely to finish 9-7, it appears Bruce Arians was the right man for the job.
Carson Palmer has been playing his best football in years by finally figuring out how to avoid turnovers. As a result, the Cardinals are winning games.
According to Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com:
The Cardinals picked the wrong season to start 9-5. Their situation feels hopeless. Even if they win both in Seattle and against San Francisco in Week 17, the Cardinals would still need help getting to the playoffs at 11-5.
This clearly indicates the odds are not in their favor to make it to the playoffs. A 10-win season without a playoff appearance would still be a nice consolation prize for the fans in the desert. Besides, aren’t those guys used to desolate landscapes and droughts?
Their final two games are against the Seahawks the 49ers. Pulling off one win from those two games is not going to be easy.
The worst case for the Cardinals is a simple one—they don’t win another game for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, this is also the most likely scenario for Arizona. To add insult to injury, both games could easily end up being non-competitive blowouts, essentially sending off the Cards on a sour note.
Green Bay Packers
As of Wednesday, there is no indication whether or not Aaron Rodgers will be cleared to play in Sunday’s game. The MVP quarterback is still recovering from a broken collarbone he suffered nearly six weeks ago. If for some reason Rodgers is unable to play, Matt Flynn will get yet another start. Flynn has looked solid in the last two games, keeping the Packers' postseason hopes alive.
Don’t sleep on the Green Bay Packers. You must remember it was just a few years ago that the Packers were widely considered one of the most talented rosters in football.
Adding Aaron Rodgers to the equation would give Green Bay a legitimate shot at running the table.
The Packers will need to win the division if they plan on playing into the month of January.
This is one of the few teams on the fence that actually has the ingredients to surprise as yet another low-seeded Super Bowl winner.
Obviously, there are few scenarios worse than playing Aaron Rodgers in Week 16 and having him suffer a career-threatening setback as the team fails to solidify a playoff berth.
A much more likely scenario here is needing a victory over the Steelers without Rodgers, losing and missing out on the postseason altogether. Under such a circumstance, head coach Mike McCarthy could find himself on the coaches’ hot seat.
Head coach Jim Schwartz is officially on the hot seat and may lose his job if the Detroit Lions fail to make the playoffs.
Detroit is in third place in its division behind Chicago and Green Bay at 7-7 and still has a long-shot chance at making it to the postseason. The Lions are one game behind the Bears for the division and may finish ahead of them if they can win their next two games, the final coming against the first-place Bears themselves.
Detroit might be best-served in the long run by parting ways with Jim Schwartz and moving on to a coach who knows how to prevent his team from shooting itself in the foot. Making the playoffs would be an enormous accomplishment for the Lions, albeit a very unlikely one.
However, this team certainly has a ton of talent, and a playoff berth is not beyond the realm of possibility.
For all the talent littering the roster, the Lions remain inconsistent, undisciplined and mistake-prone. This team is ranked second-to-last in turnovers and dead last in dropped passes.
I think the worst possible scenario for Detroit would be to miss the playoffs and not fire Coach Schwartz.
As usual, the Cowboys are at the end of another season and happen to be at just the .500 mark as a team.
Injuries on defense have decimated a unit which is now in danger of having the unfortunate distinction of being the worst defense in the history of the league. Tony Romo can do many things, but he can’t play defense.
While we’re on the subject, he can’t seem to make smart choices in the fourth quarters of close games either.
With a defense as bad as the Cowboys', I don’t think we can expect too much from Dallas in the postseason if it makes it that far. At best, Romo can match his postseason win total with his second victory ever. This would be a worthy accomplishment considering the injuries to key contributors such as Sean Lee, Morris Claiborne, Dwayne Harris and Bruce Carter.
Then, to top the season off, owner Jerry Jones decides to step down as puppet master to one of the nation’s most disappointing franchises over the last 10 years. OK, so that won’t happen—but head coach Jason Garrett is likely on his way out after this season, regardless of the nonsense Jones tries to force-feed us.
The only difference between the Cowboys' best- and worst-case scenarios is that, at worst, the Cowboys don’t see the playoffs at all but elect not to fire Jason Garrett.
Another year of Coach Submissive (Garrett) would do Dallas as much good as playing the entire season barefoot.