NFL Week 17 Playoff Scenarios and Game Predictions
Heading into the final week of the 2013 season, the NFL playoff picture remains a jumbled mess.
Seventeen teams are either still in their respective conference's postseason hunt or are still jostling for playoff positioning. By the end of Sunday night, a handful of those squads will be going home empty-handed.
Let's dive into the postseason scenarios for every contending team as they head into their regular-season finales.
Notes: Teams are organized in alphabetical order, by conference. The Kansas City Chiefs were excluded from this article because they are locked into the AFC's No. 5 seed.
The Arizona Cardinals make the playoffs with:
1. Win over San Francisco 49ers plus New Orleans Saints loss or tie to Tampa Bay Buccaneers OR
2. Tie against 49ers plus Saints loss
In Week 6, the Cardinals were down only 22-20 against the 49ers in San Francisco more than halfway through the fourth quarter before a Kendall Hunter touchdown and a Phil Dawson field goal sealed the win for Jim Harbaugh's team.
Arizona, riding a surprising wave of momentum after their huge win in Seattle against the Seahawks a week ago, should give San Francisco every bit it can handle.
Both top defenses should thrive, so it may come down to the quarterback play. Carson Palmer's passer rating is 10 points higher at home than on the road this season, while Colin Kaepernick has actually been a bit better on the road.
Bottom line—the Cardinals may very well win this game, but they probably won't get the Buccaneers upset over the Saints in New Orleans that they need.
The Cardinals will find themselves out of playoffs.
The Carolina Panthers clinch the NFC South division and a first-round bye with:
1. Win over Atlanta Falcons or tie OR
2. New Orleans Saints loss or tie
The Panthers clinch home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs with:
1. Win over Falcons, plus Seattle Seahawks loss plus San Francisco 49ers win
The Panthers thoroughly destroyed the Falcons 34-10 in Charlotte earlier in the season, although Atlanta averaged a respectable 6.0 yards per play—0.7 yards per play higher than victorious Carolina.
In the Georgia Dome, Mike Smith's team will be a more difficult out, but with the NFC South title on the line, Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly and co. will piece together one of their more dominant performances of the season.
Carolina will be the NFC South champion and No. 2 seed.
The Chicago Bears clinch the NFC North division (only way to make the playoffs) with:
1. Win over Green Bay Packers or tie
These longtime rivals are extremely similar. Both have strong, pass-predicated offenses with threatening receiving corps and underrated running games. On defense, neither the Bears nor the Packers are stout in any specific area.
Although Aaron Rodgers may be rusty, he should be better than Jay Cutler. Why? The Green Bay quarterback historically has been much more consistent and much less interception-prone than Chicago's gunslinger. This season, Rodgers has thrown an interception on 1.6 percent of his attempted passes; Cutler has tossed a pick on 3.3 percent of his. That's a significant difference.
The quarterback advantage will help the Packers pull off a season-saving road victory.
The Bears will not make the playoffs.
The Dallas Cowboys clinch the NFC East (only way to make the playoffs) with:
1. Win over Philadelphia Eagles
Tony Romo is officially out for this one.
Here's what Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com tweeted on Friday: "Romo had back surgery this morning and will be placed on IR this afternoon."
Kyle Orton will start at quarterback for the Cowboys. He hasn't started a game since the 2011 season. Even if Orton plays well, Dallas must slow down Philadelphia's explosive offense to have a shot.
Monte Kiffin's defense shut down Chip Kelly's offense in a 17-3 Week 7 victory, but the Eagles offense has been humming along for a while now. The Dallas defense won't be able to contain LeSean McCoy and co. enough to allow the Cowboys offense to keep the team in it.
For the third straight year, expect Jason Garrett's team to falter in a win-or-go-home Week 17 game.
Dallas will be out of the playoffs.
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers clinch the NFC North (only way to make the playoffs) with:
1. Win over Chicago Bears
Win and get in. Simple. We like simple. Simple is good. When the NFL decided to tailor the scheduling to feature divisional games in Week 17, it had this type of de facto title game in mind.
After missing seven games, Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers will be back this week, coach Mike McCarthy announced on Thursday (per Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today). With Rodgers under center, the Packers should be able to move the ball and score enough on Chicago's porous defense.
Per the Packers' Twitter account, head coach Mike McCarthy said the following on Rodgers:
Amount of work has progressed. Reps have gone up. Aaron is seasoned pro. It's always the little things, fine details. Has looked like he's ready to play for a couple weeks. The moment is here.
If Eddie Lacy's sprained ankle keeps him sidelined, James Starks will adequately fill in for the Packers. This is essentially a coin-flip game, but even on the road, Green Bay wins a close one.
Green Bay will make the playoffs as NFC North champions, landing the No. 4 seed.
New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints clinch the NFC South division and a first-round bye with:
1. Win over Tampa Bay Buccaneers plus Carolina Panthers loss
The Saints clinch a playoff spot with:
1. Win over Buccaneers OR
2. Tie with Buccaneers plus Arizona Cardinals tie OR
3. Cardinals loss
The Buccaneers may keep it close, thanks in large part to their defense, but they don't have the offensive potency to go score-for-score with the Saints at home.
Drew Brees' passer rating has been nearly 38 points higher inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome than elsewhere in 2013. Mike Glennon's passer rating, however, is more than 20 points better on the road this season, giving the Buccaneers at least an inkling of hope.
The win will get Sean Payton's club into the playoffs, but the Panthers will sneak past the Atlanta Falcons, clinching a wild-card spot for New Orleans.
The Saints will be in the playoffs as the No. 5 seed.
The Philadelphia Eagles clinch the NFC East (only way to make the playoffs) with:
1. Win over Dallas Cowboys
Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee will miss the Week 17 showdown with Philadelphia, per ESPN's Adam Schefter, as his neck injury is "more significant than the team thought."
Without Lee, the Eagles should carve through the Dallas defense all evening. Per Football Outsiders, the Cowboys have allowed the most yards per drive and the fourth-most points per drive this season.
With Kyle Orton starting at quarterback for Jason Garrett's squad, the Cowboys will still be able to move the ball. They just won't be able to outscore the Eagles in this shootout.
The Eagles will be in the playoffs as the NFC East champion, earning the No. 3 seed.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers clinch the NFC West division and a first-round bye with:
1. Win over Arizona Cardinals plus Seattle Seahawks loss
49ers clinch the NFC West division and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with:
1. Win over Cardinals plus Seahawks loss plus Carolina Panthers loss or tie
The Cardinals are legit, especially at home. While Carson Palmer is more prone to throwing interceptions than Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback comparison is essentially a push.
Both defenses are elite and should impose their wills throughout. The 49ers are third in points allowed per game (16.8) and the Cardinals are seventh at (20.1).
At home, let's give Arizona the nod, meaning San Francisco will be in as one of the NFC wild cards.
San Francisco will make the playoffs as the No. 6 seed.
The Seattle Seahawks clinch the NFC West division and home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs with:
1. Win over St. Louis Rams or tie OR
2. San Francisco 49ers loss or tie
Russell Wilson and the Seahawks won a 14-9 defensive battle in St. Louis over the Rams in Week 8 on Monday Night Football, a game in which Seattle's offense averaged just 3.4 yards per play.
After being shocked by the Arizona Cardinals a week ago, Pete Carroll's team will rebound at home in a big way.
While the Seahawks won't be able to score 30 points against an underrated defense that's surrendered only 22.5 points per game in 2013, there's no way Kellen Clemens will beat Wilson in Seattle with home-field advantage on the line.
Seattle goes into the playoffs as NFC West champions and the No. 1 seed.
The Baltimore Ravens clinch a playoff spot with:
1. Win over Cincinnati Bengals plus San Diego Chargers loss or tie OR
2. Win over Bengals plus Miami Dolphins loss or tie OR
3. Tie with Bengals plus Dolphins loss plus Chargers loss or tie OR
4. Tie with Bengals plus Dolphins tie plus Chargers loss OR
5. Dolphins loss plus Chargers loss plus Pittsburgh Steelers loss or tie
Per Football Outsiders, the Bengals allow the fifth-fewest points per drive in the league. Conversely, the Ravens offense averages the eighth-fewest points per drive.
Baltimore's defense is sound too, but Cincinnati's offense shouldn't struggle the entire game when it has the ball.
Marvin Lewis' team is undefeated at home this year, and that trend will continue in what should be a relatively low-scoring outing.
Baltimore misses the playoffs.
The Cincinnati Bengals clinch a first-round bye with:
1. Win over Baltimore Ravens plus New England Patriots loss
The Bengals and Ravens rarely disappoint in terms of playing entertaining games. Joe Flacco has more big-game experience than Andy Dalton, but Cincinnati is simply much more balanced on both sides of the ball.
Cincinnati lost 20-17 to Baltimore in overtime in Week 10—a game that was sent to the extra session on a Hail Mary catch by A.J. Green—but John Harbaugh's team averaged a meager 2.7 yards in the home victory.
The Bengals will beat the offensively inconsistent Ravens at home; however, the host Patriots will sneak past the pesky Buffalo Bills to lock Cincinnati into the No. 3 seed.
Cincinnati reaches the playoffs as the AFC North champion and No. 3 seed.
The Denver Broncos clinch home-field advantage throughout AFC playoffs with:
1. Win over Oakland Raiders or tie OR
2. New England Patriots loss or tie
Denver's playoff scenarios couldn't get much less complex. The prolific Broncos should control the hapless Raiders from start to finish; therefore, they'll wrap up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The only question: Can Denver set a league record for most points scored in a season? The Broncos need to score 18 points against Oakland on Sunday to break the record set by New England in 2007 (589).
Oh, and if Peyton Manning throws for 266 yards, he'll break Drew Brees' single-season passing yard record of 5,476.
Denver will head into the playoffs as AFC West champion, earning the No. 1 seed.
The Indianapolis Colts clinch a first-round bye with:
1. Win over Jacksonville Jaguars, plus New England Patriots loss plus Cincinnati Bengals loss or tie
No team has experienced more ups and downs than the Colts this season. While Indianapolis won't suffer a letdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that ranks 27th in points allowed per drive and dead last in points scored per drive (according to Football Outsiders), it won't get losses from the Patriots and Bengals.
Chuck Pagano's team has been penciled in as either the No. 3 or No. 4 seed for a while now, and it'll officially be the latter at the end of Sunday's action.
The Colts will make the playoffs as the No. 4 seed.
The Miami Dolphins clinch a playoff spot with:
1. Win over New York Jets plus Baltimore Ravens loss or tie OR
2. Win over Jets plus San Diego Chargers win OR
3. Tie with Jets plus Ravens loss plus Chargers loss or tie OR
4. Tie with Jets plus Ravens tie plus Chargers tie
The Dolphins dispatched the Jets quite easily 23-3 less than a month ago, but Miami is fresh off a humiliating 19-0 beatdown on the road to the Buffalo Bills.
Rex Ryan's defense will harass Ryan Tannehill frequently—no quarterback's been sacked more than Ryan Tannehill this season—and Gang Green will run it well enough to keep Geno Smith out of majorly precarious situations.
Those two developments will lead to a Jets win and the Dolphins being eliminated from playoff contention.
Miami will finish out of the playoffs.
New England Patriots
The New England Patriots clinch a first-round bye with:
1. Win over Buffalo Bills or tie OR
2. Cincinnati Bengals loss or tie plus Indianapolis Colts loss or tie
The Patriots beat the Bills 23-21 in the season opener in Buffalo. Doug Marrone's defense is for real, especially its pass-rushing unit, which has accumulated 56 sacks heading into Week 17, the most in the NFL.
Tom Brady may be flustered more than he'd like to be in this one, keeping this game lower scoring than usual, but Buffalo's offense simply lacks the consistency to outscore the Patriots in Foxborough.
As is usually the case with these two teams, turnovers will play the biggest role in determining who wins.
The AFC East champion Patriots will enter the playoffs as the No. 2 seed.
The Pittsburgh Steelers make the playoffs with:
1. Win over Cleveland Browns plus Miami Dolphins loss plus Baltimore Ravens loss plus San Diego Chargers loss
The Steelers' miraculous Week 16 victory over the Green Bay Packers gave them a glimmer of playoff hope.
They should be able to handle the Browns at home, as Pittsburgh beat Rob Chudzinski's team 27-11 back in Cleveland in Week 12. But the victory over the Browns may very well become a moot point since the Steelers need losses from three other teams to get in.
However, the Dolphins losing to the Jets, the Ravens losing on the road to the Cincinnati Bengals and the Chargers losing at home to the Kansas City Chiefs could happen, so we can't count the Steelers out completely just yet.
The Steelers will miss the playoffs.
San Diego Chargers
Chargers make the playoffs with:
1. Win over Kansas City Chiefs plus Miami Dolphins loss or tie plus Baltimore Ravens loss or tie OR
2. Win over Chiefs plus Dolphins loss plus Ravens loss
Winners of four of their last five, the Chargers have started to sizzle at the perfect time.
Philip Rivers is having arguably his finest professional season in Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt's offense. He's completing more than 69 percent of his passes and is on pace to have his lowest interception percentage since 2009.
San Diego beat the Chiefs 41-38 in Arrowhead Stadium on a last-minute touchdown strike in Week 12. The Chargers need to win and receive a decent amount of help—and they'll get both.
Miami's offense will sputter against the New York Jets at home, and the same goes for the Ravens against the Cincinnati Bengals on the road, opening the door for San Diego to sneak into the playoffs.
San Diego will make the playoffs as a wild card, the No. 6 seed.