All things considered, the NFL playoff picture is squeaky clean entering Week 17.
For the chaos that has consumed this hectic season, only two of 12 postseason spots are up for grabs. That includes the AFC South, where the Indianapolis Colts need a win and eight other things to go their way.
The final scenarios, charted by NFL.com, don't require a master's degree to comprehend. That doesn't, however, mean Sunday can't drastically alter each conference's bracket.
Here's a look at the playoff picture entering the final weekend. (Note: The No. 5 and 6 seeds in each conference should be reversed.)
|NFL Playoff Predictions|
|AFC Round||Matchup||Predicted Winner|
|AFC Wild Card||No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals vs. No. 6 Pittsburgh Steelers||Steelers|
|AFC Wild Card||No. 4 Houston Texans vs. No. 5 Kansas City Chiefs||Chiefs|
|AFC Divisional Round||No. 1 New England Patriots vs. No. 6 Pittsburgh Steelers||Patriots|
|AFC Divisional Round||No. 2 Denver Broncos vs. No. 5 Kansas City Chiefs||Chiefs|
|AFC Championship Game||No. 1 New England Patriots vs No. 5 Kansas City Chiefs||Patriots|
|NFC Round||Matchup||Predicted Winner|
|NFC Wild Card||No. 3 Minnesota Vikings vs. No. 6 Seattle Seahawks||Seahawks|
|NFC Wild Card||No. 4 Washington Redskins vs. No. 5 Green Bay Packers||Packers|
|NFC Divisional Round||No. 1 Carolina Panthers vs No. 6 Seattle Seahawks||Seahawks|
|NFC Divisional Round||No. 2 Arizona Cardinals vs. No. 5 Green Bay Packers||Cardinals|
|NFC Championship Game||No. 2 Arizona Cardinals vs. No. 6 Seattle Seahawks||Cardinals|
|Author's predictions (after factoring in Week 17 projections)|
Year of the Wild Card
Last year, only one wild card (Baltimore Ravens) survived the opening round. This year, it's possible all four make it past the first challenge.
If the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Oakland Raiders at home, they'll clinch the No. 5 seed and set up a Wild Card Weekend showdown against the AFC South champions. It'd take an avalanche of events to knock the Houston Texans out of that spot, but the Colts would make an even easier opponent.
The Chiefs have won nine straight games; the Texans are searching for their ninth win this season. Kansas City rates No. 5 in Football Outsiders' Defensive-adjusted Value over Average (DVOA). At No. 19, Houston is the worst of all playoff participants.
Since the start of Week 5, Bob Sutton's unit has allowed a total of just 145 points, an average of 13.2 points over 11 games. Nobody is within three points of them; the second-place Bengals are allowing 16.6 points per game. The next-closest team to have suited up for 11 games over that span is Houston, which has allowed 199 points.
That just isn't common. To put that in context, just five defenses have been better from the fifth through the 15th games in their respective seasons since the turn of the century than the 2015 Chiefs.
If they can avoid a second-round soiree with the New England Patriots, they should be considered favorites to reach the AFC Championship Game. With the New York Jets or Pittsburgh Steelers No. 6-seed candidates, this is a feasible scenario.
The Jets have won five consecutive games, and they proved they're not solely capitalizing on a favorable schedule by upending New England in overtime. They join the Patriots, Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks as the only teams brandishing a top-10 offense and defense.
ESPN's Rich Cimini cited an ESPN Stats and Info tidbit about their surprisingly stout offense:
Rich Cimini @RichCimini
Who could've figured this? The Jets are the only team to score at least two offensive TDs in all 15 games, per @ESPNStatsInfo. #nyj1/1/2016, 4:50:10 PM
If they lose on the road to the Buffalo Bills—a very real possibility given Buffalo won their prior meeting—Pittsburgh can crawl back into the bracket. Facing the league's No. 3 offense is an even worse scenario for the Cincinnati Bengals or Denver Broncos, who both lost to the Steelers in December.
The Seattle Seahawks squandered a golden opportunity by again losing to the St. Louis Rams. Unless they beat the Cardinals while the Green Bay Packers defeat the Minnesota Vikings, they're the No. 6 seed instead of 5.
Even on the road, they would be big favorites over Washington, the 8-7 NFC East winner with a minus-two scoring margin and no victories over anyone with a winning record. Barring a major Week 17 turnaround, Seattle will sport a superior point differential and DVOA to their first-round opponent:
|NFC Wild Card Weekend Participants|
|3||Green Bay Packers||10-5||+52||10|
Seattle lost at Green Bay earlier this season, but the Packers have dropped five of their last nine games with diminishing offensive returns. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who hasn't played up to his MVP standards without star receiver Jordy Nelson, put a positive spin on alarming offensive issues to ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky:
I'm proud of the way we've responded through some adversity we've dealt with, obviously, losing a great receiver. But we've had some guys step up and it's been a disjointed year schedule-wise, play-wise, inconsistency-wise, and it's been frustrating at times. But it's also been really exciting at times, and it's been a year that I think a lot of us will never forget and hopefully we can add some more memories the next couple weeks.
The Minnesota Vikings will enter their Week 17 finale in a better mood after exploiting the New York Giants without Odell Beckham Jr. Yet their run-reliance didn't work against the Seahawks, who dominated them in Week 13 by stifling Adrian Peterson.
So the Seahawks have good chances of eliminating the Vikings or Packers, either of whom could handle Washington. Unless the Cardinals fall at home, Sunday night's showdown for the NFC North isn't exactly ripe with importance. The loser is better situated to advance.
If the Patriots and Cardinals (or Panthers) end up at Levi's Stadium for the Super Bowl, they'll first have to kick wild cards out of the way.
Advanced stats courtesy of Football Outsiders unless otherwise noted.