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NFL Playoffs 2016: Wild-Card Format, Updated Bracket and Known Schedule

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 27:  Quarterback Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers drops back to pass during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 27, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Cardinals defeated the Packers 38-8.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2016

By the time the NFL finishes its 16-game schedule of games Sunday night, there will be no more variables.

No more waiting to see if the New York Jets can win a challenging road game at Buffalo, whether the Green Bay Packers of Minnesota Vikings will win the NFC North or whether the Indianapolis Colts will see the miracle finish they need to steal the AFC South title from the Houston Texans.

Once all the games have been decided, the NFL will make its announcement on the four wild-card games that are scheduled to be played on the weekend of Jan. 9 and 10.

There will be two AFC and two NFC wild-card games played by the four lower-seeded teams in each conference. However, the times of those games as well as the networks that will televise them have not been announced.

NFC Playoff Scenarios and Predictions
TeamWeek 17 opponentPredicted resultPlayoff positionSkinny
Carolinavs. Tampa BayWinNo. 1 seedHave they peaked too soon?
Arizonavs. SeattleWinNo. 2 seedMost well-rounded team in NFL
Green Bayvs. MinnesotaLossNo. 5 seedOffensive woes need to be addressed
Washingtonat DallasWinNo. 4 seedNice story, but still a lot of holes
Minnesotaat Green BayWinNo. 3 seedJust getting better under Zimmer
Seattleat ArizonaLossNo. 6 seedTwo-time NFC champs are still dangerous
Silverman predictions

The NFC is fairly clear-cut going into Week 17, because all six playoff teams are known.

The Carolina Panthers (14-1) and Arizona Cardinals (13-2) are the top two seeds and won't play until the divisional playoffs Jan. 16 and 17. The Panthers will gain the top seed with a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or a Cardinals loss to the Seattle Seahawks (9-6). The Cardinals can take the top seed away from the Panthers if they beat Seattle and the Panthers lose to Tampa Bay.

The Green Bay Packers (10-5) are hosting the Minnesota Vikings (10-5) Sunday night, and the winner of that game will earn the No. 3 seed and the NFC North title. The winner will get a home wild-card game, while the loser will play its wild-card game on the road.

Ironically, the loser may actually be in a better position for postseason success than the winner. If the Packers lose, they will earn the No. 5 seed and play the Washington Redskins (8-7) on the road in the playoffs. Washington is locked into the No. 4 spot. If the Vikings lose, they will either finish as the fifth or sixth seed, depending on Seattle's outcome at Arizona.

If the Seahawks lose to the Cardinals, the Vikings would play at Washington, but if the Seahawks win that game, the Vikings would be the sixth seed and return to Green Bay to play the Packers again.

AFC Playoff Scenarios and Predictions
TeamWeek 17 opponentPredicted resultPlayoff PositionSkinny
New Englandat MiamiWinNo. 1 seedWill struggle but win in Week 17
Denvervs. San DiegoWinNo. 2 seedWill earn No. 2 seed, but playoffs will be difficult
Cincinnativs. BaltimoreWinNo. 3 seedQB issues with playoffs on horizon
Houstonvs. JacksonvilleWinNo. 4 seedBest of bad lot in AFC South
Kansas Cityvs. OaklandWinNo. 5 seedCould serve as top challenger to Pats
N.Y. Jetsat BuffaloWinNo. 6 seedStrong first season for Bowles
Pittsburghat ClevelandWinOut of playoffsBlew it in Week 16 loss to Baltimore
Indianapolisvs. TennesseeWinOut of playoffsNeed a healthy Luck in 2016
Silverman predictions

On the AFC side, the New England Patriots (12-3) have earned a wild-card bye, but they need a road win over the Miami Dolphins or a Denver Broncos (11-4) loss to San Diego to clinch the top ranking in the conference. The Broncos need the opposite results to clinch the No. 1 seed.

However, while the Broncos could finish on top, they may not even win the AFC West title. If they lose to the Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs (10-5) beat the Oakland Raiders, streaking Kansas City (winners of nine straight games) would take the AFC West title.

The Cincinnati Bengals (11-4) can earn a bye in the first round at the expense of the Broncos if they beat the Baltimore Ravens and the Broncos lose to the Chargers. Otherwise, they will have the No. 3 seed and host a wild-card game against the AFC's sixth seed.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 27:  Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the New York Jets throws a pass against the New England Patriots during their game at MetLife Stadium on December 27, 2015 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

That team will be the New York Jets (10-5) if they win a road game at Buffalo and the Chiefs beat the Raiders. However, if the Jets lose and the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6) beat the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers will take the AFC's sixth seed.

If the Jets win and the Chiefs lose, the Jets will have the No. 5 seed while the Chiefs will drop to the No. 6 spot.

The Houston Texans (8-7) are the likely AFC South champions and the No. 4 seed in the AFC. They will clinch the title with a win over Jacksonville or an Indianapolis Colts (7-8) loss to the Tennessee Titans. The Colts are still technically alive, but they need a win and a Houston loss, as well as seven other games to fall in their favor for that to happen.

The "ifs" will disappear from the conversation by the end of business Sunday night.

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