NFL Playoff Picture: 18 Teams Control Their Own Destiny

Donna CavanaghCorrespondent IDecember 1, 2010

ATLANTA - NOVEMBER 28:  Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons rushes out of the pocket away from Brandon Chillar #54 of the Green Bay Packers at Georgia Dome on November 28, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Every year as the NFL season moves toward Weeks 16 and 17, the media and fans alike bemoan the practice of “good” teams resting starters for the playoffs and not putting out an effort in the final weeks of the season.  Well, it looks like this year is going to be very different.

We did some peeking ahead at remaining schedules and projected some win-loss numbers, and it looks to us as if there will be huge games in the final weeks. In fact, we only see one or two teams that perhaps can take the final week off.

With only five weeks left in the season, more than half the teams in the league “control their own destiny”.  That is, if they win out the rest of their schedule, they will win their division or at least make the playoffs. We will explain in detail, but we have the feeling that NFL fans will be visiting the NFL.comTie-Breaker” page frequently as the season winds down to figure scenarios for their teams.

First, let's cover the teams that will only play spoilers and have no shot at the playoffs:  Lions (2-9), Panthers (1-10), Bills (2-9) and Bengals (2-9). We won’t dwell on these teams.

Right behind these four teams are eight teams with very little chance of making the playoffs, and the scenarios to get them there would take so much to explain, but that is not our focus here. The unlikely eight are the Redskins (5-6), Vikings (4-7), Cardinals (3- 8), Browns (4-7), Texans (5-6), Raiders (5-6), Broncos (3-8) and Cowboys (3-8).

There are two teams with records over .500 that could make the playoffs, but they can’t do it alone: Bucs (7-4) and Dolphins (6-5).

Every other team in the NFL controls their own destiny, and this we want to explain.

In the NFC East, both the Giants and Eagles are 7-4, and they play each other one more time, so it is evident that these teams hold their playoff fate in their own hands.
In the NFC North, the Bears (8-3) lead the Packers (7-4), but these teams also play each other once more.  If the Packers win this game, these teams could end up tied at 12-4. In this case, the Packers and Bears would have split the head-to-head (first tie breaker), and they would both be 5-1 in the division (second tie breaker) and they would be 6-2 against common opponents outside the division (third tie breaker).

The difference comes in because one of the common opponents’ losses by the Packers was to the Dolphins, who are out of their conference. This means the Packers would own the fourth tie breaker record in conference. Obviously, the Bears control their destiny by virtue of their one-game lead and another game with the Packers.

Oh, and the Packers–Bears game is Week 17, so this contest could become a virtual playoff game which means the winner is in, and the loser goes home for the winter.

In the NFC South, the Falcons (9-2) lead the Saints (8-3) and like the North, they play each other one more time (in Week 16). The Saints can get to a tie record with the Falcons with no help. In this case, both teams would be 13-3. Since all the other teams in the conference, other than the Bears, have at least four losses already, one of these teams would win the division and the other would get a wild card.

In the NFC West the Rams and Seahawks lead with 5–6 records. Right on their heels are the 49ers with a  4–7 record. The Rams and Seahawks play each other in Week 17 so how they control their destiny is obvious. There will be no wild card from this division. 

The 49ers play the Rams in Week 16 and the Seahawks in Week 14. They can gain the one win they need to pull even with the two teams ahead of them. Since the Seahawks and Rams also play each other, it would only be a two-way tie at most if the 49ers win out. If they win out and tie the Rams, they will have beaten the Rams twice and own that tie breaker. If it were to be the Seahawks they tied with, the 49ers would have a 5-1 division record and the Seahawks 4-2, so they would own that tie breakers.

The AFC can’t possibly top that, can they?

The AFC East is easy. Both the Jets and Patriots are 9-2, and they play each other on Monday night, so it is easy to see how these two teams control their own destiny.

The AFC North is also easy, the Steelers and Ravens are both 8-3, and they also play each other this week.

Now for the fun, the AFC South, the Colts and Jaguars are 6–5. The Titans are 5–6, and they play the Jaguars this week and the Colts in Weeks 14 and 17 so they can catch the Jaguars and pass the Colts with no help.  If this scenario were to play out, the Titans would have beaten the Jaguars twice so they would own that tie breaker.

The AFC West has the final two teams that control their own destiny, the Chiefs lead with a 7–4 record and the Chargers are one game back at 6–5. They play each other in Week 14. If the Chargers win that game, they would be even and have split with the Chiefs. They would both have two losses in the division, but one of the Chargers' losses was to the NFC Rams, so the Chargers would have the better conference record.

All we can say is wow. At, we spend all season crunching numbers, so what does our PossessionPoints stat expect to happen? Going into this week’s action, our stat is forecasting the following teams to make the playoffs, and their forecast record is shown.

AFC: Patriots (14-2), Jets (12-4), Ravens (13-3), Steelers (12-4), Colts (10-6), Chargers (11-5) (the Chiefs also forecast for 11-5 but would miss on the tie breaker).

NFC: Giants (11-5), Eagles (11-5), Packers (11-5), Falcons (14-2), Saints (11-5), and Rams (8-8). (The Bears have to play the Patriots, Jets and Packers, and if they lose those and drop to 10-6, they could easily miss the playoffs).

If these records work out, the Falcons and Patriots might be able to partake in that fan despised ritual of resting their starters the final week. The Falcons play the Panthers and the Patriots play the Dolphins that week, so it is unlikely that someone will back into the playoffs because of it. We are looking forward to the excitement the final weeks have to offer and are actually hoping our projections are off just a little, and everyone has to play every game.