NFL Playoff Scenarios 2021-22 Week 16: Updated Standings, Pivotal Games to Watch

Paul KasabianFeatured Columnist IIDecember 22, 2021

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) passes the ball during an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Steve Luciano)
AP Photo/Steve Luciano

Week 15 is finally over after 16 games took place over five different days as numerous COVID-19 outbreaks forced schedule alterations.

Now three weeks and 48 games are all that's left to be played before the playoffs are scheduled to get going on January 15.

Mass parity leaguewide has led to 14 teams winning seven or eight games this year, all of which are alive in the playoff race.

That makes for a murky playoff picture with three weeks remaining. However, some things can clear up in Week 16, which begins Thursday when the San Francisco 49ers will visit the Tennessee Titans.

Here's a look at the latest NFL standings and playoff pictures, Week 16 clinching scenarios, pivotal games of note down the stretch and some other postseason tidbits.

AFC Playoff Picture

1. Kansas City Chiefs: 10-4

2. New England Patriots: 9-5

3. Tennessee Titans: 9-5

4. Cincinnati Bengals: 8-6

5. Indianapolis Colts: 8-6

6. Los Angeles Chargers: 8-6

7. Buffalo Bills: 8-6


Mathematically Alive for Playoff Spot

8. Baltimore Ravens: 8-6

9. Pittsburgh Steelers: 7-6-1

10. Las Vegas Raiders: 7-7

11. Miami Dolphins: 7-7

12. Cleveland Browns: 7-7

13. Denver Broncos: 7-7

AFC East

1. New England Patriots: 9-5

2. Buffalo Bills: 8-6

3. Miami Dolphins: 7-7

4. New York Jets: 3-11

The New England Patriots will clinch the AFC East with a win over the 8-6 Buffalo Bills plus a Miami Dolphins loss to the New Orleans Saints.

If the Pats and Fins win, then New England can still clinch the division with a win in one of its final two games, which are against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Dolphins.

If the 8-6 Bills beat New England, then they will control their own destiny for the division crown.

They would be tied atop the division at 9-6, but Buffalo would have the division tiebreaker edge (4-1 vs. 3-2).

Miami is still alive for the AFC East but would likely need to win out and get some help in order to steal the division.

AFC North

1. Cincinnati Bengals: 8-6

2. Baltimore Ravens: 8-6

3. Pittsburgh Steelers: 7-6-1

4. Cleveland Browns: 7-7

No AFC North team can clinch the division or earn a playoff berth this week. In addition, no team can find itself eliminated for a playoff berth or the division title in Week 16.

Currently, the Cincinnati Bengals lead the division by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Baltimore Ravens. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns are still alive.

A Bengals win over the Ravens on Sunday would give them the inside track at the division, as they would then own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Baltimore by virtue of sweeping the season series.

The Steelers likely don't have to worry about tiebreakers given their 16-16 tie with the Detroit Lions earlier this season, but they'll be rooting for the archrival Ravens on Sunday.

If Baltimore beats Cincinnati and Pittsburgh beats the Chiefs, then the Steelers will control their own destiny for the AFC North crown. They'd have to win out, which would include a victory over Baltimore in Week 18.

Cleveland has the largest uphill battle to climb, especially with a matchup against the league-leading Green Bay Packers looming. But they can still take care of their own business in Weeks 17 and 18 with key games against the Steelers and Bengals to close the season.

AFC South

1. Tennessee Titans: 9-5

2. Indianapolis Colts: 8-6

3. Houston Texans: 3-11

4. Jacksonville Jaguars: 2-12

Tennessee will clinch the AFC South with a win over the San Francisco 49ers and an Indianapolis Colts loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

The 9-5 Titans own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the 8-6 Colts by virtue of sweeping the two-game season series.

In other words, the Colts will need to win two more games than the Titans down the stretch to steal the AFC South.

The Colts control their own destiny for a playoff berth, however, thanks to a 7-3 conference record that has them leading a four-way wild-card tiebreaker with the Los Angeles Chargers, Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens. They close the season with the Cardinals, Las Vegas Raiders and Jaguars.

AFC West

1. Kansas City Chiefs: 10-4

2. Los Angeles Chargers: 8-6

3. Las Vegas Raiders: 7-7

4. Denver Broncos: 7-7

Kansas City will clinch the AFC West with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and a Los Angeles Chargers loss to the Houston Texans.

The Chiefs can also clinch the AFC West simply by beating the Denver Broncos in Week 18 regardless of what they do in Weeks 16 and 17.

Even if the Chargers win out to go 11-6, the 11-6 Chiefs would hold the division record tiebreaker over them to win the AFC West.

Therefore, the Bolts have an uphill battle for the division, but they control their own fate for an AFC playoff spot. They're guaranteed to get out by winning out versus the Houston Texans, Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders.

The latter two teams have a significant hill to climb for playoff spots, although they are certainly not out of it.

The Raiders have a 1-3 division record and the Broncos are 1-2, which doesn't help matters. The Broncos' 3-6 conference record puts them in a bad spot come tiebreaker time. Plus, they are both one game back of the current mark needed to get an AFC Wild Card spot.

Ultimately, their best bet is to win out and hope for the best, making this Sunday's Vegas-Denver matchup a de-facto elimination matchup.

NFC Playoff Picture

1. Green Bay Packers: 11-3

2. Dallas Cowboys: 10-4

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10-4

4. Los Angeles Rams: 10-4

5. Arizona Cardinals: 10-4

6. San Francisco 49ers: 8-6

7. Minnesota Vikings: 7-7


Mathematically Alive for Playoff Spot

8. New Orleans Saints: 7-7

9. Philadelphia Eagles: 7-7

10. Washington Football Team: 6-8

11. Atlanta Falcons: 6-8

12. Seattle Seahawks: 5-9

13. Carolina Panthers: 5-9

14. New York Giants: 4-10

NFC East

1. Dallas Cowboys: 10-4

2. Philadelphia Eagles: 7-7

3. Washington Football Team: 6-8

4. New York Giants: 4-10

There isn't much drama in this division: Dallas will clinch the NFC East with a win over the Washington Football Team.

Alternatively, a Philadelphia Eagles loss to the New York Giants would crown Dallas as the division champion.

The only way the Eagles can win the division is if they win their final three games and Dallas loses out.

Dallas likely has its eyes on the NFC's No. 1 seed. Numerous ways exist for the Cowboys to get it, but they'll land there with three straight wins plus one Green Bay loss. That would give Dallas the conference record tiebreaker over the Packers.

Philadelphia's currently tied with Minnesota and New Orleans for the final playoff spot. Minnesota holds the No. 7 spot via the common games tiebreaker over Philadelphia (3-3 vs. 2-3), and the Eagles are ahead of New Orleans on the conference record tiebreaker.

However, the Eagles have a home game against the reeling 4-10 New York Giants as well as a rematch with Washington. A date with Dallas also looms, but the Vikings have two division leaders in the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers. All of the sudden, things are looking up for Philly.

Washington would likely need to win out and get some help after this tough loss, although that's easier said than done with a road date against Dallas on Sunday.

NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers: 11-3

2. Minnesota Vikings: 7-7

3. Chicago Bears: 4-10

4. Detroit Lions: 2-11-1

This is the easiest division to explain.

The Green Bay Packers clinched the division title in Week 15. At 11-3, the NFC's current No. 1 seed controls its own destiny for home-field advantage through the conference playoffs. Winning out means the No. 1 seed.

They can also get there if they lose a game but would need Dallas to fall to one of its final three opponents as well in that case.

The Minnesota Vikings are in a three-way tie for the No. 7 seed as noted before, and they currently have the edge. They'll make the playoffs by winning out and can even get in at 9-8, but that would mean beating either the Rams or Packers to do so. A home date with the Chicago Bears closes the season.

The Bears and Lions have been eliminated from playoff contention.

NFC South

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10-4

2. New Orleans Saints: 7-7

3. Atlanta Falcons: 6-8

4. Carolina Panthers: 5-9

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will clinch the NFC South with a win over the Carolina Panthers or a New Orleans Saints loss to the Miami Dolphins.

If the 7-7 Saints win their final three games, and the 10-4 Bucs lose out, then New Orleans will take the division by virtue of sweeping the head-to-head series.

The Saints, Falcons and Panthers are all alive for a playoff berth, but Atlanta and Carolina's chances are looking far bleaker than New Orleans, who is now tied with Minnesota and Philadelphia for the final playoff spot.

Atlanta could still give itself a shot by winning out, although a road date with the Buffalo Bills on Jan. 2 may prove to be a difficult task. The best Carolina can do is go 8-9, and that may not be enough.

New Orleans ultimately has the best shot here, with none of the teams the Saints are facing over .500 in the Dolphins, Panthers and Falcons.

Winning out will almost assuredly get them in, but they can give themselves a chance at landing the No. 7 seed by taking care of business against the NFC South rivals, which would give them a respectable 7-5 conference record and a good standing in any potential tiebreakers.

The issue is if New Orleans ends up in a sole tiebreaker with Philadelphia. In that case, the Eagles would move on after beating the Saints 40-29 earlier this year.

NFC West

1. Los Angeles Rams: 10-4

2. Arizona Cardinals: 10-4

3. San Francisco 49ers: 8-6

4. Seattle Seahawks: 5-9

The Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers are all still eligible to win the NFC West, but no team will be able to do so in Week 16.

The 10-4 Cardinals and 10-4 Rams can both clinch playoff spots with wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings this week, respectively.

The 8-6 49ers cannot clinch a playoff spot this week but control their own destiny to do so.

As far as the division race, the Rams currently own the tiebreaker over the Cardinals by virtue of the conference record (7-3 vs. 6-4). They are therefore in the driver's seat for the division. L.A. is also still alive for the No. 1 seed in the NFC but realistically needs to win out and get big help from the Packers, who would have to lose two games. Green Bay beat L.A. 36-28 earlier this year.

The reeling Cardinals need some help for the division, and it doesn't get easy with the hot Colts coming to town followed by a road trip to Dallas. They close with the Seahawks, who are still mathematically alive but for all intents and purposes out of this playoff race.

The 49ers are in a comfortable wild-card spot at 8-6. Two tough road games loom with the Texans and Rams, but they'll be heavy favorite against the Texans on Jan. 2. Winning that game might be enough for a wild-card berth, but taking either the Titans or Rams game too would seal it.