Within and Beyond the Wacky NFC East, the NFL Playoff Picture Is Pure Chaos

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 14, 2020

Within and Beyond the Wacky NFC East, the NFL Playoff Picture Is Pure Chaos

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    On the 14th Sunday of the 2020 NFL season, NFC East teams won more non-divisional games (three) than they did during the first 10 weeks of the year (two). 

    The NFC East was a mockery of a division for much of the first three-quarters of the season. However, now the first-place Washington Football Team has won four in a row following a 23-15 Week 14 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, while the second-place New York Giants has won four of the last five despite a 26-7 loss Sunday to the Arizona Cardinals. The third-place Philadelphia Eagles are suddenly alive after an upset Week 14 win over the New Orleans Saints, and even the last-place Dallas Cowboys have hope following a 30-7 road victory Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals. 

    Here's where they stand:  

    1. Washington: 6-7 (3-2 in the division)

    2. New York: 5-8 (3-2 in the division with the head-to-head tiebreaker clinched over Washington)

    3. Philadelphia: 4-8-1 (2-2 in the division)

    4. Dallas: 4-9 (1-3 in the division with two losses to Washington)

    And here's a breakdown of what's to come in the always-circus-like NFC East as well as a look at the playoff picture more broadly as we close out Week 14. 

The Washington Football Team Now Controls Its Destiny

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    Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press

    The good news for the WFT is it is now alone in first place. The bad news is there are again questions about the quarterback position after veteran Alex Smith struggled with just eight completions on 19 attempts for 57 yards and an interception before missing the second half of the win over San Francisco due to a calf injury.

    Smith's injury doesn't appear to be serious, but that combined with his 27.8 passer rating in the first half is enough to cause concern. Second-year first-round pick Dwayne Haskins Jr. wasn't much better in relief, but Washington's jacked defensive front recorded three takeaways and four sacks, and that was the real difference. 

    Now, they have to hold serve in back-to-back home games before finishing up on the road against a suddenly-breathing Eagles squad on the road. 

    Predicting its finish

    Week 15: Loss to Seattle Seahawks—Washington has a big advantage up front on defense, but Seattle is the clear-cut early favorite with a huge edge at the game's most important position. 

    Week 16: Win over Carolina Panthers—Ron Rivera won't mess around against his rebuilding former team. 

    Week 17: Win over EaglesThis could be a fight, especially if Philly is within reaching distance in this spot.

The New York Giants Still Own the Tiebreaker over Washington

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The only NFC East team that had their starting quarterback for all four quarters on Sunday was the only one that lost. That said, sophomore first-round pick Daniel Jones almost certainly was not 100 percent coming off a hamstring injury. The G-Men put up just seven points in a one-sided home defeat at the hands of Arizona. 

    Was that an aberration for a team that hadn't lost by more than one score since September? They'd better hope so, because the margin for error is minuscule now that they've fallen behind Washington by a game. 

    On the bright side, they've already clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker over Washington. But that would go out the window in the event of a three-way tie, which is why the Eagles and Cowboys continue to pose a threat to New York's playoff chances. 

    Predicting their finish

    Week 15: Loss to Cleveland Browns—This is winnable, but the favored Browns haven't lost since Nov. 1. 

    Week 16: Loss to Baltimore Ravens—This comes on the road after they at least host Cleveland. It's quite a brutal two-game stretch. A split here would be a nice accomplishment, but would that be enough to stay alive? 

    Week 17: Win over Cowboys—This comes at home against a Dallas team that likely won't have anything to play for. 

The Philadelphia Eagles Are Back?

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    A four-game losing streak is over for the energized Eagles courtesy of a shocking victory over the NFC South-leading Saints. Was that a galvanizing experience? Rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts seemed to bring a jolt to a team that had looked like it was toast. 

    Hurts completed 17-of-30 passes and rushed for 106 yards in an interception-free performance against the league's top-rated defense. 

    But that was at home, and the Saints weren't crisp without future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. Now they'll have to beat Arizona on the road in order to have a realistic shot at the NFC East crown when they finish up with back-to-back divisional home games. 

    Predicting their finish

    Week 15: Loss to CardinalsThe Cards will have a week's worth of tape on Hurts, and they're already a clear-cut favorite at home. 

    Week 16: Win over CowboysOne victory over the free-falling Cincinnati Bengals isn't enough to convince me Dallas has something left in the tank. 

    Week 17: Loss to WashingtonIf things play out the way I've drawn it up, this would only be for pride anyway. However, it could mean everything to the WFT. 

The Dallas Cowboys Remain Alive

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Before running into a Bengals team that wasn't good even before it was crushed by injuries, the Cowboys had lost six of their last seven games, with five of those losses coming by 14 or more points. 

    Yes, they easily disposed of the Bengals, but did you see that defense five days earlier against the Ravens? And on the other side of the ball, Ezekiel Elliott hasn't been consistent and backup quarterback Andy Dalton still has clear limitations in place of the injured Dak Prescott. 

    Besides, it's probably too little too late. The Cowboys could finish 3-0 to go 7-9 and might still miss out on the playoffs thanks to the fact that they're automatically on the wrong end of a head-to-head tiebreaker with a Washington team that already has six wins.


    Predicting their finish

    Week 15: Win over 49ersWe'll throw them one more bone at home against a San Francisco squad that has been hit just as hard by injuries as the Cowboys have. 

    Week 16: Loss to EaglesThis is likely a toss-up in Dallas, but the Eagles have been a lot more competitive than the Cowboys. They've also proved to be much more resilient in years past. 

    Week 17: Loss to GiantsWho knows how this plays out if both teams are eliminated, but there's a better chance it'll matter to the much more competitive Giants. 


    The ultimate chaos scenario

    We'll throw this one out there just for poops and giggles: If the Eagles, Giants and Cowboys win and Washington loses in Week 15, the Giants and Washington win and Dallas beats Philly in Week 16 and the Eagles and Cowboys beat Washington and the Giants, respectively, in Week 17, we'll have a three-way tie at 7-9 in which Dallas, New York and Washington would also share identical common-game and divisional records.

    The NFL would have to use the conference record tiebreaker, which would go to the Cowboys (6-6 versus 5-7 for Washington and 4-8 for the G-Men). And depending on how the strength of victory results were to pan out, that scenario could mean that a Week 3 tie with Cincinnati winds up being the difference between first and last place for the Eagles. 

The Full NFC Picture Is Jumbled

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    And so here's where we're at with three weeks remaining...

    1. Green Bay Packers (10-3)

    Green Bay's 37-30 Week 3 victory in New Orleans gives the Packers the tiebreaker edge over the Saints. They finish up with home games against Carolina and the Tennessee Titans and a road matchup with the Chicago Bears. That Sunday nighter against the Titans could be the key, but they've laid some sudden eggs this year as well, so they can't afford to look past Carolina or the division-rival Bears. 

    2. New Orleans Saints (10-3)

    That Week 3 loss combined with Brees' injury could cost the Saints a first-round bye. They absolutely need Brees back when they host the Super Bowl favorite Kansas City Chiefs next week. Otherwise, they might have to start worrying about dropping to the No. 3 seed. They've clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker over 8-5 Tampa Buccaneers in the division, but the Minnesota Vikings and Panthers might not be easy outs in Weeks 16 and 17. 

    3. Los Angeles Rams (9-4)

    They own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the 9-4 Seahawks in the NFC West after beating up on the New England Patriots Thursday night, but that could change when they go to Seattle in Week 16. At least they get to beat up on the winless New York Jets before that, and they're at home for the Cards in Week 17. There's even a chance they catch Green Bay or New Orleans if they win out to finish with a 10-2 conference record. 

    4. Washington Football Team (6-7)

    A four-game winning streak thanks mainly to stellar defense has the WFT in the driver's seat in the NFC East, and our predictions above have Rivera's team hanging on. 

    5. Seattle Seahawks (9-4)

    Their sights are set on the NFC West crown after a blowout victory over the Jets, especially considering they need just one more win to clinch a playoff spot. Still, overlooking the streaking WFT on the road in Week 15 could be a costly mistake. They might need to win each of their next two games against Washington and L.A. in order to ensure their Week 17 road matchup with San Francisco matters. 

    6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5)

    It looks as though Tom Brady will be in the playoffs for the 12th year in a row after his Bucs easily beat the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. However, in order to jump ahead of New Orleans in the division, they'd have to run the table and the Saints would have to finish 0-3. The latter scenario is extremely unlikely, but Tampa Bay will likely be favored against the Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions and Atlanta again.

    7. Arizona Cardinals (7-6)

    That was a big Week 14 win over the Giants, but the Cards still lack a margin for error with the entire NFC North outside of Green Bay breathing down their neck. The Vikings and Bears are both a game back, and the Detroit Lions are two games out but with the head-to-head tiebreaker over Arizona. They need to take care of Philly and San Francisco at home the next two weeks before having to travel to Los Angeles to play the Rams in Week 17. 


    8. Minnesota Vikings (6-7)

    Sunday's loss in Tampa really hurt. They're 3-2 in their last five games but with a negative scoring margin. The loser of their Week 15 game against Chicago will essentially be toast, but after that, Minnesota has to travel to New Orleans and then Detroit. 

    9. Chicago Bears (6-7)

    You can see how the non-Green Bay NFC North might cannibalize itself in the coming weeks. The Bears remain alive after a Week 14 blowout of the Houston Texans, but now they have to travel to Minnesota before playing the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road and then hosting the Packers. It's hard to envision them running the table. 

    10. Detroit Lions (5-8)

    The Lions own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the seventh-seeded Arizona but would need a miracle for that to come in handy. They finish up in Tennessee and then at home against Tampa Bay and Minnesota.

    11. San Francisco 49ers (5-8)

    They're probably done after a Week 14 loss to Washington. They've had too many injuries this season and must deal with a tough closing schedule with the Cowboys, Cardinals and Seahawks on the docket. 

    12. New York Giants (5-8)

    Their best route is certainly via a division title, but the Giants remain in this picture despite a 4-7 conference record that would likely cost them in the wild-card race even if they ran the table. They've also lost to the Bears and 49ers. 

    13. Philadelphia Eagles (4-8-1)

    Only listed because they've got a shot in the East. 

    14. Dallas Cowboys (4-9)

    Same with them.

The AFC Playoff Field Is Crystalizing but a Lot Remains Up in the Air

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Meanwhile, with one very big game still on the Week 14 schedule, this is the current outlook in the AFC...

    1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-1)

    The champs are back on top thanks to a fifth consecutive one-score victory. They keep cutting it close, which should give the second-place Pittsburgh Steelers some hope of regaining the top spot. The Chiefs are in New Orleans in Week 15, and they won't want to look past the Falcons in Week 16 in anticipation of a season finale against a Los Angles Chargers squad that gave Kansas City trouble earlier this year. I wouldn't be shocked if Kansas City lost another game.

    2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2)

    After back-to-back losses, can Pittsburgh suddenly win out? The kicker regarding the Steelers' Sunday night loss to the Buffalo Bills is it also cost them the conference-record tiebreaker and the common-games tiebreaker against Kansas City, and they can only get the former back. Realistically, they have to win out against Cincinnati, the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland and then hope Kansas City loses to the Chargers in Week 17 (shifting the conference record tiebreaker back to Pittsburgh) or loses to both the Saints and Falcons before that. It's not looking good, and the rear-view mirror is worth a glance. 

    3. Buffalo Bills (10-3)

    That's because Buffalo now owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Steelers, and the way the Bills are playing, they could easily dispose of the Denver Broncos, Patriots and Miami Dolphins to close out the regular season. 

    4. Tennessee Titans (9-4) 

    Tennessee has already lost to Pittsburgh, so the goal now is to hang on and beat out the also-9-4 Colts in the South. They're in control right now thanks to their 4-1 divisional record (compared to 2-2 for Indy) but nothing's easy the rest of the way. They have Detroit in Week 15 and then Green Bay and Houston on the road to wrap up the regular season. 

    5. Cleveland Browns (9-3)

    Cleveland is also nipping at Pittsburgh's heels now. A win Monday night over Baltimore would move the Browns just a game back of the Steelers. The problem is, they don't have the tiebreaker with Pittsburgh, and that isn't likely to change without Cleveland overtaking Pittsburgh altogether. That's not far-fetched, however. They must beat the Ravens on Monday and the Steelers in Week 17, and they can't afford to slip up against the two New York teams in between those big divisional games. They're still much likelier to settle for a wild-card spot. 

    6. Indianapolis Colts (9-4)

    It was a nice win over the Las Vegas Raiders Sunday, but the Titans held serve. Realistically, the Colts will likely have to beat Houston and Jacksonville in Weeks 15 and 17 and hope for help if they can't defeat the Steelers on the road in between. Of course, it's also possible they win out and still fall short, but the playoffs look like a near-lock anyway. 

    7. Miami Dolphins (8-5)

    They fell to the Chiefs, but every team below them with more than five wins lost or didn't play on Sunday/Thursday, and we'll see about the 7-5 Ravens Monday night in Cleveland. Miami might be a small favorite next week against New England, but after that it's Las Vegas and Buffalo on the road. There isn't much breathing room. 


    8. Baltimore Ravens (7-5)

    If they beat the Browns they'll be in golden shape with the Jaguars, Giants and Bengals left on the sked, with only the Cincinnati game coming on the road. It's no wonder FiveThirtyEight still gives Baltimore a much better chance than Miami or Las Vegas at making the playoffs. 

    9. Las Vegas Raiders (7-6)

    The Raiders would be toast if not for that awkward Hail Mary win over the tanking Jets in Week 13, but the ship still appears to be sinking after a one-sided Week 14 loss to the Colts caused them to fire defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. They can beat the Chargers, Dolphins and Broncos to close out the year and potentially sneak in, but the way they're playing, they could almost as easily lose all three of those games. 

    10. New England Patriots (6-7)

    It's pretty much over following their ugly Thursday night loss to the Rams. In fact, FiveThirtyEight now has their playoff chances down to three percent.

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