Breaking Down Playoff-Clinching Scenarios and the Most Likely Wild Card Matchups

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 28, 2020

Breaking Down Playoff-Clinching Scenarios and the Most Likely Wild Card Matchups

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    On the penultimate Sunday of the 2020 NFL regular season, we finally gained some much-appreciated clarity with regard to the playoff races in both the AFC and NFC. 

    Six of the league's eight division titles have been clinched, seven of 14 playoff spots have been locked up, and only 18 teams remain alive entering Week 17.

    Which four will finish on the outside looking in? And which matchups are emerging as the most likely to occur on Wild Card Weekend? Here's a full summary of the playoff race with 17 games remaining on the regular-season schedule. 

It's Mainly a Wild-Card Shuffle in the AFC

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    With nine intra-conference games remaining this year, here's how the AFC playoff race looks.

    1. Kansas City Chiefs (14-1)

    The defending Super Bowl champions locked up a first-round bye for the second year in a row Sunday. Altogether, they've won 23 of their last 24 games. Expect them to relax at home against the Los Angeles Chargers on the final Sunday of the regular season before enjoying that bye. 


    2. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3)

    A comeback win over the Indianapolis Colts ensures the AFC North champion Steelers will be either the No. 2 seed or the No. 3 seed. Of course, that difference isn't as significant now that only the top seed gets a bye. We'll see how much effort they put into their finale against the Cleveland Browns on the road.


    3. Buffalo Bills (11-3)

    Buffalo was idle Sunday but can move back ahead of Pittsburgh via the head-to-head tiebreaker with a victory over the New England Patriots on Monday night. Having already wrapped up the AFC East, it hosts the desperate Miami Dolphins in Week 17.


    4. Tennessee Titans (10-5)

    Take care of business against the Houston Texans next week and the division is yours. Lose to Houston and a Colts win over the Jacksonville Jaguars moves Indy into this spot. There's also a worst-case scenario that sends them right out of the playoffs, but that would require a loss to Houston, a Colts win over the Jaguars, a Dolphins win over the Bills and a Baltimore Ravens win over the Cincinnati Bengals. 


    5. Miami Dolphins (10-5)

    Following a dramatic victory over the Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday, the Dolphins need to beat the Bills or hope the Browns lose to the Steelers and either the Colts lose to the Jaguars or the Ravens lose to the Bengals. The bad news? All three of those results are pretty unlikely. The good news? Buffalo might take its foot off the gas pedal next Sunday. 


    6. Baltimore Ravens (10-5)

    Following a blowout victory over the New York Giants on Sunday, the Ravens need to beat the Bengals or hope the Browns lose to the Steelers or the Colts lose to the Jaguars. Again, the fallback scenarios are unlikely, but they'll be heavily favored in Cincinnati. 


    7. Cleveland Browns (10-5)

    Following a brutal loss to the New York Jets on Sunday, the Browns need to beat the Steelers or hope the Colts lose to the Jags. 


    8. Indianapolis Colts (10-5)

    Following a collapse in Pittsburgh, they need to defeat a Jacksonville team that beat them way back in Week 1, and then they need Miami, Baltimore or Cleveland to lose. Alternatively, they could get in as the AFC South champion if they beat the Jaguars and the Titans lose to the Texans.

In the NFC, All Eyes Are on the East

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    And with eight intra-conference games left, here's the NFC breakdown. 

    1. Green Bay Packers (12-3)

    The Packers beat the Titans on Sunday night but still need to beat the Chicago Bears or hope for the San Francisco 49ers to upset the Seattle Seahawks. Otherwise, they'll miss out on a first-round bye.


    2. New Orleans Saints (11-4)

    They've won the NFC South but will have to play on Wild Card Weekend unless they beat the Carolina Panthers, the Bears beat the Packers and the Seahawks beat the 49ers in Week 17. 


    3. Seattle Seahawks (11-4)

    They clinched the NFC West Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams but will also have to play on Wild Card Weekend unless they beat the 49ers, the Bears beat the Packers and the Panthers beat the Saints on the final Sunday of the regular season. 


    4. Washington Football Team (6-9)

    They suffered a brutal loss to the Carolina Panthers, but they're in if they beat the Philadelphia Eagles. If they lose, they're out, and this spot would go to the Dallas Cowboys or New York Giants. 


    5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-5)

    They're locked in as a wild-card team following an easy Week 16 win, but they need to beat the Atlanta Falcons or get help from the Arizona Cardinals against the Rams in order to draw a first-round matchup with the sub-.500 winner of the NFC East. 


    6. Los Angeles Rams (9-6)

    The division is out of the picture after that loss to Seattle. Now, if they can't beat the Cardinals at home in Week 17, they'll need help from the Packers (who would need to beat the Bears). It doesn't help that quarterback Jared Goff reportedly has a broken thumb on his throwing hand. 


    7. Chicago Bears (8-7)

    They've rebounded from a six-game losing streak with a three-game winning streak. Now they're in with a win over the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field next Sunday, but a Rams win over the Cardinals would also do the job. 


    8. Arizona Cardinals (8-7)

    It was a tough loss to the 49ers on Saturday, but beat the struggling Rams and their injured quarterback in L.A. and you're in. Lose and you're out. 


    9. Dallas Cowboys (6-9)

    Suddenly winners of three in a row, the Cowboys need to beat the Giants and get a Philadelphia win over Washington at home. 


    10. New York Giants (5-10)

    Incredibly, even after a third consecutive loss to fall to 5-10, the Giants merely need to beat the Cowboys and hope for an Eagles win over Washington in order to capture the NFC East. 

Previewing the Most Likely AFC Wild-Card Matchups

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Using opening lines for Week 17 and baking in a Bills win over New England on Monday Night Football, these are the most likely matchups in the AFC.


    (7) Colts at (2) Bills 

    Buffalo could still fall to the No. 3 seed, and Indy could wind up all over the AFC map. But Buffalo is a sizable favorite over Miami in Week 17, and that result would go a long way toward locking in this matchup. Josh Allen against a strong Colts defense would be the most intriguing matchup in the Bills' first home playoff game since the turn of the century. 


    (6) Browns at (3) Steelers

    It's hard to imagine Mike Tomlin will go all-out in Week 17, especially considering that he could do that, lose and still have to face the Browns anyway on Wild Card Weekend. He'd be better off not tipping his hand and resting an aged roster before meeting Cleveland again at Heinz Field. Make the Browns exert themselves.

    Cleveland's high-ceiling offense against a somewhat depleted Pittsburgh defense would be the key in the Browns' first playoff game since 2003. Coincidentally, that also took place in Pittsburgh. 


    (5) Ravens at (4) Titans

    Baltimore could also wind up facing the Steelers if the Bills lay off the gas next week against the Dolphins. Either way, we'd be getting a great rivalry game. These teams used to despise each other, and the Ravens would be looking for revenge after falling to Tennessee at home in last year's playoffs. Derrick Henry against Baltimore's elite run defense would be a lot of fun to watch. 

Previewing the Most Likely NFC Wild-Card Matchups

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Using opening lines for Week 17, these are the most likely matchups in the NFC.


    (7) Bears at (2) Saints 

    The Cardinals could certainly beat the Rams as the Packers take care of the Bears, which would leave Los Angeles in this spot for a rematch of the infamous 2018 NFC Championship Game. This would represent a hell of an uphill battle for the happy-to-be-alive Bears because the Saints are pretty stacked on both sides of the ball, and Chicago hasn't been reliable on offense. 


    (6) Rams at (3) Seahawks

    The Rams and Seahawks can still jump around a lot. But L.A. is supposed to beat the Cardinals, and the Seahawks are still unlikely to move out of the No. 3 spot even if they take care of the 49ers next Sunday.

    They've played some awesome games, so this would be a lot of fun, especially if Goff is healthy. But it's hard to bet against Russell Wilson at home with a defense that is suddenly on fire, especially considering the valid concerns about the Los Angeles offense. 


    (5) Buccaneers at (4) Cowboys/Giants/Washington

    With 10 or 11 wins, the Bucs would be favored on the road in Dallas, New York or Washington against a default NFC East winner with six or seven wins. Right now, both Washington-Philly and Dallas-New York are expected to be bloody toss-ups, but Washington is the only team in the division that doesn't need help in Week 17.

    Tom Brady against Chase Young and Washington's stacked defensive front would arguably be the most compelling matchup available here. 


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