NFL Playoff Bracket 2021: Picks and Predictions for AFC, NFC Wild Card
In case you haven't noticed, the NFL playoffs are going to look a bit different this season. Ahead of the 2020 campaign, the league approved postseason expansion, meaning an extra team from each conference will make the playoffs.
That also means only one AFC team and one NFC team will get first-round byes. The Kansas City Chiefs have already secured that as the No. 1 seed in the AFC, while the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks could all end up with the top spot in the NFC.
The NFC's No. 1 seed and much more are still up for grabs entering Week 17, the final gameweek of the regular season. All 32 teams will be in action Sunday, and only seven of the 14 playoff berths have been secured. There are also two division titles (the AFC South and NFC East) up for grabs.
It's sure to be an exciting conclusion to the regular season, which will lead into a Wild Card Round with six games (three from each conference) the following weekend.
Here's a look at the NFL playoff picture, followed by predictions for Week 17 and how those results will shape the postseason bracket.
Current NFL Playoff Picture
No. 1 seed: Kansas City Chiefs (14-1, clinched AFC West and top seed)
No. 2 seed Buffalo Bills (12-3, clinched AFC East) vs. No. 7 seed Cleveland Browns (10-5)
No. 3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3, clinched AFC North) vs. No. 6 seed Baltimore Ravens (10-5)
No. 4 seed Tennessee Titans (10-5) vs. No. 5 seed Miami Dolphins (10-5)
In the hunt: Indianapolis Colts (10-5)
No. 1 seed: Green Bay Packers (12-3, clinched NFC North)
No. 2 seed New Orleans Saints (11-4, clinched NFC South) vs. No. 7 seed Chicago Bears (8-7)
No. 3 seed Seattle Seahawks (11-4, clinched NFC West) vs. No. 6 seed Los Angeles Rams (9-6)
No. 4 seed Washington Football Team (6-9) vs. No. 5 seed Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-5, clinched playoff berth)
In the hunt: Arizona Cardinals (8-7), Dallas Cowboys (6-9), New York Giants (5-10)
The Titans Will Win Their 1st AFC South Title Since 2008
The Tennessee Titans haven't clinched a playoff berth, but they control their destiny in the AFC South race. All they have to do to win the division title is notch a road victory against the Houston Texans, whom they beat earlier in the season (a 42-36 overtime victory in Week 6).
The Texans have gone downhill over the past month, losing all four of their games in December to fall to 4-11. And while they have a solid offense and some defensive playmakers, they don't have any momentum heading into this matchup with the Titans.
That's why Tennessee, which be motivated to win the division title, will take care of business on the road. Expect the Titans to rely heavily on star running back Derrick Henry, who will carry them to the AFC South crown and into the playoffs.
Colts Miss Playoffs Because of Wins by Dolphins, Ravens, Browns
For the Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, they can keep things simple in the AFC wild-card race by winning their respective games. Each of those three teams control its playoff fate and will get into the postseason with a Week 17 victory. And that's what is likely to happen.
The Dolphins and Browns are going to benefit from playing division champions with nothing at stake. The Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively, have already clinched their divisions and can't overtake the Kansas City Chiefs for the No. 1 seed, which is the only spot that receives a first-round bye.
While Pittsburgh has already announced that starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger won't play, Buffalo has yet to say whether it will be resting its starters. It wouldn't be surprising to see both the Steelers and Bills sit key players to get a short break before their Wild Card Round matchups.
That should allow both Miami and Cleveland to earn victories and reach the postseason.
Meanwhile, the Ravens shouldn't have any issues on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals. In Week 5, Baltimore won the first meeting between the AFC North rivals 27-3. And even though the Bengals have won back-to-back games for the first time this season, the Ravens have won four in a row and appear to be surging into the playoffs.
With those three teams winning, it won't matter that the Indianapolis Colts should beat the Jacksonville Jaguars to improve to 11-5. They are going to be on the wrong side of tiebreakers in both the AFC South and wild-card race. So despite a strong season, they are not going to be heading to the playoffs.
The Packers Will Secure Top Seed with Win
It will be a high-stakes matchup when the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears go head-to-head in Soldier Field on Sunday. Green Bay is looking to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC, while Chicago is in the thick of the wild-card race. The Bears could still get into the playoffs with a loss, but they would secure their spot with a win.
However, the Packers have dominated their NFC North rival in recent meetings between the teams, winning 18 of their past 22 games against the Bears, a stretch that dates back to the 2010 season. And knowing it can secure a first-round bye with a victory, Green Bay should be motivated to take care of business.
The Packers enter on a five-game winning streak, and they maintain that momentum with another impressive performance. Their offense will be too much for the Bears defense to stop, and veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers will help Green Bay earn a week of rest to open the postseason.
The Cardinals Will Make Playoffs, Prevent Bears From Getting In
With the Bears losing, they will need the Los Angeles Rams to beat the Arizona Cardinals in order to make the playoffs. But that's going to be a tough task for Los Angeles, considering it will be without quarterback Jared Goff (right thumb surgery) and wide receiver Cooper Kupp (positive COVID-19 test) and will be starting backup quarterback John Wolford, who has never played in an NFL game.
On the other side, the Cardinals are expected to have starting quarterback Kyler Murray in the lineup despite the leg injury he suffered in Week 16. And although Arizona has lost four of its past six games (a stretch that included a 38-28 loss to the Rams in Week 13), it should win against a short-handed Los Angeles team.
That means the Cardinals will jump up to the No. 6 seed, while the Rams will still get into the playoffs as a No. 7 seed. And if Los Angeles can get healthier before the Wild Card Rounds, it will be in good shape to pull off an upset win to open the playoffs.
Washington Will Take NFC East with Victory
The winner of the NFC East is going to have a losing record, but it's not clear which team it will be. The Eagles are the only team eliminated, with the Washington Football Team, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants all still having a chance to be crowned as the division champions.
However, Dallas and New York can only take the title if Washington loses at Philadelphia. In that scenario, the winner of the Cowboys-Giants game will be heading to the playoffs as the NFC East winners.
Don't expect that to happen, though. Washington can win the division title with a victory over the Eagles, whom it beat 27-17 in Week 1. Philadelphia's offense is likely to struggle against Washington's strong defense, and as long as Washington's offense can avoid crucial mistakes, it should score enough to pull out the victory.
Washington will end up as the No. 4 seed in the NFC and consequently host a game in the Wild Card Round.