NFL Playoff Picture Entering Week 16 Could Spark Total Chaos

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 22, 2021

NFL Playoff Picture Entering Week 16 Could Spark Total Chaos

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    Well, it look longer than expected thanks to delays caused by COVID-19, but the entire NFL has indeed completed 15 weeks of action.

    Every team in the league has 14 games under its belt entering the final dash of this weird, extended regular season. And right now, only a handful of those teams have been officially eliminated from playoff contention. 

    Let's break down the state of the race following the 15th—and longestweek of the 2021 NFL campaign.

Playoff Picture Through 15 Weeks

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    AFC 

    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)
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    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)

    NFC

    1. Green Bay Packers (11-3)
    2. Dallas Cowboys (10-4)
    3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-4)

    4. Arizona Cardinals (10-4)
    5. Los Angeles Rams (10-4)
    6. San Francisco 49ers (8-6)
    7. Minnesota Vikings (7-7)
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    8. New Orleans Saints (7-7)
    9. Philadelphia Eagles (7-7)

    10. Washington Football Team (6-8)

    11. Atlanta Falcons (6-8)
    12. Carolina Panthers (5-9)
    13. Seattle Seahawks (5-9)

Are We in Store for a Repeat of Super Bowl I?

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    Quinn Harris/Getty Images

    It feels as though this has been a long time coming, especially with Patrick Mahomes quarterbacking the Chiefs and Aaron Rodgers behind center for the Packers. Both teams are perennial Super Bowl contenders, but the Chiefs and Packers haven't met in a Super Bowl since they battled in the first-ever version of what was then called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game back in January of 1967. 

    Is that about to change? 

    For the first time all season, the Chiefs and Packers both have sole possession of the the top positions in their respective conferences. At 10-4, Kansas City has won seven consecutive games. At 11-3, the Packers have scored more than 30 points in four consecutive outings. 

    Both teams have had their struggles this year, but Mahomes is the highest-rated passer in league history and Rodgers is a prime MVP favorite. It'd be hard to bet against either, especially with their key competitors struggling of late. 

    That first-round bye certainly helps a lot. But both the Chiefs and Packers also had byes on wild-card weekend in 2019 and 2020, and on both occasions Green Bay failed to meet up with K.C. at the Super Bowl. 

    Will the third time be a charm? First, both teams will have to close strong. The Packers have the Browns, Vikings and Lions down the stretch, while the Chiefs play the Steelers, Bengals and Broncos. 

The AFC North Is Drunk

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    We nearly had a three-way tie "atop" the league's wildest division, with the Steelers just half a game back thanks to their tie with the Detroit Lions. But the COVID-hit Browns fell short Monday night against the Raiders, leaving the Bengals and Ravens tied atop the North at 8-6. 

    Still, just one game separates the entire group. And it's safe to predict the shenanigans are far from over. The Bengals and Ravens meet in Cincy in Week 16, the Steelers play the Browns in Week 17, Cincinnati travels to Cleveland in Week 18, and Pittsburgh finishes the season in Baltimore.

    Appointment viewing, all of it. 

    For now, the Bengals have the advantage because they beat the Ravens in October. They also own the best divisional record (3-1) among the four, but the Browns and Ravens both essentially control their own destiny as well. Whoever wins out likely wins this division. And if nobody wins out, it could become super-chaotic. 

Could Both the Ravens and Steelers Miss the Playoffs?

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    What makes that AFC North race even wilder is the fact it might be all for one playoff spot. 

    Right now, the Ravens, Steelers and Browns are all on the outside looking in because the AFC's wild-card spots belong to the Colts, Chargers and Bills, all of whom are 8-6. 

    Baltimore is just 5-5 in the conference following a horribly timed three-game losing streak. And for now, the Bills (who are also 5-5 against AFC opponents) have the common game tiebreaker over the Ravens. The Colts, who are 7-3 in the conference, could easily finish 3-0 or at least 2-1 against the struggling Cardinals, the Raiders and the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. And the Chargers, who are 5-4 in the conference, don't play another team with a winning record this season. 

    So it'll be tough for the Ravens, and even tougher for the Steelers thanks to that tie with Detroit. Those two reputable franchises might wind up beating each other up so much that they miss out on the postseason together for just the second time this century. 

Don't Count out the Cowboys for the Top Seed in the NFC

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    Losses suffered by the Cardinals and Buccaneers on Sunday were good news for the first-place Packers in the NFC, but another beneficiary was America's Team. 

    Just like that, the Cowboys have won three consecutive games to move into the No. 2 slot in that conference. In the past, that'd put them in line for a first-round bye. This year, they'll still have to leapfrog Green Bay (and hold off the Bucs and Cards) in order to put their feet up on wild-card weekend. 

    That'd be a dream for Dallas fans. And while it remains a stretch, it can't be completely ruled out. The Cowboys have actually been better than Green Bay in terms of both points differential and DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average at Football Outsiders), and their closing schedule isn't too fierce. 

    The Packers have already lost to a Vikings team that will be desperate to make that happen again in Week 17, and we know by now that anything can happen when Rodgers and Co. travels to Detroit in Week 18. Before that, they'll be dealing with another desperate team in the Browns. 

    As for the Cowboys? In Week 16 they draw a Washington team in shambles on short rest. And in week 17 they draw an Arizona team that appears to be collapsing. It's entirely possible that if they take care of business in those outings, a Week 18 win in Philly will land Dallas an improbable first-round bye. 

The Saints Might Have the Edge in the Race for the Final NFC Playoff Spot

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    Meanwhile, at the bottom of the NFC playoff table, the Vikings, Saints and Eagles are all tied for the final wild-card spot with 7-7 records. Several other teams remain in the picture with lesser records and the 49ers in particular can still be caught if they hit a snag down the stretch, but it's likely that Minnesota, New Orleans or Philadelphia will land in the playoffs while the other two will not. 

    And right now, it's hard not to give the edge to the Saints. They might no longer be able to rely on Drew Brees in moments like these, but Sean Payton remains on the sideline and the league's sixth-ranked scoring defense has made back-to-back statements to save their season. 

    There's no doubt they have at least a slight momentum advantage over Minnesota and Philly, especially after shutting out Tom Brady and the Bucs on the road in prime time. But the schedule's also pretty favorable moving forward. 

    While the Vikes still have to deal with both the Rams and Packers, and while the Eagles have to travel to Washington and meet Dallas, New Orleans finishes up with three opponents who are at or below .500. And two of those tilts come at the Superdome. 

    So while this year might have marked an end of an era in New Orleans, don't be surprised if the Saints sneak into the postseason yet again. 

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