Welcome to the first-ever Week 18 of the NFL season, a week packed with playoff implication-laden showdowns, one that will surely make for a wild finish to the 2021 NFL season. Here’s how things can shake out this weekend in the fluid NFL playoff picture!
The top spot in the NFC is locked up heading into Week 18, belonging to the Green Bay Packers, but the second and third seeds are very fluid, with a bevy of trickledown effects in play depending on who ends up with the second and third seed. Let’s look at the path to the second seed and the rest of the field depending on who takes the No. 2 spot in the NFC playoffs.
No.1 Seed (BYE Week & Home-Field)
The Green Bay Packers have clinched the No. 1 see in the NFC already, so no matter what happens this week, the Packers will be off in the opening round of the playoffs, and the NFC’s road to the Super Bowl will run through Lambeau Field, so long as the Packers are still alive.
No. 2 Seed
Teams with a Shot: Los Angeles Rams (12-4), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4), Arizona Cardinals (11-5), Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
Probable: Los Angeles Rams
There are four teams with a shot at clinching the No. 2 seed in the NFC this weekend, with the Rams, Bucs, Cardinals, and Cowboys all separated by just one game in the standings, with the Rams having the most outcomes in which they lock up the second seed.
Here’s how each team can do it:
• Win over San Francisco OR
• Philadelphia win vs. Dallas, Seattle win vs. Arizona, and Carolina wins vs. Tampa Bay
• Win over Carolina AND
• Rams loss to San Francisco
• Win over Seattle AND
• Buccaneers loss to Carolina, Rams loss to San Francisco
• Win over Philadelphia AND
• Tampa Bay loss to Carolina, Arizona loss to Seattle, and Los Angeles loss to San Francisco
The Rest of the Field
For the Rams NOT to clinch the second seed in the NFC, they would need to lose to San Francisco and then have upsets in two of the three games with teams in the mix competing. While it’s not wholly impossible, it’s much more likely that the Rams end up with the second seed and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers end up with the third seed.
However, if the Buccaneers clinch the second seed, which would require the Rams to lose to San Francisco, the Cardinals would then leapfrog Los Angeles with a win over Seattle. In this scenario, the Rams would fall to the fifth seed as a wild card and open the playoffs on the road in Dallas!
If the Buccaneers clinch the second seed and the Rams lose to the 49ers, the Cardinals lose to the Seahawks, and the Cowboys beat the Eagles, then the Cowboys would vault into the third-seed with Los Angeles the NFC West winner and fourth-seed and the Cardinals on the road on wild card weekend as the fifth seed.
Let’s say No. 2 and No. 3 go chalk, and we’re looking at a top three of Green Bay, Los Angeles, and Tampa Bay (in that order). That would pretty much guarantee a Week 17 rematch of Arizona at Dallas in the wild card round. That would also essentially ensure San Francisco and Philly either the sixth or seventh seed, with one exception!
The New Orleans Saints can still sneak into the seventh seed if the following scenario shakes out:
• New Orleans win vs. Atlanta
• Los Angeles win vs. San Francisco
That combination would knock the 49ers out, and the Saints would own the seventh and final playoff spot.
This is where the real fun starts!
No.1 Seed (BYE Week & Home-Field)
Teams with a Shot: Tenessee Titans (11-5), Kansas City Chiefs (11-5), Cincinnati Bengals (10-6), New England Patriots (10-6)
Probable: Tennessee Titans
There are four teams with a shot at clinching the No. 1 seed in the AFC this weekend, with the Titans, Chiefs, Bengals, and Patriots all in the mix for the top spot. However, the Bengals have all but eliminated themselves from the small shot that they have by making it known that they will be resting their stars, including Joe Burrow, this Sunday against Cleveland.
On the off shot that a Joe Burrow and company-less Bengals team knocks off Cleveland on Sunday, they would need;
• Buffalo win vs. NYJ, Houston win vs. Tenessee, and Denver wins vs. Kansas City OR (if the Jets beat Buffalo)
• Houston win vs. Tennessee, Denver win vs. Kansas City, and Miami win vs. New England
So, with the high unlikelihood that things unfold oh so perfectly, it’s easy to see what Cincy will be resting their stars in Week 18.
That leaves us with three. The Patriots are in the same boat as Cincinnati in that they would need Houston and Denver to upset Tenessee and Kansas City coupled with a Buffalo loss and a Patriots win over Miami. It would have to be a perfect storm, one that’s likely not in the forecast, which leaves us with Tenessee and Kansas City as the two favorites to lock up the top seed in the AFC this weekend.
If Tennessee wins, they have it in the bag. The only scenarios in which Kansas City can take the top seed include the Titans losing and the Chiefs getting help from the rest of the field.
No. 2 Seed
The same four teams that have a shot at the No.1 seed, plus Buffalo, have a shot at the No. 2 seed. Working under the assumption that Tenessee beats Houston on Sunday and takes the top seed, a Kansas City win likely locks the Chiefs into the second seed, but there’s still a handful of ways that the other teams in the mix can sneak into that spot. Here’s how:
• Win vs. Cleveland, Tennessee win vs. Houston, Denver win vs. Kansas City, and Buffalo win vs. Jets OR
• Win vs. Cleveland, Tennessee win vs. Houston, Denver win vs. Kansas City, Jets win vs. Buffalo, and Miami win vs. Patriots
• Win vs. Miami, Jets win vs. Buffalo, Cincinnati win vs. Cleveland, Tenessee win vs. Houston, and Denver win vs. Kansas City OR
• Win vs. Miami, Jets win vs. Buffalo, Cleveland win vs. Cincinnati, Tenessee win vs. Houston, and Denver win vs. Kansas City
• Win vs. Jets, Cleveland win vs. Cincinnati, and Denver win vs. Kansas City
So, while possible that the Bengals, Patriots, or Bills can leapfrog Kansas City for the second seed, it’s more likely that that trio of teams is destined for a lower seed.
The Rest of the Field
If the Patriots don’t clinch one of the top two seeds, their likelihood of slipping further is pretty high, with Buffalo winning the AFC East. The only way the Patriots would secure the third seed is with a win over Miami and a Buffalo loss to the Jets to secure the AFC East title, and they would still need Tennessee and Kansas City to take care of business on their end. If not, Bill Belichick and the Pats are starting down the fourth or fifth seed and a road game in the wild card round.
If Buffalo tops the Jets and wins the AFC East, the Bills and the Bengals will get the third and fourth seeds depending on a bevy of results combinations that can play out this Sunday. Then there’s the wild card field in the AFC, which will be one heck of a ride to follow on Sunday.
I’m going to leave you with a visualization created by Deniz Selman to sort all that out as the games go on this weekend because it’s genuinely as up in the air as it gets right now.
— Deniz Selman (@denizselman33) January 4, 2022
Also, here is FiveThirtyEight’s odds machine, with updated odds for the first-round byes and Super Bowl winners with the neat capability to see how the odds shift with each game outcome this week. Entering Week 18, the Packers have a 27 percent chance to win the Super Bowl, with the Chiefs (18 percent) the only other team with a greater than 10 percent chance.
Our NFL predictions: https://t.co/Viu6Innya7
— FiveThirtyEight (@FiveThirtyEight) January 5, 2022