NFL playoff picture 2021: Standings, brackets, scenarios after Christmas Day games, plus Week 16 ...

ByKevin Seifert ESPN logo
Sunday, December 26, 2021

Things are starting to get serious for the Cardinals. They lost their third consecutive game on Saturday night, this time by a score of 22-16 to the depleted Colts, and in the process have fallen out of first place in the NFC West. They could clinch a playoff spot as early as Sunday, but it's fair to question the future of any team playing the way the Cardinals are during the stretch run.

The NFL still has only two confirmed playoff teams -- the Packers and Cowboys -- but a total of six teams that have playoff clinching scenarios for Sunday. That list includes the Chiefs, Patriots, Titans, Rams, Buccaneers and Cardinals.

What follows is a preview of our weekly snapshot of the NFL's playoff picture, incorporating ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) and a bit of our own instincts to give you a sense of the stakes. We've threaded playoff and/or division clinching scenarios for a handful of teams, and we'll update how it all worked out on Sunday and Monday.

Note: X denotes a team that has clinched a playoff berth, Y shows a team that has clinched its division and Z indicates a team that has secured a first-round bye.

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1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%

FPI chances to win division: 93%

The Chiefs were at one point 3-4, but they have won seven consecutive games and are getting better results -- if not better play-to-play efficiency -- than any team in the NFL. They no longer have to worry about losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Chargers, and they can clinch the AFC West this weekend with a win over the Steelers and a Chargers loss to the Texans. And they have a 46% chance to get the first-round bye, per ESPN's FPI.The Chiefs can also simply clinch a playoff berth this week with a win.

Remaining schedule: vs. Steelers, at Bengals, at Broncos

2. Tennessee Titans (10-5)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%

FPI chances to win division: 95%

Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Chargers

The Titans had lost three of their past four games before Thursday night's comeback victory over the 49ers. The win knocked them up one spot in the AFC standings, but the Patriots will leapfrog them with a win Sunday against the Bills. The Titans will clinch a playoff spot with losses by the Dolphins, Bills, Broncos and Steelers, or losses by the Dolphins, Bills, Broncos and Ravens.

Remaining schedule:vs. Dolphins, at Texans

3. New England Patriots (9-5)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 98%

FPI chances to win division: 55%

Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Bills

Week 15's loss to the Colts snapped the Patriots' seven-game winning streak and dropped them from the top of the AFC. It also set up a huge AFC East game on Sunday: The Patriots will host the Bills, with the winner taking control of the division. It won't be a true AFC East championship game, because neither team can clinch it with a victory alone. But the Patriots could clinch if they win the game and the Dolphins lose to the Saints on Monday.To clinch a playoff spot, the Patriots would need to win and get either losses by the Raiders and Chargers, or losses by the Ravens and Steelers.

Remaining schedule:vs. Bills, vs. Jaguars, at Dolphins

4. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 54%

FPI chances to win division: 45%

Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Colts

The Bengals snapped their two-game losing streak and ascended to the top of the AFC North. They have the temporary head-to-head tiebreaker over the Ravens, but as luck would have it, the teams will meet on Sunday. Neither would clinch the division title with a win, but it will obviously be a huge leverage game for both teams. If the Bengals win, their one-game lead in the win/loss column would really be a two-game lead because of the permanent head-to-head tiebreaker.So they'll win the AFC North if they win their remaining games.

Remaining schedule:vs. Ravens, vs. Chiefs, at Browns

5. Indianapolis Colts (9-6)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 95%

FPI chances to win division:5%

Current projected first-round matchup: at Bengals

The Colts produced a pretty amazing victory Saturday night in Arizona, playing without most of their starting offensive line as well as star linebacker Darius Leonard, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the day. The win allowed the Colts to stay alive in the AFC South race -- they would have been eliminated with a loss -- and strengthened their bid for a wild-card spot. ESPN's FPI considers a playoff spot a near-lock at this point. The Colts have won six of their past seven games, and with two more very winnable games on their schedule, they could enter the playoffs on quite a run of success.

Remaining schedule:vs. Raiders, at Jaguars

6. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 71%

FPI chances to win division: 6%

Current projected first-round matchup: at Patriots

The Chargers are in a good position for a wild-card playoff berth. It would be just their second trip to the postseason in the past eight years. They had a legitimate chance to overtake the Chiefs in the AFC West last week, and it remains a statistical possibility going forward, but it'll require help from a Chiefs team that has developed a bunch of experience in closing out postseason position during the past few years.

Remaining schedule:at Texans, vs. Broncos, at Raiders

7. Buffalo Bills (8-6)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 84%

FPI chances to win division: 45%

Current projected first-round matchup:at Titans

At the moment, the Bills hold the common-games tiebreaker over Baltimore. The FPI is giving the Bills a great chance to make the playoffs, and their game at the Patriots gives them a chance to take over the AFC East lead. The Patriots are favored in that game for a number of reasons, and rightfully so, but if you had told the Bills a few weeks ago that they would have a chance to retake the division lead in late December, they would have considered themselves fortunate. They'll win the AFC East if they win their remaining games.

Remaining schedule:at Patriots, vs. Falcons, vs. Jets

In the AFC hunt

Baltimore Ravens (8-6)

The Ravens are so decimated by injuries and COVID-19 losses that coach John Harbaugh has felt compelled to go for a game-winning 2-point play twice in the past three weeks rather than take his chances in overtime. They have lost both games and are now on a playoff-crushing three-game losing streak. The Ravens will have a chance to turn it around at the Bengals, but the FPI is giving them only a 49% chance to make the playoffs, and their division title odds are just 35%.

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1)

The Steelers' level of difficulty is about to go up. Sunday's matchup at the Chiefs, the hottest team in football, is not the kind of game they want while trying to stay within a reasonable distance of the race. The FPI is giving Pittsburgh an 16% chance to make it to the postseason.

Las Vegas Raiders (7-7)

The FPI now gives the Raiders a 9% chance of advancing to the postseason. All wins count the same in the standings, but if you watched the Raiders struggle to overcome a team of Browns backups last week, you probably don't have much confidence in their chances, given upcoming games against the Broncos, Colts and Chargers.

Miami Dolphins (7-7)

Give some credit to the Dolphins for simply getting into this conversation. They have followed a seven-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak and have another winnable game on Monday at the Saints. Their chances to make the playoffs are still pretty minuscule at 5%, per the FPI, but they exist.

Denver Broncos (7-7)

The Broncos' playoff chances are now 8%, according to the FPI. They have a winnable game this week at the Raiders, but with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (concussion) likely sidelined, their postseason outlook is bleak.

Cleveland Browns (7-8)

Saturday night's loss to the Packers didn't eliminate the Browns from the playoffs, given the historically close nature of the AFC North, but it could happen as early as Sunday. They'll be eliminated if the Ravens, Bills, Raiders, Chargers and Steelers all win. ESPN's FPI says they have an 11% chance to make the playoffs.


1. Green Bay Packers (12-3) -- y

FPI chances to make playoffs: Clinched

FPI chances to win division:Clinched

The Packers faced a pretty wild and divergent set of circumstances Saturday night. Had the Browns completed their comeback and left Lambeau Field with a win, the Packers would have faced the strong possibility of falling out of the top seed in the NFC. All it would have taken was the Cowboys winning a home game against Washington, an outcome that would have elevated the Cowboys to No. 1. Instead, the Packers held off the Browns and kept themselves in strong position to ensure home-field advantage in the playoffs (84% likely, per ESPN's FPI). They are now 7-0 at Lambeau Field this season and 20-3 since coach Matt LaFleur was hired in 2019.

Remaining schedule:vs. Vikings, at Lions

2. Dallas Cowboys (10-4) -- x

FPI chances to make playoffs: Clinched

FPI chances to win division: 99%

Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Vikings

The 49ers' loss Thursday night clinched a playoff spot for the Cowboys. But Dallas has bigger goals in mind. The Cowboys have won three consecutive games after losing three of four. They have moved ahead of the Rams, Cardinals and Buccaneers thanks to a better conference record, and they continue to be the overwhelming favorites to win the NFC East. In fact, they can clinch the division on Sunday night with a victory over Washington. And they can secure the division title even if they lose to Washington -- that will happen if the Eagles lose to the Giants or if the Cowboys clinch a strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Eagles.

Remaining schedule:vs. Washington, vs. Cardinals, at Eagles

3. Los Angeles Rams (10-4)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%

FPI chances to win division: 57%

Current projected first-round matchup: vs. 49ers

The Rams took over the lead in the division after the Cardinals' loss on Saturday night. Amazingly, ESPN's FPI now considers them the favorites in the NFC West. They have several scenarios for clinching a playoff spot in Week 16, too. Most simply, they'll secure a spot if they beat the Vikings. If they lose in Minnesota, the Rams can still lock in a spot with losses by the Saints and Eagles. If nothing else, however, the Rams are keeping the heat on the Cardinals.

Remaining schedule:at Vikings, at Ravens, vs. 49ers

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-4)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%

FPI chances to win division: 99%

Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Cardinals

The Buccaneers were overtaken at least for the time being by the Cowboys last weekend, but they can clinch the NFC South on Sunday with a win. How will they be affected by injuries suffered in Week 15 to receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwinand running back Leonard Fournette?Regardless, the Buccaneers can clinch a playoff berth even without wining. They'll do so if the Vikings and Eagles lose, or the Vikings lose and the Cowboys win, or the Vikings lose and the Cowboys clinch at least a tie in their strength of victory tiebreaker with the Eagles.

Remaining schedule:at Panthers, at Jets, vs. Panthers

5. Arizona Cardinals (10-5)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%

FPI chances to win division: 43%

Current projected first-round matchup: at Buccaneers

The Cardinals can clinch a playoff spot Sunday despite their three-game losing streak. It can happen with a loss by the Vikings, Saints or Eagles. They could also regain their spot atop the NFC West if the Rams lose in Minnesota. But at the very least, they have opened a door for the Rams while losing control of the division for the first time all season. ESPN's FPI still considers the Cardinals a lock to get in the playoffs. But with the Cards facing a tough game against the Cowboys next week, the Rams are now the FPI favorites to win the NFC West.

Remaining schedule:at Cowboys, vs. Seahawks

6.San Francisco 49ers (8-7)

FPI chances to make playoffs:70%

FPI chances to win division:<1%

Current projected first-round matchup: at Rams

Despite Thursday night's loss, the 49ers remained squarely in the NFC wild-card race. If both the Vikings and Saints win Sunday, they 49ers will move down to the No. 7 spot, but there does not appear to be a scenario in which they'd get knocked out of the top seven. Plus, the Niners are fortunate to have the Texans up next on their schedule. If they can't beat the Texans at home in Week 17, then they probably don't deserve to be in the playoffs.

Remaining schedule:vs. Texans, at Rams

7.Minnesota Vikings (7-7)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 32%

FPI chances to win division:Eliminated

Current projected first-round matchup: at Cowboys

The Vikings hold the common games tiebreaker over the Eagles and the conference record advantage over the Saints. Despite being eliminated from the NFC North division race, they currently have the No. 7 seed and carry a 32% chance of making the playoffs.

Remaining schedule:vs. Rams, at Packers, vs. Bears

In the NFC hunt

Philadelphia Eagles (7-7)

The Eagles kept their foot in the playoff door, and their FPI chances now they stand at 35%. They head into another very winnable game against the Giants.

New Orleans Saints (7-7)

The Saints secured a huge victory in Week 15 that will help them in myriad tiebreakers, including division and conference record, and it's worth noting that they don't have another game scheduled against a team that currently has a winning record. New Orleans' FPI playoff odds are at 54%, and the Dolphins are up next.

Washington Football Team (6-8)

Washington faces a quick-turn game against the Cowboys, and its FPI playoff chances are down to 9%.

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