Predicting the NFL playoff picture: ESPN's Football Power Index projects Weeks 17-18, division ra...

BySeth Walder ESPN logo
Thursday, December 30, 2021

There are just 32 remaining games in the 2021 NFL season, and only six playoff spots are clinched. Amazingly, 24 teams' postseason hopes are still mathematically alive. And even with all of two weeks left, there are endless permutations of how the rest of the regular season could play out and how the playoff field could shape up. But today, we're predicting what will happen with just one scenario: chalk.

We used simulations from ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) to determine the most likely playoff field and seedings. By our numbers, there is a 7% chance the following prediction nails every team and every seed in the NFC, and a 5% chance of doing the same in the AFC. The probability of both conferences aligning exactly as follows is just 0.5%. That might seem low for a best-guess prediction, but that's how much uncertainty remains. These were the final standings that our FPI simulations produced the most. And we're going to explain how we got there, complete with projected game scores for Weeks 17 and 18.

So let's break down the final two weeks of the 2021 season and the resulting playoff field if the most likely scenario via ESPN's FPI plays out. Who clinched a spot in the 14-team field, who locked up a division title or No. 1 seed, and who was left out of the postseason altogether? Plus, we take a quick look ahead to the playoffs and what we might expect there. Let's dig in.

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Scores: Week 17| Week 18

Final standings: AFC| NFC

Projected Week 17 scores

LAR-BAL: Rams 27, Ravens 7

ATL-BUF: Bills 38, Falcons 14

NYG-CHI: Bears 34, Giants 27

KC-CIN: Chiefs 10, Bengals 6

LV-IND: Colts 26, Raiders 10

JAX-NE: Patriots 31, Jaguars 13

TB-NYJ: Buccaneers 34, Jets 14

MIA-TEN: Titans 27, Dolphins 10

PHI-WSH: Eagles 41, Washington 21

DEN-LAC: Chargers 16, Broncos 8

HOU-SF: 49ers 34, Texans 7

ARI-DAL: Cardinals 17, Cowboys 16

CAR-NO: Saints 23, Panthers 17

DET-SEA: Lions 18, Seahawks 17

MIN-GB: Packers 27, Vikings 26

CLE-PIT: Steelers 30, Browns 27

The story of Week 17: Most contenders fighting for playoff spots took care of business. The Chargers earned a crucial 16-8 victory over division foe Denver. Jonathan Taylor led a Carson Wentz-less Colts squad to 26-10 win over the Raiders. Trey Lance and the 49ers obliterated the Texans. And the Saints -- now with quarterbackTaysom Hill back -- managed to scratch out a 23-17 win over the Panthers. The Packers held serve for the No. 1 seed with a one-point victory over the Vikings, while one of their chief challengers, Dallas, lost by the same margin to Arizona.

Not every playoff hopeful won, however. Cleveland, which began with such high hopes, was eliminated with a 30-27 loss to the Steelers. As was Washington in a blowout loss to the Eagles.

Projected Week 18 scores

NO-ATL: Saints 30, Falcons 22

PIT-BAL: Ravens 33, Steelers 20

NYJ-BUF: Bills 37, Jets 21

CIN-CLE: Bengals 27, Browns 21

GB-DET: Lions 24, Packers 21

TEN-HOU: Titans 31, Texans 28

IND-JAX: Colts 33, Jaguars 13

CAR-TB: Buccaneers 36, Panthers 26

NE-MIA: Dolphins 10, Patriots 3

CHI-MIN: Bears 17, Vikings 14

WSH-NYG: Washington 54, Giants 31

DAL-PHI: Eagles 28, Cowboys 30

KC-DEN: Chiefs 34, Broncos 7

LAC-LV: Raiders 20, Chargers 19

SF-LAR: 49ers 42, Rams 7

SEA-ARI: Seahawks 34, Cardinals 27

In Week 18, some underdogs spoiled a party for their division rivals. Most notably, the Seahawks -- at the end of a lost season and a week after losing to the Lions -- toppled the Cardinals to ruin their shot at a late comeback for the NFC West title. The Patriots struggled in Miami, as they fell in a sleepy 10-3 game to the Dolphins -- though their wild-card bid had already been locked up the prior week. And the Packers played Jordan Love at QB with the No. 1 seed secured and lost to the Lions.

Projecting how the AFC plays out

1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

2. Tennessee Titans (12-5)

3. Buffalo Bills (11-6)

4. Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)

5. Indianapolis Colts (11-6)

6. New England Patriots (10-7)

7. Los Angeles Chargers (9-8)


8. Las Vegas Raiders (9-8)

9. Miami Dolphins (9-8)

10. Baltimore Ravens (9-8)

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8-1)

12. Cleveland Browns (7-10)

13. Denver Broncos (7-10)

14. New York Jets (4-13)

15. Houston Texans (4-13)

16. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-15)

Kansas City clinches the top seed:The Chiefs controlled their destiny for the No. 1 seed, and they took care of business. K.C. first pulled out a bizarrely defensive 10-6 win over the Bengals before blowing out the Broncos in Week 18. The Titans held the tiebreaker over the Chiefs, and they did their part to keep the pressure on, beating the Dolphins and Texans. But because the Chiefs won twice and finished 13-4, Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid earned the top seed, giving them the coveted bye. The Chiefs haven't had to play a wild-card game since 2017 despite last missing the playoffs in 2014.

The Bills edge out the Pats for the AFC East:Buffalo was already a heavy favorite after beating the Patriots in Week 16, but it sewed the deal up by closing out the season with two wins, while the Patriots stumbled in Week 18 against the Dolphins. Our projection gives the Bills 75 combined points over the final two weeks, meaning the offense could enter the playoffs humming. And as luck would have it, this scenario gives us a third meeting between the Bills and Patriots in the wild-card round.

The Bengals win a tight AFC North race:The Bengals rolled off a huge Week 16 win -- Joe Burrow hung 525 yards and four touchdowns on the Ravens -- into an offensive letdown in Week 17. Cincinnati managed just six points in a loss to the Chiefs. But Baltimore's loss helped mitigate the sting. The division title was still up for grabs in Week 18, but the Bengals were able to defeat the Browns 27-21 to snag it. Cincinnati last won the AFC North in 2015 -- and it hasn't won a playoff game since 1990.

The Titans hold off the Colts in the AFC South:The Colts won their final two games here, but it didn't end up mattering in this case. The Titans -- currently a game up in the standings -- went on to also win out against their easy remaining schedule.

Tiebreakers give the No. 7 seed to the Chargers: The Colts and Patriots are virtual locks to reach the postseason, and they both do in this prediction. But that seventh seed? That's where things get interesting. And in this case, it's the Chargers that grab it, winning a four-way tie at 9-8 with the Raiders, Dolphins and Ravens. Ultimately, the strength-of-victory tiebreaker seals the berth for Los Angeles. The painful part for the Raiders, Dolphins and Ravens is that they all missed the playoffs at 9-8 after going 1-1 in their final two games. Had any of them won both of their final two games, they would have earned a berth.

The Jaguars grab the top draft pick: You can say this about Jacksonville: This team loses right. For the second straight year, the Jaguars earned the No. 1 pick in the draft. It's an inauspicious honor, though one that might yet land Jacksonville a star pass-rusher or a bevy of picks in a trade down. The Jaguars' 31-13 and 33-13 losses to the Patriots and Colts, respectively, wrapped up a miserable year that landed them the top selection.

Projecting how the NFC plays out

1. Green Bay Packers (13-4)

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)

3. Dallas Cowboys (12-5)

4. Los Angeles Rams (12-5)

5. Arizona Cardinals (11-6)

6. San Francisco 49ers (10-7)

7. Philadelphia Eagles (9-8)


8. New Orleans Saints (9-8)

9. Washington Football Team (7-10)

10. Minnesota Vikings (7-10)

11. Chicago Bears (7-10)

12. Atlanta Falcons (7-10)

13. Seattle Seahawks (6-10)

14. Carolina Panthers (5-12)

15. Detroit Lions (4-12-1)

16. New York Giants (4-13)

Green Bay secures the No. 1 seed early: The Packers actually wrapped this up in Week 17 here, defeating the Vikings by a single point while the Cowboys lost to the Cardinals by the same margin. Even though the Packers went on to lose to the Lions in Week 18 -- let's work under the assumption they rested starters -- and finished with the same record as the Buccaneers, Green Bay had the better conference record and thus earned the bye. The NFC playoffs roll through Lambeau Field for a second straight year.

The Rams take the NFC West:This one stayed interesting until the very end, because both the Rams and Cardinals won in Week 17. The Rams were then blown out by the 49ers in Week 18, which opened the door for Arizona if it could just beat Seattle -- but it couldn't. The Cardinals lost, handing the division to Los Angeles. The result set up an NFC West rematch between the Rams and 49ers in the wild-card round.

The Eagles beat out the Saints for the final spot:The Cardinals are in, so it's just a question of the final two spots. And in this case, ESPN's FPI predicts the 49ers and Eagles will earn them. San Francisco did so convincingly, blowing out the Texans and Rams. The Eagles actually dropped their Week 18 contest against the Cowboys but held on over the Saints -- who won twice -- because of a head-to-head tiebreaker with New Orleans after beating the Saints 40-29 earlier this year. The Saints fell short despite doing all they could over the final two weeks, and the Vikings fumbled their slim chance by losing twice.

What to expect in the playoffs

Projected wild-card round matchups

(7) Chargers at (2) Titans

(6) Patriots at (3) Bills

(5) Colts at (4) Bengals

(7) Eagles at (2) Buccaneers

(6) 49ers at (3) Cowboys

(5) Cardinals at (4) Rams

Super Bowl aspirations: Chiefs-Packers would certainly be the most likely Super Bowl matchup, with those two teams earning the byes. But who could spoil the party? ESPN's FPI actually believes the Bills and Buccaneers are the best teams in their respective conferences.

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