With 17 weeks in the books, the NFL playoff field still has some open spots available. All the witching hours, crazy finishes, referee controversies and historic performances have gotten us tuned up for a very promising final week of the regular season.
I love the final week for the potential chaos like:
- 2003: 3-12 Cardinals knocked out the Vikings on a walk-off fourth-and-25 touchdown pass from Josh McCown to Nate Poole.
- 2017: Bengals knocked out the Ravens on a fourth-and-12 TD from Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd. With Baltimore eliminated, the Bills snapped a long playoff drought.
- 2021: The 2-14 Jaguars upset Carson Wentz and the Colts, who needed a win to get in.
- 2021: The Raiders and Chargers nearly tied in the regular-season finale, which would have cost the Steelers their playoff spot.
Beyond the upsets and spoilers, there’s going to be some crazy performances with teams resting starters. You’ll probably see a strange QB matchup (like the possibility of Wentz vs. Sam Darnold in San Francisco on Sunday) and things might not be over until the stroke of midnight on Sunday when the Dolphins play host to the Bills for the AFC East title.
Before we get too weird, here’s the nuts and bolts you need to know. There are 20 teams still in Super Bowl contention. Five open playoff spots and six teams have win-and-in scenarios: Bills, Texans, Colts, Jaguars, Packers and Buccaneers.
Alright, enough of that. Here’s 13 (bizarre, obscure, head-scratching, really cool) things you should know about these playoff races heading into Week 18.
1. Circle the wagons
The Bills could be the two seed or be eliminated this week, only the ninth time that’s happened since 1990 (h/t Pro Football researcher Ivan Urena). They clinch the two seed with a win in Miami but could be eliminated with a loss and wins by the Jaguars AND Steelers (as long as the Texans-Colts game doesn’t end in a tie, which you know, could happen).
2. Buffalo’s comeback
The Bills can be the fourth team in NFL history to win a division when they were three games back with five games to play (1973 Bengals, 2008 Chargers, 2022 Jaguars). Poor Dolphins fans.
3. Steelers can lose and get in?
YES. A team currently on the outside looking in can make the playoffs with a loss. Sound logic. Hat tip to the CBS Sports social and research teams for their breakdown here. The Steelers are currently the nine seed but could actually make the playoffs with a loss if this happens:
Steelers path to playoffs if they lose:
- Jaguars lose
- Broncos win
- Texans-Colts don’t tie
That would create a four-way tie for the seven seed between the Steelers, Jaguars, Broncos and loser of Texans-Colts. The Steelers would be IN via strength of victory tiebreaker. Nod your head if you’re still following.
4. Winner takes all
The winner of Texans-Colts makes the playoffs and the loser misses the playoffs. It’s the 31st winner-takes-all game in the final week of the regular season in NFL history and first since the Chargers-Raiders nearly tied to end the 2021 season. Texans-Colts is essentially a playoff game, a perfect tune-up for the postseason!
5. So you’re saying there’s a chance
The Texans had 200-1 Super Bowl odds before the season, tied with the Cardinals for the worst in the NFL. Literally nobody saw a potential playoff run coming. They would be the fifth team to make the playoffs with 200-1 or longer preseason title odds since 1978 (when the NFL went to a 16-game schedule).
6. Stars can align for reunions
It’s not out of the question we see all these reunions in the first two rounds, especially if things go our way in Week 18. Tyreek Hill’s first game in Kansas City since he was traded. Matthew Stafford’s first game in Detroit since he was traded. Joe Flacco’s first game in Baltimore since he was traded.
Here’s what needs to happen:
Potential wild card matchups
- Dolphins at Chiefs (Hill reunion) with Dolphins loss vs. Bills
- Rams at Lions (Stafford reunion) with Cowboys and Rams wins
- Packers at Cowboys (Mike McCarthy reunion) with Cowboys, Packers and Rams wins
And for good measure, the Browns will face the Ravens in Baltimore in the divisional playoffs (Flacco reunion) IF they beat the AFC South champion in the wild card round AND the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds win in the AFC wild card round.
7. NFC shenanigans
There are still 256 different seeding combinations possible in the NFC with only the 49ers locked into the one seed. There are also still six teams fighting for the final two NFC playoff spots.
8. Dallas can face any of these seven teams
John Breech outlined how the Cowboys can still face any of these seven teams in the playoffs. Either of the three NFC South winners (Falcons, Saints or Buccaneers), the Packers, Rams, Seahawks or Vikings. Bottom line. Don’t waste your time looking too far ahead Cowboys fans, just take care of business this week!
9. NFC East repeat?
If the Cowboys win the NFC East (which happens with a win OR Eagles loss) it will be the 19th straight season without a repeat NFC East champion, extending the longest streak by any division in NFL history.
10. Turning purple
The Vikings’ playoff hopes are on life support (1.4% chance per SportsLine) but they can still make it if either option one or two happen:
Vikings path to playoffs:
- Win + losses by the Packers, Seahawks AND Buccaneers
- Win + losses by the Packers, Seahawks AND Saints
The first one would be truly wild if the Seahawks lost to the Cardinals and the Buccaneers lost to the Panthers. But hey, you never know.
11. Packers déjà vu
The Packers are in a very familiar position to last year in the final week. For the second straight year they have a win-and-in scenario at home, in the final week, vs. a division rival they’ve dominated, who has already been eliminated, but enter the game on a hot streak. Last year they lost to the Lions. This year, they need to get past a Bears team they’ve won nine straight (and 17 of the last 20) against.
It’s not completely the same, though, as Jordan Love is the Packers QB instead of Aaron Rodgers.
12. All you need is Love
If the Packers beat the Bears to make the playoffs, they will be the youngest playoff team since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. The future is bright for Love and Co. if that’s the case.
13. Buccaneers robbery
The Buccaneers could be 17-17 in the last two seasons with two playoff appearances. They won the NFC South with an 8-9 record last year and with a win on Sunday they would clinch another division title with a 9-8 mark. No team has ever done this — make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons with a .500 or worse record in that span.