NFL playoff picture 2021 – Week 15 standings, bracket, clinching scenarios and outlook for the postseason

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Hooray! Despite one of the most wide-open NFL postseason races in recent history, we finally have an actual, genuine playoff team. The Packers broke the seal on Sunday afternoon, not only clinching a spot in the NFC bracket but also the NFC North title. But in a turn of events that fits the theme of this season, no other teams have hit their clinching scenarios.

As of this moment, 13 of the NFL’s 14 playoff spots remain open, and only four teams are officially eliminated. Most notably, the Buccaneers lost at home Sunday night, an outcome that not only stymied their own immediate chances but also those of Cowboys and Cardinals. There are still four games remaining in Week 15, following three COVID-19 delays, but it will end without an AFC team clinching a spot.

All of which means we’re in for a wildly entertaining final three weeks of the season. Of the eight teams with games remaining this week, four are currently in a playoff spot or within one game of one. What follows is our look at the NFL playoff picture, based on ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) and a bit of our own gut instinct. We’ll post updates Monday and Tuesday nights as warranted.

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.

Jump to: AFC | NFC

AFC

FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%
FPI chances to win division: 93%

The Chiefs will finish Week 15 atop the AFC thanks to their win Thursday night over the Chargers, along with losses by the Patriots and Titans. 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 in Week 16 with a win over the Steelers and a Chargers loss to the Texans. And they have a 53% chance to get the first-round bye, per ESPN’s FPI.

Next up: vs. Steelers


FPI chances to make playoffs: 98%
FPI chances to win division: 54%

Saturday night’s loss to the Colts snapped the Patriots’ seven-game winning streak, dropped them from the top of the AFC and scuttled their scenarios for clinching a playoff spot and/or the AFC East in Week 15. It also set up a huge AFC East game in Week 16, following the Bills’ win Sunday over the Panthers. 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 on their own. But the Patriots could clinch if they win the game and the Dolphins lose to the Saints.

Next up: vs. Bills


FPI chances to make playoffs: 97%
FPI chances to win division: 91%

What an enormous swing the Titans went through this weekend. A win in Pittsburgh would have put them atop the AFC with three weeks left in the season and given them a 51% chance to win home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, per ESPN’s FPI. But now both the Chiefs and Patriots are in better position, leaving Tennessee at just 16% to finish at No. 1. Sunday’s loss also delayed the Titans’ chance to clinch the division. They’re still prohibitive favorites to with the AFC South, but it didn’t happen in Week 15. They could clinch it in Week 16 with a win over the 49ers and a Colts loss to the Cardinals.

Next up: vs. 49ers


FPI chances to make playoffs: 48%
FPI chances to win division: 35%

Well, look what we have here. The Bengals snapped their two-game losing streak by grinding out a win in Denver, and then a few minutes later, they ascended to the top of the AFC North following the Ravens’ loss to the Packers. The Bengals have the temporary head-to-head tiebreaker over the Ravens, but as luck would have it, the teams will meet in Week 16. 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 with three left to play because of the permanent head-to-head tiebreaker. So they’ll win the AFC North if they win their remaining games.

Next up: vs. Ravens


FPI chances to make playoffs: 80%
FPI chances to win division: 9%

The Colts pulled off a huge win Saturday night, both qualitatively and quantitatively, and their good fortune continued Sunday. The Titans’ loss to the Steelers means the Colts are still in the AFC South race. A division title is still a longshot — ESPN’s FPI gives the Colts a 9% chance to do it — but at least they are not eliminated from it at this point. Regardless, the Colts should be riding high. Their win Saturday snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Patriots, and had they lost Saturday, the Colts’ playoff chances would have dropped to 42%. Instead, they have an 80% chance to get in and even jumped the Chargers in the AFC standings.

Next up: at Cardinals


FPI chances to make playoffs: 71%
FPI chances to win division: 7%

The Chargers lost the biggest game they’ve played in years on Thursday night, but essentially they’re back to where they started that night: 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, and it remains a statistical possibility, 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.

Next up: at Texans


FPI chances to make playoffs: 83%
FPI chances to win division: 46%

The Bills snapped their two-game losing streak and managed to stay in the AFC top seven thanks to the Ravens’ loss to the Packers. At the moment, the Bills hold the common games tiebreaker over Baltimore. ESPN’s FPI is giving the Bills a great chance to make the playoffs, and their Week 16 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 to told the Bills a few weeks ago that they would have a chance to re-take the division lead in late December, they would have considered themselves fortunate. They’ll win the AFC East if they win their remaining games.

Next up: at Patriots

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Stefon Diggs catches a pass from Josh Allen and fights his way in for a Bills touchdown in the second quarter.


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 in Week 16 at the Bengals, but ESPN’s FPI is giving them only a 54% chance to make the playoffs, and their division title odds fell to 31% this week.

Cleveland Browns (7-6)

The Browns were one of the worst-hit teams from last week’s COVID-19 wage, necessitating a move of their game with the Raiders from Saturday to Monday. And as of Sunday night, they were still without their coach Kevin Stefanski and both their top two quarterbacks (Baker Mayfield and Case Keenum). We’ll see how many players they can get back Monday before kickoff. With that said, the Browns will win the AFC North if they can win their remaining games. ESPN’s FPI is giving them a 34% chance to make the playoffs and a 25% chance to take the division.

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1)

The Steelers kept themselves in the playoff race with Sunday’s win over the Titans, but their level of difficulty is about to go up even more. A Week 16 game 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. ESPN’s FPI is giving Pittsburgh an 18% chance to making it to the postseason.

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 in Week 16 at the Saints. Their chances to make the playoffs are still pretty minsicule at 6%, per ESPN’s FPI, but they exist.

Denver Broncos (7-7)

Sunday’s loss to the Bengals dropped the Broncos’ playoff chances to 8%, according to ESPN’s FPI. They have a winnable game in Week 16 at the Raiders, but with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (concussion) likely sidelined, their postseason chances are bleak.

Las Vegas Raiders (6-7)

A win over the depleted Browns on Tuesday would increase the Raiders’ playoff chances from 5% to 12%, per ESPN’s FPI. There are a dozen teams ahead of them, but the close nature of the AFC race merits their inclusion here.

NFC

FPI chances to make playoffs: Clinched
FPI chances to win division: Clinched

Sunday’s win in Baltimore gave the Packers the NFL’s first playoff berth, and they clinched the NFC North on top of it. Now they’ll turn their attention to winning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs; they’re currently 6-0 at Lambeau Field and 19-3 there in three regular seasons under coach Matt LaFleur. Their next two games are home, and their season finale is at Detroit. So it’s no wonder that ESPN’s FPI is giving them a 57% chance to secure the No. 1 seed.

Next up: vs. Browns


FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%
FPI chances to win division: 99%

The Cowboys keep plugging along — no matter how imperfectly — and have now won three consecutive after losing three of four. The Cowboys also moved ahead of the 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 in Week 16 with a victory over Washington. And at the moment, there is a path to the division championship next week even if they lose to Washington. It would happen in these two scenarios: 1) Washington loses to the Eagles on Tuesday, and the Eagles lose to the Giants in Week 16, or 2) Washington loses to the Eagles on Tuesday and then the Cowboys are able to clinch the strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Eagles in Week 16.

Next up: vs. Washington


FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%
FPI chances to win division: 99%

The Buccaneers could have clinched a playoff spot Sunday night with a win over the depleted Saints. Instead, they lost once again to the team that has proved Tom Brady‘s nemesis since he joined the Buccaneers. As a result, the Buccaneers were overtaken at least for the time being by the Cowboys, and they’ll have to wait at least one more week to clinch either a playoff spot or the NFC South. The good news is the Buccaneers won’t have to play the Saints again, at least in the regular season, after absorbing their second consecutive season sweep at their hands. Of more relevance to Buccaneers’ long-term competitiveness: How will they be affected by injuries suffered Sunday night of receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and running back Leonard Fournette?

Next up: at Panthers


FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%
FPI chances to win division: 71%

The Cardinals are going in the wrong direction. Sunday’s stunning defeat in Detroit was their third loss in five games. They’ve tumbled as far down the NFC standings as they could, at least while still holding onto the NFC West lead. But the damage isn’t as severe as it could be, assuming they can get themselves back on track. The Cardinals had multiple other paths to clinching a playoff spot in Week 15, even with a loss, but none of them materialized. And one scenario remains alive for clinching the NFC West in Week 16. To do so, the Cardinals would need to beat the Colts, while also having the Rams lose Tuesday to Seattle and then again in Week 16 to Minnesota.

Next up: vs. Colts


FPI chances to make playoffs: 98%
FPI chances to win division: 28%

The Rams’ COVID-19 outbreak pushed their game against the Seahawks to Tuesday, which should allow them to get back at least some of the key players who tested positive last week. They’ve already returned cornerback Jalen Ramsey. And meanwhile, the Seahawks have begun losing players to positive tests, including six on Sunday. The Cardinals’ downturn has also re-opened the NFC West as at least an interesting possibility for the Rams. A win over the Seahawks would leave L.A. a game out with three left to play. ESPN’s FPI doesn’t consider it out of the question, putting the Rams’ chances at overtaking the Cardinals at 28%.

Next up: vs. Seahawks (Tuesday)


FPI chances to make playoffs: 89%
FPI chances to win division: 1%

Nobody is really talking about them, but the 49ers have won five of their past six games and have maneuvered into a near-lock position for a wild-card spot. ESPN’s FPI currently has their postseason chances at 89%. Their remaining schedule isn’t easy; they have games at the Titans and Rams, with a home game against the Texans. But the real question is whether there are two NFC teams set to overtake them at this point. The chances aren’t high.

Next up: at Titans

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Kyle Juszczyk, Deebo Samuel and Jeff Wilson Jr. all find the end zone on the ground as the 49ers take down the Falcons.


FPI chances to make playoffs: 24%
FPI chances to win division: 1%

The Saints’ upset win over the Buccaneers lifted them at least temporarily into the playoff picture, but they’ll be eclipsed by Minnesota if the Vikings win Monday night at Chicago. Regardless, the Saints secured a huge victory that will help them in a myriad of 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.

Next up: vs. Dolphins


In the NFC hunt

Washington Football Team (6-7)

Like the Browns and Rams, Washington is hoping to get at least some of its key players off the COVID-19 list before taking the field Tuesday against the Eagles. That list includes multiple quarterbacks, including starter Taylor Heinicke and backup Kyle Allen. We’ll see if that makes a difference. Washington has a 15% chance to make the playoffs at the moment, per ESPN’s FPI.

Minnesota Vikings (6-7)

The Vikings will move up to the No. 7 spot if they beat the Bears on Monday night, and they’ll stay there if Washington loses Tuesday to the Eagles. Although the Vikings currently hold the common games tiebreaker over the Eagles, ESPN’s FPI is giving the Eagles a better chance to move up and clinch at least the No. 7 spot (Philadelphia’s 39% versus Minnesota’s 31%).

Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)

The Eagles have to wait until Tuesday to play Washington, a delay that will probably minimize the personnel advantage they otherwise would have had. But the worst part of the schedule change is that the Eagles will have to turn around and play the Giants five days later in Week 16. ESPN’s FPI is giving them a 39% chance to make the playoffs.



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