It’s crunch time when it comes to the NFL playoff picture. Week 16 isn’t quite the final minute in the fourth quarter, but the league is making its turn into the home stretch, for sure.
There’s nothing assured about seeding entering the week, except for knowing that the NFC East champion will be the No. 4 seed in the NFC. Beyond that, plenty is still up for grabs. Sporting News makes game picks every week, and we’re using them this week to determine how things might shake out in the final AFC and NFC standings.
Our safe projection for Week 16 came through, as the Chiefs locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a win over the Falcons. The top seed in each conference is more important than ever this year, since with an expanded playoff field, that’s the only spot that gets a first-round bye.
There’s also as much intrigue as ever at the bottom of the playoff picture, where there’s now a seventh postseason berth to compete for in each conference. For the teams on the outside looking in, it ain’t over ’till it’s over.
NFL playoff picture: AFC projections
Games remaining: vs. Chargers
Kansas City locked up the No. 1 seed and the only first-round bye in the AFC with a Week 16 win against Matt Ryan and the Falcons. With that seed clinched in Week 16, expect some stars to rest in Week 17 for Kansas City. It could be a heavy dose of backup quarterback Chad Henne against the Chargers.
Games remaining: at Browns
Losers of three-straight games, the Steelers had fallen from contention for the bye, but they bounced back with a Week 16 comeback win against the Colts. That clinched the AFC North for Pittsburgh, which temporarily moved ahead of Buffalo for the No. 2 seed.
Games remaining: at Patriots, vs. Dolphins
Buffalo fell temporarily to the No. 3 seed after Pittsburgh won Sunday, but the Bills can move back up with a Monday night win over the Patriots. The Bills will be favored in both of their divisional matchups to close out the regular season, although the Dolphins’ strong defense will be a firm test in Week 17. Buffalo’s only loss since the start of November was on the “Hail Murray” play, so it’s very possible Josh Allen’s squad just keeps streaking.
Games remaining: at Packers, at Texans
Two road games to close out the regular season might give a slight edge to the Colts in overtaking Tennessee. The Titans will like their running-game matchup in Week 16 with Derrick Henry against a poor-tackling Packers team, at least. That’s not enough for us to see the Titans beating Green Bay, though.
Games remaining: at Bills
The Dolphins can lock up a playoff spot with a Week 17 win over Buffalo. That’s thanks to Ryan Fitzpatrick’s magic in Week 16 to comeback and beat the Raiders, a game in which a loss would’ve been devestating for Miami.
Games remaining: at Bengals
The Ravens ascended from outside the playoff spots to the No. 6 seed thanks to losses by the Colts and Browns. The Bengals had a surprising win in Week 16 over the Texans, but Baltimore will be favored to make the postseason now for sure.
Games remaining: vs. Steelers
Now that Pittsburgh has locked up the AFC North, this game will be all about the Browns hanging on to their first playoff berth since 2002. Closing with two losses to miss the postseason would be very Browns.
NFL playoff picture: NFC projections
Games remaining: vs. Titans, at Bears
The Packers can clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC with a win and some help this week, which is what we’re predicting will happen. How Green Bay closes the regular season will likely depend on how well it can slow down Derrick Henry in Week 16 and David Montgomery in Week 17, because the Packers’ run defense hasn’t been ideal in 2020.
Games remaining: at Panthers
A win on Christmas behind six touchdowns from Alvin Kamara was enough to keep the Saints in the No. 2 seed, although there’s still some movement that could happen in the NFC. There’s not a huge difference between the No. 2 and No. 3 seed, though, so maybe New Orleans takes it a bit easy in Week 17.
Games remaining: at 49ers
Seattle clinched the NFC West by beating the Rams. The Seahawks could move up to the No. 2 seed with a win in Week 17 coupled with a Saints loss, but since the 2-seed doesn’t come with a bye in this expanded field, Seattle could choose to rest players in Week 17 since the worst it can be is its current No. 3 seed.
Games remaining: at Eagles
Washington was handled by Carolina in Week 16, and now the only way Washington makes the playoffs is with a Week 17 win against Jalen Hurts and the eliminated Eagles. If Washington loses, the winner of Cowboys-Giants will make the playoffs.
Games remaining: vs. Falcons
It’s easy for the Buccaneers, who secured a postseason berth with a win in Week 16. Tampa Bay just beat the Falcons in Week 15, so it should be a straightforward Week 17 after sitting out starters for much of the second half on Saturday in Week 16.
Games remaining: vs. Cardinals
The Rams can no longer win the NFC West. The Cardinals are still competing for a postseason spot, too. So this will be a must-win game for the Rams in Week 17 against Kyler Murray and company.
Games remaining: vs. Packers
The Bears control their own destiny in Week 17 after a Cardinals loss to the 49ers and a Chicago win over the Jaguars. If Mitchell Trubisky can lead an upset of the Packers, he’ll also get a chance to quarterback the Bears in the playoffs. .
Current NFL playoff picture
Here’s how the standings in both conferences break down entering Sunday Night Football in Week 16, along with the other teams that have yet to be mathematically eliminated.
In the hunt: Colts (10-5)
In the hunt: Cardinals (8-7), Giants (5-10), Cowboys (6-9),
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