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Here Are The Most Absurd NFL Playoff Scenarios

With just two weeks of regular season left, the number of teams that can still make the playoffs — who haven’t already secured their berths — has been whittled down to 14. Out of those, five teams enter Week 16 with at least an 87 percent chance, and two teams with a chance of 3 percent or lower, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions. But the real fun lies with those teams in the middle that do not control their own destiny over the remaining two weeks.

AFC

The AFC has three teams that have already made the playoffs: New England, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. Kansas City, which may have had the biggest roller coaster of a season of any team in the league, will join them with a single win against either Miami or Denver. Baltimore needs two wins to clinch a playoff spot but can also get in a few ways with one. Considering that they have an 84 percent chance of beating Indianapolis in Week 16 and a 79 chance of defeating Cincinnati in Week 17, let’s assume the Ravens are in. The rest of the AFC’s playoff picture is made up of three teams with at least a 15 percent chance and a couple of teams with next to no chance.

Note: For the purpose of this article, we are going to ignore scenarios that involve ties. They are just too absurd, so we will spare you and ourselves.

Tennessee

Tennessee probably shouldn’t be in this kind of mess, but after being torched for 381 passing yards by the new golden boy of the 49ers, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the Titans find themselves in a precarious position. Mike Mularkey’s men probably have the toughest remaining schedule of any AFC team trying to make the playoffs: In Week 16, the Titans welcome the L.A. Rams to Nissan Stadium, and they then host Jacksonville in Week 17. The easiest path for Tennessee is to beat the Rams and the Jaguars and then hope Buffalo loses to either the Patriots OR the Dolphins in Week 17. If the Titans lose to the Rams but beat the Jags and Buffalo somehow manages to win both of their games, the Titans will need one loss from the Ravens. But fear not, Titans fans: You still have options even if your team loses both games:

Tennessee can make the playoffs even if it loses both games
Week Outcome Probability Cumulative Probability
16 Buffalo loses to New England 84% 84%
Miami loses to Kansas City 76 63.84
L.A. Chargers lose to N.Y. Jets 43 27.4512
Baltimore loses to Indianapolis 16 4.392192
17 Buffalo loses to Miami 52 2.28393984

 

Buffalo

Like Tennessee, Buffalo is in decent shape if it wins its remaining two games. With a 10-6 record, there would be a couple of ways to get in, but the most likely would involve a Titans loss to the Rams in Week 16. The bad news there, however, is that the Bills in Week 16 face the Patriots, against whom they’re just 5-30 since 2000 and have just a 16 percent chance of beating on Sunday. If they fall to the Pats, the Bills still have a decent chance as long as they beat the Dolphins in Week 17. The strange thing about how all of this works out is that, presuming Buffalo does beat Miami, a win for the Titans over the Rams in Week 16 would actually benefit the Bills, and then a Jacksonville victory over Tennessee in Week 17 would secure Buffalo’s spot in the postseason. (That’s because the NFL’s tie-breaking criteria is different depending on which team the Bills are being compared with.)

However, even if the Bills lose both games, they aren’t dead. Buffalo can end its 17-year playoff drought at 8-8 — which would be a very Bills move. But they would need a lot of help:

Buffalo can still make it at 8-8
Week Outcome Probability Cumulative Probability
16 Miami loses to Kansas City 76 76
L.A. Chargers lose to N.Y. Jets 43 32.68
Baltimore loses to Indianapolis 16 5.2288
17 Baltimore loses to Cincinnati 21 1.098048

 

L.A. Chargers

After starting the season 0-4, L.A. had just a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to our projections. Philip Rivers and Co. then reeled off seven wins in their next nine games to jump right in the middle of the playoff conundrum in what was perhaps the best turnaround of any team this season. That season will end if the Chargers don’t win out. Assuming they do that, however, the Chargers can still win the division if Kansas City also loses its two remaining games. But let’s imagine that Alex Smith and Kareem Hunt turn it on for at least one of those games — because we’re not in this for simplicity. The Chargers’ path to the final AFC playoff spot then gets really complicated:

To get the wild card, Chargers must win both and then pray
Week Outcome Probability Cumulative Probability
16 L.A. Rams beat Tennessee 60 60
L.A. Chargers beat N.Y. Jets 57 34.2
Miami beats Kansas City 24 8.208
Indianapolis beats Baltimore 16 1.31328
Buffalo beats New England 16 0.2101248
17 L.A. Chargers beat Oakland 67 0.140783616
Kansas City beats Denver 61 0.085878006
Buffalo loses to Miami 52 0.044656563
Cincinnati beats Baltimore 21 0.009377878

 

Miami

With eight losses, Jay Cutler and the Dolphins have no business being in the playoffs this year, but yes, it’s still in the realm of possibility. Here’s how it could happen:

The Dolphins need a straight flush
Week Outcome Probability Cumulative Probability
16 L.A. Rams beat Tennessee 60 60
L.A. Chargers lose to N.Y. Jets 43 25.8
Miami beats Kansas City 24 6.192
Indianapolis beats Baltimore 16 0.99072
17 Jacksonville beats Tennessee 53 0.5250816
Miami beats Buffalo 52 0.273042432
Baltimore loses to Cincinnati 21 0.057338911

 

Oakland

The disappointing 6-8 Oakland Raiders are still mathematically alive. Raiders fans, we will indulge your fantasies. But we really think you should focus on the Warriors’ chances at winning another title. Here it is:

…and the Raiders need a royal flush
Week Outcome Probability Cumulative Probability
16 Buffalo loses to New England 84 84
Tennessee loses to L.A. Rams 60 50.4
Miami beats Kansas City 24 12.096
Oakland beats Philadelphia 18 2.17728
Baltimore loses to Indianapolis 16 0.3483648
17 Baltimore beats Cincinnati 79 0.275208192
Tennessee loses to Jacksonville 53 0.145860342
Miami beats Buffalo 52 0.075847378
Oakland beats L.A. Chargers 33 0.025029635

 

NFC

While a 9-7 record might be enough to make the cut in the AFC, teams in the NFC won’t be so lucky — and there are even some scenarios that a team with 10 wins doesn’t get in. The Eagles and Vikings already have their berths secured, and a single win will be enough for both the Rams and Panthers to make the playoffs. Where it becomes less certain is in the game between the Saints and Falcons: The winner will secure their berth, and the loser will need a win in Week 17 to secure theirs. But let’s assume the loser of the Atlanta and New Orleans game loses its next game – because chaos is great. This will open the door for Dallas, Detroit or Seattle to sneak into the dance.

Dallas

Dallas has largely been overrated for much of the season but has pulled off three straight wins to keep hope alive in Jerry World. The Cowboys must win their Week 16 virtual elimination game against the Seahawks, with the losers’ path ended and the winners surviving another week. Dallas must then beat Philadelphia, which will be without star quarterback Carson Wentz and may have already secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by then, and rely on the Lions losing to the Packers, which becomes even more unrealistic if Aaron Rodgers doesn’t play. Still, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Cowboys need a near-miracle to keep their season alive
Week Outcome Probability Cumulative Probability
16 Dallas beats Seattle 61% 61%
Detroit beats Cincinnati 60 36.6
Atlanta beats New Orleans 41 15.006
Tampa Bay beats Carolina 20 3.0012
17 Carolina beats Atlanta 36 1.080432
Detroit loses to Green Bay 35 0.3781512
New Orleans loses to Tampa Bay 30 0.11344536
Dallas beats Philadelphia 27 0.030630247

 

Seattle

Sunday’s demolition at the hands of the Rams, coupled with Monday’s victory by the Falcons over the Bucs, left the Seahawks with a very simple to-do list to make the playoffs: They must win both of their remaining games, against Dallas and Arizona, and then pray that Atlanta loses again and Detroit slips up against either Cincinnati or Green Bay. All eyes will be on what Russell Wilson has left in him and whether his MVP-caliber season will go to waste. Assuming they do win their two games, here’s the longest shot we found:

Russell Wilson can’t do everything
Week Outcome Probability Cumulative Probability
16 Detroit beats Cincinnati 60% 60%
L.A. Rams lose to Tennessee 40 24
Seattle beats Dallas 39 9.36
Tampa Bay beats Carolina 20 1.872
17 Seattle beats Arizona 74 1.38528
Carolina beats Atlanta 36 0.4987008
L.A. Rams lose to San Francisco 13 0.064831104

 

Detroit

Atlanta’s win over Tampa Bay on Monday made Detroit’s seemingly tough task all the more unlikely. The Lions’ playoff chances currently stand at just 14 percent, and they must win both of their remaining games against Cincinnati and Green Bay to have any chance. They’ll also need Atlanta to lose to Carolina and the winner of the Seattle-Dallas clash to lose its next game. Again, assuming the Lions do win both of their remaining two, here’s the weirdest path we found for them to make the cut:

Will the Lions make it? Hmm…
Week Outcome Probability Cumul. Probability
16 Seattle loses to Dallas 61% 61%
Detroit beats Cincinnati 60 36.6
Atlanta beats New Orleans 41 15.006
L.A. Rams lose to Tennessee 40 6.0024
17 Detroit beats Green Bay 65 3.90156
New Orleans loses to Tampa Bay 30 1.170468
Dallas beats Philadelphia 27 0.31602636

 

With multiple permutations still on the table entering the final couple of weeks, the end to the regular season has the potential to be a memorable one. Be sure to follow along for yourself with our simulation model and play along with our NFL prediction game to see all the different combinations for yourself.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Daniel Levitt is a sports writer at FiveThirtyEight. He’s an alum of the University of Missouri.

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