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The NFL Games To Watch With The Playoffs On The Line

It’s the last week of the NFL’s regular season, and that means it’s time to game out all of the fun playoff scenarios facing each team.

Here at FiveThirtyEight, we like to measure the most important games of the week based on how much they swing every team’s odds of making the postseason (across every team in the entire league). And by that standard, you can’t top Sunday night’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans, which will shift around nearly 95 total points of playoff probability. (Really, that’s for the two teams involved — the winner will make the playoffs and the loser won’t, which effectively makes it a play-in playoff game.) Oddly, it’s only the third time ever that the Titans will play in NBC’s flagship Sunday night game (the last was in 2009), while for the Colts, it will have been exactly 60 years and two days since they beat the New York Giants for the NFL title in the Greatest Game Ever Played, which helped make TV-spectacle games like this one possible.

That may not be the best game of Week 17, however. We also like to include an element for team quality, and Titans-Colts is still just the No. 13 team in our Elo ratings against No. 14. When the Minnesota Vikings face the Chicago Bears, it will be No. 6 vs. No. 11 in Elo, and it’s a game that has plenty of playoff significance in its own right. The Vikings wouldn’t automatically miss the playoffs if they lose, but they would not be in great shape (35 percent), while they would clinch with a victory. And the Bears have plenty to play for as well; a win and a Rams loss would help them get a first-round playoff bye. Of course, fans of the Philadelphia Eagles will be watching this game closely: A Vikings win would end Philly’s season, while a Bears win would give the Eagles a chance to play their way in. (Both games kick off at 4:25 p.m. ET.)

The best matchups of Week 17

Week 17 games by the highest average Elo rating (using the harmonic mean) plus the total potential swing for all NFL teams’ playoff chances based on the result, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions

Playoff % Playoff %
Team A Current Avg. Chg* Team B Current Avg. Chg* Total Change Game Quality
MIN 72.0% +/-31.6 CHI 100.0% +/-0.0 63.4 1597
TEN 62.1 47.1 IND 37.8 47.0 94.7 1552
BAL 84.3 25.4 CLE 0.0 0.0 51.1 1524
PHI 28.0 20.0 WSH 0.0 0.0 40.8 1512
CIN 0.0 0.0 PIT 15.8 5.4 11.0 1491
DEN 0.0 0.0 LAC 100.0 0.0 1.0 1518
LAR 100.0 0.0 SF 0.0 0.0 1.2 1499
HOU 100.0 0.0 JAX 0.0 0.0 1.2 1489
CAR 0.0 0.0 NO 100.0 0.0 0.5 1587
DET 0.0 0.0 GB 0.0 0.0 1.4 1456
ATL 0.0 0.0 TB 0.0 0.0 0.9 1470
DAL 100.0 0.0 NYG 0.0 0.0 0.9 1488
KC 100.0 0.0 OAK 0.0 0.0 0.5 1492
NE 100.0 0.0 NYJ 0.0 0.0 0.8 1467
BUF 0.0 0.0 MIA 0.0 0.0 0.8 1395
ARI 0.0 0.0 SEA 100.0 0.0 0.6 1451

Game quality is the harmonic mean of the Elo ratings for the two teams in a given matchup. Total Change adds up the potential swing in playoff odds for every team in the league (not just the two teams listed).

*Average change is weighted by the likelihood of a win or loss. (Ties are excluded.)

Source: ESPN

There are a few other games with playoff probability on the line. As mentioned earlier, the outcome of the Eagles’ game with Washington is very much of importance to the Vikings, who would clinch with a Philadelphia loss. The Cleveland Browns’ matchup with the Baltimore Ravens has done the unthinkable — made Pittsburgh Steeler fans root for the Browns — since a Baltimore win would eliminate the Steelers from the postseason picture. Baltimore could still make the playoffs with a loss, but the Ravens would need Pittsburgh to lose its game against Cincinnati, which is also happening simultaneously at 4:25 p.m. ET. (In related news: Are you ready for a completely insane Sunday afternoon of football?)

Although other games could determine seeding, and there are a few stray percentage points of playoff odds’ difference at stake around the league, those are basically the games that will carry the most weight in Week 17, and we can’t wait to see how they all play out.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

While you’re prepping for the playoffs, be sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings using our NFL prediction interactive, which simulates the rest of the season 100,000 times and tracks how often each team should make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. Did you know you can also pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game? Maybe you can also climb up our giant leaderboard.

Here are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the reader picks last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 16

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 16 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
CAR 62% CAR 51% ATL 24, CAR 10 +9.5
MIN 55 MIN 63 MIN 27, DET 9 +4.4
CLE 60 CLE 66 CLE 26, CIN 18 +2.6
CHI 68 CHI 73 CHI 14, SF 9 +0.9
LAR 77 LAR 83 LAR 31, ARI 9 +0.7
GB 57 GB 59 GB 44, NYJ 38 -0.3
IND 74 IND 75 IND 28, NYG 27 -1.4
TEN 73 TEN 74 TEN 25, WSH 16 -1.4
NE 84 NE 83 NE 24, BUF 12 -2.0
MIA 61 MIA 61 JAX 17, MIA 7 -2.2
DEN 61 DEN 62 OAK 27, DEN 14 -3.1
DAL 75 DAL 72 DAL 27, TB 20 -3.2
LAC 66 LAC 67 BAL 22, LAC 10 -3.5
KC 54 KC 56 SEA 38, KC 31 -5.0
NO 74 NO 67 NO 31, PIT 28 -6.6
PHI 66 PHI 51 PHI 32, HOU 30 -14.7

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

After a shellacking at the hands of our algorithm in Week 15, readers rebounded slightly this week, losing by an average of 25.3 points. Philadelphia’s last-second win over Houston may have kept the Eagles in the playoff hunt, but it cost readers 14.7 points on average in our game. Readers did pick up 9.5 points on average in the Atlanta-Carolina game; though they incorrectly picked the Panthers to beat the Falcons, they did so by a smaller win probability than Elo.

Congrats to Scott S, who led all users in Week 16 with an even 300 points, and to Greg Chili Van Hollebeke, who maintained his No. 1 ranking on the season with 1,075.4 points. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and still try your luck against Elo, even if you haven’t played yet.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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