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The Week 17 Games That Actually Matter

Week 16 was a decisive one for the NFL, with six teams clinching playoff spots and eight getting eliminated. Many of the results that would have added chaos to the playoff race — Minnesota over Green Bay, Buffalo over Miami, Baltimore over Pittsburgh, Denver over Kansas City — fell through. This makes Week 17, unfortunately, a bit of a drag.

For the last several weeks, we’ve used our NFL predictions model to generate a “playoff swing” for every game, based on how different outcomes would affect the playoff chances of every team in the league. These calculations are useful when the playoff scenarios are complicated, as they invariably are with several weeks to go in the season. But Week 17’s outcomes are a lot simpler; you don’t need to run 100,000 simulations to learn that Washington will get eliminated with a loss on Sunday.

So for this final week we’ll abandon our usual format.1 Instead of measuring which games matter the most we’ll look which games matter at all, based on the major postseason outcomes that are still undecided.


Two NFC playoff spots

TEAM CHANCE
Detroit 9-6 71%
Green Bay 9-6 70
Washington 8-6-1 58
Tampa Bay 8-7 <1

Technically four teams are alive in the NFC playoff hunt. But putting Tampa Bay aside for a moment — their path to the playoffs requires a tie and is thus hugely unlikely — the Week 17 picture is actually pretty simple. N.Y. Giants (41 percent to win) at Washington (59 percent) kicks off at 4:25 p.m. ET on Sunday. Washington is in with a win, as long as Green Bay (49 percent) at Detroit (51 percent) doesn’t end in a tie in the evening game. Both the Packers and Lions advance on a win, a tie or a Washington loss.

So what’s Tampa Bay’s deal? The Buccaneers can make the playoffs in a tiebreaker against Washington and Green Bay, which means they need to beat Carolina, have Green Bay lose to Detroit, and have Washington tie the Giants. This isn’t quite enough, though; in order to actually win the tiebreaker they also need San Francisco to beat Seattle, Dallas to beat Philadelphia, Tennessee to beat Houston, and Indianapolis to beat Jacksonville to gain a narrow strength of victory edge over Green Bay.2 You can check out their path using the game selection feature in our NFL predictions. Good luck, Bucs fans!


An NFC first-round bye

TEAM CHANCE
Atlanta 10-5 78%
Seattle 9-5-1 20
Detroit 9-6 2

Dallas has already locked up a bye and home field advantage, leaving a three-team race for bye No. 2. New Orleans (24 percent) at Atlanta (76 percent), Seattle (82 percent) at San Francisco (18 percent) and the aforementioned Green Bay at Detroit are the games that matter here. Ignoring unlikely (and tedious) tie scenarios, Atlanta clinches a first-round bye if they win, or if both Seattle and Detroit lose. Seattle needs a win and an Atlanta loss, and Detroit needs a win and both of its rivals to lose.3


An AFC first-round bye

TEAM CHANCE
Oakland 12-3 60%
Kansas City 11-4 40

Oakland is a game up here, but Kansas City has the tiebreak and the easier week 17 matchup. Relevant games are Oakland (47 percent) at Denver (53 percent) and Kansas City (75 percent) at San Diego (25 percent). The Raiders clinch with a win or a tie, Kansas City needs a win and an Oakland loss.

We currently give Oakland a 60 percent chance of getting the bye, but there’s a twist. Raiders QB Derek Carr is now out for the season with a broken leg, a fact that our Elo ratings — which are based only on game results — doesn’t “know.” This may seem like a big blind spot, and in many ways it is, but it’s easy to overestimate the impact that even the top QBs can make on game probabilities.4 By Elo we have the Raiders as one-point underdogs in Denver, which is very close to the Vegas line.


AFC home field advantage

TEAM CHANCE
New England 13-2 84%
Oakland 12-3 16

AFC home field advantage is New England’s to lose. New England (65 percent) at Miami (35 percent) and Oakland at Denver are the games to watch; the Patriots clinch the top seed with a win or tie, or an Oakland loss or tie. If they lose and Oakland wins, the Raiders take the top spot on tiebreak with a 5-0 record against common opponents (Baltimore, Buffalo, Denver, Houston).

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. If you’re curious, N.Y. Giants-Washington is the biggest game of the week, with a playoff swing of 200 points spread between Washington, Detroit and Green Bay. It’s bigger than Packers-Lions because that game, unless it ends in a tie, does not affect Washington’s chances.

  2. Washington would get eliminated first from the tiebreak on conference record. So why, savvy fans might ask, is Tampa Bay eliminated with a Washington loss? It’s actually the Giants’ record that matters here: Green Bay beat the Giants earlier in the season, so if the Giants beat Washington instead of tying them then Green Bay’s strength of victory will be too high for Tampa Bay to catch.

  3. Play around with some ties yourself on our NFL predictions page! Green Bay-Detroit is probably more likely to end in a tie than your typical game, because both teams are guaranteed to advance on a tie, which could hypothetically lead to some extremely silly and low-risk overtime strategy.

  4. Remember when we were wondering how the Patriots would survive their first-four Brady-less games?

Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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