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What’s At Stake In Week 17 Of The NFL Season

The NFL’s regular season is almost over, and (sadly?) there isn’t much real chaos potential for Week 17: Ten of 12 available playoff spots are already clinched, and we already know six of the eight division winners. But there are seven teams whose postseason and/or division fates have yet to be sealed, along with other seeding concerns on the line as the regular season concludes. So let’s run down the Week 17 situations that need to happen for those seven teams to make the playoffs or win their division.

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 17

NFL matchups for Week 17, ranked according to various factors

Matchup Rankings
Favorite Underdog Favorite’s Win prob Quality Evenness Importance QBs
8 Texans vs 12 Titans 52.8% 4 1 1 8
5 49ers at 13 Seahawks 55.1 1 2 6 5
11 Eagles at 27 Giants 69.8 12 7 2 2
1 Ravens vs 20 Steelers 71.2 5 9 3 16
18 Broncos vs 24 Raiders 68.5 11 6 4 10
16 Buccaneers vs 15 Falcons 57.1 7 3 6 3
7 Vikings vs 17 Bears 70.6 3 8 6 6
2 Chiefs vs 22 Chargers 86.3 2 15 6 1
14 Cowboys vs 31 Redskins 81.8 15 12 5 7
10 Bills vs 23 Jets 74.1 8 10 6 9
19 Colts at 28 Jaguars 60.6 13 4 6 13
3 Saints at 26 Panthers 82.7 6 13 6 14
9 Rams vs 25 Cardinals 81.3 10 11 6 11
4 Patriots vs 29 Dolphins 90.0 9 16 6 4
21 Browns at 30 Bengals 62.6 16 5 6 12
6 Packers at 32 Lions 85.2 14 14 6 15

Game Quality is based on the Elo Ratings of both teams. Evenness is based on how close the game is to 50-50 pregame odds. A game’s Importance is based on how much it swings the playoff odds of the teams involved. A game’s Quarterbacks are judged on the QB Elo ratings of the two starters.

Philadelphia Eagles: 75 percent chance to make the playoffs. This one is relatively simple: The Eagles will make the playoffs if they beat the Giants at the Meadowlands — which has a 70 percent chance of happening, per the FiveThirtyEight model. New York QB Daniel Jones had a great game against Washington in his first start after returning from an ankle injury, and the Giants certainly have the potential to pull off the upset if he stays hot, but oft-maligned Eagles passer Carson Wentz has been heating up of late as well. And Philly has a backup plan even if it loses here: It can also make the playoffs if the Cowboys lose or tie.

Dallas Cowboys: 25 percent. The Cowboys wasted a chance to clinch the NFC East last week against the Eagles, and now they no longer control their own destiny. In Week 17, they first need to beat Washington (and backup Case Keenum) at home, which our model gives an 82 percent chance of happening. That’s the good news for the Cowboys. But Dallas also needs Philadelphia to lose at the same time against New York. (Even an Eagles tie would clinch Philly’s playoff slot.) So Cowboys fans will need to second-screen the Giants game Sunday afternoon and root hard for the G-Men — the kind of hilariously unexpected Week 17 bedfellows you always love to see.

San Francisco 49ers: 55 percent chance to win the division.
Seattle Seahawks: 45 percent.

The Niners and Seahawks both clinched the postseason weeks ago, but there’s still plenty to play for when San Francisco visits Seattle on Sunday. First of all, this is the best pure matchup of the week, according to the Elo ratings of both teams. Also, the winner will take the NFC West crown and potentially claim a first-round bye (or the No. 1 overall NFC seed), depending on what else happens around the league.

Our model gives San Francisco the division edge (55 percent) because it thinks the Niners are the better team — sorry, we’re still skeptical about Seattle’s weaker point differential. Plus, the 49ers can also clinch the division with a tie; Seattle must win outright to match the Niners’ record, whereupon they will grab the division on a head-to-head tiebreaker. The model thinks the 49ers have the inside track at a bye (55 percent) as well because all they need is a win. The Seahawks must win and the Packers must lose to the 3-11-1 Detroit Lions (a 15 percent proposition) in order to secure Seattle the bye.

Tennessee Titans: 62 percent chance to make the playoffs. Over in the AFC, the Titans have the best chance to get the last playoff slot up for grabs. All Tennessee needs to do is beat the Houston Texans, who are playing at home but might end up resting QB Deshaun Watson in a game in which their postseason seed will be locked in by kickoff.1 (On the one hand, Texans coach Bill O’Brien says he’s not resting his starters; on the other hand, Watson has been a limited practice participant this week, so we’ll see.) For now, we give Tennessee a 47 percent chance of beating Houston. The Titans can also make the playoffs if Pittsburgh loses to Baltimore (71 percent, even with Robert Griffin III starting for the Ravens) and either Tennessee ties Houston or Indianapolis loses to or ties Jacksonville (39 percent). That combination of events is enough to add up to a solid 62 percent playoff chance for Ryan Tannehill and the surprising Titans.

Pittsburgh Steelers: 31 percent. The Steelers’ path was made very difficult by losses against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets over the past two weeks, plus an injury to QB Mason Rudolph — who himself isn’t very good but is better than stand-in Duck Hodges per our ratings. Now Pittsburgh must win at Baltimore (which has only a 29 percent probability even with the Ravens resting Lamar Jackson) and Tennessee must lose at Houston (53 percent) … or, if the Steelers lose, then Tennessee, Jacksonville and Oakland must also lose. (Or! Oakland can win, but then the Dolphins must beat the Patriots, the Chiefs must beat the Chargers, the Packers must beat the Lions and the Vikings must beat the Bears — all thanks to the NFL’s incredibly arcane strength-of-victory tie-breaker.) It’s not an impossible combination of outcomes,2 but it’s much less straightforward than Mike Tomlin and crew must have been hoping for.

Oakland Raiders: 7 percent. The Raiders entered Week 16 with less than a 1 percent chance to make the playoffs, and they needed five different games to go a specific way3 just to keep their playoff hopes alive heading into the regular season finale. Now, they “only” need five more results to fall into place:

  • Oakland wins at Denver (31 percent)
  • Baltimore wins vs. Pittsburgh (71 percent)
  • Indianapolis wins at Jacksonville (61 percent)
  • Houston wins vs. Tennessee (53 percent)

and either:

  • New England wins vs. Miami (90 percent), or
  • Chicago wins at Minnesota (29 percent), or
  • Detroit wins vs. Green Bay (15 percent), or
  • L.A. Chargers win at Kansas City (14 percent)

That looks like a lot, and in one sense it definitely is — we give the scenario just a 7 percent chance of happening. But considering what a playoff long shot Oakland was two weeks ago, 7 percent actually isn’t that bad. And as we noted in our NFL chat Monday, that kind of crazy postseason parlay is quite fitting for a team set to move to Las Vegas next season.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here.) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field 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

TB 54% HOU 56% HOU 23, TB 20 +8.2
MIN 65 MIN 56 GB 23, MIN 10 +7.8
LAC 70 LAC 63 OAK 24, LAC 17 +7.5
NO 57 NO 65 NO 38, TEN 28 +3.9
KC 63 KC 71 KC 26, CHI 3 +3.4
WSH 54 WSH 50 NYG 41, WSH 35 +2.2
SF 66 SF 69 SF 34, LAR 31 +0.1
SEA 85 SEA 84 ARI 27, SEA 13 -0.1
BAL 80 BAL 83 BAL 31, CLE 15 -0.8
MIA 62 MIA 59 MIA 38, CIN 35 -4.1
ATL 74 ATL 69 ATL 24, JAX 12 -4.5
IND 68 IND 63 IND 38, CAR 6 -5.6
DEN 83 DEN 73 DEN 27, DET 17 -6.3
NE 68 NE 62 NE 24, BUF 17 -6.8
PIT 54 PIT 60 NYJ 16, PIT 10 -9.1
PHI 56 DAL 52 PHI 17, DAL 9 -9.9

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 being blown out by the Elo algorithm for most weeks of the 2019 season’s second half, the readers kept things close in Week 15 and maintained that trend in Week 16 as well. Although the computer had some good picks, led by calling Philly’s win over the Cowboys, the readers also had some nice calls of their own. They rightly picked Houston to beat Tampa, for instance, and they were lower on the Vikings and Chargers than Elo was before each team lost. Still, the algorithm won the week by an average margin of 14.1 points, notching its 12th straight win over the field and bringing its record to 14-2 on the season.

Congratulations are in order, though, to Jo Benincasa, who led all identified readers in Week 16 with 146.0 points, and to Aaron DiGenova, who continues to lead the full-season contest with 1,051.9 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 16.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.


  1. Whether Houston is the No. 3 or No. 4 seed depends entirely on whether the Chiefs beat the Chargers earlier on Sunday.

  2. Well, that last combo of eight different results is pretty unlikely.

  3. Oakland needed to beat the Chargers; Baltimore needed to beat Cleveland; the Jets needed to beat Pittsburgh; New Orleans needed to beat Tennessee and Indy needed to beat Carolina … all of which happened!

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.