Races for the Final Playoff Spots in the AFC and NFC Will Go Down to the Wire

By Patrick Hayes   December 30, 2021 

Races for the Final Playoff Spots in the AFC and NFC Will Go Down to the Wire

The NFL expanding from six playoff teams to seven this season, combined with the regular season expanding from 16 to 17 games, were both intended to create more competition for playoff spots in each conference.

The changes have certainly accomplished that goal. In the AFC, only one team has clinched a playoff spot and only two teams have officially been eliminated from playoff contention. The NFC has had more teams clinch, with five spots already decided. But competition for the final two spots will be fierce, with five teams all within a game of each other and a sixth still alive for those spots.

Here is a look at the competition for the remaining spots in both conferences, as well as our predictions for how they’ll shake out.

AFC Playoff Race

The Kansas City Chiefs have already clinched the AFC West and have a one-game lead over Tennessee for the best record in the conference and a bye in the first round of the playoffs. Due to the format changes, only one team in each conference will receive a first-round bye this season as opposed to two teams in previous seasons.

Beyond that, no team has officially clinched a spot yet. The Titans, Bengals, and Bills are all currently leading close division races, and the Colts and Patriots both also appear in good shape to make wildcard spots with their current 9-6 records (which is the same record Cincinnati and Buffalo have). 

Things get wildly interesting for the seventh and final spot, though. Baltimore, the Chargers, and Las Vegas all have 8-7 records.

Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews (89) catches a touchdown pass as Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt (57) defends in the third quarter during a Week 16 NFL game, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Photo by: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Steelers are 7-7-1, hurt by a tie with the NFC-worst Detroit Lions in horrid weather conditions earlier in the season. Pittsburgh was also blown out by Kansas City in their most recent game. 

The Chargers looked like a much safer bet to make the playoffs a week ago, but a disappointing loss to the last-place Houston Texans on December 26 moved them back into the pack of 8-7 teams. The loss to the Texans also exposed what has been a glaring problem for Los Angeles all season – their defense has struggled, which could be a problem in more physical, lower-scoring playoff games.

The Miami Dolphins might be the hottest team in the conference right now, with six straight wins entering their matchup with New Orleans on December 28. The Dolphins have also been blessed with a friendly schedule in that stretch – five of those wins were against teams currently in last place in their divisions. But a win over the Saints would put them at 8-7 as well and right in the thick of the race for the seventh spot. 

Baltimore currently holds the tie-breakers over the other 8-7 teams in seventh place, but the team has been without starting quarterback Lamar Jackson the past two weeks because of an ankle injury. Their loss with Jackson out on Sunday against Cincinnati dropped them out of first place in the AFC North. 

Here is our predicted finish for the top seven in the AFC

  1. Kansas City
  2. Tennessee
  3. Buffalo
  4. Cincinnati
  5. Indianapolis
  6. New England
  7. Los Angeles

NFC Playoff Race

In the NFC, the Green Bay Packers currently have a one-game lead for a first-round bye. With games against the struggling Detroit Lions and the 7-8 Minnesota Vikings remaining, Green Bay should be able to wrap up the No. 1 seed with minimal effort. The Vikings did upset Green Bay earlier in the season, though.

If the Packers falter in either of their last two games, though, the Los Angeles Rams, Dallas Cowboys, or Tampa Bay Bucs are all still alive for that spot. The Packers do have a head-to-head win over the Rams, so Los Angeles would need to win out while Green Bay loses twice in order to overtake them.

Dec 26, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) passes against the Washington Football Team during the second quarter at AT&T Stadium. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Bucs and Cowboys have both clinched their respective divisions and the Rams have a one-game lead over the Cardinals in the NFC West. The Cardinals have also clinched a wildcard spot, so they’ll make the playoffs even if they don’t overtake the Rams in the standings.

The Saints have a chance to force a three-way tie for the last two spots if they win their Monday night game against Miami on December 27. That would put them at 8-7 with San Francisco and Philadelphia. 

The Vikings and Atlanta Falcons could also both still get in with some help. Both are 7-8 and behind for the final two spots. At 6-9, Washington is also still alive, although after a 56-14 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday (their third straight loss), they have to be considered a major longshot to turn things around in the last two weeks.

Here’s our guess at how the final NFC playoff standings will shake out:

  1. Green Bay
  2. Tampa Bay
  3. Los Angeles
  4. Dallas
  5. Arizona
  6. San Francisco 49ers
  7. Philadelphia Eagles

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