The NFC playoff picture is starting to become more and more clear. Green Bay was the first to clinch a playoff spot when the Packers won the NFC North as a result of their win over the Ravens last week. On Sunday, four more NFC teams were able to make sure their seasons extend past Week 18.
Tampa Bay clinched the NFC South for the first time since 2007 with a 32-6 win over the Panthers. While the NFC West does not have a champion yet, it clinched two playoff spots Sunday as a result of the Rams’ 30-23 win over the Vikings. The Cardinals have had opportunities to clinch a playoff spot in their last three games, but have been unable to do it themselves, losing all three games to the Rams, Lions and Colts. The Vikings’ loss ensures that the Cardinals will, at worst, finish in a wild-card spot. Lastly, and most peculiarly, the Cowboys were able to clinch the NFC East as a result of the AFC West contest between the Raiders and Broncos. Due to the Raiders’ victory over the Broncos, the Cowboys now hold a strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Eagles, securing at least one home playoff game in January.
This leaves two wild-card spots available in the NFC between six teams still in contention. The Lions (2-12-1), Giants (4-11), Seahawks (5-10), Bears (5-10), and Panthers (5-10) have already been eliminated from the playoffs. The teams still vying for those last two spots are the 49ers (8-7), Eagles (8-7), Saints (7-7, play Monday night), Vikings (7-8), Falcons (7-8), and Football Team (6-8, playing Sunday night). The only division that hasn’t been decided is the NFC West, where the playoff-bound Rams and Cardinals will compete for a home playoff game.
The other conference in professional football is much more wide open. To date, the only team to clinch a playoff spot is the Chiefs, who clinched the AFC West on Sunday with a convincing 36-10 win over the Steelers. Only three teams have been eliminated from playoff contention: the Jaguars (2-13), the Texans (4-11), and the Jets (4-11).
The AFC East is currently a race between the Bills (9-6), Patriots (9-6) and Dolphins (7-7), who play Monday night and are looking to extend their six-game win streak. If the Dolphins were to lose, they would still be in the running for a wild-card spot, but they would not be able to win the AFC East, since the Bills own the head-to-head tiebreaker over them.
The AFC South is a bit more cut-and-dry, coming down to the Titans (10-5) and Colts (9-6). The Titans hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Indianapolis, so a single win in their final two games (vs. Dolphins, @ Texans) would clinch the division. The Colts would need Tennessee to lose both games and win their final two (vs. Raiders, @ Jaguars) to win the division.
The AFC North is still completely up in the air. All four teams are still in contention to win the division. The Bengals (9-6) have swept the Ravens and Steelers, so they hold the head-to-head tie breaker over both teams. Due to their two-win difference in record over the Browns, the Bengals can clinch the division with a single win in their final two games (vs Chiefs, @ Browns). Even if the Bengals lose both final games, they could clinch the North if each other team in the division splits its final two. Every other team in the division can win the North if the Bengals lose their final two games and they win their own final two. The second-place Ravens (8-7) face the Rams (11-4) and Steelers, the third-place Steelers (7-7-1) face the Browns and Ravens, and the fourth-place Browns (7-8) finish with the Steelers and Bengals.
Although the winner of the AFC West has already been determined, the remaining three teams are all still eligible to reach the postseason. The Chargers (8-7) and Raiders (8-7) likely control their own destinies, but the Broncos (7-8) would need some assistance to get in, even if they won their two remaining games.
With the second year of expanded playoffs and the first year of an extra regular season out-of-conference game, the 2021 NFL season is set up for an exciting finish. As of the writing of this post, only two of the 34 remaining games of the the 2021 regular season will have no direct effect on the postseason. Those two games in Week 17 between the Giants-Bears and the Lions-Seahawks will influence only strength-of-victory tiebreakers for teams still in the hunt. Besides those, every remaining game will have implications for playoff clinching or playoff seeding. Buckle up and stay tuned for a nail-biting conclusion to the regular season.