Skip to main content

NFL Playoff Scenarios: What’s at Stake and What to Watch For on Sunday

The full playoff picture won’t be resolved until the end of Colts-Titans on Sunday night, and more teams will be jockeying for spots—or just trying to prove a point—throughout the day. Can the Browns play spoiler? Can Nick Foles summon up more magic? Will everything fall right for the Texans? Here’s what to watch for.

While nine of the 12 playoff teams have been determined, the shape of the postseason remains unsettlingly up in the air as we enter Week 17. Sunday’s slate of games in the late afternoon and into the evening promise to inject even more chaos into a playoff picture that has been fluctuating wildly for weeks, especially at the lower-seed levels. Almost no one in the AFC, for instance, has any idea where they’ll be playing over the next two weeks.

This year it seems there are more teams vying for playoff spots that are currently playing better than—or at the level of—teams with top seeding. Could we see a major spoiler disrupt everything thanks to a few critical plays Sunday?

Here’s what at stake, and what to watch for:

1. Frank Reich could strengthen his coach of the year candidacy by leading a once 1-5 team into the playoffs. There is nothing better than a play-in game to wrap up the NFL season, and this matchup between the Colts and Titans features plenty of intrigue. The suddenly unstoppable Derrick Henry, the status of quarterback Marcus Mariota, the effectiveness of a Colts defense that has been surging of late. Chiefs-Rams it is not, but placing a resurgent Andrew Luck back into the spotlight for a decisive primetime game is the perfect closer to the regular season.

2. The Texans can literally finish as the best or worst seed in the AFC this weekend, and while neither of those scenarios seem likely, there is still plenty at stake for a team that has been battling uphill all season. First, the Texans need to take care of a Jaguars team that is still immensely talented but beyond mercurial right now. If they do that, they’ve won the division and can do no worse than the No. 3 seed. Should Doug Marrone’s defense play end-of-season spoiler—very on brand, if you ask me—and the Colts/Titans Sunday night game doesn’t end in a tie, they’ll stumble to the No. 6 seed. Here’s a good breakdown of all their scenarios, via ABC13 in Houston, with odds from ESPN’s FPI index.  

BENOIT:Week 17 Previews and Analysis for Every Game

3. The Steelers are in a tailspin. Amid a week of preparation for a Bengals game they need to win to even stay afloat for a playoff spot, their defensive coordinator discussed the need for his team to shut down Cincinnati tight end Tyler Eifert. The problem? Eifert has been out since the end of September. While Keith Butler is getting destroyed, the context of the questions and the way they were asked should be taken into consideration. Unfortunately for Butler, it will be bundled into the narrative currently under construction: This is a behemoth breaking down before our eyes—the once-mighty Steelers are praying for the once-lowly Browns to upset Baltimore for a chance to sneak back into the tournament.

4. Indeed, Baker Mayfield and the Browns have the chance to play spoiler in Baltimore, and there are some interesting components to their afternoon matchup with the Ravens. Winners of four of their last five, the Browns can finish with their first winning record since 2007. Should Cleveland play well against a very difficult-to-prepare-for Ravens team, it could go a long way toward keeping the interim staff on board for another season. Oh, and, if they beat the Ravens and the Steelers win, the Browns exorcise two decades’ worth of old demons against the franchise they lost years ago.

STAFF PICKS:The Week 17 Slate

5. Nick Foles has a chance to embody the near-spiritual persona he’s garnered among Eagles fans when Philly heads to Washington this weekend. FiveThirtyEight currently places the odds of that happening at 28 percent—the second-worst playoff odds of any remaining team save for Pittsburgh. However, it doesn’t seem that ridiculous when you consider that the Eagles only need to beat a lowly Washington team and have the Bears take out the Vikings at home. While Minnesota has much more to play for, Chicago can still clinch a first-round bye, so the Bears have a vested interest in putting up a good performance.

6. While we’re on the subject of quarterbacks in the spotlight, Kirk Cousins has a home game against arguably the best defense in football that will decide whether the Vikings make the playoffs. I’ve argued that this is a team many won’t want to see, given their strength on defense and suddenly-effective running game. However, Cousins has been battling the narrative that he’s not playing up to his fully-guaranteed contract for weeks now. The transition to offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has definitely breathed life into their offense, and altered some play call tendencies that became detrimental under former coordinator John DeFilippo.

7. The Chiefs and Chargers can still flip places. While it would seem highly unlikely that Kansas City would lay down against the hapless Raiders at home, a loss to the Silver and Black would open the door for the Chargers to glide into the No. 1 seed with a win at Denver. Losses by the Chiefs and Chargers would open up several chaotic seeding possibilities. A good look at some of those here.

BENOIT:What Kind of Quarterback Is Tom Brady Now?

8. The Patriots, after all their struggles this season, could still end up as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. How comical would that be? While it would take a win over the Jets and some inspired performances by the reeling Broncos and Oakland Raiders, there’s still a chance Bill Belichick is riding high on Sunday.

Question or comment? Email us at