NFL playoff picture: Projecting the seeds & matchups for AFC, NFC brackets in Week 16
Six NFL teams have clinched playoff berths thus far in 2022. Four more could join them in Week 16, while a couple of teams can officially clinch division titles as well.
That means we could have a pretty clear look at the playoff picture by the end of Christmas Day, and more than a handful of teams could see their mathematical chances of qualifying for the postseason evaporate.
There is plenty of intrigue in each conference. The AFC is the more wide-open of the two; a mess of teams is jockeying for wild-card spots while a multiple teams have a shot at the No. 1 seed.
Just how crazy is the AFC? Not too long ago, the Dolphins were the conference’s No. 1 seed. Now? They are teetering on the wild-card edge as the No. 7 seed while a matchup against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers looms.
Comparatively, the top three seeds in the NFC are fairly solid, but the NFC South winner and wild cards haven’t yet been called. Those races will be of the utmost interest in Week 16. The Buccaneers, Giants and Commanders are clinging to the spots most in question.
The Sporting News makes game picks every week, so those can help you see whether your favorite team’s chances of making the playoffs will increase or decrease in Week 16. There will be a lot of competition for playoff spots either way, especially with seven teams from each conference now making the NFL postseason.
WEEK 16 NFL PICKS: Straight up | Against the spread
Below is a breakdown of the playoff picture in each conference. Which 14 teams will play deeper into January?
NFL playoff picture: AFC projections
No. 1 seed: Buffalo Bills
Games remaining: at Bears, at Bengals, vs. Patriots
Buffalo extended its winning streak to five games by beating the Dolphins in Week 15. That allowed the Bills to clinch a playoff berth and, effectively, the AFC East. They need one more win or one Dolphins loss to capture the division.
The Bills are also fighting to secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They are facing stiff competition from the Chiefs and Bengals, so their Week 17 matchup with Cincinnati could prove critical in determining which AFC team earns a bye.
No. 2 seed: Kansas City Chiefs
Games remaining: vs. Seahawks, vs. Broncos, at Raiders
The Chiefs had another close call in Week 15; they needed overtime to beat the one-win Texans. That victory handed Kansas City the AFC West; now they can focus on battling the Bills for the No. 1 seed.
The Chiefs have an easy-looking schedule down the stretch — the teams they are playing have a combined record of 17-25 — but they are facing two divisional rivals. Kansas City also has played a lot of tight games this season, so it will be interesting to see how they fare in Week 16 against a porous Seattle defense.
No. 3 seed: Cincinnati Bengals
Games remaining: at Patriots, vs. Bills, vs. Ravens
The Bengals finally were able to leapfrog the Ravens for first place in the AFC North after a come-from-behind win over the Buccaneers. Cincinnati isn’t in the clear in the division just yet, especially with a tough schedule upcoming, but Joe Burrow and Co. appear to be hitting their stride at the right time, much like the team did en route to a Super Bowl appearance last season.
No. 4 seed: Tennessee Titans
Games remaining: vs. Texans, vs. Cowboys, at Jaguars
The Titans have dropped four straight games and have let the Jaguars sneak to half-game behind in the AFC South. Still, the Titans will remain in control of their destiny if they beat the Texans in Week 16. Derrick Henry has run for at least 211 yards in each of his last four games against Houston, so the Titans should hold the advantage in this matchup even with QB Ryan Tannehill (ankle) out for the season.
No. 5 seed: Baltimore Ravens
Games remaining: vs. Falcons, vs. Steelers, at Bengals
Lamar Jackson’s absence is starting to prove costly to the Ravens. Baltimore scored three points in its Week 15 loss to Cleveland, and Jackson (knee) is no sure thing to play in Week 16. The Ravens should still be able to beat the Falcons even with Tyler Huntley at quarterback, but their path to the AFC North title becomes harder the longer Jackson remains sidelined.
No. 6 seed: Los Angeles Chargers
Games remaining: at Colts, vs. Rams, at Broncos
The Chargers are on the rise again, having won three of their last four games. They are starting to get healthier on offense with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams both back, and once Joey Bosa and Derwin James are back, their defense should improve as well.
Los Angeles has an easy schedule to finish the season: none of their opponents enter Week 16 with more than four wins. The Chargers could end up being a threat should they qualify for the playoffs. Few AFC teams will want to face them in the first round, especially if their defense gets healthy.
No. 7 seed: Miami Dolphins
Games remaining: vs. Packers, at Patriots, vs. Jets
A few weeks ago, the Dolphins looked like they would have a chance to fight for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Now, they are in the midst of their second three-game losing streak of the season and will need to break it on Christmas Day against the Packers to stay in the playoff picture.
Miami has an explosive offense, but the team has struggled with consistency. The Dolphins will need to iron out those issues in their final three games against Aaron Rodgers and two divisional rivals to avoid a disappointing slip out of the AFC playoff picture.
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NFL playoff picture: NFC projections
No. 1 seed: Philadelphia Eagles
Games remaining: at Cowboys, vs. Saints, vs. Giants
The Eagles have virtually wrapped up the NFC East — they need just one more win or a Cowboys loss to clinch it — and they could clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a win at Dallas in Week 16. They will have to do so without Jalen Hurts (shoulder), but Gardner Minshew should be a solid fill-in.
Philadelphia may well be the best, and deepest, team in the league. It can show just how tough it is to beat with a strong showing Saturday.
No. 2 seed: Minnesota Vikings
Games remaining: vs. Giants, at Packers, at Bears
The Vikings finally managed to clinch the NFC North — they had numerous chances to do so over several weeks — by beating the Colts in a wild Week 15 matchup. Minnesota trailed 33-0 at halftime but found a way to make the biggest comeback in NFL history and earn an overtime victory.
The Vikings are 11-3, but just one of their wins has been by more than one score. That came all the way back in Week 1 against a depleted Packers team. Minnesota is likely to land the No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NFC, but their résumé isn’t as strong as the average 2-seed.
No. 3 seed: San Francisco 49ers
Games remaining: vs. Commanders, at Raiders, vs. Cardinals
The 49ers clinched the NFC West in Week 15 with a 21-13 win over the Seahawks. They’re likely locked into the No. 2 or 3 seed. Brock Purdy has looked good through two starts but will face his toughest test to date against Washington’s defense in Week 16. That should be a good barometer of what the 49ers can expect out of him against higher-level competition.
No. 4 seed: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Games remaining: at Cardinals, vs. Panthers, at Falcons
The Buccaneers remain in first place of the NFC South, but only by the skin of their teeth. Tampa Bay (6-8) is one game ahead of the Panthers, Falcons and Saints.
Tom Brady is facing a lot of pressure to win on Christmas as the Buccaneers play a beaten-up Cardinals team that will be starting third-string quarterback Trace McSorley. If Tampa Bay can’t win that contest, then its games against Carolina and Atlanta to close the season will be paramount.
No. 5 seed: Dallas Cowboys
Games remaining: at Eagles, at Titans, at Commanders
The Cowboys blew a 17-point lead in their overtime loss to the Jaguars ahead of their Week 16 matchup with the Eagles. Their defeat effectively locks them into the No. 5 seed in the conference, as they would have to win out and have the Eagles lose out to overtake them in the NFC East.
Dallas has several tough opponents to close the season, so it can’t sleep on the Giants in the playoff race. Still, they look to be the best of the wild-card teams and, barring any surprises, should play the NFC South champion in the first round of the playoffs.
No. 6 seed: New York Giants
Games remaining: at Vikings, vs. Colts, at Eagles
The Giants were able to win their all-important “Sunday Night Football” matchup against the Commanders in Week 15. That win gives them an 86 percent chance of making the postseason, per FiveThirtyEight.
The Giants have a tougher-looking schedule to close the year as they take on Minnesota and Philadelphia. Their matchup with the Vikings could end up being a playoff preview as the Giants are likely to be the No. 6 or 7 seed if they make the postseason.
No. 7 seed: Washington Commanders
Games remaining: at 49ers, vs. Browns, vs. Cowboys
Washington was dealt a favorable hand during its bye in Week 14, but it couldn’t take advantage of it. The Commanders scored just 12 points against the Giants on “Sunday Night Football” in Week 15 and lost by eight. That loss dropped them to the No. 7 seed, and holding onto that seeding will be tough.
The Commanders have to face two 10-win teams — the 49ers and Cowboys — to close the season. They will likely need to pull off at least one upset, and avoid one at the hands of the Browns, to stave off the Seahawks, the red-hot Lions and the healthier-looking Packers.
MORE: Breaking down all of the NFL’s clinching scenarios for Week 16
Current NFL playoff picture
Here’s how the standings in both conferences break down in Week 16, along with the other teams that are still in the playoff hunt.
In the hunt: Patriots (7-7), Jaguars (7-8), Jets (7-8), Raiders (6-8), Browns (6-8), Steelers (6-8)
In the hunt: Seahawks (7-7), Lions (7-7), Packers (6-8), Panthers (5-9), Falcons (5-9), Saints (5-9)