The end of the New England Patriots’ seven-game winning streak tells us at least one thing about the wild AFC playoff race: We’re leaving Week 15 with a different AFC leader than we started with.
The Patriots’ 27-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts means that either the Kansas City Chiefs or the Tennessee Titans will finish in first place in the conference this week. The Chiefs are the current leaders, but the Titans can overtake them by winning against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
The Colts, meanwhile, have received a massive boost in their playoff chances and it now looks like they will at least take a wildcard spot. They are also not yet eliminated from the AFC South race after winning seven of their last nine matches.
What follows is a preview of our weekly snapshot of the NFL’s playoff photo, which incorporates ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) and a bit of our own instincts to give you an idea of the short- and long-term stakes. We’ve set up playoff and/or divisional scenarios for a handful of teams, and we’ll be updating how it all went on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
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The Chiefs stayed at the AFC on Saturday night, but they will fall to No. 2 when the Titans beat the Steelers on Sunday. But for at least one night, the Chiefs can enjoy the fruits of their seventh straight win. If nothing else, their win over the Chargers on Thursday night eliminated the possibility of the Chargers holding a straight tiebreaker in the AFC West race. That’s a good thing, because it’s not like the Chiefs have an easy schedule the rest of the way. They will play three AFC wildcard candidates, none of whom will play the series: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Denver. Anyway, this is going to be fun.
Next one: vs. Steelers (week 16)
The Titans moved up one spot on Saturday night due to the loss to New England, and could displace the Chiefs at the AFC on Sunday if they beat the Steelers thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker. However, the Colts’ win means the Titans won’t be able to make it to the AFC South or a playoff spot this weekend. The best news for the Titans is that they have the easiest schedule in the NFL the rest of the time, according to the FPI. Their remaining games are against the Steelers, 49ers, Dolphins and Texans.
Next one: at Steelers
Saturday’s loss ended the Patriots’ seven-game winning streak, dropping them off the top of the AFC and sinking their scenarios for a playoff spot or the AFC East this week. Now they will be wary when the Bills host the Panthers on Sunday. If Buffalo beats Carolina, as the Bills prefer, a fun match will be held in Week 16. When the Patriots host the Bills, the winner leads the AFC East. (Neither team would win in that scenario.) If the Pats had prevailed in Indianapolis, the FPI would have given them a 59.1% chance of taking first place in the AFC; that chance is now 21.6%.
Next one: bills
The Ravens have had two consecutive AFC North losses and have fallen from the AFC’s top league to fourth in the past two weeks. Baltimore’s remaining schedule – against the Packers, Bengals, Rams and Steelers – is among the toughest in the league. Their lead in the AFC North has been reduced to one game, and while the FPI is still optimistic about their playoff chances, it certainly doesn’t feel like the Ravens are a playoff team right now.
Next one: vs. packers
The Colts took a massive win on Saturday night, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Obviously, it means something to end an eight-game losing streak against the Patriots. Had it been extended to nine, the Colts’ playoff chances would have fallen to 42% this season, according to the FPI. Instead, the win stood at 80% and the Colts could even jump the Chargers into the AFC standings. Indianapolis won’t be able to decide this weekend, but after fielding the Patriots, it looks like it’s only a matter of time.
Next one: at Cardinals
The Chargers lost the biggest game they’ve played in years on Thursday night, but they’re back where they started the night: in a good position for a wildcard playoff spot. It would be only their second trip to the postseason in the past eight years. They had a legitimate chance to overtake the Chiefs in the AFC West, and it remains a statistical possibility, but it will require the help of a team that has gained a lot of experience in closing a postseason position in recent years.
Next one: among Texans (week 16)
Damien Woody believes Kyler Murray can lead the Cardinals to post-season success, even if DeAndre Hopkins misses time due to injuries.
In a matter of weeks, the Bills have gone from the top of the AFC East to barely holding on to a playoff spot. They certainly don’t get the results you’d expect for a drafting team on a deep playoff run, but only one of Buffalo’s losses was by more than one score. The Bills have only one game left against a team with a winning record — the Patriots in two weeks — and the FPI still gives Buffalo a good chance to hold onto one of the wildcard spots.
Next one: vs. panthers
In the AFC hunt
Cleveland Browns (7-6)
The Browns managed to cut a season split with the Ravens, eliminating a straight tiebreaker with them if it came to an AFC North title. Yes, the Browns are in both the division and wildcard mix. They get the Raiders home.
Cincinnati Bengal (7-6)
The Bengals’ playoff chances have taken a major blow with consecutive losses to the Chargers and 49ers. On Sunday, they will face another contending team (Denver).
Denver Broncos (7-6)
The Broncos have now won four of their past six games and have a chance to beat another playoff contender when they take on the Bengals on Sunday afternoon.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6-1)
The Steelers’ remaining schedule is pretty brutal, with games against the Titans, Chiefs, Browns and Ravens pending. All that remains now, it seems, is their inevitable elimination from the playoffs.
The Cardinals’ loss to the Rams on Monday propelled the Packers to the top of the NFC thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker. And the good news may continue this week. The Packers will gain the NFC North if they defeat the Ravens or if the Vikings lose to the Bears. And if the Vikings beat the Bears, the Packers could still get a playoff spot if the Saints and 49ers lose. The Packers have a few areas to bolster, especially their special teams, but in a flawed league, they stand as much of a chance as any other team to make a deep playoff run.
Next one: at Ravens
Monday night’s loss to the Cardinals allowed the Buccaneers to move up a spot, and Week 15 brings some decisive scenarios for Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers were able to secure both a playoff spot and the NFC South by winning at home against the Saints. They could also land a playoff spot with losses to the Vikings and 49ers. It’s worth noting, of course, that the Saints have won all three regular-season games between these two teams since Tom Brady signed with the Buccaneers last season. (The Bucs did beat the Saints in the division playoffs last season.)
Next one: vs. saints
Monday night’s result was a disappointment, but not a disaster for the Cardinals. Yes, they could have secured a spot in the playoffs with a win over the Rams, and that would have given Arizona a chance to secure the NFC West title as soon as this week. But the only thing standing between the Cardinals and a spot in the playoffs now is a game against the hapless Lions. The loss to Los Angeles jeopardized the Cardinals’ hopes of home field advantage in the playoffs, but it’s worth noting that they are unbeaten on the road this season. Even if they lose to the Lions, the Cardinals could take that spot after the season with losses to the Vikings and Saints, losses to the Vikings and 49ers, or a Packers win combined with losses to the Falcons and Saints.
Next one: at Lions
The Cowboys have a three-game lead in the division and their upcoming division title looks inevitable. To secure a playoff spot, the Cowboys need a win over the Giants and a loss to the Buccaneers or 49ers, or lose to the Vikings, Falcons, Saints and a win over the Eagles.
Next one: at Giants
The Rams are now within one game of NFC West’s lead. The Cardinals are still the firm favorite as the Rams have a 10.3% chance of conquering the division, according to the FPI, but the win boosted Los Angeles’ chances of making it to the playoffs to nearly 99% . The Rams’ remaining schedule is tough and includes three opponents vying for playoff spots (Vikings, Ravens and 49ers), but Monday night’s effort showed they are up to the challenge.
Next one: vs. seahawks
The 49ers’ win in Cincinnati in Week 14 allowed them to keep a game distance between them and the five NFC teams with 6-7 records, and the FPI has their playoff odds of 77.3%. They could lock up one of those teams this week if they beat the Falcons, but it won’t be easy sledding. The Niners still have games left at the Titans and Rams, with presumably a gimme matchup against the Texans in between.
Next one: vs. falcons
Washington missed an opportunity to make NFC East a little more interesting in Week 14, but let’s face it: The real deal for Washington is the wildcard, and Sunday’s loss didn’t knock it out of the top seven. Now, in an NFC field that includes five 6-7 teams, the FPI gives Washington a 22.6% chance of getting one of the wildcard spots. It will play against one of its competitors for those berths (Eagles) twice in the next three weeks.
Next one: at Eagles
In the NFC hunt
Minnesota Vikings (6-7)
Two of Minnesota’s four remaining games are against the Bears, including Monday night, so anything is possible.
Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)
The Eagles are returning from their farewell week in the playoff race, largely because they have two games left against Washington.
Atlanta Falcons (6-7)
All credit to the Falcons for staying in the race with an understaffed team in the first year of coach Arthur Smith’s tenure. But the remaining games against the 49ers, Bills and Saints may be too big an obstacle.
Saints of New Orleans (6-7)
The Saints have just one game left against a team with a record-winning record — Sunday at the Buccaneers — but the only team they’ve beaten since the beginning of November are the woeful Jets.