How does NFL playoff expansion look? It’s with three deeply flawed 7-7 teams fighting for the No. 7 seed in the NFC.
More often than not that extra playoff team will be mediocre at best, and coming down the stretch we have three .500 teams battling it out for the postseason. Barring a collapse, it seems the NFC West will have three teams in: Rams, Cardinals and 49ers. That leaves one wild-card spot for the Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints or Philadelphia Eagles (or, if things really get wild, a 6-8 team like the Washington Football Team or Atlanta Falcons).
Let’s focus on the three 7-7 teams, looking at what they have left and if they can get in:
Eagles (remaining schedule: vs. Giants, at Washington, vs. Cowboys): The Eagles were 2-5 after a listless loss at the Las Vegas Raiders. There was zero reason to believe that they’d be in the playoff discussion. But the Eagles have played better after embracing a run-heavy offense and they’re right in the mix. They need to hope the Cowboys have their playoff seed clinched by Week 18 and sit some starters. One thing to keep in mind: The Eagles beat the Saints on Nov. 21 so they’d have the head-to-head tiebreaker over New Orleans.
Vikings (remaining schedule: vs. Rams, at Packers, vs. Bears): That’s a rough remaining schedule. The Vikings are probably the best team of this group. They’re also the team that seems to relish in losing winnable games. Even Monday night’s win over the Bears was an ugly slog. If you’re picking the best team of this group, it’s probably the Vikings. And it probably doesn’t matter because they get the Rams and Packers next.
Saints (remaining schedule: vs. Dolphins, vs. Panthers, at Falcons): The Saints’ 9-0 win at Tampa Bay changed the NFC playoff picture. Look at the remaining schedule. The Saints will be favored in all three. New Orleans isn’t pretty but it wouldn’t be the easiest out in the playoffs. The Saints have a great coach in Sean Payton. They can run the ball. Their defense is very good, as we saw on Sunday night. They will have a problem if they finish in a tie with the Eagles, due to that head-to-head tiebreaker, but their path to 10-7 is the clearest of these three average teams.
Due to the schedule, the Saints are the best choice to get the final wild-card spot. They could also slide ahead of the 49ers for the No. 6 seed, since San Francisco has a tough season-ending game against the Rams. The likelihood of the Eagles, Vikings or Saints making any noise in the postseason is small. But one of them is probably going to get in.
Here are the power rankings following Week 15 of the NFL season:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12, Last Week: 31)
Normally, you’d figure Byron Leftwich would be a perfect fit for the Jaguars’ open coaching job. But this is Jaguars owner Shad Khan we’re talking about. They might end up hiring Lou Holtz.
31. Houston Texans (3-11, LW: 32)
The Texans can beat the Jaguars at least. Davis Mills continues to play well enough that it seems clear he’ll get a legit shot in 2022, unless there’s a draft prospect the Texans can’t pass on.
30. New York Giants (4-10, LW: 28)
Daniel Jones has been shut down for the rest of the season, which isn’t surprising. Jake Fromm will probably start at least this weekend because why not. It’s not like the Giants have anything to lose.
29. New York Jets (3-11, LW: 29)
The Jets get the Jaguars this weekend. Wins for any young team starting over with a new coaching staff and quarterback matter, and it would be nice for the Jets to get this one. Even if it’s just the Jaguars.
28. Detroit Lions (2-11-1, LW: 30)
The Lions might have blown the first overall pick of the draft by winning, but it will be OK. Playing well late in this terrible season is good for a franchise that needs to experience something good. It’s good for the fans, it’s good for the young players, it’s good for head coach Dan Campbell and what he’s trying to build.
27. Chicago Bears (4-10, LW: 27)
It’s rare to see an NFL coach get a 15-yard penalty, but Matt Nagy did for what referee Scott Novak said was inappropriate language as he argued a call. “I won’t repeat what was said,” Novak said, via NBC Sports Chicago. “But when it crosses a line and it’s inappropriate, then that’s when we throw a flag.” It happens in basketball all the time, and football coaches shouldn’t be able to berate officials with no fear of punishment.
26. Carolina Panthers (5-9, LW: 26)
The Panthers’ season went from bad to ridiculous when kicker Zane Gonzalez hurt himself in pregame warmups, and the team had to have tryouts on the field to see who could kick. That’s something you won’t see often.
25. Atlanta Falcons (6-8, LW: 25)
Kyle Pitts is having a weird season. He might be the second rookie tight end to get 1,000 yards. Nobody other than Mike Ditka has more than 894 yards. Pitts has 847 with three games to go. He’ll end up with the second-most yards ever for a rookie tight end, and has a shot to set the record. Yet, he has one touchdown and hasn’t had a huge impact in many games.
24. Seattle Seahawks (5-9, LW: 24)
It didn’t help that Tyler Lockett wasn’t in the lineup, but Russell Wilson looked bad again. The Seahawks aren’t going to finish with a winning record. If this is it for Wilson in Seattle, it’s a rough way to end an exceptional run.
23. Washington Football Team (6-8, LW: 20)
Not much Washington could have done. It was down a ton of players, including two quarterbacks. It stinks its playoff hopes practically died in a game like that.
22. Denver Broncos (7-7, LW: 16)
The Broncos’ playoff chances aren’t dead, but close. Close enough that the organization needs to do the right thing and let Teddy Bridgewater sit and not risk another concussion before the end of the season.
21. Las Vegas Raiders (7-7, LW: 23)
A win is a win. The complaining about not facing the Browns when they were at their lowest on Saturday was unbecoming, but that doesn’t matter anymore. It was a clutch drive by Derek Carr, and the Raiders aren’t done yet in the playoff race.
20. Miami Dolphins (7-7, LW: 21)
For all the people who wondered why Duke Johnson never got any shot to be a lead back, Sunday was vindication. He had just seven games with double-digit carries before Sunday, topping out at 16. On Sunday he had 22 carries and turned it into 107 yards and two touchdowns. No other coach thought to try that before.
19. New Orleans Saints (7-7, LW: 22)
The win over the Buccaneers was huge for defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who guided the defense that shut out Tom Brady and filled in as interim head coach when Sean Payton was out due to COVID-19. Allen will get head-coaching interviews this offseason.
18. Minnesota Vikings (7-7, LW: 19)
How does Kirk Cousins throw for just 87 yards against a Bears secondary that had everyone out due to COVID-19? That was one ugly win on Monday night.
17. Philadelphia Eagles (7-7, LW: 18)
Yahoo teammate Andy Behrens pointed out that Miles Sanders is having one of the weirdest seasons: 155 touches and zero touchdowns. Sanders has been pretty good too, averaging more than 5 yards per carry. It’s a real oddity.
16. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1, LW: 17)
The Steelers had 168 yards and 12 first downs but won. This is the 2021 Steelers. They might not be aesthetically pleasing, but they battle hard and more often than not this season have found ways to win. It’s a proud franchise that wasn’t going to roll over this season because it didn’t have its usual talent level on the roster.
15. Cleveland Browns (7-7, LW: 14)
The Browns had a great effort Monday. They deserved to win. But they fell short, and the loss is damaging to their playoff hopes. It stinks for them because before the COVID-19 outbreak, their schedule set up well for them to steal the AFC North.
14. Baltimore Ravens (8-6, LW: 10)
Mark Andrews is having a dominant season. He has an 85-1,062-8 line with three games to play. He deserves to be the first-team All-Pro tight end this season, and the vote shouldn’t be that close (George Kittle deserves consideration too but missing three games hurts his case).
13. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6, LW: 15)
The Bengals have a huge game against the Ravens on Sunday, and all eyes will be on running back Joe Mixon and his injured ankle. Zac Taylor sounded optimistic that Mixon could play.
12. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6, LW: 11)
The Chargers blew leads of eight and seven points in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, then gave up a touchdown on the first possession of overtime. They’ll probably make the playoffs, and nobody should have any faith in them figuring out how to win.
11. Tennessee Titans (9-5, LW: 8)
The problem with being too optimistic about Derrick Henry’s return is we don’t know for sure Henry will be back, and we definitely don’t know if Henry will be the same guy right away. Hopefully he’s 100 percent and back soon because he’s a great player, but there’s a danger in expecting that.
10. San Francisco 49ers (8-6, LW: 13)
At this point Jimmy Garoppolo is going to make the whole season as the team’s starter, which is rare after a team drafted a quarterback in the top 10. Rookies don’t sit anymore. Give Garoppolo credit for playing well enough to keep his job, regardless of what happens next.
9. Buffalo Bills (8-6, LW: 9)
For all of the disappointing losses and general malaise with the Bills this season, if they win Sunday against New England they take the top spot in the AFC East due to the tiebreaker (divisional record). They finish with home games against the Falcons and Jets. Crazy things happen but if the Bills win Sunday we can pencil them in as AFC East champs.
8. Indianapolis Colts (8-6, LW: 12)
It’s hard to not make the Colts blurb about Jonathan Taylor every week. He’s having that kind of season. Taylor needs 482 rushing yards to reach 2,000. If Tom Brady struggles without Chris Godwin and Leonard Fournette, Aaron Rodgers finishes with some bad games and Taylor gets to 2,000? Well, that MVP talk might not be so crazy (though it’s impossible to believe voters won’t go QB).
7. Arizona Cardinals (10-4, LW: 3)
Kyler Murray isn’t trying to hear the comparisons to last season, when the Cardinals fell apart after a 6-3 start. “Not at all. Not at all,” Murray said. “We’re still 10-4, still in first place. This is nowhere near where we were last year, and we’re not going to allow it to be.” Maybe. But the loss to the Lions was troubling.
6. New England Patriots (9-5, LW: 4)
The Patriots weren’t exposed. They fell behind early to a good Colts team, and that’s not the type of game they want to play. But they also know how tenuous everything is in the NFL. They can go from No. 1 seed in the AFC last week to probably losing the division if they can’t beat the Bills on Sunday.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-4, LW: 2)
The loss of Chris Godwin for the rest of the season is enormous. And however reluctant the Buccaneers might be about Antonio Brown, having him back helps fill that void. Football-wise, Brown might save Tampa Bay.
4. Los Angeles Rams (10-4, LW: 7)
Cooper Kupp for MVP? It won’t happen because receivers can’t win, but he has a heck of a case.
3. Dallas Cowboys (10-4, LW: 6)
Tony Pollard had 74 yards on 12 carries. Ezekiel Elliott got four more carries than Pollard and had 52 yards. It’s not like “Pollard looks way better than Elliott” is some new thought, but the Cowboys still won’t admit it.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4, LW: 5)
Not many teams had a better Week 15 than the Chiefs. They had a thrilling comeback overtime win over the Chargers to practically clinch the AFC West. Then they watched the Patriots lose on Saturday and the Titans fall on Sunday to take a strong hold of the No. 1 seed in the AFC. For all of the early season issues, the Chiefs are right where they want to be. We have to see how much their COVID-19 situation disrupts them.
1. Green Bay Packers (11-3, LW: 1)
The Packers have home games against the Browns and Vikings, and finish the regular season at the Lions. The Browns and Vikings (and Lions?) are capable of winning but it looks like Green Bay is cruising to the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Again.