NFL playoff picture 2021: Week 15 standings, bracket, clinching scenarios and postseason outlook

ByKevin Seifert ESPN logo
Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Hooray! Despite one of the most wide-open NFL postseason races in recent history, we finally have an actual, genuine playoff team. The Packers broke the seal on Sunday afternoon, not only clinching a spot in the NFC bracket but also the NFC North title. But in a turn of events that fits the theme of this season, no other teams have hit their clinching scenarios.

As of this moment, 13 of the NFL's 14 playoff spots remain open, and only five teams are officially eliminated. (The Bears joined the eliminated bunch on Monday.) Most notably, the Buccaneers lost at home Sunday night, an outcome that not only stymied their own immediate chances but also those of the Cowboys and Cardinals. Week 15 finally wrapped up Tuesday night, with the Rams and Eagles strengthening their positions. And with 13 playoff spots still open, we're promised a wildly entertaining final three weeks of the season.

What follows is our look at the NFL playoff picture, based on ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) and a bit of our own gut instinct.

Note: X denotes a team that has clinched a playoff berth, Y shows a team that has clinched its division and Z indicates a team that has secured a first-round bye.

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1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%

FPI chances to win division: 93%

The Chiefs will finish Week 15 atop the AFC thanks to their win Thursday night over the Chargers, along with losses by the Patriots and Titans. The Chiefs were at one point 3-4, but they have won seven consecutive games and are getting better results -- if not better play-to-play efficiency -- than any team in the NFL. They no longer have to worry about losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Chargers, and they can clinch the AFC West in Week 16 with a win over the Steelers and a Chargers loss to the Texans. And they have a 53% chance to get the first-round bye, per ESPN's FPI.

Remaining schedule: vs. Steelers, at Bengals, at Broncos

2. New England Patriots (9-5)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 98%

FPI chances to win division: 54%

Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Bills

Saturday night's loss to the Colts snapped the Patriots' seven-game winning streak, dropped them from the top of the AFC and scuttled their scenarios for clinching a playoff spot and/or the AFC East in Week 15. It also set up a huge AFC East game in Week 16, following the Bills' win Sunday over the Panthers. The Patriots will host the Bills, with the winner taking control of the division. It won't be a true AFC East championship game, because neither team can clinch it with a victory alone. But the Patriots could clinch if they win the game and the Dolphins lose to the Saints.

Remaining schedule:vs. Bills, vs. Jaguars, at Dolphins

3. Tennessee Titans (9-5)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 97%

FPI chances to win division: 91%

Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Chargers

What an enormous swing the Titans went through this weekend. A win in Pittsburgh would have put them atop the AFC with three weeks left in the season and given them a 51% chance to win home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, per the FPI. But now both the Chiefs and Patriots are in better position, leaving Tennessee at just 16% to finish at No. 1. Sunday's loss also delayed the Titans' chance to clinch the division. They're still prohibitive favorites to win the AFC South, but it didn't happen in Week 15. They could clinch it in Week 16 with a win over the 49ers and a Colts loss to the Cardinals.

Remaining schedule:vs. 49ers, vs. Dolphins, at Texans

4. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 50%

FPI chances to win division: 39%

Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Colts

Well, look what we have here. The Bengals snapped their two-game losing streak by grinding out a win in Denver, and then a few minutes later, they ascended to the top of the AFC North following the Ravens' loss to the Packers. The Bengals have the temporary head-to-head tiebreaker over the Ravens, but as luck would have it, the teams will meet in Week 16. Neither would clinch the division title with a win, but it will obviously be a huge leverage game for both teams. If the Bengals win, their one-game lead in the win/loss column would really be a two-game lead with three left to play because of the permanent head-to-head tiebreaker.So they'll win the AFC North if they win their remaining games.

Remaining schedule:vs. Ravens, vs. Chiefs, at Browns

5. Indianapolis Colts (8-6)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 82%

FPI chances to win division:9%

Current projected first-round matchup: at Bengals

The Colts pulled off a huge win Saturday night, both qualitatively and quantitatively, and their good fortune continued Sunday. The Titans' loss to the Steelers means the Colts are still in the AFC South race. A division title is still a longshot -- the FPI gives the Colts a 9% chance to do it -- but at least they are not eliminated from it at this point. Regardless, the Colts should be riding high. Their win Saturday snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Patriots, and had they lost Saturday, the Colts' playoff chances would have dropped to 42%. Instead, they have an 82% chance to get in, and they even jumped the Chargers in the AFC standings.

Remaining schedule:at Cardinals, vs. Raiders, at Jaguars

6. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 73%

FPI chances to win division: 6%

Current projected first-round matchup: at Titans

The Chargers lost the biggest game they've played in years Thursday, but essentially they're back to where they started that night: in a good position for a wild-card playoff berth. It would be just 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'll require help from a Chiefs team that has developed a bunch of experience in closing out postseason position during the past few years.

Remaining schedule:at Texans, vs. Broncos, at Raiders

7. Buffalo Bills (8-6)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 86%

FPI chances to win division: 46%

Current projected first-round matchup:at Patriots

The Bills snapped their two-game losing streak and managed to stay in the AFC top seven thanks to the Ravens' loss to the Packers. At the moment, the Bills hold the common-games tiebreaker over Baltimore. The FPI is giving the Bills a great chance to make the playoffs, and their Week 16 game at the Patriots gives them a chance to take over the AFC East lead. The Patriots are favored in that game for a number of reasons, and rightfully so, but if you had told the Bills a few weeks ago that they would have a chance to retake the division lead in late December, they would have considered themselves fortunate. They'll win the AFC East if they win their remaining games.

Remaining schedule:at Patriots, vs. Falcons, vs. Jets

In the AFC hunt

Baltimore Ravens (8-6)

The Ravens are so decimated by injuries and COVID-19 losses that coach John Harbaugh has felt compelled to go for a game-winning 2-point play twice in the past three weeks rather than take his chances in overtime. They have lost both games and are now on a playoff-crushing three-game losing streak. The Ravens will have a chance to turn it around in Week 16 at the Bengals, but the FPI is giving them only a 57% chance to make the playoffs, and their division title odds fell to 38% this week.

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1)

The Steelers kept themselves in the playoff race with Sunday's win over the Titans, but their level of difficulty is about to go up even more. A Week 16 game at the Chiefs, the hottest team in football, is not the kind of game they want while trying to stay within a reasonable distance of the race. The FPI is giving Pittsburgh an 18% chance to make it to the postseason.

Las Vegas Raiders (7-7)

The Raiders kept their playoff hopes alive with a last-play victory over the depleted Browns. The FPI now gives them a 10% chance of advancing to the postseason. All wins count the same in the standings, but if you watched the Raiders struggle to overcome a team of Browns backups, you probably don't have much confidence in their chances, given upcoming games against the Broncos, Colts and Chargers.

Miami Dolphins (7-7)

Give some credit to the Dolphins for simply getting into this conversation. They have followed a seven-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak and have another winnable game in Week 16 at the Saints. Their chances to make the playoffs are still pretty minuscule at 6%, per the FPI, but they exist.

Cleveland Browns (7-7)

Even without a large chunk of their roster, the Browns had a legitimate chance Monday night to take over first place in the AFC North. But they lost 16-14 on the final play to the Raiders and will end Week 15 at the bottom of the division. The AFC North is obviously tight, and the Browns will have a chance to climb back into the race. But Monday's loss will make it much harder. The FPI has Cleveland at 17% to make the playoffs.

Denver Broncos (7-7)

Sunday's loss to the Bengals dropped the Broncos' playoff chances to 8%, according to the FPI. They have a winnable game in Week 16 at the Raiders, but with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (concussion) likely sidelined, their postseason outlook is bleak.


1. Green Bay Packers (11-3) -- y

FPI chances to make playoffs: Clinched

FPI chances to win division:Clinched

Sunday's win in Baltimore gave the Packers the NFL's first playoff berth, and they clinched the NFC North on top of it. Now they'll turn their attention to winning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs; they're 6-0 at Lambeau Field this season and 19-3 there in three regular seasons under coach Matt LaFleur. Their next two games are home, and their season finale is at Detroit. So it's no wonder the FPI is giving them a 71% chance to secure the No. 1 seed.

Remaining schedule:vs. Browns, vs. Vikings, at Lions

2. Dallas Cowboys (10-4)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%

FPI chances to win division: 99%

Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Vikings

The Cowboys keep plugging along -- no matter how imperfectly -- and have now won three consecutive games after losing three of four. They have moved ahead of the Cardinals and Buccaneers thanks to a better conference record, and they continue to be the overwhelming favorites to win the NFC East. In fact, they can clinch the division in Week 16 with a victory over Washington. And they can secure the division title even if they lose to Washington. That will happen if the Eagles lose to the Giants or the Cowboys clinch a strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Eagles.

Remaining schedule:vs. Washington, vs. Cardinals, at Eagles

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-4)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%

FPI chances to win division: 99%

Current projected first-round matchup: vs. 49ers

The Buccaneers could have clinched a playoff spot Sunday night with a win over the depleted Saints. Instead, they lost once again to the team that has proved to beTom Brady's nemesis since he joined the Buccaneers. As a result, the Buccaneers were overtaken at least for the time being by the Cowboys, and they'll have to wait at least one more week to clinch either a playoff spot or the NFC South. The good news is the Buccaneers won't have to play the Saints again, at least in the regular season, after absorbing their second consecutive season sweep at their hands. Of more relevance to the Buccaneers' long-term competitiveness: How will they be affected by injuries suffered Sunday night to receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwinand running back Leonard Fournette?

Remaining schedule:at Panthers, at Jets, vs. Panthers

4. Arizona Cardinals (10-4)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%

FPI chances to win division: 64%

Current projected first-round matchup: vs. Rams

The Cardinals are going in the wrong direction. Sunday's stunning defeat in Detroit was their third loss in five games. They've tumbled as far down the NFC standings as they could, at least while still holding on to the NFC West lead. But the damage isn't as severe as it could be, assuming they can get themselves back on track. The Cardinals had multiple other paths to clinching a playoff spot in Week 15, even with a loss, but none of them materialized. They can't clinch the NFC West in Week 16, but they can secure a playoff berth with a win, or losses by the Vikings and 49ers, Vikings and Saints, or Eagles and Saints.

Remaining schedule:vs. Colts, at Cowboys, vs. Seahawks

5. Los Angeles Rams (10-4)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%

FPI chances to win division: 35%

Current projected first-round matchup: at Cardinals

Tuesday's victory over the Seahawks pulled the Rams into a tie with the Cardinals in the NFC West, but the Rams remain behind the Cardinals in the standings because of Arizona's better winning percentage in the division. The Rams' FPI chances to win the division stand at 35%. They also have several scenarios for clinching a playoff spot in Week 16. Most simply, they'll secure a spot if they beat the Vikings. If they lose in Minnesota, the Rams can still lock in a spot with losses by the Saints and Eagles. If nothing else, however, the Rams are keeping the heat on the Cardinals.

Remaining schedule:at Vikings, at Ravens, vs. 49ers

6.San Francisco 49ers (8-6)

FPI chances to make playoffs:83%

FPI chances to win division:1%

Current projected first-round matchup: at Buccaneers

Nobody is really talking about them, but the 49ers have won five of their past six games and have maneuvered into a near-lock position for a wild-card spot. The FPI currently has their postseason chances at 83%. Their remaining schedule isn't easy; they have games at the Titans and Rams, with a home game against the Texans. But the real question is whether there are two NFC teams set to overtake them at this point. The chances aren't high.

Remaining schedule:at Titans, vs. Texans, at Rams

7.Minnesota Vikings (7-7)

FPI chances to make playoffs: 31%

FPI chances to win division:Eliminated

Current projected first-round matchup: at Cowboys

The Vikings moved back into the No. 7 spot with Monday night's victory in Chicago and stayed there after the Eagles defeated Washington on Tuesday. They hold the common games tiebreaker over the Eagles and the conference record advantage over the Saints. With all of that, the best thing that can be said about Monday night's game is that it kept the Vikings from falling into any more of a hole. Had they lost -- an outcome that seems almost impossible given the condition of the Bears' roster -- their FPI chances to make the playoffs would have been 7%.

Remaining schedule:vs. Rams, at Packers, vs. Bears

In the NFC hunt

Philadelphia Eagles (7-7)

They had to wait two extra days, but the Eagles capitalized on a game against an undermanned opponent to keep their foot in the playoff door. Their FPI chances would have been down to 8% if they had lost, but now they stand at 33%, as the Eagles head into another very winnable game against the Giants.

New Orleans Saints (7-7)

The Saints' upset win over the Buccaneers lifted them temporarily into the playoff picture, but they fell back Monday night after the Vikings' win over the Bears. Regardless, the Saints secured a huge victory that will help them in myriad tiebreakers, including division and conference record, and it's worth noting that they don't have another game scheduled against a team that currently has a winning record. New Orleans' FPI playoff odds are at 47%, and the Dolphins are up next.

Washington Football Team (6-8)

In the end, the two-day delay for Tuesday night's game against the Eagles was not enough time for Washington to replenish its depleted roster. Washington kept the game closer than many expected, but as it faces a quick-turn game against the Cowboys, its FPI playoff chances are down to 6%.

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