With three weeks left to play, only three NFL teams have clinched a spot in the postseason and only the Carolina Panthers have secured a division title.
The Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers still haven't officially punched a ticket to the playoffs and teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys haven't officially been eliminated. That means some crazy scenarios still exist that could result in the current leaders being left on the outside looking in, while teams that are currently slated to receive a top-10 NFL Draft pick get to keep playing after Week 17.
Just how silly could the scenarios be? Toying with ESPN's NFL Playoff Machine can yield some crazy results. How about the Kansas City Chiefs earning the No. 1 seed in the AFC after starting the year 1-5?
Or the Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons getting in, while the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks miss out?
They're far from the likely scenarios. In fact, they're about as unlikely as it gets, but the NFL has no shortage of wackiness and thinking of the most ridiculous possibilities sure is fun.
Four-way tie in NFC East; Cowboys get in
Two teams in the NFC East improved to 6-7 on Sunday and a third can do so on Monday Night Football when the New York Giants play the Miami Dolphins. With a Week 16 game between Washington and Philadelphia still on the schedule, the division winner will have to be a seven-win team, at least, barring a tie.
That means the only chance the Cowboys have at the postseason is to win out and hope for a tie at the top of the division. Luckily for Dallas, three of its four wins came against NFC East opponents and a fourth divisional win in Week 17 against Washington would give the Cowboys the tiebreaker over any other team in the division.
But to maximize silliness, a four-way tie for the NFC East would be perfect. Is it probable? Absolutely not. But it is still possible. Here's the most realistic way how:
- Cowboys win out (vs. Jets, Bills and Washington)
- Giants go 1-2 in next three games (vs. Dolphins, Panthers, Vikings)
- Giants beat Eagles in Week 17
- Washington goes 1-2 in last three games with win vs. Bills in Week 15
- Eagles go 1-2 in last three games with win vs. Washington in Week 16
Not only would that four-way tie get the Cowboys into the playoffs, but as a division winner, Dallas would host a game in the wild card round.
NFL playoff picture
Jaguars win the AFC South
After dominating the Indianapolis Colts in Week 14, the Jacksonville Jaguars climbed to 5-8 and just one game behind the 6-7 Colts and 6-7 Houston Texans. With three weeks left, that puts the Jaguars right in the thick of the race, but actually getting in is easier than it looks.
Thanks to losses to both the Colts and the Texans earlier in the year and a poor record in divisional play, the Jaguars don't have the advantage in the tiebreaker over either team. So the Jaguars would have to earn a better record than both teams to get in and that's made tougher by the fact that the Colts and Texans play each other in Week 15.
Ideally for the Jaguars, the Colts and Texans would tie on Sunday, but if that doesn't happen then Jacksonville will have no choice but to win out to give itself a chance. The Jaguars haven't strung together four consecutive wins since 2007, but that's almost definitely necessary to get in. If they can, this is the most realistic scenario that hands the AFC South over to Jacksonville.
- Texans beat Colts in Week 15
- Titans beat Texans in Week 16
- Colts lose to either Dolphins or Titans
Like the Cowboys, the Jaguars would be a division winner if things went right and that would mean Jacksonville hosting a playoff game for the first time since 1999.
With three weeks left to play, the concern for both the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos is a first-round bye. Both teams are 10-3 and just one game behind the New England Patriots for the No. 1 seed, but neither team has clinched a spot in the playoffs. While it's impossible for both the Bengals and Broncos to be left out of the postseason field, especially with the two teams playing each other in Week 16, there's still a chance that hijinks could keep one out.
Both Denver and Cincinnati can clinch in Week 15 with a win, so they can put the doomsday scenarios to bed sooner rather than later, but if either team loses out then there's a chance things could get hairy.
If the Bengals lose out it would drop the team to 10-6 and open the door for the Pittsburgh Steelers to swoop in for the AFC North title. Cincinnati owns the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh even after a Week 14 loss, so the Steelers would need to win out to take the division. The Bengals also own the tiebreakers over the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs, the two wild card teams that could keep them out. So the scenario that keeps the Bengals out of the playoffs looks like this:
- Bengals lose out (vs. 49ers, Broncos, Ravens)
- Steelers win out (vs. Broncos, Ravens, Browns)
- Jets win out (vs. Cowboys, Patriots, Bills)
- Chiefs win out (vs. Ravens, Browns, Raiders)
It's not as easy for the Broncos, who don't have a tiebreaker over the Chiefs, Jets or Steelers. It's possible that even an 11-5 record could keep Denver out, but the most realistic scenario that leaves the Broncos on the outside looking in is three straight losses. If that happens, this is the what the scenario looks like to keep them out.
- Broncos lose out (vs. Steelers, Bengals, Chargers)
- Chiefs win at least two (vs. Ravens, Browns, Raiders)
- Jets win at least two (vs. Cowboys, Patriots, Bills)
- Steelers win at least two (vs. Broncos, Ravens, Browns)
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The fact is that we probably won't see the Cowboys or Jaguars in the playoffs, and we probably will see the Broncos and Bengals. But the NFL has no shortage of ridiculousness and silliness, so why not dream it?
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