New Year’s Eve is always a little bittersweet, the promise of a fresh start intermingled with that gnawing feeling of regret. New Year’s Eve Eve will be similar in the NFL, except rather than an anticlimactic countdown that reminds us of our own mortality, we will finally have real answers when the clock strikes midnight. Or, like 11:38 p.m. ET — whenever Sunday Night Football ends.
We’re set up for another intense final week in the NFL. It might be hard to top last year’s, when the Bengals’ last-second touchdown (on fourth down, no less!) took down the Ravens and vaulted the Bills into the playoffs for the first time since Toy Story 2 was in theaters. But Sunday should still send the 2018 regular season off on a dramatic, perhaps unpredictable note.
Six teams are fighting for the three playoff spots that have yet to be claimed. The Saints, Rams, Bears, Cowboys, Seahawks, Chiefs, Patriots, Texans, and Chargers already made their way in, though there’s a lot of uncertainty remaining. Only two seeds are firmly set. Both of those are in the NFC too: the Saints (No. 1) and the Cowboys (No. 4).
So that leaves a lot — 10 seeds! three divisions! — that had to be decided. Take a seat, grab some snacks, and schedule bathroom breaks only for when your bladder will be screaming for mercy and that’s all. You’re not going to want to go anywhere on Sunday.
What’s on the line in Week 17?
The Vikings and Eagles are vying for the final wild card spot in the NFC. The AFC North title will come down to the Ravens or Steelers. The Titans and Colts will end the night in a battle for a wild card bid after the Texans sewed up the AFC South.
The other TBD division is the AFC West. Early Sunday evening, we’ll know for sure whether it’ll be the Chiefs or Chargers — the other will have to settle for a wild card berth.
The Chiefs and Patriots had the easiest path to the two first-round byes in the AFC, but the Chargers, Texans, and hell, even the Ravens and Titans, were still in the hunt coming into the day. So far, the Patriots locked one of them up.
In the NFC, it’ll either be the Rams or Bears that end up with the No. 2 seed.
How can the Vikings clinch a wild card spot Sunday?
Let’s start out with the simplest scenario. The Vikings can put this season’s disappointments behind them and get in the playoffs all by themselves.
The Vikings just need one of two things to go their way to grab the NFC’s other wild card spot:
- They beat the Bears OR
- The Eagles lose to or tie Washington.
The Vikings’ lone win over a team that currently has a winning record came against the Eagles — and that could end up being pretty important.
How can the Eagles clinch a wild card spot Sunday?
The Eagles are hot right now, but it might be too little, too late. Still, as long as they’re riding their underdog mojo, there’s no reason to count them out.
The Eagles’ scenario is the opposite of the Vikings. To nail down the second wild card in the NFC, they need two things to happen:
- They beat Washington and the Vikings lose to the Bears.
How can the Ravens clinch a playoff spot Sunday?
The Browns are the only thing standing in the Ravens’ way of making the playoffs again and erasing the bad memories of last year’s bitter ending (at least without the aid of Lacuna, Inc). But these aren’t your butt-of-the-joke Browns. These are the Baker Mayfield Browns, and they aren’t just feelin’ dangerous. They ARE dangerous.
The Browns already beat the Ravens once this year — 33.3 percent of Hue Jackson’s wins with the team — but this time, it’ll be in Baltimore. And Lamar Jackson, not Joe Flacco, is the starter.
It won’t be easy for either team. There’s one way Cleveland can gain a competitive edge, though. Mayfield was just 7 months old when Art Modell announced that he was moving the Browns to Baltimore, but all someone has to do is teach Mayfield all about the history of the rivalry. With the permanent chip on his shoulder that can be programmed based on whatever he wants to be mad about this week, that should be enough to fuel him to try to exact revenge, 23 years later.
The Ravens just need one of these to happen to win the AFC North for the first time since 2012:
- They beat the Browns OR
- The Steelers lose to the Bengals OR
- They tie the Browns and the Steelers and Bengals also tie.
The best possible scenario for the Ravens would have been winning the AFC North title AND getting a first-round bye. That didn’t happen because they needed:
- To beat the Browns, the Patriots lose to the Jets, the Texans lose to the Jaguars, and the Colts and Titans DON’T tie OR
- To beat the Browns, the Patriots lose to the Jets, the Texans lose to the Jaguars, and the Ravens clinch the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Texans.
The Patriots and Texans both won.
The Ravens could also end up with a wild card spot, but it’d take this weird set of circumstances:
- They tie the Browns and the Colts and Titans tie.
How can the Steelers clinch a playoff spot Sunday?
All the Steelers had to do was not run a fake punt when they had the lead and the momentum against the Saints. Or, ya know, not lose to the Raiders or Broncos. Or hell, even just pay Le’Veon Bell what he was worth.
Alas, here they are in Week 17, needing a favor from the two teams that hate them the most: the Bengals and the Browns. If not, they’ll miss the playoffs after starting the season 7-2-1.
The Steelers can defend their AFC North title in one of two ways:
- They beat the Bengals and the Ravens lose to or tie the Browns OR
- They tie the Bengals and the Ravens lose to the Browns.
The Steelers can still technically get a wild card spot, but it won’t happen because they need:
- To beat the Bengals and the Colts and Titans tie.
How can the Colts clinch a playoff spot Sunday?
The Colts were not supposed to be in this position this year. Not with a coach who fell into the job after Josh McDaniels ghosted them. Not with Andrew Luck’s health still a huge question mark. Not with a young, raw defense.
The Colts weren’t even supposed to be here in mid-October, when they dropped to 1-5 after a loss to the Jets. But they surprised us, winning eight of their last nine games behind Luck, who’s likely this season’s Comeback Player of the Year. Now, they can complete their total makeover with a postseason berth — but their hopes of stealing the AFC South crown are over thanks to the Texans’ win over the Jaguars.
The Colts can snag a wild card spot if:
- They beat the Titans OR
- They tie the Titans and the Steelers lose to or tie the Bengals OR
- They tie the Titans and the Ravens lose to the Browns.
How can the Titans clinch a playoff spot Sunday?
The Titans could’ve earned as much as a No. 2 seed and as little as an early vacation and slightly higher draft pick. They’re hosting the Colts in what amounts to a play-in game and have only lost once at home this season — but they’ve also never beaten to Andrew Luck.
The Titans’ best-case scenario included the AFC South title and a first-round bye, but the Texans and Patriots prevented that from happening.
The Titans’ still pretty good scenario would give them a wild card spot, and it’s simple. They’re in if:
How did the Texans clinch the AFC South Sunday?
The Texans almost got into the postseason all on their own last week. They were on the verge of beating the Eagles thanks to Deshaun Watson’s heroic comeback … and then the defense promptly wasted Watson’s effort. Luckily for Houston, the Steelers blew their own lead, and that’s all the Texans needed to get back in the playoffs.
This week, they got it right and produced the AFC South’s second straight “worst to first” finish. The Jaguars went from last place in the division in 2016 to first in 2017 (and then back to last in 2018). Just a year later, the Texans are the next team to go from fourth to first.
The Texans completed the one-year turnaround in the AFC South with:
- Their 20-3 win over the Jaguars on Sunday.
The Texans can do more than just win the AFC South. They can also nab a first-round bye in one way:
- They beat the Jaguars, the Chiefs lose to the Raiders, the Chargers lose to the Broncos, and the Texans clinch the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Chiefs.
Entering Sunday, the Texans have a healthy lead over the Chiefs in SOV. All other scenarios — including a possible No. 1 seed — were killed once the Patriots beat the Jets.
How can the Chiefs clinch the AFC West and the No. 1 seed Sunday?
For the first time all season, the Chiefs are on a losing streak, a whole two games. Two weeks in a row, they’ve had a chance to win the division and they’ve failed each time. Fortunately for them, they’ll get a third chance — and their next opponent is the Raiders.
The Chiefs can, for the third week in a row, try to win the AFC West as long as:
- The Chargers lose to the Broncos OR
- They tie the Raiders and the Chargers and Broncos tie.
There’s at least precedent for the first one.
The Chiefs can do more than that. They can win the AFC West, get a first-round bye, AND secure the No. 1 seed if:
- They beat the Raiders OR
- They tie the Raiders and the Chargers lose to or tie the Broncos.
How can the Chargers clinch the AFC West and the No. 1 seed Sunday?
The Chargers are either going to go big (the AFC West title and the No. 1 seed) or stay right where they are at No. 5.
There are two ways the Chargers can take the division and the No. 1 seed in the AFC:
- They beat the Broncos and the Chiefs lose to or tie the Raiders OR
- They tie the Broncos and the Chiefs lose to the Raiders.
None of those outcomes have happened this year.
How did the Patriots clinch a first-round bye Sunday?
Oh hey, look who it is. A week after it seemed time to hold a vigil for the Patriots dynasty, they guaranteed themselves a first-round bye — and perhaps even make sure the road to the Super Bowl goes through Foxborough. Yes, again.
It’s a long shot, but the Patriots can earn the AFC’s No. 1 seed for the gabillionth time if:
- They beat the Jets, the Chargers lose to the Broncos, and the Chiefs lose to the Raiders.
There was an easier way for the Patriots to secure a first-round bye, with they did because:
How can the Rams clinch a first-round bye Sunday?
With the Saints owning the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the No. 2 seed is the only one left that includes next weekend off.
The Rams can lock up the No. 2 seed and another week to rest Todd Gurley if:
- They beat or tie the 49ers OR
- The Bears lose to or tie the Vikings.
How can the Bears clinch a first-round bye Sunday?
The Bears have been holding steady at No. 3, but they can still jump to the No. 2 spot.
The Bears need two games to end favorably for them to land a first-round bye. Those are:
- They beat the Vikings and the Rams lose to the 49ers.
What do the playoff standings look like right now?
There’s a fairly good chance the standings heading into Sunday afternoon look the same as they do at the end of the night. There’s also a fairly good chance they don’t. We’ll keep updating them until they’re finalized, so be sure to check back. Say, about 11:38 p.m ET?
- New Orleans Saints (13-2)**
- Los Angeles Rams (12-3)**
- Chicago Bears (11-4)**
- Dallas Cowboys (9-6)**
- Seattle Seahawks (9-6)*
- Minnesota Vikings (8-6-1)
Still alive: Philadelphia Eagles (8-7)
- Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)*
- New England Patriots (11-5)**
- Houston Texans (11-5)**
- Baltimore Ravens (9-6)
- Los Angeles Chargers (11-4)*
- Indianapolis Colts (9-6)
Still alive: Tennessee Titans (9-6), Pittsburgh Steelers (8-6-1)
**clinched the division
*clinched a playoff berth