The NFL season is reaching its conclusion… or at least for half the league’s teams. In seven days, there will only be 14 teams left to compete for a Lombardi trophy. 11 have already clinched their spots in the NFL playoffs–13 have been eliminated–but there are still three spots left unclaimed. Eight teams will battle for them in week 18 with different pathways to secure their spots, but as of now, it’s a tossup as to who sneaks in. This leaves plenty of time for speculation, and that’s just what I’m here to do today.
If you want a better look at the current playoff picture, here’s the link. Today, we’re going to be looking at who’s left, their pathways into the NFL playoffs, and who will be left standing when the dust settles after week 18. Without further ado, here are my predictions for who makes it into the NFL playoffs.
A Division-Deciding Week 18 Matchup
With 17 weeks down, two divisions are left unclinched–the NFC East and the AFC South. In the NFC East, the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys have both secured playoff spots, but Dallas can steal the division crown with a win and an Eagles’ loss in week 18. In the AFC South, however, it’s a different story. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans face off in a week 18 matchup not just for the division title, but for a ticket to the NFL playoffs.
The teams last played in week 14 where the Jaguars handled business, winning 36-22. Since then, the teams have taken two entirely different trajectories–the Jaguars have just reeled off their fourth straight win while Tennessee has dropped a sixth game in a row. The Titans are currently stuck without a proven quarterback with Ryan Tannehill on IR, leaving rookie Malik Willis and longtime backup Joshua Dobbs as the only options. Meanwhile in Duval County, former first overall pick Trevor Lawrence has seemingly taken the next step as an NFL quarterback, taking the Jaguars from certain elimination to the doorstep of the NFL playoffs.
With the Jaguars trending up and the Titans trending down, it seems fairly obvious that Jacksonville wins the AFC South. Considering the Titans’ quarterback woes, they likely won’t see much offensive production giving the Jaguars the clear upper hand. In a season that once looked destined for failure, all is left to play for–the Jacksonville Jaguars will secure one of the three remaining playoff spots.
Three AFC Teams are Left for the Last Wildcard Bid
In one of two three-horse races for a playoff berth, the New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, and Pittsburgh Steelers are the last teams vying for a wildcard spot in the AFC. All three are currently 8-8 with New England currently holding the tie breaker. With the Patriots only needing to win to be in, you’d expect this to be pretty easily decided… that is until you see each team’s opponent.
The Dolphins play the flailing New York Jets, the Steelers play the lowly Cleveland Browns, and the Patriots get… the Buffalo Bills. Ouch. While the Dolphins and Steelers both play teams already eliminated from the playoffs (which, sure, can sometimes make for dangerous opponents), the Patriots catch a Bills team still fighting for the AFC’s top seed. Assuming Buffalo beats Cincinnati on Monday night, they’ll have something serious to play for, meaning the heavily overmatched Patriots will be in for a long game. In an unfortunate pull for New England, they’re unlikely to retain their seventh seed.
This leaves just the Dolphins and Steelers. The Dolphins currently hold the tiebreaker over the Steelers, meaning they’ll likely just need to win to get in. However, similar to Tennessee, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s health is of major concern as he suffered his second concussion of the year in week 16. Maybe he is able to play against New York, but with his status up in the air, this game likely is too. The Steelers should beat a Browns team searching for an identity, so I think Pittsburgh will manage to scrape this one out.
Oh, and there’s one more thing I didn’t mention. The Jaguars, currently at 8-8, have an outside chance of getting into the playoffs even with a loss to the Titans. If all three of the aforementioned teams lose, then Jacksonville will jump all of them for the seven seed, giving the AFC South two playoff teams despite none having a winning record. However, for this exercise, we’ve already given Lawrence and co. a playoff nod, so to make it official: the Pittsburgh Steelers will take the AFC’s seventh seed.
The NFL Playoffs Will Be Rounded Out in the NFC
As previously mentioned, the NFC has a three-horse race of its own for the last wildcard spot, this one between the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, and Detroit Lions. Like in the AFC, all three teams are currently 8-8, with the Packers surprisingly owning the tie breaker. What makes this race even more interesting, however, is that the Packers and Lions play each other to end the season.
Let’s start with Seattle: the Hawks play the Los Angeles Rams in their season finale, needing a win and a Packers’ loss to get in. Winning this game shouldn’t be a difficult ask, although the Sean McVay Rams can still make this game difficult. Baker Mayfield has given the team a spark in past weeks, which may make this game closer than some anticipate. However, I still believe this is a win for Seattle, leaving the fate of the NFC up to the Packers and Lions.
In a game destined for primetime, Aaron Rodgers’ Packers will take on Jared Goff’s Lions to likely decide the conference. After dominant performances by both clubs in week 17, this game seems neck and neck on paper. However, one factor is important to remember: assuming this game is on primetime, the Seahawks may have already won, dashing Detroit’s playoff hopes.
Whether this encourages the Lions to play spoiler or takes the wind out of their sails entirely, the Packers should be motivated to put their best foot forward. I’m picking this game to go the Packers way regardless of what happens to Seattle, so with that said, the Green Bay Packers will beat the Detroit Lions and take the NFC’s seventh seed.
The NFL Playoffs are Officially Set
So there you have it, the Jaguars, Steelers, and Packers are officially playoff teams. Okay, obviously I don’t know what will happen–truth be told, anything could happen. It’s what makes the NFL so great–there will be countless storylines and great games, and all will be solved on January 8th. Perhaps one of the wildest NFL regular seasons is coming to a close, and it’s fittingly exciting as ever. If you want to see all the clinching scenarios for week 18, here’s another link for you. But anyways, the NFL playoffs are going to be fun, and week 18 should be all the same.