I’ll be straight with you: Week 17 won’t be as interesting as Week 16.
Only three of the NFL’s 12 playoff spots remain unclaimed. Seven of the eight division titles are decided, as are three of the four first-round byes. Still, here is everything you need to know about the lingering drama, which will all be played out in two relatively equal time slots on Sunday afternoon.
AFC home-field advantage will be decided early
The AFC path to Super Bowl LII will go through New England if the Patriots beat the New York Jets in Foxborough. But if they lose, the Pittsburgh Steelers can leapfrog them for the No. 1 seed with a win at home over the 0-15 Cleveland Browns. Both games kick off at 1 p.m. ET. The distinction between the No. 1 and No. 2 seed has been significant in the four most recent postseasons. According to ESPN Stats & Information, seven of the eight No. 1 seeds since 2013 reached the Super Bowl. The Philadelphia Eagles already have clinched the NFC’s home-field advantage.
The Minnesota Vikings will (likely) lock up a first-round bye, win or lose
The Vikings have a 99.6 percent chance of grabbing the final first-round bye, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI). They can clinch it with a home victory over the Chicago Bears (5-10), or with the help from one of three teams in the following scenarios: 1) If the Atlanta Falcons defeat the Carolina Panthers; 2) the New Orleans Saints beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; or 3) the Los Angeles Rams defeat the Oakland Raiders. (The Rams announced they will rest key players, but the other two games should be competitive.)
The NFC South will be decided late
The Saints have the cleanest path to the last remaining division title. They can clinch it with a victory over the Buccaneers. But if they lose, the Panthers can win it by defeating the Falcons. The advantage, of course, is getting a home playoff game in the wild-card round. Both games kick off at 4:25 p.m. ET. If both New Orleans and Carolina lose, the Saints are the division champions.
The Panthers have a slim chance for the No. 2 seed
As noted above, there are all kinds of reasonable scenarios that put the Vikings at No. 2. But the Panthers could sneak up there with a victory over the Falcons — as long as the Saints, Vikings and Rams all lose. Then, the Panthers would win a head-to-head tiebreaker with Minnesota at 12-4 thanks to their Week 14 victory over the Vikings. (The Saints can’t win a similar tiebreaker because they lost to the Vikings in Week 1. The same goes for the Rams, who lost to the Vikings in Week 11.)
The NFC’s second-wild card will be …
The Falcons, if they defeat the Panthers at home, or if the Seahawks lose to the Cardinals at home (or both). But if the Falcons lose, the Seahawks can jump into the No. 6 spot with a win over the Cardinals. To be clear: If both the Falcons and Seahawks lose, Atlanta would be the wild-card team.
The AFC’s wild-card picture is larger
Four teams are fighting for the two remaining spots, with two holding a decisive advantage. The Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans are both in if they win their respective games. But if the Ravens lose at home to the Cincinnati Bengals, or the Titans fall at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, then the door opens for the Los Angeles Chargers and/or Buffalo Bills. Rather than try to spell out the multiple outcomes necessary for either or both of those outside teams to clinch, I’ll pass along this awesome graphic the NFL published to explain it. The entire block of relevant games kicks off at 4:25 p.m. ET, so make sure to get your bathroom breaks in early.
AFC playoff seeding scenarios based on the outcome of Week 17 games with playoff implications: pic.twitter.com/L2Y6XqHAyl
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 26, 2017