We’re going to learn a ton about the NFL playoffs this weekend.
Unless we don’t.
The right combination of events over the next two days could determine two division titles, up to four total playoff berths and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in both conferences. Here is what’s at stake with the Chicago Bears–Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Chargers–Kansas City Chiefs matchups on Saturday, and Sunday’s slate of 12 games.
(To simplify the following, I’ve left out most scenarios that involve the real but highly unlikely possibility of ties. If you can’t get through the weekend without that information, please see ESPN’s complete rundown of Week 15 playoff scenarios.)
Week 15 matchup: vs. New England (4:25 p.m. ET on Sunday)
If the Steelers win: They would clinch a first-round bye. They can secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win and a Jaguars loss.
If the Steelers lose: They could be one game away from falling out of position for a first-round bye. The Patriots would have the edge for the No. 1 seed, and the Jaguars hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Pittsburgh if it comes to that.
Week 15 matchup: at Pittsburgh (4:25 p.m. ET on Sunday)
If the Patriots win: They would clinch the AFC East and reclaim their position atop the AFC seedings.
If the Patriots lose: They can still clinch the AFC East with a Bills loss. They can clinch a playoff berth with a Ravens loss.
Week 15 matchup: vs. Texans (1 p.m. ET on Sunday)
If the Jaguars win: They would clinch a playoff berth but not the AFC South.
If the Jaguars lose: They can still secure a postseason spot if both the Bills and Ravens lose, or if the Ravens lose and the Chiefs-Chargers game does not end in a tie. (Sorry, broke my no-ties rule there.)
Week 15 matchup: vs. Los Angeles Chargers (8:25 p.m. ET on Saturday)
If the Chiefs win: The Chiefs would establish an important head-to-head tiebreaker over the Chargers, in essence giving them a two-game lead in the division with two to play. That means the only way they would not win the AFC West is if they finished 0-2, the Chargers finished 2-0 or the Raiders finished 3-0.
If the Chiefs lose: They would no longer have control over whether they win the division, and would be fighting for tiebreaker position among wild cards. One remote tiebreaker to consider: Their current .522 strength of victory percentage is the highest among AFC contenders.
Week 15 matchup: at San Francisco (4:25 p.m. ET on Sunday)
If the Titans win: At the very least, they would keep up with the Jaguars, keeping the possibility of potentially clinching the AFC South alive by winning their final two games. But because the Titans are playing an NFC game, this isn’t a week for them to make tiebreaker progress in the wild-card race.
If the Titans lose: It depends on whether the Jaguars win. If Jacksonville doesn’t, the Titans will still have a decent shot at the division. If Jacksonville does, the Titans will fall squarely into a multiple-team wild-card race.
Week 15 matchup: vs. Miami (1 p.m. ET on Sunday)
If the Bills win: It would be an important victory in the common-games tiebreaker with the Ravens, if it comes to that. At the moment, the Ravens are 3-0 against teams the Bills have or will have played. The Bills are 1-1.
If they lose: The Bills could have a hard time beating the Ravens in a tiebreaker.
Keep an eye on:
Baltimore Ravens (7-6): A victory over the winless Browns would keep them very much in the wild-card race.
Los Angeles Chargers (7-6): They can vault into the AFC West lead with a win over the Chiefs, a remarkable Week 15 achievement for a team that started 0-4 in a division with a team that started 5-0.
Week 15 matchup: at Giants (1 p.m. ET on Sunday)
If the Eagles win: They would clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, if their victory is combined with a Vikings loss. Even if the Vikings win, the Eagles will still secure a first-round bye — meaning no worse than the No. 2 seed — with a victory.
If the Eagles lose: They would hold a slight, if temporary, tiebreaker over the Vikings if both teams are 11-3 by the end of the weekend. The Eagles’ conference record would be 9-2, and the Vikings’ would be 8-2.
Week 15 matchup: vs. Bengals (1 p.m. ET on Sunday)
If the Vikings win: They would clinch the NFC North.
If the Vikings lose: They can still win the NFC North if the Lions and Packers both lose. They can clinch a playoff berth, even with a loss to the Bengals, if the Seahawks and Falcons lose and at least one of these three teams also fails to win: Saints, Panthers or Lions.
Week 15 matchup: at Seahawks (4:05 p.m. ET on Sunday)
If the Rams win: They would clinch a playoff berth if the following four teams lose: Lions, Packers, Saints and Falcons.
If the Rams lose: They would have a harder time winning the NFC West. The Seahawks will own the head-to-head tiebreaker, so the Rams would need to win one more game than the Seahawks between Weeks 16 and 17. A loss would also impact L.A.’s chances to win a tiebreaker over the rest of the wild-card field, as it would be the team’s fifth conference loss.
Week 15 matchup: vs. Jets (1 p.m. ET on Sunday)
If the Saints win: They would still hold the top spot in the NFC South but can’t clinch the division because their Week 16 game is a matchup with the Falcons, who have already defeated them once.
If the Saints lose: It will hurt them in the standings, obviously. But if you’re going to lose in the world of tiebreakers, it is much better for it to happen against a team from the other conference.
Week 15 matchup: vs. Packers (1 p.m. ET on Sunday)
If the Panthers win: They would keep up in the NFC South race, which means, at worst, they would probably earn a wild-card spot with a 1-1 finish.
If the Panthers lose: They’ll suffer their fifth conference loss — more than the Seahawks, Falcons or Saints — and drop to the fringe of the wild-card race.
Week 15 matchup: at Buccaneers (8:30 p.m. ET on Monday)
If the Falcons win: They would gain an important division and conference victory, and remain on track to win the division with a 2-0 finish.
If the Falcons lose: They’ll need help to win the division and would fall out of the No. 6 spot if the Seahawks defeat the Rams.
Keep an eye on…
Seattle Seahawks (8-5): They can take control of the NFC West if they defeat the Rams, which would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker between the teams.
Detroit Lions (7-6): They have a tough road ahead. Even with a victory over the Bears and losses by the Falcons and Seahawks, for example, they would lose to the Falcons in a three-way tiebreaker. The Lions probably need to win their remaining three games to get in.
Green Bay Packers (7-6): The return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers against the Panthers will give them hope, but they have a lot of ground to make up. Like the Lions, they probably need to finish 3-0 just to have a chance.
Dallas Cowboys (7-6): Similar to the Lions and Packers, the Cowboys need a 3-0 finish to even have a chance. It starts Sunday at the Raiders.