“The season only really starts after Thanksgiving” is a popular phrase among the NFL’s cognoscente who can’t help but display that they have a more omniscient understanding of the league than the average Joe. First coined by Bill Parcells, the saying does carry a certain amount of truth considering the meaty end of the season does only come after the annual harvest festival. With this being said, I have created a post-Thanksgiving playoff picture in an attempt to predict who will still be playing in January once the regular season is finished. I will lay out my predictions for the eight division winners and the four Wild Card teams based on win/loss records to date; current form; strength of remaining schedule; and several other factors.
AFC East winners
Before Sunday night’s surprise defeat to the Texans, it wouldn’t have been a stretch of the imagination to think that New England (once again) had the division wrapped up before Thanksgiving. However, their recent loss leaves the Pats at 10-2, and Bill Belichick’s team are being chased hard by the on-form Buffalo Bills (only one game behind at 9-3). Along with this, Tom Brady and co. have more tough games to come against the Chiefs and division rivals Buffalo in the remaining weeks. Nonetheless, 18 years of history means that I still expect them to win the division – albeit possibly without a first-round bye in the AFC. With Buffalo at nine wins, they are well in the hunt to sneak a Wild Card berth: read on to find out if I think they can reach the playoffs for only the second time this century…
AFC South winners
Before the actual season started, I predicted that this would be a tightly contested division and, at the point where Parcells’ version of the season begins, it is still one of the toughest divisions to call. The Texans are in the driving seat for now at 8-4, but with two divisional games against the Titans (7-5) to come, they are far from locked in. However, the Texans’ two contenders from Indianapolis and Tennessee have even tougher games to close out their respective seasons, which is why I am picking Deshaun Watson’s Texans to come out on top, particularly considering their recent win in Foxborough signalling an upturn in form.
AFC West winners
The Oakland Raiders had been my surprise team of the season and the combination of quarterback Derek Carr, rookie running back Josh Jacobs and charismatic Head Coach John Gruden have been a joy to watch on offense. Unfortunately for the fans at the Black Hole, they just do not have the firepower (yet) to compete with the star-studded Kansas City Chiefs. I believe KC will win all of their remaining games this year to finish 12-4 and take the AFC West division, heading into the playoffs on a very positive note and most likely with a first-round bye.
AFC North winners
Similarly to the South, early predictions were that this division would be a real dogfight between three strong-looking teams. As it turned out, the Ravens have soared, while the Steelers and Browns have stagnated in relative mediocrity. At this stage, Baltimore have practically locked-up this division with Lamar Jackson’s MVP-like performances leading the way. The Steelers are currently second in the division and, based on their record, should be the North’s best hope for a Wild Card spot. In my opinion, considering Pittsburgh’s difficult remaining schedule, Cleveland has a better chance of scraping into the playoffs, especially considering they have two games against the Bengals to look forward to. At 5-7, it looks like they will need at least three wins, if not four, to be in contention with the likes of the Bills, Colts, Titans, and Raiders for an AFC Wild Card place.
AFC Wild Card spots
The Bills are well and truly in the lead for the first Wild Card place having already accrued nine wins, and the whole world seems to have finally awoken to this fact after their Thanksgiving Day disposal of the Cowboys. However, they have one of the most difficult end-of-season runs: in their four remaining games, they face three teams above .500, along with the volatile New York Jets. My gut says that Sean McDermott can still coach this team to win at least two of those games, leaving them at 11-5 (or better) and earn them the right to play January football.
With five AFC teams ranging between seven and five wins (Steelers, Colts, Titans, Raiders and Browns), the scrap for the last AFC playoff spot will be fierce, particularly when considering several of those teams have to play each other at least once in the next five games. I predict that the Raiders and the Titans will finish with the best records of that bunch on 9-7, meaning the tie-breaking game will come this Sunday when the two teams face off at the Black Hole. I’m picking Oakland to win due to their strong record at home this season, meaning they qualify with the final playoff spot in the AFC.
Final AFC seedings and record predictions:
- Baltimore Ravens (14-2)
- Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
- New England Patriots (12-4)
- Houston Texans (10-6)
- Buffalo Bills (11-5)
- Oakland Raiders (9-7)
NFC East winners
With their stacked rosters, both the Eagles and the Cowboys looked like they could be strong forces to contend with in the NFC. In reality, both teams have struggled up to this point, sitting at disappointing 5-7 and 6-6 records respectively, and their head coaches will be wishing that the season did only begin after Thanksgiving. Despite their one-game lead, the ‘Boys certainly have a harder finish to the season than Philly who play against some of the lowest-ranked teams in the league in the Redskins and the Giants (twice), all of which should be easy Ws for Doug Pedersen’s team. However, their recent loss to the Dolphins has left me unconvinced. Conversely, Jerry Jones’ men finish off the season in a tough manner, with the pivotal game coming in Week 16 when they face the Eagles. In my eyes, this will decide the race for the division title which I expect Dallas to narrowly edge, at around the 10-win mark. In terms of Philadelphia, picking up a Wild Card place in this ridiculously competitive NFC is now practically impossible – their only real hope is to win out from here and finish ahead of Dallas in the East.
NFC South winners
It’s the Saints. Sorry, Panthers fans – this is a battle you won’t win. New Orleans has an insurmountable five-game advantage at 10-2, and for the third year running, they look like one of the NFC’s best. Their only two losses have come against the Rams (when Drew Brees was forced to withdraw due to injury in the first quarter) and a shock defeat to rivals Atlanta. With the next-best teams in the NFC South both at 5-7, the Saints have locked up the division title already and are walking into the playoffs with an air of swagger that could carry them to that elusive Super Bowl.
NFC West winners
What a season it has been for both the 49ers and the Seahawks who sit atop what is probably the most competitive division in football, in front of last year’s NFC Champions the LA Rams and the resurgent Cardinals. This week saw the balance of power shift again, with San Francisco narrowly losing in Baltimore and Seattle grinding out an excellent win on Monday night at the Clink. Both now have records of 10-2 putting them in prime position to make the NFC playoffs either through a division title or a Wild Card spot; the difficulty is picking out which team fills which, especially when you bring the Rams into the equation, who still have a mathematical chance of topping the division and a realistic chance of a Wild Card spot. The prediction becomes even more difficult upon realising that the Seahawks, Rams and 49ers all still have to play each other once more before the end of the season. Based on this, I have both the ‘Hawks and LA closing out with three wins to finish at 13-3 and 10-6 respectively, and the Niners winning two of the remaining games to finish 12-2. All of this could end up being wildly wrong in a division of three fairly evenly matched teams that seem to swing in a different direction every game. But if it turns out true, this would send the Russell Wilson-led Seahawks into another playoff and should land San Francisco in the Wild Card round. Whether it will be enough to squeeze the Rams in for a third straight year will depend largely on how the NFC North plays out…
NFC North winners
Monday night’s game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Seattle Seahawks has shed a little more light on which way the battle for playoff spots in the NFC will go. A loss for Kirk Cousin’s Vikes put the Packers in the driving seat in the North at nine wins from 12 games, with Minnesota only one game behind at 8-4. In terms of the end-of-season schedules, both of these teams have three games against teams at or under .500, alongside what might be the division-deciding game against each other in week 16 at the US Bank Stadium. Green Bay has been wildly inconsistent playing away from home this year and I’m going to stick my neck out and predict Kirk Cousins to finally play well in a clutch moment and lead the Vikings to win the second of their head-to-heads. This would put both teams at 12-4 and level the two-game series at 1-1. In light of a better divisional record, Matt LaFleur’s team would head into the playoffs as NFC North champions in his first season with the Packers, leaving Mike Zimmer scrapping it out with the rest of the NFC for a Wild Card berth.
NFC Wild Card spots
In a top-heavy division with lots of good teams, I predict the magic number to be 12. In my model, both the 49ers and the Vikings end with an impressive 12-4 record yet still miss out on a divisional title – this should give them the two remaining playoff spots.
Even if they win three of their last four games, the Rams miss out by two wins: realistically, Sean McVay’s men need to win out from here and pray for the Bears to do them a favour by beating one of the North teams. The Eagles, Bucs, Panthers and Bears are too far behind and too mediocre to push for a spot at this stage so in my eyes, it comes down to LA to spoil the party. However, with the quality of the NFC teams fighting for the final playoff spots, it would not surprise me to see one of them go all the way and win the big prize for only the seventh time since 1970.
Final NFC seedings and record predictions:
- New Orleans Saints (14-2)
- Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
- Green Bay Packers (12-4)
- Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
- San Francisco 49ers (12-4)
- Minnesota Vikings (12-4)
Featured Picture – Credit: Ben Margot/AP