NFL Playoff Projection: Breaking down all the Week 17 madness

Frank Schwab

The AFC playoff picture is mostly set going into Week 17. The NFC? That’s where things might get a little crazy.

We can predict with reasonable accuracy the order of first five seeds in the AFC. The Ravens have clinched the No. 1 seed and the Bills are locked into the No. 5 seed. The Chiefs could switch places with the Patriots, moving from No. 3 to No. 2, and the Texans could move from No. 4 to No. 3 with the Chiefs, but that would take pretty big upset losses by the Patriots or Chiefs.

That’s the opposite of the NFC, where we only know that the Minnesota Vikings will be the No. 6 seed. None of the other five seeds are set. We have two teams that could either get a first-round bye or be on the road wild-card weekend, depending on what happens Sunday night. Here’s a look at our projection with one week to go:

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphic by Paul Rosales)

Let’s run down all the craziness. Take a deep breath:

• The AFC does have some drama. There’s still one seed left to determine. The final wild-card spot will be the Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers or (unbelievably) the Oakland Raiders. The easiest piece is this: If the Titans beat the Texans on Sunday, they’re in. If the Titans lose, they could still get in with a Steelers loss coupled with a Colts loss or tie.

For the Steelers, they’re in with a win or tie coupled with a Titans loss. They are also in if the Titans lose, Colts win and Raiders lose or tie. And then there’s one more scenario in which Pittsburgh makes it: Titans loss, Colts win and the Steelers tying the Raiders in strength of victory tiebreaker — that happens if the Vikings, Packers, Chiefs and Dolphins all win.

And we haven’t even gotten to the Raiders, who somehow stayed alive in Week 16. The Raiders complete a remarkable story and make the playoffs if they beat the Broncos, the Steelers and Titans lose, the Colts win and the Raiders clinch strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Steelers (which requires one of the Bears, Lions, Chargers or Patriots winning).

Got all that?

• Let’s get to the easiest piece of the NFC puzzle first. The No. 4 seed will be the NFC East champion. The Eagles take the title if they beat or tie the Giants or if the Cowboys lose to or tie the Redskins. The Cowboys win the East if they beat Washington and the Eagles lose to New York. Given the Eagles’ struggles at home to the Giants a few weeks ago, a win over the 4-11 Giants can’t be guaranteed. Then again, neither can a Cowboys win over anyone. But one of those teams will host a game against the NFC West runner up on wild-card weekend.

• The biggest game of the week happens last. The San Francisco 49ers face the Seattle Seahawks on “Sunday Night Football.” The winner takes the NFC West, the loser gets the No. 5 seed and a road game at the NFC East champ.

The 49ers are the No. 1 seed with a win. And given the Seahawks’ injury issues, we’re projecting that to happen. But wait, there’s more.

• Let’s look at the seeding and bye scenarios for the NFC if the 49ers win. San Francisco would be No. 1. The second bye will go to the Green Bay Packers if they beat the Detroit Lions or if the New Orleans Saints lose to the Carolina Panthers. The Packers and Saints are both expected to win big.

The Saints are in the frightening spot of going 13-3 yet having to play on wild-card weekend. If the 49ers and Packers win, the Saints are the No. 3 seed. Life isn’t fair.

• The Seahawks are in the terrible spot of rooting for Matt Patricia’s Detroit Lions to get a win on Sunday.

The Seahawks need the Lions to beat the Packers to have a shot at a first-round bye. The Seahawks get the No. 1 seed if they beat the 49ers and the Packers and Saints lose. They get the No. 2 seed if they win and the Packers lose. If the Seahawks win and the Packers win, the Saints clinch a first-round bye.

• Clearly, the Packers had a great Week 16. Now they just need to take care of business against a Lions team that is 1-11 since Sept. 22.

The Packers get a bye with a win over the Lions or a Saints loss. If the Packers win early Sunday, their scenario is pretty simple heading into the Sunday night game: They’re the No. 1 seed if the Seahawks win and the No. 2 seed if the 49ers win.

No matter what else happens, if the Packers beat the 3-11-1 Lions on Sunday, they’re one win at Lambeau Field from the NFC championship game.

• The Saints could end Sunday as the No. 1 seed, with the NFC playoffs going through the Superdome, or perhaps as the No. 3 seed at 13-3, having to host a tough Vikings team on wild-card weekend. That’s a huge swing.

The Saints get the No. 1 seed with a win, a Packers loss and a 49ers loss. So we have another team that needs to root for the Lions to win in Week 17. Good luck.

The Saints still get a bye with any of these scenarios, and one even includes them losing to the Panthers:

Saints win + Packers loss or tie OR ...

Saints win + 49ers loss or tie OR ...

Saints tie + Packers loss OR ...

Saints tie + 49ers loss OR ...

49ers loss + Packer win or tie

Let’s just hope for no ties in Week 17; the playoff picture is complicated enough without them.

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab