With five weeks left before the NFL playoff seeds are set, we have a pretty clear picture of the teams that are in the running and the teams that are not. However, no one is locked into a playoff spot yet, as the Seahawks held off the Rams clinching the NFC West for one more week with their win on Sunday. The NFC playoff picture is more clear cut at the top after the Bears win on Thanksgiving, but there are still six teams with 20-percent odds or better to make the playoffs, with just three spots remaining.
So, let’s take a look at each team and their playoff odds (using Football Outsiders’ calculation), along with their remaining schedule, to lay out what the NFC playoff picture looks like at this point. We’ll be separating the teams into three tiers: locks, likely, and work to do. Locks is any team at 90% or above, likely is 60% or above and work to do is well, anything below that.
New Orleans Saints
Playoff Odds: 100%, Remaining Games: @Cowboys, @Bucs, @Panthers, vs. Steelers, vs. Panthers
Since the inexplicable 48-40 loss to Tampa Bay to start the season, the Saints have been a buzz saw, ripping off 10 straight wins, the longest streak in the league. Due to a win over the Rams in October, they are in the driver’s seat for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. However, their schedule is much more difficult than L.A.’s the rest of the way. Only one sub-.500 team (Tampa) along with a road game in Dallas, home date with Pittsburgh and a home-and-home with the Panthers. There’s a chance they drop to the two spot, simply because of the difficult schedule.
Los Angeles Rams
Playoff Odds: 100%, Remaining Games: @Lions, @Bears, vs. Eagles, @Cardinals, vs. 49ers
The Rams, at 10-1, could have clinched the NFC West division had the Seahawks lost this past Sunday to the Panthers. Instead, they now need to win this week to clinch the division and assure themselves a playoff spot. But this group likely has higher goals in mind, at the very least having a first-round bye. With a favorable schedule, featuring four sub-.500 teams left, the Rams should very well achieve that goal. The biggest game left is the road game against the Bears, which will be a fascinating test of offense vs. defense, with the Rams the league’s second-best offense by DVOA (31.3%) and the Bears the top-ranked defense (-20.9%).
Playoff Odds: 97%, Remaining Games: @Giants, vs. Rams, vs. Packers, @49ers, @Vikings
The Bears, as we noted above, have been dominant defensively, outside of a pair of weird performances against the Dolphins and Patriots earlier this year. To be fair, Khalil Mack was hobbled by injury for those games, and he’s clearly had a massive effect on this defense. He’s back healthy now, but quarterback Mitch Trubisky is not. Trubisky missed the team’s Thanksgiving game with an AC joint sprain, and his status for this week against the Giants is “up in the air“. Still, the Bears should be able to get past the Giants with Chase Daniel. As noted above, the Rams matchup is fascinating, but whether they win is up in the air. The Packers in three weeks looks like the game to highlight, because if the Bears win that game, the NFC North is basically wrapped up.
Playoff Odds: 74.2%, Remaining Games: vs. 49ers, vs. Vikings, @49ers, vs. Chiefs, vs. Cardinals
The Seahawks are ranked just outside the top 10 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric on both offense and defense (11th in both). Russell Wilson has had another strong year, taking care of the football by throwing just five interceptions against 25 touchdowns. The running game has been strong this season, going under 100 yards just three times this season and going over 150 yards seven times. The Chiefs and Vikings matchups are the biggest potholes left on the schedule, but they do both come at home.
Playoff Odds: 65.8%, Remaining Games: @Patriots, @Seahawks, vs. Dolphins, @Lions, vs. Bears
Speaking of the Vikings, they have the far more difficult schedule of the two teams listed here and arguably the most difficult schedule of any of the teams in this post. The biggest problem for Minnesota this season has been offensive regression, as Kirk Cousins hasn’t provided a meaningful upgrade over Case Keenum’s play last season with the unit dropping from fifth to 17th in DVOA. The defense has rounded into form after some early struggles, but they’ll need better from Kirk Cousins and company down the stretch to make the playoffs.
Work To Do
Playoff Odds: 51.1%, Remaining Games: vs. Saints, vs. Eagles, @Colts, vs. Buccaneers, @Giants
The reason the Cowboys find themselves here and not the category above is the matchups against the Saints, Eagles and Colts. They face the Saints juggernaut tonight, and if they win, their chances skyrocket. But, in the more likely event that they lose, they could be playing the Eagles for the division lead the following week. The Colts matchup is no cakewalk either, with Indy riding a five-game winning streak into this weekend. Dallas is the favorite to emerge from the East, because they have three of five games left at home, but they’re by no means a sure thing.
Playoff Odds: 38.1%, Remaining Games: @Eagles, vs. Giants, @Jaguars, @Titans, vs. Eagles
The schedule doesn’t look super daunting for Washington, until you realize that Colt McCoy is their starter the rest of the way. Combine that with a severely banged up offensive line, and you have a team that has gone from likely division winners to likely missing the playoffs. The injuries suffered by Washington just look like too much to overcome at this point in the season, but they still have a chance if they can win all three remaining division games.
Playoff Odds: 33.5%, Remaining Games: @Buccaneers, @Browns, vs. Saints, vs. Falcons, @Saints
The Panthers, like the Vikings, have an unfavorable schedule remaining for the playoff hunt. Two matchups with the Saints (though the second could be backups playing, depending on whether New Orleans has locked up home-field advantage), a game against Atlanta, and one against the improved Browns are not easy.
Playoff Odds: 21.1%, Remaining Games: vs. Redskins, @Cowboys, @Rams, vs. Texans, @Redskins
Aside from the Vikings, this may be the most difficult remaining slate for any of these teams. Three division games, two on the road, plus an away game against the Rams and home game against the streaking Texans makes for a hard December. The Eagles scraped by the Giants last week, but that kind of performance won’t get things done against this schedule. Unless the play we saw from the offensive line last week is real, the Super Bowl champs are unlikely to make a defense of their title.