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The 2021 NFL playoff image, explained

With 12 weeks on the books and with teams having five or six games to go, this is the time of year when the playoffs start to look just around the corner. Who are the main contenders and what are the odds of your team?

Fortunately, the New York Times has a great tool, the Upshot Playoff Simulator, that can provide insight into these questions. This gives playoff chances for each team and also allows you to see how the playoffs change based on hypothetical results going forward.

Here’s where things stand ahead of Thursday night’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints.

Some teams are already virtual locks to play in the playoffs.

Start with the Packers (9-3). They are three and a half impressive games in the NFC North. Likewise, the Cardinals (9-2) have a two-game lead in the NFC West, the Buccaneers (8-3) are three in the NFC South and the Titans (8-4) are two in the AFC South. The simulator gives each of these teams a more than 98% chance of qualifying for the playoffs.

Could any of these teams actually miss the playoffs? Well, of course that’s theoretically possible. In the unlikely event that the Packers lose all of their remaining games and the Vikings win all of theirs, the Packers will blow up the division title. But the simulator estimates that the Pack would still have a 73% chance of qualifying for the playoffs as a wild card.

The other current division heads also look pretty good. The cowboys (7-4), two more in the NFC East; the Ravens (8-3), one in the AFC North; and the Chefs (7-4), one more in the AFC West, all have between 84 and 92 percent chances of making the playoffs.

The most interesting race is probably that of the AFC Est, where the Patriots (8-4) narrowly lead the Invoices (7-4). The simulator is calling it a 50-50 race right now, with next Monday’s game between the teams looming on the horizon. But no matter who wins, the loser has a good chance of winning a wild card.

If we count those nine teams, there are five more places left. Remember, the NFL expanded the playoff field to 14 teams ahead of the 2020 season. Many teams have a chance to secure those spots.

The Rams (7-4) and 49ers (6-5) are the only two other NFC teams to break records, and both look good to move forward, barring a collapse. The last place is up for grabs. Among the teams with 20 percent or more chances, depending on the simulator, are, in order of probability, the Vikings (5-6), the Saints (5-6), the Washington Soccer Team (5-6) and the Eagles (5-7). While all four can be seen as disappointments so far, one of them will likely play the playoff ball.

In a scheduling oddity, the Eagles have two more games to go against Washington. If a team sweeps away those games, they’ll be in much better shape.

The AFC is deeper; a few decent teams will be missing. Once we factor in the division heads and whoever loses the Pats-Bills match, there are only two spots left.

Three teams seem to be the best placed for these two places: the Bengals (7-4), Chargers (6-5) and Foals (6-6). Four other teams still have realistic hopes: the Broncos (6-5), brown (6-6), Raiders (6-5) and Steelers (5-5-1). From top to bottom, AFC West and North have been impressive; the four teams from each division still have a chance.

Let’s go all the way down: the the Lions at 0-10-1 are virtually eliminated mathematically.

At least four other teams are so close to being eliminated that you might as well cross them out now: the Jaguars (2-9), Texans (2-9), Jets (3-8) and Seahawks (3-8).

Yeah, maybe the Jaguars will win (of course). If so, their 8-9 record would only put them in the playoffs about 2% of the time, the simulator estimates.

A few other teams have playoff dreams that aren’t entirely extinguished: Falcons, Panthers, Giants, Dolphins and Bear could make the playoffs if all goes well.

Let’s give Big Blue fans some hope, shall we? The Giants are currently 4-7, a lousy record. But win their last six and they would be 10-7, almost certainly in the playoffs! Hey, even just winning their remaining three games against division rivals will put them in a decent position.

Of course, winning these games is much more difficult than inserting certain scenarios into the simulator.

Only one team in each conference gets a coveted goodbye, and it’s too early to make an authoritative prediction. Right now, the top three simulator contenders in the AFC are the Patriots (27%), Titans (24%) and Ravens (24%). In the NFC, it’s the Cardinals (39%), Packers (36%) and Bucs (18%).

The playoff simulator doesn’t pretend to overtake Las Vegas – don’t be in a rush to bet a fortune on it. But it does offer an estimate of the championship chances of each team. Right now, Cardinals, Packers, Buccaneers, Patriots, and Chiefs are all estimated to have about a 10 percent chance of winning it all. While some playoff teams appear to be lockdowns, there is a lot more uncertainty ahead.

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