An elongated and eventful Week 15 had a sizeable impact on the NFL playoff picture.
With the dust finally settling on a slate of games spread across six days on Tuesday, there is little time to reflect before Week 16 begins on Thursday.
But three teams who entered Week 15 firmly in the mix for a number one seed could end up looking back on the defeats they suffered as defining moments in their respective seasons.
After those potentially pivotal results, how is the playoff race shaping up?
Our rest-of-season projection allows us to forecast what the playoff picture will look like come the end of Week 18.
Every future game is projected to give a predicted win percentage for each team across its remaining games. Rather than being a simulator of future games, the projections are calculated by looking at each team’s quarterback and performance in terms of yards added in expected passing situations as well as team values for pass protection/pass rush, skill position players/coverage defenders and run blocking/run defense.
The projected win percentages are then aggregated to produce the forecasted standings, and it is the two teams who contested the first Super Bowl that are expected to be sitting pretty with first-round byes at the start of the postseason.
The Kansas City Chiefs, despite a largely unconvincing season, have control of the AFC at 10-4, the Patriots’ slip-up at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts giving Kansas City a one-game lead atop the conference.
That is where the Chiefs (projected win total of 12.4) are expected to remain, with the Patriots (10.8) forecast to host a rematch with the Colts (9.4) at Gillette Stadium after a 2-1 finish. Having jumped up to the fifth seed by virtue of their 27-17 victory over New England, the Colts are predicted to fall from 8-6 to 9-8 and finish as the seven seed despite facing the banged-up and slumping Arizona Cardinals, the Las Vegas Raiders and the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars over the last three games.
Even if they stumble into the postseason, few teams would relish facing the Colts, whose superb rushing attack could make them a tough nut to crack in the playoffs. Indianapolis star Jonathan Taylor is third among running backs with at least 100 carries with an average of 3.6 yards per rush on carries where the defense creates a run disruption.
The Tennessee Titans (10.6) would be among those undaunted by facing Indianapolis in the first round, having swept the Colts in the regular season, but the ROS projection has them ending the year as the third seed, losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with New England, and setting up a challenging encounter with the Los Angeles Chargers (10.0) and their explosive offense.
But the most intriguing matchup of Wild Card round if this projection were to prove accurate would give the Cincinnati Bengals (9.1) a home game against the Buffalo Bills (10.1) in what would be only the third playoff meeting between the two franchises.
With Joe Burrow going against Josh Allen, this game would see the most accurate quarterback take on one of the most aggressive. Burrow’s well-thrown percentage of 85 is the best among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts while only two quarterbacks have attempted more throws of 21 or more air yards than Allen (55), who has a passer rating of 107.2 on such passes.
The Green Packers (13.0) were the big winners from Week 15, holding off a comeback from the Baltimore Ravens to win a 31-30 thriller as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12.6) were shut out by the New Orleans Saints and the Cardinals (11.7) were stunned by the Detroit Lions.
Were the season to end right now, the NFC playoffs would go through Lambeau Field for the second consecutive season. Though the ROS projection does not expect the Packers to win out against the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Lions, they are still forecast to hold on to that position ahead of the Bucs, the conference record tiebreaker firmly in their favor.
Green Bay is 8-2 in conference while Tampa is 6-4 with both teams facing two more regular-season games against NFC opponents.
So even with what should be a routine road to a 13-4 finish, the Buccaneers face the prospect of having to navigate the Wild Card round again this season following their slip-up against New Orleans, though more daunting than a meeting with a seventh-seeded Philadelphia Eagles (9.1) team would be a possible Divisional Round matchup with the Los Angeles Rams (12.5).
Los Angeles claimed a 34-24 win in Week 3 against a Bucs team that had now injured star wide receiver Chris Godwin at their disposal, but to get the chance to replicate their road victory over Tampa Bay from last season the Rams would need to come through a battle of the two most efficient offenses in the NFL in a Wild Card clash with the San Francisco 49ers (10.1).
The Rams lead the league with 6.14 yards per play while the Niners, who have won five of their last six games, are second with an average of 5.97.
Both the Rams and the Cardinals are 10-4 going into the final three games, with the former predicted to win the NFC West likely in a tiebreaker over Arizona. Both the Cardinals and Cowboys (12.1) are expected to go 2-1 down the stretch and book a Wild Card meeting in Dallas.
The Cowboys are now tied for the league lead in takeaways with 31, making them an imposing test for a seemingly fading Cardinals offense and a quarterback in Kyler Murray whose pickable pass percentage of 4.09 is worse than the average for quarterbacks (min. 100 attempts) of 3.77.
Graphic design by Matt Sisneros