At 10-0, the Pittsburgh Steelers hold a greater than 99% chance of a playoff berth. At 9-1, the Chiefs also hold a greater than 99% likelihood of making the playoffs this year. What if they both missed the playoffs? Is that even possible?
Even if Pittsburgh and Kansas City would each lose all of their remaining games, there would still be an 89.3% chance that one or the other makes the playoffs. It is a near certainty that we will see Pittsburgh and Kansas City in the playoffs … a near certainty.
Using FiveThirtyEight‘s NFL tool, we can hand-pick the winners of each remaining game in the 2020 NFL regular season. Our mission is to plan the craziest ending to an NFL season in history.
Imagine a world where the 4-7 Lions earn a playoff berth but the 10-0 Steelers blow it. What if 4-6 San Francisco isn’t out of it, either? What if Patrick Mahomes and the 9-1 Chiefs can’t hold onto their lead in the standings?
What if a team clinches the NFC East with only 5 wins? Imagine if the Browns owned the best record in football. Can we have a postseason without Tom Brady and Bill Belichick?
What if all these things happened? That’s our goal – to lay out the mathematically possible ending to 2020 which would give us the following postseason bracket:
Yep, take a look at that … soak that in. No Pittsburgh, no KC, no New England, no Tampa. Instead we have both the Bills and Dolphins, the Lions, the Raiders, and the 49ers.
Nope, this crazy scenario could happen … here’s how:
What Needs to Happen in the AFC
The Steelers lose out and drop from 10-0 to 10-6. The Chiefs lose out and fall from 9-1 to 9-7.
An additional win from either side would guarantee them a berth into the bracket, but they can’t do it. Pittsburgh and Kansas City both collapse down the stretch – removing their fates from their hands.
The Browns not only win the AFC North but hold onto the top spot in the AFC.
In this fantasy, Cleveland wins out and improves from 7-3 to 13-3 to take the top spot in the conference.
Cleveland getting to 13 wins is not necessary to keep the Chiefs and Steelers out of the playoffs. 11 wins will do, but somebody had to take the top spot – and I figured finding a way to get the Browns up there would be the wackiest outcome.
Baltimore gets to 11 wins in this fantasy – earning the 6 seed. It is important that Baltimore gets to 11 wins because they need to avoid a tiebreaker situation with the Steelers at 10-6.
One of these teams will win the AFC South and the other will be the best Wild Card in this scenario. We have the Colts improving to 12-4 and winning the South with Tennessee finishing 11-5 and taking the 5 seed.
As long as both teams finish above 11 wins, Pittsburgh will be forced into a race with Buffalo for the 7 seed.
Once again it does not matter whether the Bills or the Dolphins win their division, but both teams must get to 10 wins.
In this scenario, the Dolphins climb to 12-4 and win the East. The Bills sneak in at 10-6. The Steelers also finish 10-6, but Buffalo holds the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh.
With the Chiefs unable to get a Wild Card berth at 9-7, it is up to one of the other AFC West teams to win the division and eliminate the Chiefs from playoff contention.
In this scenario, Vegas holds on with a 10-6 record to take the 4 seed as the AFC West winner.
AFC Standings and Playoff Seeding
We played God with the 538 NFL tool and decided the outcome of each remaining NFL game. If the season shakes out as we pick ’em – the final standings in the AFC will look like this:
What Needs to Happen in the NFC
Winning out would make the Lions’ path to the playoffs much more simple. Detroit could sneak in at 8-8, though.
Winning out would give the Lions a 79% chance of making the playoffs. Losing one game drastically reduces those chances.
Detroit really really does not want to lose one of their remaining NFC games as these are critical both for head-to-head tiebreakers and conference record tiebreakers.
The best game for the Lions to lose, if they had to lose one, would be their game at AFC-opponent Tennessee. Let’s say the Lions lose this one and finish at 8-8 with a conference record of 7-5.
“Wild” NFC Wild Card Race
The Lions will be thrown into the middle of a messy race for the 3 NFC Wild Card berths. This race includes Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, Arizona, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta.
These 8 teams are all fighting for 3 playoff spots – and Detroit will have to finish ahead of at least 5 of them.
The Bears only win 2 of their remaining games to get to 7-9. The Vikings can’t get to .500 either – finishing at 7-9.
If Tampa were to only win 1 of their remaining games, they would finish at 8-8. Atlanta rallies furiously at the end of the season to improve their record to 8-8.
The Rams lose out to finish at 7-9.
With the Rams, Bucs, Falcons, Vikings, and Bears all stumbling down the stretch – the door is open for other NFC teams. Detroit sneaks in and so does San Francisco!
The 49ers finish 4-2 down the stretch – grab an 8-8 record and force
themselves into a 4-way tie with Detroit, Tampa, and Atlanta.
The winner of this tiebreaker is Detroit. The Lions get the 6 seed. San
Francisco wins the 7 seed. Tampa and Atlanta are out.
If all these things happen, the NFC standings at the end of the season would look like this:
Wait!! What is that?!? The Eagles win the East at 5-9-2?!? How is this possible?
Oh it’s possible alright … let me paint the picture.
Down the stretch, none of the NFC East teams seem to want to win the division. Washington wins 1 more game and improves to 5 wins. The Cowboys win a couple and also get to 5 wins.
New York is in the hunt too, as is Philly.
Philadelphia hosts Washington during the last week of the season – the division comes down to this game.
Philadelphia enters the contest with a record of 5-9-1. Remember that Philadelphia tied with Cincinnati early in the season to get that tie on the record.
Washington enters this game with a record of 5-10.
The stakes are simple: If Philadelphia wins, their record is 6-9-1 and they earn the 4 seed. If Washington wins, they improve to 6-10 and send Philadelphia home for the winter.
In the spirit of creating the wackiest end-of-season scenario imaginable, I turn to the only method that could give us a 5-win division winner – another tie.
Philadelphia plays to a tie with Washington in Week 17 – making their record 5-9-2, putting them a half game ahead of Washington who finishes 5-10-1.
Despite winning not even 1/3 of their games, Philadelphia would grab the 4 seed and get to host the 5 seed in the NFC Wild Card Round – the Arizona Cardinals.
Although the Cardinals have played better football this season, the spread would likely be very close as Kyler Murray has never played in the playoffs and many Eagles players have deep postseason experience.
Imagine the outrage if Philadelphia defends home field against Arizona and advances to the NFC Divisional Round.