The 2021 N.F.L. Playoff Picture, Explained

With 12 weeks in the books and teams having five or six games left to play, it’s the time of year when the playoffs start seeming imminent. Who are the chief contenders, and what kind of chance does your team have?

Luckily, The New York Times offers a playoff simulator that can give insight into these questions. It gives playoff chances for every team, and also lets you see how those change based on hypothetical results going forward.

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

Some teams are already virtual locks to be playing in the postseason.

Start with the Packers (9-3). They are an imposing three and a half games up in the N.F.C. North. Similarly, the Cardinals (9-2) have a two-game lead in the N.F.C. West, the Buccaneers (8-3) are three up in the N.F.C. South and the Titans (8-4) are two up in the A.F.C. South. The simulator gives each of these teams a 98-plus percent chance of making the playoffs.

Could one of these teams actually miss the playoffs? Well, sure, it’s theoretically possible. In the unlikely event that the Packers lose all their remaining games, and the Vikings win all theirs, the Packers would blow the division title. But the simulator estimates the Pack would still have a 73 percent chance to get into the playoffs as a wild card.

The other current division leaders are all looking pretty good, too. The Cowboys (7-4), two up in the N.F.C. East; the Ravens (8-3), one up in the A.F.C. North; and the Chiefs (7-4), one up in the A.F.C. West, are all given between an 84 and 92 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The most interesting race is probably in the A.F.C. East, where the Patriots (8-4) narrowly lead the Bills (7-4). The simulator is calling that a 50-50 race right now, with this coming Monday’s game between the teams looming large. But no matter who wins, the loser has a strong chance of grabbing a wild card.

If we count those nine teams in, five more slots remain. Remember, the N.F.L. expanded the postseason field to 14 teams ahead of the 2020 season. Quite a few teams have a puncher’s chance of landing those spots.

The Rams (7-4) and 49ers (6-5) are the only other two teams in the N.F.C. with winning records, and both look good to advance, barring a collapse. The final spot is up for grabs. Among the teams with 20 percent or more chances, according to the simulator, are, in order of likelihood, the Vikings (5-6), the Saints (5-6), the Washington Football Team (5-6) and the Eagles (5-7). Although all four could be considered disappointments so far, one is probably going to be playing postseason ball.

In a quirk of scheduling, the Eagles still have two games remaining against Washington. If one team sweeps those games it will be in a lot better shape.

The A.F.C. is deeper; a few decent teams are going to miss out. Once we account for the division leaders and whoever loses the Pats-Bills game, there are only two spots left.

Three teams seem to be in the best position for those two spots: the Bengals (7-4), Chargers (6-5) and Colts (6-6). Four other teams still have realistic hopes: the Broncos (6-5), Browns (6-6), Raiders (6-5) and Steelers (5-5-1). Top to bottom, the A.F.C. West and North have been impressive; all four teams in each division still have a chance.

Let’s go right to the bottom: the Lions at 0-10-1 are all but mathematically eliminated.

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

Yeah, maybe the Jaguars win out (sure). If so, their 8-9 record would get them in the playoffs only about 2 percent of the time, the simulator estimates.

A few other teams have playoff dreams that are not entirely extinguished: The Falcons, Panthers, Giants, Dolphins and Bears could make the playoffs if everything breaks right.

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

Of course actually winning those games is a lot harder than punching some scenarios into the simulator.

Just one team in each conference gets a coveted bye, and it’s too soon to make an authoritative prediction. As of now the simulator’s top three candidates in the A.F.C. are the Patriots (27 percent), Titans (24 percent) and Ravens (24 percent). In the N.F.C. they are the Cardinals (39 percent), Packers (36 percent) and Bucs (18 percent).

The playoff simulator doesn’t pretend to outthink Las Vegas: Don’t hurry to bet a fortune on this. But it does offer a guess as to each team’s championship chances. Right now the Cardinals, Packers, Buccaneers, Patriots and Chiefs are all estimated to have a roughly 10 percent chance of winning it all. While some playoff teams seem like locks, there is plenty more uncertainty ahead.

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