Five playoff spots and multiple seeding battles remain, with 32 games left in the 2022 NFL regular season. The possible permutations of how those 32 games could go are virtually endless. So we’re focusing on one specific scenario: chalk.
Using ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), we determined the most likely seed combination in each conference. We then picked a single simulation that yielded that pure chalk playoff seeding to forecast scores for each game and simulate the postseason. There’s a 9% chance the NFC seeds are in the exact order that’s written below, and there’s a 12% chance of the same occurring for the AFC. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s a fairly high probability for an exact hit; both numbers are higher than when we did this exercise last season.
So we’re going to break down these final two weeks based on how ESPN’s FPI sees it playing out in simulation No. 5,899, which yields the chalk playoff field. Who snuck into the playoffs? Who landed the No. 1 seed? And who fell just short of the postseason? Let’s take a look into the FPI’s crystal ball.
Scores: Week 17 | Week 18
Final standings: AFC | NFC
Projected Week 17 scores
VALLEY-TEN: Cowboys 16, Titans 13
ARI-ATL: Falcons 22, Cardinals 21
PIT-BALL: Steelers 13, Ravens 10
CHI-DET: Bears 37, Lions 29
MIN-GB: Packers 23, Vikings 16
JAX-HOU: Texans 30, Jaguars 16
DEN-KC: Chiefs 45, Broncos 7
LAR-LAC: Chargers 49, Rams 27
SF-LV: Raiders 23, 49ers 16
MIA-NE: Patriots 13, Dolphins 10
IND-NYG: Giants 34, Colts 0
NO-PHI: Eagles 44, Saints 27
NYJ-SEA: Seahawks 13, Jets 6
CAR-TB: Buccaneers 24, Panthers 21
CLE-WSH: Commanders 41, Browns 10
BUF-CIN: Bills 37, Bengals 9
The story of Week 17 is a playoff picture that comes slightly more into focus but still remains blurry heading into the season’s final week.
In the NFC wild-card battle, the Giants lock up one spot with a decisive victory over the Colts. But the last wild-card spot remains up for grabs as the Lions stumble — Justin Fields and the Bears’ ground game drop 37 points on Detroit’s defense — while the Packers, Seahawks and Commanders all pick up wins.
In the AFC wild-card race, the Dolphins lose at New England, hurting their playoff chances. The Jets fall to the Seahawks, knocking New York out of the race.
The Steelers beat the Ravens, which keeps Pittsburgh alive. That also would have hurt Baltimore’s chances to win the AFC North … except the Bengals also lose in blowout fashion to the Bills, meaning that division comes down to Week 18.
Projected Week 18 scores
TB-ATL: Buccaneers 34, Falcons 17
NE-BUF: Bills 27, Patriots 17
MIN-CHI: Bears 34, Vikings 24
BAL-CIN: Bengals 31, Ravens 25
LAC-DEN: Broncos 41, Chargers 33
DET-GB: Packers 37, Lions 10
HOU-IND: Texans 16, Colts 10
TEN-JAX: Jaguars 30, Titans 6
KC-LV: Chiefs 35, Raiders 27
NYJ-MIA: Dolphins 19, Jets 17
CAR-NO: Saints 21, Panthers 20
NYG-PHI: Eagles 31, Giants 15
CLE-PIT: Browns 20, Steelers 12
ARI-SF: 49ers 31, Cardinals 22
LAR-SEA: Rams 23, Seahawks 16
DAL-WSH: Cowboys 47, Commanders 7
The most notable development of Week 18? The Packers’ improbable run to the postseason after a year of mostly forgettable football. Simultaneously, the Lions — who looked like they were barreling towards a wild-card berth a few weeks prior — skid to a halt with a three-game losing streak to finish the season. Green Bay also needed a Commanders loss, and it got it and then some from a Cowboys blowout of Washington.
The Jaguars beat the Titans to win the AFC South crown. The Bengals beat the Ravens to win the AFC North and set up a rematch the following week — also in Cincinnati — in the wild-card round.
And the Dolphins, who cut it way too close, hung on against the Jets to snap a five-game losing streak and earn a wild-card berth.
Projecting how the AFC plays out
1. Buffalo Bills (14-3)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (14-3)
3. Cincinnati Bengals (12-5)
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-9)
5. Los Angeles Chargers (10-7)
6. Baltimore Ravens (10-7)
7. Miami Dolphins (9-8)
8. New England Patriots (8-9)
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-9)
10. New York Jets (7-10)
11. Tennessee Titans (7-10)
12. Cleveland Browns (7-10)
13. Las Vegas Raiders (7-10)
14. Denver Broncos (5-12)
15. Houston Texans (4-12-1)
16. Indianapolis Colts (4-12-1)
Bills secure top seed in AFC: Buffalo entered the final two weeks in control of its own destiny for the No. 1 seed but with two challengers hot in pursuit. The Bills sit at 12-3 — the same record as Kansas City but with a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Chiefs and a game up on the Bengals, their Week 17 opponent. For Buffalo, the task is simple: Take care of business and earn a bye. And that’s exactly what the Bills do, turning up the offensive heat to blow out the Bengals 37-9 in Week 17 before taking care of the division-rival Patriots in Week 18 by 10 points to finish 14-3. Josh Allen & Co. can take a week off before their postseason begins.
Bengals beat out Ravens for AFC North: In recent weeks, it has felt inevitable that the red-hot Bengals would win this division over the stumbling Ravens. But after both teams lose in Week 17, it comes down to a Week 18 contest. And with a healthy Lamar Jackson back in the fray, this is no gimme for Cincinnati. Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and the Cincinnati offense get it done, though, dropping 31 points on the Ravens in a one-score Week 18 contest, giving the Bengals home-field advantage for their postseason rematch a week later.
Jaguars come back to steal AFC South crown: It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t even a .500 record. But the Jaguars steal a division title by sneaking past the sinking Titans, as Jacksonville delivers the final blow in a 30-6 rout in Week 18. Trevor Lawrence is superb once again for the Jags, while the Titans’ Malik Willis-led offense could never get going. The win sets up a spicy Justin Herbert vs. Lawrence wild-card matchup.
Dolphins cling to playoff spot: After losing in Week 17 to New England, Miami doesn’t control its destiny entering Week 18, needing a win and a Patriots loss to get in. But the two-leg parlay hit: The Dolphins narrowly escaped the Mike White-led Jets in a 19-17 win, while the Bills knocked out New England. Miami makes for a dangerous No. 7 seed and sets up an exciting offensive matchup against the Chiefs in the wild-card round.
Projecting how the NFC plays out
1. Philadelphia Eagles (15-2)
2. San Francisco 49ers (12-5)
3. Minnesota Vikings (12-5)
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-8)
5. Dallas Cowboys (13-4)
6. New York Giants (9-7-1)
7. Green Bay Packers (9-8)
8. Washington Commanders (8-8-1)
9. Seattle Seahawks (8-9)
10. New Orleans Saints (7-10)
11. Detroit Lions (7-10)
12. Los Angeles Rams (6-11)
13. Carolina Panthers (6-11)
14. Atlanta Falcons (6-11)
15. Chicago Bears (5-12)
16. Arizona Cardinals (4-13)
Eagles lock up No. 1 seed in Week 17: After the Cowboys beat the Gardner Minshew-led Eagles in Week 16, there was very brief No. 1-seed drama. But the Eagles put that to rest quickly, taking down the Saints decisively in Week 17 to sew up the top spot and ensure some rest before the playoffs.
49ers wrestle No. 2 seed from Vikings: The scorching-hot Niners trip up in Week 17, unexpectedly dropping a game to the Jarrett Stidham-led Raiders. But the door to the No. 2 seed was left ajar by the Vikings also stumbling against the Packers. And then the Vikings suffer an upset loss to the Bears in the final week of the season, which allows Brock Purdy and the 49ers to swoop in for the No. 2 seed with a win over the Cardinals, ensuring home-field advantage in the divisional round.
Buccaneers hang on to NFC South crown: A lot hinges on the Bucs’ Week 17 contest with the Panthers. Win? The Bucs are in. Solve? Things get complicated. But in this case, Tom Brady and the Bucs get it done, snagging a weak divisional crown despite a mostly miserable season. The Panthers give them a run for it, but Brady leads a drive for a game-winning field goal to give Tampa Bay the 24-21 decision.
Packers charge into playoffs: Following a 40-33 Week 12 loss to the Eagles, the Packers looked done. At the time, the FPI gave Green Bay only a 3% chance to reach the postseason. But the thing about a 3% chance? It can still happen, and that’s what occurs here. The Packers go on a five-game winning streak to close out the year with a 9-8 record — finishing with a win over the Lions (while the Commanders lose to the Cowboys) to get into the postseason. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers aren’t out just yet.
Cardinals grab No. 1 overall draft pick in late-season stunner: Arizona has just a 2% chance to earn the No. 1 overall selection entering the final two weeks of play, but that’s precisely what happens in this simulation. To close out the campaign, the Texans and Bears win twice, the Broncos win once and the Cardinals lose twice — which improbably results in Arizona taking that top pick. It presents all sorts of opportunities and questions about the future of the Cardinals’ leadership and the direction of the franchise and, at a minimum, gives the team a tremendous asset to jump-start a rebuild.
What to expect in the playoffs
Projected wild-card matchups
(7) Dolphins at (2) Chiefs
(6) Ravens at (3) Bengals
(5) Chargers at (4) Jaguars
(7) Packers at (2) 49ers
(6) Giants at (3) Vikings
(5) Cowboys at (4) Buccaneers
Who goes all the way? Well, it’s just one simulation, but we can tell you how it plays out in World No. 5,899. The Cowboys knock out the Eagles in the divisional round, ending Philadelphia’s tremendous season. That sets up the Cowboys against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, while the Bills and Chiefs square off in an AFC Championship Game of two heavyweights. Dallas comes through again, while Buffalo gets its revenge over Kansas City for the past two postseasons. In the end … the Bills win the Super Bowl!
Note: ESPN’s Hank Gargiulo and Lauren Poe contributed to this story.