How the Cowboys, Bengals and Every Mediocre NFL Team Can Still Make the 2017 Playoffs

Heading into the final quarter of the NFL regular season, and the playoff picture for 2017 remains murky—in the AFC at least.

The strength of the NFC is reflected in the Panthers, Seahawks, Rams and Saints occupying fairly comfortable Wild Card places in the current standings.

Ahead of Monday Night Football between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, though, there are as many as five AFC teams looking outside in with some hope. Here's how the crowded field in the center of the NFL standings can still make the playoffs.


Somehow still alive in the Wild Card race, though it's going to take some salmon-esque leaping for Marvin Lewis's team to exit the playoffs again in the first round. The Bengals' main problem in a weak AFC are the suddenly-hot Ravens, currently the sixth seed and second in the AFC North at 7-5. For the Bengals to go into their final regular-season game, against the Ravens in Baltimore on December 31, with a chance of a Wild Card they probably need to beat three out of the Steelers, Bears, Vikings and Lions. They will need some help from the Raiders, Bills and Chargers too, all of whom currently sit ahead of them in the AFC standings.

Verdict: Not happening.


Somehow the Chiefs are still holding onto first place in the AFC West, and the fourth seed in the AFC, despite being pretty much useless since the middle of October. Andy Reid's team dropped its fourth straight game on Sunday and conceded 38 points to the Jets. The Chiefs were so good in the first half of the season though that they still have some wriggle room. Three of their four remaining games are divisional encounters, against the Raiders, Chargers and Broncos. Before the finale in Denver, the Chiefs host the Dolphins at Arrowhead. They should still win the weirdest division in football. Raiders and Chargers, feel appropriately ashamed.

Verdict: In as AFC West winners or a Wild Card. Somehow.


No one knows what the Chargers are going to do from week to week, perhaps least of all the Chargers. They just about got past the winless Browns on Sunday, 19-10, though you still get the feeling that if they did sneak into the playoffs then Melvin Gordon and a dominant pass-rush could go surprisingly deep. Provided Philip Rivers can keep the ball safe. The Chargers' season looks like it will hinge on games against the Chiefs and Raiders on December 17 and 31.

Verdict: Could win the AFC West; more likely to miss out altogether, spectacularly and painfully.


Stiff-armed by the Patriots and Tom Brady as usual on Sunday, Sean McDermott's team can still catch the Ravens and Chiefs. Three of the Bills' four remaining games are against the Dolphins and Colts (the other is against the Patriots), so a 9-7 season looks possible. Tyrod Taylor may be hurt, though, which means Nathan Peterman may have to win three out of four games. Remember what happened the first and last time he started?

Verdict: The NFL's longest playoff drought continues.


Weirdly, if the Raiders can scrape into the playoffs then they will probably be in a better position than last season, when they finished 12-4 but had to start Connor Cook against the Texans in the AFC Wild Card Game after Derek Carr broke his leg. Their remaining schedule looks pretty brutal, though. Jack Del Rio's team hosts the Cowboys after traveling to the Chiefs, before road games to end the season against the Eagles and Chargers.

Verdict: Slow start to the season and a tough finish will leave Carr on the outside looking in.

DeMarcus Lawrence of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, November 30.
DeMarcus Lawrence of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, November 30. The Cowboys are one of several NFC teams in the race for a Wild Card playoff place. Wesley Hitt/Getty


Even when Matthew Stafford is perfect, the Lions struggle for consistency. Stafford wasn't perfect on Sunday against the Ravens, turning the ball over twice in a loss that may seal the Lions' fate this season. They will need to finish 10-6 to have any chance of catching the Panthers or Seahawks—the Vikings having already pretty much wrapped up the NFC North.

Verdict: The NFC's Wild Card teams are too strong and the Lions are too beaten up and inconsistent. Another wasted season for Stafford.


The earliest Green Bay can have Aaron Rodgers back is Week 15 against the Panthers. Before that Brett Hundley will have to beat the Browns. Then a hopefully-healthy-again Rodgers is going to have to win out against the Vikings and Lions. The Packers look too far off already. But they, and Rodgers, have done this kind of thing before.

Verdict: A win over the Panthers on December 17 will make Carolina nervous.


The 'Boys found a way to win without Ezekiel Elliott against the Redskins on Thursday Night Football. That probably kept their season alive, and although their remaining schedule is hard, the Cowboys get Elliott back for Week 16 against the Seahawks. In a nice coincidence, Seattle is one team the Cowboys really need to lose, at least twice, in the final quarter of the regular season.

Verdict: Beating the Seahawks in Week 16 would make things interesting, but the Cowboys would probably only help the teams above them in the end.