N.F.L. Sunday: The A.F.C.’s Last Two Berths Have Five Contenders

For a generation of football fans, early January has meant the start of the N.F.L. playoffs. This year, thanks to the expanded, 17-game regular season, the postseason slate won’t be locked in until the end of the second weekend of 2022, where five A.F.C. teams will fight for the two remaining berths and the San Francisco 49ers need to win against the Los Angeles Rams for the final spot in the N.F.C.

What happened on Saturday

The two games completed on Saturday went according to seed, keeping the winners alive for higher playoff seeding. Kansas City, which beat the Denver Broncos, kept itself in the running for the top seed in the A.F.C. and a first-round bye, and ended any long-shot chance that New England or Cincinnati might take the No. 1 seed for themselves.

But Kansas City needs the Tennessee Titans (11-5) to lose to the Houston Texans (4-12) Sunday, since the Titans hold the head-to-head advantage after beating the Chiefs in their Week 7 matchup.

The late game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles was mostly meaningless — and lifeless, since the Eagles rested Jalen Hurts, the starting quarterback, and had a raft of Covid-19-related absences — but will help determine both teams’ seeding in the N.F.C.

Sunday’s early games

Among the early games starting at 1 p.m. Eastern time, the Titans can sew up the No. 1 seed in the A.F.C. if they beat the lowly Texans (CBS). That would wipe out Kansas City’s hopes for the top seed and the first-round bye.

2021 N.F.L. Season News and Analysis

  • Playoff Picture: Explore every team’s path to the postseason on the final weekend of regular-season games, updated live.
  • Week 18 Predictions: Our picks against the spread.
  • Saturday’s N.F.L. Games: The Cowboys held onto their shot at the N.F.C.’s No. 2 seed by beating the Eagles, and Kansas City’s defense powered it to a win over the Broncos.
  • The Season That Ran Too Long: With only one true elimination game, Week 18’s bloat should feel anticlimactic.

The Indianapolis Colts (9-7) can clinch one of the two remaining A.F.C. wild-card berths if they beat the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14), one of the league’s worst teams (CBS). If they do, it will close the door on the playoffs for both the Baltimore Ravens (8-8) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1), who play each other on CBS. (The Steelers can get into the playoffs with a win and a Colts loss; the Ravens would need a win, a Colts loss and some more help.)

The Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) have already won the A.F.C. North, but with Kansas City’s win on Saturday, their game against the Cleveland Browns (7-9) on Fox can no longer help their pursuit of the No. 1 seed.

Sunday’s late afternoon games

The Buffalo Bills (10-6) and New England Patriots (10-6) both have secured a playoff spot, and are battling for the A.F.C. East crown, which will greatly affect their seeding. Both teams play starting at 4:25 p.m. Eastern, with the Bills facing the Jets (4-12) on CBS and the Patriots traveling to Miami to play the Dolphins (8-8), also on CBS.

To win the N.F.C. West, the Arizona Cardinals (11-5) must beat the Seattle Seahawks (6-10) on Fox and hope that the Los Angeles Rams (12-4) lose to the San Francisco 49ers (9-7), also on Fox. If the Rams win, they take the division title.

The late afternoon games will settle who secures the last wild-card berth in the N.F.C. The 49ers will make the postseason if they beat the Rams or if the New Orleans Saints (8-8) lose to the Atlanta Falcons (7-9) on Fox. The Saints would sneak into the playoffs with a win and if the 49ers lose.

Sunday’s prime-time game

The last game of the regular season, kicking off at 8:20 p.m. Eastern on NBC, will have particular consequence: The winner of the matchup between the Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) and Las Vegas Raiders (9-7) will secure the last wild-card berth. The Raiders have a narrow path of last resort if they lose: They could also get in if the Colts and Steelers both lose.

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