Projecting final standings, playoffs for the 2023 NFL season

BySeth Walder ESPN logo
Thursday, December 21, 2023

With only three weeks and 48 games remaining in the 2023 NFL regular season, there are 26 teams still mathematically alive for the playoffs. Yes, Giants -- even you.

The number of permutations off those 48 games is impossibly large, so today we're going to focus on one scenario: chalk. Technically, we're looking for a specific kind of chalk -- the most common outcome of each conference. In other words, when we simulate the rest of the season 10,000 times using ESPN'sFootball Power Index(FPI), which combination of seven seeds occurs most often in each conference?

These seed combinations are still not particularly likely given all the uncertainty. There is a 5% chance that the NFC playoff field is exactly what you see below and only a 1% chance the AFC field is what's described here. But those are the most likely precise outcomes for each conference. There were exactly two simulations in which both conferences hit their most common outcome, and we have chosen one to demonstrate how the rest of the season could play out.

We did a similar exercise a year ago in which we simulated the final two weeks of the 2022 season. Our simulation correctly identified all seven AFC teams and got seed Nos. 3-7 correct, while also getting six of the seven NFC teams and their seeds right.

Let's dive into simulation No. 5,639 for the remaining 2023 games.

Jump to:

Week 16 | Week 17| Week 18

Final standings: AFC| NFC

Projected Week 16 scores

NO-LAR: Saints 30, Rams 28

CIN-PIT: Steelers 24, Bengals 23

BUF-LAC: Bills 33, Chargers 27

IND-ATL: Colts 17, Falcons 16

SEA-TEN: Titans 20, Seahawks 13

DET-MIN: Lions 16, Vikings 14

WSH-NYJ: Commanders 27, Jets 17

GB-CAR: Packers 30, Panthers 9

CLE-HOU: Texans 33, Browns 10

JAX-TB: Jaguars 28, Buccaneers 11

ARI-CHI: Bears 17, Cardinals 9

DAL-MIA: Cowboys 31, Dolphins 26

NE-DEN: Broncos 23, Patriots 13

LV-KC: Chiefs 27, Raiders 3

NYG-PHI: Eagles 40, Giants 14

BAL-SF: 49ers 31, Ravens 20

Week 16 tightened many key races. The Ravens lost to the 49ers while the Chiefs won, upping the temperature of the No. 1-seed race in the AFC. The Cowboys beat the Dolphins, while the Bills beat the Chargers, increasing the pressure on Miami with the Bills bearing down in the AFC East (and with a game between the two still to come).

The Eagles held serve with a win in the first of three easy games to finish their schedule, but the Cowboys' victory kept the heat on Philadelphia, too. In the NFC South, the Saints took a tenuous lead.

At the bottom of the AFC playoff picture, the Colts and Texans moved their postseason chances to roughly a 2-in-3 shot by dispatching the Falcons and Browns, respectively. For its part, Cleveland remained in a strong position despite the loss.

In the NFC wild-card race, it was a good week for Green Bay, as the Packers won while the Vikings, Seahawks and Rams all lost.

Projected Week 17 scores

NYJ-CLE: Browns 31, Jets 30

DET-DAL: Cowboys 33, Lions 28

NE-BUF: Bills 35, Patriots 21

ATL-CHI: Bears 24, Falcons 16

LV-IND: Colts 34, Raiders 20

LAR-NYG: Rams 25, Giants 6

ARI-PHI: Eagles 31, Cardinals 22

NO-TB: Buccaneers 37, Saints 17

SF-WSH: 49ers 31, Commanders 13

CAR-JAX: Jaguars 48, Panthers 24

MIA-BAL: Dolphins 28, Ravens 24

TEN-HOU: Texans 24, Titans 17

PIT-SEA: Seahawks 20, Steelers 10

LAC-DEN: Broncos 28, Chargers 24

CIN-KC: Chiefs 19, Bengals 9

GB-MIN: Packers 24, Vikings 21

The top of the AFC became even murkier after the Dolphins defeated the Ravens -- giving Baltimore its second loss in as many weeks -- and the Chiefs beat Jake Browning and the Bengals. That tied the three teams at the top with 11-5 records. The Browns, Bills, Broncos, Texans and Colts -- potential AFC wild-card teams -- all won.

The 49ers' dominance in the NFC continued, and the NFC East race continued to stay hot with both the Eagles and Cowboys taking care of business, including a big Dallas win over the Lions.

In the NFC wild-card race, the Packers' late surge continued with a New Year's Eve night victory over the division-rival Vikings -- whose own playoff hopes have been dashed at this point -- though the Rams and Seahawks won, too. The Bucs beat the Saints to move ahead in the NFC South.

Projected Week 18 scores

CLE-CIN: Browns 23, Bengals 16

MIN-DET: Lions 19, Vikings 16

CHI-GB: Bears 38, Packers 10

JAX-TEN: Jaguars 31, Titans 28

HOU-IND: Colts 34, Texans 24

DEN-LV: Raiders 25, Broncos 3

BUF-MIA: Bills 27, Dolphins 24

NYJ-NE: Jets 23, Patriots 6

ATL-NO: Falcons 21, Saints 18

PHI-NYG: Eagles 13, Giants 9

SEA-ARI: Cardinals 34, Seahawks 24

KC-LAC: Chargers 29, Chiefs 19

LAR-SF: Rams 24, 49ers 17

DAL-WSH: Cowboys 30, Commanders 23

TB-CAR: Panthers 19, Buccaneers 14

PIT-BAL: Ravens 21, Steelers 9

The Chiefs stumbled and somehow lost to the Chargers, the Dolphins came up short in a tight contest against the Bills, and the Ravens took advantage by beating the Steelers and seizing the AFC's No. 1 seed.

The pain was doubled for Miami, as the Bills' victory gave Buffalo the head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami for the division. That's right, the Bills are AFC East champs. And due to a logjam of 11-win teams, the Dolphins dropped all the way to the No. 7 seed in the AFC playoffs.

In the NFC, the Bucs limped into an NFC South title with a loss (an appropriate finish for that division), and the Packers were blown out by the Bears to end their playoff hopes. That allowed the Rams (9-8) and Seahawks (8-9) to both reach the postseason.

Projecting how the AFC plays out

1. Baltimore Ravens (12-5)

2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-6)

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (11-6)

4. Buffalo Bills (11-6)

5. Cleveland Browns (11-6)

6. Indianapolis Colts (11-6)

7. Miami Dolphins (11-6)


8. Houston Texans (10-7)

9. Denver Broncos (9-8)

10. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-9)

11. Cincinnati Bengals (8-9)

12. Las Vegas Raiders (7-10)

13. Los Angeles Chargers (6-11)

14. New York Jets (6-11)

15. Tennessee Titans (6-11)

16. New England Patriots (3-14)

Ravens nab the No. 1 seed: Baltimore never makes it easy. After losing games in Weeks 16 and 17, it looked like the Ravens were on the verge of squandering the top seed. But in the end, it was the Chiefs and Dolphins who stumbled in the final week -- the Chiefs' upset loss to the Chargers was particularly shocking -- and Baltimore was able to take advantage, beating Pittsburgh to earn a bye and home-field advantage.

It's a good thing for the Ravens that they did. Had they blown that Week 18 contest they wouldn't have just lost the No. 1 seed -- they would have lost the division to the Browns, too!

Bills steal the AFC East, Dolphins fall to the No. 7 seed: Let's explain a statistical oddity happening here. Remember when we said we're looking for the most common, precise set of seven seeds in a conference?

As of this writing, the Dolphins are clearly favored to win the division, with a 69% shot compared to the Bills' 31%. But when Miami wins the division its projections are split pretty evenly between the first, second and third seeds (with a slight chance at No. 4). When Buffalo wins the division, it is most likely to end up as the fourth seed. That, plus some randomness, meant that the most common set of seeds included the Bills winning the AFC East.

Now back to simulation No. 5,639. What happened here is not far-fetched. Buffalo beat the Chargers and Patriots, and the Dolphins lost to the Cowboys and beat the Ravens to set up a game for the division in Week 18. Buffalo had already beaten Miami once, so it had the head-to-head tiebreaker if it won -- and it did.

Colts beat the Texans to grab a wild-card spot: With the Browns and Dolphins locked into two wild-card spots, there was one playoff spot remaining. The Bengals and Broncos had taken themselves out of the race by Week 18, while the Colts and Texans squared off to see who could get to 11 wins and grab the playoff berth. In this simulation, Gardner Minshew and the Colts beat out C.J. Stroud and Houston, winning 34-24 and earning Indianapolis the No. 6 seed.

Indianapolis actually tied Jacksonville with 11 wins, but the Jaguars -- who beat the Colts twice this season -- won the AFC South via tiebreaker.

Projecting how the NFC plays out

1. San Francisco 49ers (13-4)

2. Philadelphia Eagles (13-4)

3. Detroit Lions (12-5)

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-9)

5. Dallas Cowboys (13-4)

6. Los Angeles Rams (9-8)

7. Seattle Seahawks (8-9)


8. Green Bay Packers (8-9)

9. New Orleans Saints (8-9)

10. Chicago Bears (8-9)

11. Minnesota Vikings (7-10)

12. Atlanta Falcons (7-10)

13. New York Giants (5-12)

14. Washington Commanders (5-12)

15. Arizona Cardinals (4-13)

16. Carolina Panthers (3-14)

49ers lock up the No. 1 seed in Week 17: After beating the Ravens and Commanders, the 49ers clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC, allowing them to rest their starters in a Week 18 loss to the Rams. That loss ended a nine-game winning streak for the 49ers, which they happily accepted in a trade to get healthy, earn a bye and stay in Northern California until the Super Bowl.

Eagles hold on in the NFC East: The Cowboys needed the Eagles to falter. They never did. After an upset loss to the Seahawks on "Monday Night Football" in Week 15, Philadelphia got its act together -- at least enough to beat its cupcake schedule down the stretch. Philly beat the Giants twice and the Cardinals to finish 13-4, hold on to the NFC East and keep the Cowboys in a wild-card spot.

Bucs win the lackluster NFC South with a sub-.500 record: The NFC South was always destined for an 8-9 champion. For the second straight year it turned out to be the Bucs, who scored a key victory over the Saints in Week 17 before losing in Week 18 -- but won the division because the Saints lost to the Falcons. Fitting.

The Bucs were the longest shot to win the NFC South heading into the season (8.5%), per ESPN's FPI, and overcame those odds.

Rams, Seahawks each secure wild-card berths: Someone had to take the last two NFC wild-card spots, and no one in the NFC North stood up. Minnesota fell apart down the stretch, losing three straight, and the Packers couldn't overcome their poor start to get back into the playoffs. Instead, the Rams were able to win two of their final three games, and the Seahawks were able to stumble into a playoff spot at 8-9, beating out the Saints, Packers and Bears in a four-way tie.

Bears earn the No. 1 overall pick: Chicago's fortune has turned. Via its trade with the Panthers last offseason, the Bears earned the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 draft and will have the right to select quarterbacks Caleb Williams or Drake Maye, should they choose. They're not the only fan base celebrating its draft status: The Patriots earned the No. 2 pick and appear in line to draft a quarterback, as well. The Cardinals rounded out the top three.

What to expect in the playoffs

Projected wild-card matchups:

Dolphins (7) at Chiefs (2)

Colts (6) at Jaguars (3)

Browns (5) at Bills (4)

Seahawks (7) at Eagles (2)

Rams (6) at Lions (3)

Cowboys (5) at Buccaneers (4)

Who goes all the way? Remember that this is a single simulation. But of course we want to know who wins the Super Bowl!

The biggest wild-card round upset was the Bucs knocking out the Cowboys, giving Dallas a surprising early exit. In the divisional round, both No. 1 seeds won -- the Ravens beat the Bills, and the 49ers dispatched the Bucs. But Baltimore's run ended in the AFC Championship Game, when the Chiefs won in a 39-26 barnburner. The 49ers narrowly defeated the Lions 20-17 in the NFC title game.

The 49ers were favored in the Super Bowl but couldn't finish the job, as the Chiefs ended up as surprise repeat champions with a 37-21 victory.

Note: ESPN's Hank Gargiulo contributed to this story.

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