After 16 weeks of nonsensical results, the 2021 NFL season finally provided us with some clarity on Sunday. Entering the day, 24 teams still had a mathematical chance of landing a playoff berth, and 11 had a shot at earning a first-round bye. But after yesterday’s results, 11 of the 14 postseason spots are locked down; the Packers took the top seed in the NFC; and the Titans pulled within one win of doing the same in the AFC. With the Colts just a win over the last-place Jaguars away from clinching their berth, only two slots should be up for grabs in Week 18. The Chargers and Raiders will play for one on Sunday night, and the Saints and 49ers will be going after the other in their respective games next week.
But even though we generally know which teams will be participating in the postseason, there is still plenty of seeding to be determined in the final week of the season. And given how wide open the race for the Super Bowl seems to be—FiveThirtyEight gives 12 teams at least a 1 percent chance of winning it all—the bracket itself could go a long way toward determining which teams are playing in SoFi Stadium on February 13. Avoiding particularly bad matchups or having to play in bad-weather cities could prove just as important as a team’s seeding—so even if your favorite team has its postseason spot secured, next Sunday’s results could help decide its fate. That’s why we’ve put together this handy rooting guide for Week 18, which will cover the ideal postseason bracket for each of the (realistic) playoff contenders, and the results that would help set it up.
To make things a bit less complicated, we’ll carry out this exercise under the assumption that Tennessee is going to beat Houston on Sunday. It’s not the safest assumption to make, given that the Texans won the first matchup between these teams this season, but the Titans are much healthier now and they’ve opened up as 11-point favorites for a reason. And because we don’t want to project too far out into the future, we’ll leave both the Packers and Titans out of this.
With that out of the way, let’s start with the…