NFL playoff picture: Updated AFC, NFC seeds, matchups, standings after Week 15

NFL playoff picture: Updated AFC, NFC seeds, matchups, standings after Week 15

The playoff races in the NFL intensified in Week 15 thanks to several thrilling finishes, including the San Francisco 49ers losing the NFC's No. 1 seed on a last-second touchdown by the Atlanta Falcons.

In the AFC, the top four seeds all won, which sets up many pivotal matchups over the final two weeks of the regular season.

Here's a look at the updated AFC and NFC playoff pictures based on the outcome of the Week 15 games. This story will be updated as more games conclude.

1. Baltimore Ravens, 12-2, AFC North winner: Bye week

The Ravens are in a prime position to secure the No. 1 seed after clinching the AFC North title with Thursday night's win over the New York Jets. A Week 16 victory over the Cleveland Browns would clinch homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs for Baltimore. 

2. New England Patriots, 11-3, AFC East leader: Bye week
The Patriots recovered from a lackluster first half Sunday versus the Cincinnati Bengals to earn a comfortable 34-13 victory to clinch a playoff berth. There's still more work to do for the Pats, however, because a first-round bye has not yet been sealed. New England can clinch the No. 2 seed with wins in both of its final two regular season games. The margin for error is pretty slim, though. The Patriots cannot afford to finish with the same record as the Chiefs or Texans because both teams own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the defending champs. The Patriots will host the Buffalo Bills next Saturday, and a win would secure the division title for Tom Brady and Co.

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3. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4, AFC West winner) vs. 6. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-6, second wild card)

The Chiefs kept the pressure on the Patriots by cruising to an easy 23-3 win over the Denver Broncos at a snowy Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City could still move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a first-round playoff bye because it owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over New England. KC finishes with winnable games versus the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Chargers.

The Steelers lost 17-10 at home to the Bills on Sunday night, but Pittsburgh still occupies the second wild card spot over the Tennessee Titans because it has a better win percentage in conference games.

4. Houston Texans (9-5, AFC South leader) vs. 5. Buffalo Bills (10-4, first wild card)
The Texans earned a massive Week 15 victory over the Titans with first place in the AFC South at stake. Houston now has a one-game lead in the division title race and the inside track to a home playoff game in the Wild Card round. The Titans and Texans will play once more in Week 17. The Texans could still finish as the No. 3 seed because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Chiefs after beating them earlier this season.

The Bills clinched a playoff spot with Sunday night's win over the Steelers. Buffalo remains one game behind New England in the AFC East title race entering Saturday's much-anticipated Week 16 showdown at Gillette Stadium.

In the Hunt
7. Tennessee Titans, 8-6
8. Cleveland Browns, 6-8
9. Oakland Raiders, 6-8

1. Seattle Seahawks, 11-3, NFC West leader: Bye week
The Seahawks staved off a late Carolina Panthers comeback attempt to earn a 30-24 victory on the road. However, the biggest win for the Seahawks came Sunday evening when the 49ers lost in the final seconds of their game against the Falcons. San Francisco's defeat vaulted Seattle up to the No. 1 seed because the Seahawks own the head-to-head tiebreaker from their Week 10 road win over the 49ers. These two teams will play one more at Seattle in Week 17.

It also should be noted that the Seahawks currently own the tiebreaker over the Packers based on win percentage in common games.

2. Green Bay Packers, 11-3, NFC North leader: Bye week
The Packers keep winning, but they haven't been impressive doing it. Green Bay hosted the rival Bears at Lambeau Field and escaped with a 21-13 victory to keep its hold on first place in the NFC North. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed just 16 of 33 pass attempts for 203 yards and a touchdown. The Packers secured a playoff spot with the Rams' loss, and they can clinch the division title with a Week 16 road win over the Minnesota Vikings.

3. New Orleans Saints (11-3, NFC South winner) vs. 6. Minnesota Vikings (10-4, second wild card)
The Saints closed out Week 15 with a "Monday Night Football" victory over the Indianapolis Colts. New Orleans cannot finish below the No. 3 seed, but it needs help to earn a first-round bye. The Saints lost the head-to-head tiebreaker with the 49ers after a Week 14 defeat to San Francisco, and they also are behind the Packers based on win percentage in conference games.

The Vikings beat the Chargers 39-10 on the road, and they can still earn a home playoff game by winning the NFC North. Minnesota must beat the Packers at home next week to have any chance at winning the division.

4. Dallas Cowboys (7-7, NFC East leader) vs. 5. San Francisco 49ers (11-3, first wild card)
The Cowboys entered Week 15 having lost four of their last five games, but they gave a tremendous performance Sunday in a 44-15 win over the Rams. Dallas will win the NFC East and clinch a home playoff game if it beats the rival Philadelphia Eagles on the road in Week 16.

The 49ers' heartbreaking loss to the Falcons dropped them from the No. 1 seed to potentially having to begin the playoffs on the road during Wild Card Weekend. However, they did clinch a playoff berth Sunday with the Rams' loss to the Cowboys. San Francisco also has a tough end to the regular season with matchups against the Rams and Seahawks. That said, back-to-back victories to end the season would give the 49ers the No. 1 seed.

In the Hunt
Los Angeles Rams, 8-6 
Philadelphia Eagles, 7-7

Instant overreactions from Patriots' win vs. Bengals

Where things stand between Tom Brady and Patriots as free agency looms

Where things stand between Tom Brady and Patriots as free agency looms

All’s quiet on the Tom Brady front at the moment.

Perfectly reasonable.

In contract negotiations, the Patriots are traditionally a team that waits … and waits … and waits … and then gets down to business clinically and dispassionately.

If an impasse hits, their approach is often, “See what’s out there. We’ll leave the light on for ya.”

They’ve done that with Moss, McCourty, Hightower, Bruschi and many others over the years. All came back and re-signed after brief free agent tours. Will they do the same with Brady?

Perhaps. But there are two big problems the team faces if it decides to do that.

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First, the Patriots can’t sit in the parking lot drumming their fingers on the steering wheel while every other team is in the store, trying Brady on for size.

They need to get in and shop for a quarterback too just in case Brady does decide to go to Indy, Tampa, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Carolina, Washington, Chicago or Miami. Saving Brady’s spot until he’s ready to answer? Dice roll. 

Second problem? The $13.5M that hits New England’s 2020 salary cap if/when Brady becomes a free agent on March 18 at 4 p.m. is a wrench in the works.


Need a refresher on why exactly that hit even exists? Here’s the simple summation from CBS’ Joel Corry where he explains the Patriots borrowing a bookkeeping strategy the Saints used with Drew Brees to give Brady a raise (not an extension) last August:

The Saints restructured Brees' contract last March for salary cap purposes by converting $16.2 million of Brees' $23 million in 2019 compensation into a fully guaranteed third day of the league year roster bonus. Since the roster bonus was fully guaranteed, it was treated like signing bonus under the salary cap where it was prorated over the life of the contract. The Saints added a 2021 contract year that also automatically voids on the last day of the 2019 league year. 

Brady's contract was reworked last August to raise his 2019 salary from $15 million to $23 million. Brees' most recent contracts with the Saints were seemingly used as a template in Brady's renegotiation. Two contract years for 2020 and 2021 with $30 million and $32 million salaries automatically voiding on the last day of the 2019 league year were included for cap purposes, so Brady's fully guaranteed $20.25 million roster bonus could be prorated over three years at $6.75 million annually through 2021 instead of just 2019. The renegotiated contract also contains a clause prohibiting the Patriots from designating Brady as a franchise or transition player.

The Patriots can’t play the same financial shell game. The expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement means teams can’t kick the financial can down the road into phony future years as the Patriots and Saints did with Brady and Brees.

If a new CBA is agreed to prior to free agency, that’s good news.

If not, they can play a new game with different toys using option bonuses or completion bonuses.

The issue with that is, the $13.5M cap hit from the voidable years and a competitive compensation plus making sure there’s room to get Brady better offensive support means a multi-year deal has to be done because his 2020 cap hit would be astronomical.

If a multi-year pact wasn’t what the Patriots wanted to do with a 42-year-old, they won’t love doing it with a 43-year-old. And if they do agree to a three-year deal, the team will then be in the uncomfortable spot of having to release Brady if he wants to keep on past 2020.

There is an existing sliver of cap-relief hope for the Patriots. According to our friend Miguel Benzan of the Boston Sports Journal (a crutch for me whenever I write cap-related stories), the Patriots could get credited for past charges against the cap related to Antonio Brown ($9M) and Aaron Hernandez ($3.25M).

I’m trying to find out if the team is anticipating that and/or actively trying to recoup. It would be a boon if that $12.25M were credited back before March 16, though, since it would nearly offset the Brady dead dough.


So where do things currently stand? After conversations over the past few days, this is my understanding of where things are.

Negotiations will begin "in a couple of weeks." I interpret that as during or immediately after the NFL Combine which starts about February 26 and concludes March 1.

By that time, Brady should have back-channeled his way to an understanding of what’s out there. Last week, I wondered whether it was advantageous for the Patriots if teams did make their pitches to Brady before "legal tampering" begins on March 16.

My understanding is that the Patriots aren’t worried about other team’s financial pitches. Their business with Brady revolves around the direction of the 2020 offensive personnel,  Brady getting some input on that and Brady’s role in the team’s future. They aren’t going to be super-vigilant about tampering. 

Something worth noting is there is very little rancor right now. The situation is what it is. The sides are going to work to make it work. Why they are here, what could have been done to avoid this, who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s to blame? I’m not sensing it.

There’s been plenty in the past. Now – with Brady having the freedom to say, “No thanks, it’s been great…” and the team truly being in the “year-to-year” contractual situation they wanted, nobody seems to have an active resentment. Also, I think the gravity of what may loom – the specter of a historic 20-year run ending – has added an air of solemnity.

I’ve also heard we shouldn’t be expecting TOM BRADY FREE AGENT TOUR 2020: COAST-TO-COAST WITH THE GOAT! If Brady hits free agency, he may try to set up meetings at one location instead of creating a circus. That’s a “what I’m hearing…” so take it for what that’s worth.

Reiterating what I’ve previously reported but have had again mentioned, the “Patriots are willing to go north of $30M” report wasn’t something either side loved.

For the Patriots, it created a false expectation before any negotiations began and, from the perspective of the Brady camp, it missed the point of what his main issue is. 

Also, while negotiations haven’t begun, the team is plotting a course for adding players that fit Brady’s strengths to help on offense whether through free agency or trade. Tight end is a position of emphasis.

Finally, if Brady goes to another team? The people he’ll leave behind in Foxboro will be highly, highly motivated to have a 2020 season that will make Brady wonder if he made the right decision.

Report: Raiders prepared to offer Tom Brady two-year, $60 million deal

Report: Raiders prepared to offer Tom Brady two-year, $60 million deal

We have an actual dollar figure attached to the swirling rumors of various Tom Brady free agency landing spots.

The Brady-to-Las Vegas speculation has been out there since TB12 was spotted chatting up Raiders owner Marc Davis at the Connor McGregor-Cowboy Cerrone fight in Vegas last month. Now, veteran NFL reporter Larry Fitzgerald Sr. (father of the Arizona Cardinals wide receiver) reports that Davis' Raiders are prepared to offer TB12 a two-year, $60 million deal.

It's interesting to note that Larry Fitzgerald Jr., like Brady, is a long-time interviewee of Jim Gray on Westwood One's broadcasts of Monday and Thursday night NFL games. 

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While Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported on Super Bowl Sunday that the Patriots are willing to go beyond $30 million a year to retain Brady, it's unclear if New England would make a multi-year offer, since the face of the franchise, who'll turn 43 in August, essentially worked under a one-year deal this past season. 

Our Tom Curran has reported that while the Patriots will "extend themselves" financially to retain Brady, money is likely not the most important factor to the QB.

As Curran wrote Friday:

The persuasion in the Patriots pitch has to revolve around "who" and not "how much." The team that Brady plays for in 2020 won’t be the winner of a bidding war, it will be the one that provides the best ready-made landing spot to compete for a championship and have a shitload of fun while doing it.

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