For a long time, AFC teams dominated their NFC counterparts in head-to-head matchups. From the time the NFL expanded to 32 teams and went to the current rotational schedule in 2002 all the way through 2010, the AFC posted a .500 or better record against the NFC every single year. With the Patriots and Colts teams led by the two best quarterbacks of their generation — and possibly ever — leading the way, the AFC combined to go 323-253 (0.561) against the NFC during that span of time.
The tide turned a bit over the last several seasons, but the balance has never been tipped in the NFC’s favor more than it has this year. NFC teams have a 24-14 record in head-to-head matchups with AFC opponents this season. That 0.632 winning percentage would be the best mark the NFC has posted against the AFC under the current divisional format, and the second-best figure either division has posted against the other during that time, behind only the AFC’s 44-20 domination of the NFC in 2004.
As of this writing, only three of 16 NFC teams have a losing record in games against the AFC, and only two of those three teams have played more than one game against an AFC opponent. With 26 NFC-AFC tilts left on the schedule during Weeks 11 through 17, it’s worth checking in on which NFC teams might be able to help themselves in the playoff hunt by beating up on the inferior conference.
In order to do that, let’s first take a look at the playoff race. Here’s how the NFC standings look on our playoff picture page.
With seven games remaining and the current occupant of the No. 6 seed in the conference sitting at 6-3, let’s all admit to ourselves that the four teams sitting at 3-6 or worse, while not yet mathematically eliminated, are not going to make the playoffs. They’re too far back with too few games to play, and have too many teams to leapfrog in the standings in order to make it. So we’ll deal with the 12 teams with records of 4-5 or better.
That group of 12 teams is a combined 20-10 against the AFC so far this season, with 18 games left to play. Six of the 12 teams have one AFC game left, three of them have two games left, and two of them have three games left. The Falcons are already done with their AFC schedule, having gone a disappointing 1-3 against the AFC East.
Let’s walk through this by category.
One AFC Game Left
Do you notice anything that these six teams have in common? No? Take a look at the playoff picture image again. These are the six current NFC playoff teams! No wonder.
The top-seeded Eagles are 2-1 against the AFC West, and they have a Week 16 game against the Raiders left on their slate. That’s not an especially easy or difficult AFC game, relatively speaking, but at 8-1, the Eagles don’t actually need much help making the playoffs at this point. They’re all but assured of a spot, and are heavy favorites to take a first-round bye.
The Vikings are 2-1 against the AFC North this season, and they have a Week 15 matchup with the Bengals left on their schedule. The Bengals are 3-6 and one of the league’s more inept offensive teams this season, which plays right into Minnesota’s hands. The Vikings defense should be able to easily handle Cincinnati’s offense, and this game could help them in the race for a bye.
The third-seeded Saints are … you guessed it … 2-1 against the AFC East this season. They have a showdown with the Jets scheduled for Week 15. While New York played over its heads early this season, they’ve come crashing back down to earth and now sit at 4-6, and 0-2 against the NFC South. The Jets seem likely to get gashed by the Saints’ run game, and if Josh McCown hasn’t turned back into a pumpkin by mid-December, the Saints’ newly-sturdy defense will likely finish the job.
The NFC West-leading Rams are 3-0 against the AFC South this year, with 106 points in three contests against the Colts, Jaguars, and Texans. If Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and company could hang 27 on arguably the best defense in the league (Jacksonville), they should have no problem doing damage against the Titans in Week 16. Whether the Rams are in the mix for a bye or merely the NFC West crown will likely depend more on how they fare in games against the Vikings (Week 11), Saints (Week 12), Eagles (Week 14), and Seahawks (Week 15).
The Panthers are also undefeated against the AFC, with wins over the Bills, Patriots, and Dolphins already on their ledger. They finish up their AFC slate against the Jets in Week 12 after taking their bye this coming weekend. Pushing their record to 8-3 will be important, because the Panthers face the Saints and Vikings in their next two games following the Jets contest. Any hope of a bye will hinge on them going 2-1 or better through that stretch.
The sixth-seeded Seahawks are 2-1 against the AFC South, but they likely have the toughest South opponent left on their schedule — especially given the matchup implications. The Jags are the lone AFC South team the Seahawks have yet to play, and the matchup of Seattle’s offensive line against the Jaguars’ dominant defensive front could get ugly. That Jacksonville game is part of an almost impossibly tough four-game stretch that sees the Seahawks host the Eagles, travel to Jacksonville, host the Rams, and then go on the road to play the Cowboys in Ezekiel Elliott’s first game back from his suspension.
Two AFC Games Left
Teams: Lions, Cowboys, Washington
All three of these teams are 1-1 against AFC opponents this season. The Lions and Cowboys are one game out of a playoff spot, while Washington is two games out.
The Lions lost to the Steelers and defeated the Browns, and they have the Ravens (Week 13) and Bengals (Week 16) left on their schedule. The Cowboys lost to the Broncos and defeated the Chiefs, and they have the Chargers (Week 12/Thanksgiving) and Raiders (Week 15) left on their schedule. Washington beat the Raiders and defeated the Chiefs, and has the Chargers (Week 13) and Broncos (Week 15) left on its schedule.
The Cowboys clearly have the best AFC win among this group, but they also likely have the toughest remaining AFC schedule, and they’re also the only one of the three teams that won’t have their star running back for any of the remaining AFC games on its schedule. Throw in two games against the Eagles, and things are not looking good for Dallas.
Detroit has two solidly winnable AFC games left, but the division rival Packers (also 5-4, see below) have three, one of which is against the Browns. Detroit might be more helped by its easy-ish NFC schedule, with two games against the Bears and one against the Bucs still to come.
Washington could go on a run for a playoff spot with a so-so remaining schedule, but that run would probably have to start with a seemingly unlikely win over the Saints this weekend. Dropping to 4-6 would likely leave them too far out of the mix to take advantage of having two games left against the Giants, one against Dallas without Zeke, and two against the bottom two teams in the AFC West.
Three AFC Games Left
Teams: Packers, Cardinals
If Aaron Rodgers was healthy, everyone would be talking about the Packers going on a big run over the next few weeks. They play the Ravens, Steelers, Bucs, and Browns over the next four weeks, and if Rodgers were able to play, only Pittsburgh would really have the offense to hang with them. Alas, Brett Hundley is under center, and though he just beat the Bears, it seems likely that only Cleveland is a guaranteed win in that stretch. If the Pack is to nab a playoff spot, they’ll have to go at least 3-1 there, though, because they end the season with a much tougher run against the Panthers, Vikings, and Lions. If they can manage wins against two of the three AFC North teams over the next month, they could be in good position for the stretch run.
Arizona is two games out right now and is starting Blaine Gabbert this week. It’s probably not worth actually considering the Cardinals here, but we set the cutoff at 3-6 and they’re above it. We’ll note that the Texans, Jaguars, and Vikings are still on their schedule, but so are the Rams, Washington, and the Seahawks. They’re not getting in.
The most vulnerable playoff team appears to be the Seahawks, who have just one AFC game left (against the toughest possible AFC opponent for them) and a rough schedule otherwise. It seems like they’re a prime candidate to drop out, but none of the 5-4 teams are especially well set up to take advantage of Seattle’s potential stumble.
The Falcons don’t play any more AFC teams and have looked disjointed all season. They also play the Seahawks, the Vikings, and the Saints twice the rest of the way. The Lions have two AFC games left and they should both be winnable, and they also have two games left against the Bears. But they’ve also beaten exactly one good team all season. Four of their five wins are against the Cardinals, Giants, Rodgers-less Packers, and Browns. The Cowboys are without Zeke and have the hardest remaining schedule of the non-playoff teams. The Packers don’t have Rodgers.
Forced to choose, the Lions seem like the most likely team to jump into a spot, but the level of confidence there is not very high at all.