10 key games that will shape the NFL playoffs

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) watches a completion.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) watches a completion. –AP Photo/David Richard

There are six weeks remaining in the NFL season, and more than 90 games to come. Some will be crucial, and some will be 60 minutes of garbage time. But which are which?

Thanks to The Upshot’s Playoff Simulator at nytimes.com, The New York Times can quantify that.

Every game counts in the standings, but some are much more likely to affect the playoffs than others. A game like the New York Jets at the New England Patriots on Christmas Eve does not look too important: The Patriots are a lock to make the postseason, and the Jets are a huge long-shot. The Cleveland Browns at the Pittsburgh Steelers on New Year’s Day might turn out to matter a lot to Pittsburgh, but it won’t affect Cleveland’s playoff chances, which are zero.


But a handful of games are likely to be crucial for the playoff hopes of both teams. These are the biggest games left this year, according to The Upshot’s simulator.

10. New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons, Jan. 1

The Falcons have a one-game lead in the NFC South, and are in solid playoff shape. The Saints are 4-6 and are fighting to stay alive. But a twist or two over the next few weeks could make this season-ending game mean everything.

9. Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs, Dec. 25

The Oakland Raiders, the Chiefs and the Broncos are in a dogfight for the AFC West, as well as wild-card consolation prizes. Of all the games left on their schedules, this ranks as the most important, although the Chiefs at the Broncos on Dec. 4 is 11th on the list.

8. New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles, Dec. 22

The scramble for wild cards behind the Dallas Cowboys will create three of the most interesting games. The Eagles are in the worst shape at 5-5 and really need to reverse the Giants’ 28-23 victory from earlier this month. The game is a potential rarity: An important game on this season’s Thursday night schedule.

7. Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills, Dec. 24


Another wild-card battle since the Patriots are close to wrapping up the AFC East. The Upshot currently gives the Bills a 15 percent chance of making the playoffs and ending a 16-year playoff drought, the longest in the league. A win against the Dolphins, who are a game ahead of the Bills, would double that chance.

6. Detroit Lions at Giants, Dec. 18

The most important nondivisional matchup left this year. The winner will be in the driver’s seat for a wild card, and the loser might be out.

5./4. Washington Redskins at Eagles, Dec. 11; Giants at Redskins, Jan. 1

As it stands, the Cowboys, sitting at 9-1, are the likely NFC East champions. But their three division rivals — the Giants (7-3), the Redskins (6-3-1) and the Eagles (5-5) — are all in the mix for at least one and maybe both wild-card spots. The three games among the teams will go a long way to determining who gets in.

3. Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts, Dec. 11

The Texans are a game up in the AFC South, while the Colts, who have made the playoffs 12 of the last 13 seasons, are in trouble. This is a must-win home game for Indianapolis.

2. Minnesota Vikings at Lions, Thursday

A big game on Thanksgiving afternoon. At the moment, the teams are tied for first in the NFC North, at 6-4. Whichever team wins will have a huge leg up on the other. How important could a game in Week 12 really be? A win for the Vikings gives them an 84 percent chance of reaching the playoffs; a loss drops them their chances to 44 percent. The Lions’ figures are similar: 73 percent with a win and 32 percent with a loss.


1. Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers, Dec. 25

The most important game this season will be played on Christmas, The Upshot model currently finds. These teams are tied for the lead in the AFC North at 5-5. Each has six games to play, but this is the big one. No other game for either team is in the top 10. Wild-card berths are unlikely for them, so it’s a division title or bust. The winner will have about a 70 percent chance at the playoffs; the loser about 20 percent.

Any top-10 list automatically raises the question: What’s at the bottom of the pile? If you have a ticket to the San Francisco 49ers at Chicago Bears matchup on Dec. 4, don’t expect a vital game. The Niners (1-9) and the Bears (2-8) are well out of the playoff chase, and the game doesn’t affect any other teams’ chances. The Upshot ranks it as the game with the absolute least relevance to the playoff chase. Enjoy Soldier Field in December.