Going into the final week of the regular season, the Kansas City Chiefs were the NFL’s only team with a guaranteed playoff seeding. With their win over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16, the Chiefs had locked up the AFC’s first seed. Every other postseason hopeful would have to wait for the results of the Week 17 games to know where they would stand in the playoffs.
Going into Sunday, the Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts were all jockeying to grab the six remaining seeds. But now, the Dolphins have been eliminated from the postseason, and we know the final seeding for the 2020 AFC playoffs:
What happens next?
In the Wild Card round, division winners play at home. The highest seed plays the lowest seed, the second-highest plays the second-lowest... and so on. This means that in Week 18, the Bills will host the Colts, the Browns will be on the road against the Steelers and the Titans will be at home against the Ravens.
The same rules apply in the AFC’s Divisional round games in Week 19, so the Chiefs will play at home against the lowest remaining seed. Since only three teams will survive the Wild Card round, we know that the second and third seeds — the Bills and Steelers — cannot play the Chiefs until the conference championship round in Week 20.
So all we have to do is figure out the probability that each of the remaining four teams will get through the Wild Card round and also be seeded the lowest. This is easiest for the seventh seed — because they only need to win their Wild Card game to be the lowest-surviving seed.
It gets more complicated after that, but it’s still straightforward. The sixth seed will play the first seed if they win and the seventh seed loses. So the probability that happens is equal to the chance the sixth seed wins multiplied by the chance the seventh seed loses. And then we continue that series of calculations for the rest of the teams.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s ELO model, the Bills have a 76% probability to win over the Colts. The Steelers will have a 62% chance of beating the Browns, while the Ravens would win 57% of the time against the Titans.
After we do the math with those probabilities, here’s what we get:
As you can see, there isn’t a clear favorite here. In round terms, there’s about a 1-in-4 to 1-in-5 chance of playing each one of these teams — mostly because of the relatively small advantage ELO projects for the Ravens over the Titans.
Still, by a fairly small margin, the Browns are the most likely to come to Arrowhead Stadium in Week 19.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In an earlier version of this article, the winning percentages for these teams were slightly different. At original press time — with NFC playoff seeding is not yer finalized — FiveThirtyEight had not yet published their Wild Card projections for either the AFC or NFC. They had, however, updated the ELO ratings for all of the AFC teams, which is the data on which those projections are based. Using the formula published on their methodology page, we originally calculated the Week 19 projections ourselves — which varied slightly from what FiveThirtyEight eventually published. This was because FiveThirtyEight uses a different adjustment to account for home field advantage where games are played “without a significant number of fans in attendance.” There will be a limited number of fans at all three of these Wild Card games, so we used the normal home field adjustment. But FiveThirtyEight apparently uses the non-fan home field adjustment for any game that is played with attendance restrictions.