For the New England Patriots, Arizona Cardinals, and Carolina Panthers, life must feel like paradise heading into the final three weeks of the NFL regular season. All three of those ball clubs have already clinched a playoff berth, with the Patriots clinching the AFC East and the Panthers clinching the NFC South and a first-round playoff bye. Clearly, these teams are all top flight Super Bowl contenders, proven by their strength and ability to clinch with three weeks remaining. With just nine spots in the 2015-16 postseason remaining, more clubs can join that group and shrink the field even further in Week 15.
It’s always nice to seal a playoff spot early, as it relieves the pressure down the final stretch of the season, with just positioning at stake instead of the actual need to be in the playoffs. While it can sometimes cause teams to lose momentum — especially if they decide to rest players — it also allows them to make an action plan for their Super Bowl run. With that, here are the five clubs that have the opportunity to clinch playoff spots in Week 15.
While the scenario is complicated for the Minnesota Vikings to clinch a playoff berth in Week 15, the possibility is still there for the 8-5 club. Minnesota has seven different scenarios that could get them to the postseason for the first time in many seasons. Focusing on the four most-feasible situations, the Vikings first need to win to make any of them possible. Of course, that will be no easy task, as they face a tough Chicago Bears team this weekend (at home). If Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson help Minnesota overcome Chicago, a group of teams need to lose in order for the Vikings to clinch.
Since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost, if the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Falcons follow suit on Sunday with losses, that (coupled with a Minnesota win) will guarantee the Vikings a spot. Scenario No. 2 stays the same, except the Seattle Seahawks would lose instead of the Atlanta Falcons. The other two possibilities for Minnesota involve a combination of the Seahawks, Falcons, Buccaneers, and New York Giants losing.
With how poorly the Falcons have played, expecting them to do anything but lose is ill advised. The Giants play the unbeaten Panthers, which could add another loss in favor of the Vikings. Tampa Bay already lost to St. Louis on Thursday night in Week 15, which enhances the chances for Minnesota to clinch. No matter what happens, as long as they win, the Vikings will be very close to getting into the postseason. Their schedule is difficult over the final two weeks though, with games against the Green Bay Packers and the Giants (both huge games).
Similar to the Vikings, the clinching scenario for the Seattle Seahawks is complicated. The simplest situation involves a win against the Cleveland Browns at home, which is likely. If they take care of this business, the Seahawks needed the Bucs to lose against the Rams on Thursday night (which happened), and then either the Giants or the Redskins to lose on Sunday as well. They have another scenario that would involve a win and losses by the Vikings and Falcons (and the Bucs), coupled with a win by the Packers, but that’s too convoluted to worry about.
While it’s highly likely that Seattle will beat the Browns, expecting all of those losses to fall in place could be a stretch (even though the Bucs already lost). However, Russell Wilson and company have played some terrific football since their sluggish start to the season (with Wilson playing some historically good football at quarterback lately), so the Seahawks should be able to take care of business by winning the rest of their games in 2015, which will be more than enough to get them in. They will be a threat to make a third straight Super Bowl appearance if they get there, too.
Green Bay Packers
The scenario for Green Bay to clinch this weekend is simple; win and you’re in. The Packers, who were 6-0 at one point this season, probably thought they would be one of the first teams to clinch a spot this season with how well they played early on. However, a slump after their bye week caused them to lose four of their past seven games, allowing the Minnesota Viking to gain ground in the NFC North and other teams to catch up to them in the overall NFC standings.
Still, after a solid performance against the Dallas Cowboys last weekend, Green Bay is set to reach the postseason once again, with a win on the road against the Oakland Raiders. This contest against Oakland will not be a cake walk. Derek Carr and Khalil Mack fueled a victory against a very good team in the Denver Broncos on the road just last weekend. The Raiders probably won’t reach the postseason in 2015, but they are clearly a dangerous team out to prove they can play with anyone.
Green Bay needs to be careful with this one, but even if they fail, losses by various other teams can seal the Packers’ fate. They can’t clinch the NFC North this weekend, however. They will probably have to win the division in the season finale against the rival Vikings at Lambeau.
If the Denver Broncos would have handled their business at home against the Raiders last weekend, their position this week would be especially favorable for clinching a playoff spot. Regardless, it’s still a pretty simple situation for Denver in Week 15. If the Broncos beat the high-flying Pittsburgh Steelers on the road, they will be in. If they win and the Kansas City Chiefs slip up against the Baltimore Ravens on the road, the Broncos will be AFC West champs yet again. However, that win against the Steelers will be no easy task.
Ben Roethlisberger and his terrific supporting cast are playing at an extremely high level right now. And they really need to win this game as well, as they are in a tight battle for the AFC wild card. If they lose, they may miss the postseason. For the Broncos though, a loss would do a lot of damage as well. The Chiefs would be within one game of the AFC West if Denver loses and they win. Therefore, this almost feels like a must-win for the Broncos. We’ll see if Brock Osweiler and their defense can deliver.
For the Cincinnati Bengals, a win against a struggling San Francisco 49ers team could do a lot for their postseason position. If they win, the AFC North will be theirs. Even if they don’t win in Week 15, a loss by Pittsburgh in that tough battle against the Broncos will give the Bengals the division as well. Out of all the teams with clinching scenarios in Week 15, the Bengals’ situation feels like the most promising — even with an injury to Andy Dalton. Of course, they are concerned about the long-term health of Dalton. Backup A.J. McCarron seems capable, but their hopes of a Super Bowl rests on Dalton’s ability to get back in the lineup, plain and simple.