NFL playoff simulations show how drama will unfold in coming weeks

The Jets’ Super Bowl aspirations ended four snaps into the season. The Giants’ dreams were shredded during a 1-5 start.

It is too late in the season for either team to have much hope, but it is too early to let go of all hope.

Six weeks remain in the regular season. It may seem impossible to imagine either team playing meaningful games this month, but it’s better than the alternative.

With the help of The New York Times’ playoff simulator, we’ve looked at countless hypothetical results to calculate what both teams need to do to breathe life back into their seasons (and how the rest of the playoff picture is shaping up):

How much incentive will Aaron Rodgers have to return?

The Jets quarterback — who improbably came back to practice this week for the first time since suffering a torn Achilles — is reportedly targeting a return in Week 16 against the Commanders, but if the Jets (4-7) lose any of their next three games (vs. Falcons, vs. Texans, at Dolphins), they will have no better than a 1 percent probability of making the postseason.

Aaron Rodgers may have a compelling case to move his throwing from the sideline to the field if the Jets can manage to string together a few wins.
Robert Sabo for the NY Post Robert Sabo for the NY Post

However, if the Jets win all three games, Rodgers could have added motivation, with their playoff chances then ranging from as low as 11 percent to as high as 28 percent, depending on other outcomes.

Are the Giants better off dreaming or tanking?

Following back-to-back wins with Tommy DeVito, the Giants (4-8) could lose their final five games and still have just a 2 percent chance to land the top pick in the NFL Draft. So, you might as well hope for a postseason miracle.

If the Giants make an improbable run and win their final five games — they will be underdogs in every game (vs. Packers, at Saints, at Eagles, vs. Rams, vs. Eagles) — they will have a 91 percent chance to reach the postseason.

But even this fantasy is too absurd, featuring two wins against the Eagles. So, let’s say the Giants’ only slip-up comes in Philadelphia — before the Eagles clinch the No. 1 seed and rest their starters in the regular-season finale — then Big Blue would have a 47 percent chance to return to the Wild Card round with an 8-9 mark.

Have the Eagles already locked up the NFC’s top seed?

The chances are good that the road to winning in the NFC playoffs will again run through Philadelphia.

Last season, Philadelphia, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, won its two home playoff games by a combined score of 69-14. This season, the Eagles (10-1) look set to claim the NFC’s lone bye again. If the Eagles’ only remaining loss comes at home to the 49ers on Sunday, Philadelphia has a 99 percent chance to end up with home-field advantage. If the Eagles lose twice down the stretch, they still have a roughly 66 percent chance to earn the top seed.

Does the AFC still go through Kansas City?

Patrick Mahomes has never played a postseason game on the road. The Chiefs have been a No. 1 seed in each of his first five seasons as a starter, putting every AFC Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium since the 2018 season. Again, Kansas City (8-3) holds the best odds (46 percent) in a four-way race — against the Ravens, Dolphins and Jaguars — for home-field advantage in the AFC. The probability of the Chiefs taking the top-seed jumps to roughly 75 percent if they go 5-1 to finish a manageable schedule (at Packers, vs. Bills, at Patriots, vs. Raiders, vs. Joe Burrow-less Bengals, at Chargers).

How much hope do the Bills have left?

Buffalo, the Super Bowl favorite nearly all of last season, likely will miss the playoffs after blowing several late-game leads this year. Before their upcoming bye week, the Bills (6-6) have a 12 percent chance to return to the postseason, largely due to their schedule (at Chiefs, vs. Cowboys, at Chargers, vs. Patriots, at Dolphins).

Josh Allen and the Bills have left themselves little room for another loss if they hope to return to the postseason.

Still, the Bills have the talent — but likely not the consistency — to win every game, which would almost certainly secure a playoff spot. With a 4-1 mark, the Bills would have between a 45 and 60 percent chance.

How likely is it that the NFC South is won by a team with a losing record?

The odds are as high as 74 percent, if the Falcons (5-6) win half of their final six games, including the regular-season finale at New Orleans (5-6).

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Selection Saturday

The participants in the final four-team College Football Playoff will be chosen Sunday afternoon.

Barring multiple upsets in conference championship games, it likely will be the most dramatic and controversial selection show in the 10-year history of the format.

Only one team (Michigan) appears to be a lock, meaning more than a dozen realistic four-team combinations are still in play — this is the first time the top four teams are all undefeated at this point — entering the most high-stakes conference championship slate of all time:

Pac-12 Championship: No. 3 Washington (12-0) vs. No. 5 Oregon (11-1)
Friday, 8 p.m., ABC

Heisman Trophy favorite Bo Nix has led the Ducks to six straight blowout wins since losing their only game of the season at Washington.

One playoff spot — the Pac-12’s first in seven years — will be secured Friday night in Las Vegas.

Though Washington won a thriller at home against Oregon on Oct. 14, the Ducks enter as heavy favorites and as the hottest team in the country with Heisman favorite Bo Nix leading them to six straight wins by an average of 26 points. Meanwhile, the Huskies have become the first team since at least 1936 to win eight straight games by 10 points or fewer. The final Pac-12 Championship — both programs join the Big Ten next season — is the first top-five matchup of league members since 1976.

Big 12 Championship: No. 7 Texas (11-1) vs. No. 18 Oklahoma State (9-3)
Saturday, Noon, ABC

Texas’ final Big 12 matchup — the Longhorns join the SEC next season — could produce its first league title in 15 years, but end without a playoff spot. Despite owning a win at Alabama — and suffering its lone blemish in a last-minute loss to No. 12 Oklahoma — Texas needs help.

Even with a win, the Longhorns need a loss from Georgia, Michigan or Florida State to have a chance at the playoff, given the committee’s questionable and repeated preference of Oregon over Texas.

SEC Championship: No. 1 Georgia (12-0) vs. No. 8 Alabama (11-1)
Saturday, 4 p.m., Crumpe

Georgia has not lost a game in two years, when Nick Saban led Alabama past his former assistant, Kirby Smart, in the 2021 SEC title game.
Getty Images Getty Images

The two most dominant programs in college football meet in the SEC title game for the fourth time in six years. Georgia enters with a 29-game winning streak, the longest in SEC history. The Bulldogs’ most recent loss came in the 2021 SEC Championship against Nick Saban, who holds a 4-1 head-to-head record against longtime lieutenant Kirby Smart.

Georgia potentially could keep its three-peat hopes alive with a loss if other upsets occur. Alabama needs a win to avoid missing the College Football Playoff in consecutive seasons for the first time, but also may need a loss by Texas, Florida State or Michigan to advance. No SEC champion has ever failed to make the playoff.

Big Ten Championship: No. 2 Michigan (12-0) vs. No. 16 Iowa (10-2)
Saturday, 8 p.m., Fox

The Wolverines won the de facto conference championship last weekend, with their third straight win over Ohio State. Now Jim Harbaugh returns from a three-game suspension for Michigan’s near-certain coronation.

Michigan is favored by more than three touchdowns. The only drama is whether Iowa will ever reach the end zone. Michigan beat Iowa, 42-3, in the 2021 Big Ten title game.

ACC Championship: No. 4 Florida State (12-0) vs. No. 14 Louisville (10-2)
Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC

Tate Rodemaker didn’t make anyone forget injured starter Jordan Travis in beating Florida, but the new Florida State quarterback did keep the school’s national title hopes alive.
Getty Images Getty Images

No top-four team is more vulnerable than the Seminoles. Without star quarterback Jordan Travis, Florida State barely survived a trip to Gainesville last weekend. Backup Tate Rodemaker — who completed 12 of 25 passes for 134 yards last week — faces a tougher test against the Cardinals, who are coming off an upset loss to Kentucky.

It should be inconceivable that Florida State could win and be left out of the playoff field for the sin of losing its leader, but logic isn’t college football’s first language.

NBA surprises

Some things were easy to see coming.

Nikola Jokic (29 points, 13.2 rebounds, 9.2 assists) remains the best player in the world. The Celtics hold the best record in the Eastern Conference. Joel Embiid is on pace to lead the league in scoring for the third straight season. Steph Curry leads the league in 3-pointers.

But the first month of the NBA season also has featured an unusually high number of surprises. These have been the biggest ones:

The NBA In-Season Tournament

The In-Season Tournament began with skepticism over everything from the stakes to the design of the courts but appears to have quickly gained approval from fans and players alike.
Corey Sipkin for the NY Post Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

What was widely derided upon its inception has become an instant hit — and the single-elimination games haven’t even started yet. Adam Silver’s roll of the dice has added extra excitement and credibility to the start of the season with players and coaches treating the games with far greater urgency than standard regular-season games.

The league’s most entertaining team

Expect the Pacers to be scheduled for more nationally televised games next season. Led by 23-year-old star point guard Tyrese Haliburton (25.9 points, 11.9 assists), the Pacers (9-7) have been a non-stop thrill ride, averaging a league-best 127.9 points per game and 50.4 percent shooting from the field.

The Pacers’ 29th-ranked defense prevents them from becoming serious contenders, but their pace and balance — eight players average double-figures — make them a threat every game, as their 4-0 tournament record demonstrates.

The new threat in the West

Last season, the Timberwolves were endlessly mocked for overpaying for Rudy Gobert — the trade cost the team four first-round picks, Walker Kessler and more — and losing in the first round of the playoffs. In Year 2, Gobert is the favorite to win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award and the Timberwolves (14-4) hold the Western Conference’s best record, also marking the best start in franchise history.

Anthony Edwards has played himself into MVP consideration while propelling the Timberwolves to the top of the Western Conference.

With the continued ascent of Anthony Edwards and a strong supporting cast, Minnesota has the talent and toughness to emerge from a conference filled with age and injury concerns.

The end of an era?

Curry and the Warriors are less than two years removed from their fourth NBA championship, but they may be fighting for a play-in spot this spring.

Despite improved chemistry without Jordan Poole and an improved second-unit with Chris Paul, the Warriors (910) have fallen below .500, thanks to Klay Thompson’s rapid decline, Draymond Green’s volatility and Andrew Wiggins’ inconsistency. Curry remains elite, but he won’t be able to bring the Warriors back to contention without a major in-season trade.

Baby Jokic

It took far too long for casual fans to recognize the greatness of Jokic. Don’t make the same mistake with Houston’s Alperen Sengun, the 21-year-old from Turkey who modeled his game after Jokic and has turned the Rockets into surprising playoff contenders. The do-it-all playmaker is averaging 21 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists, while leading the Rockets (8-8) to two wins apiece over the Nuggets and Kings as well as victories over the Lakers and Pelicans.

Ahead of schedule

Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner have the upstart Magic off to their best start in years AP

The Thunder (11-6) and their talented, young core were a trendy preseason pick to make a leap. The Magic (13-5), though, shockingly hold the East’s second-best record, following four straight losing seasons. Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero lead a deep collection of 20-something former lottery picks who have won their past eight games in a row.

The scoreboard

Knicks: The Pistons entered Madison Square Garden with a 15-game losing streak, but that didn’t stop them from making life difficult for the Knicks. Lucky for them, Jalen Brunson dropped seven 3-pointers and 42 points overall (three off of his career high) to help the Knicks escape with a closer-than-it-should-have-been 118-112 win

Nets: There was no escaping for the Nets, who fell 129-128 to a Hornets team without LaMelo Ball and losers in six of their last eight games prior to Thursday night. Allowing Charlotte to shoot 58 percent from the 3-point line didn’t help. Nor did letting Terry Rozier go off for a season-high 37 points. On the bright side, Cam Thomas returned and three Nets scored at least 20 in the loss: Thomas (26), Mikal Bridges (22) and Nic Claxton (20).

Islanders: Mathew Barzal handed out three assists, but more important, he tallied the winning goal in overtime to pace the surging Islanders to a 5-4 win over the Hurricanes.

What we’re reading 👀

🏈 Yes, it feels like an unnecessary risk to take for a team that may soon be out of the playoff picture, but Brian Costello argues that in “a sports age where we criticize athletes for only caring about money and where basketball players can’t play on back-to-back nights,” Rodgers’ attempt to come back and help the Jets make the playoffs is admirable.

⚾ It’s shaping up to be a wild week at MLB’s winter meetings. Jon Heyman has some ideas about where the biggest names, leading with Shohei Ohtani, of course, could be headed.

⚾ The Mets placed a $13 million bet that Luis Severino could rebound from his nightmare 2023. Joel Sherman digs into why Steve Cohen and Co. felt it was a chance worth taking.

🏀 If Mitchell Robinson’s story of living with 19 dogs and other animals wan’t unique enough, the latest tale about his life should warm even the most cynical sports fan’s heart. Butch Stockton, Robinson’s high school coach in Louisiana, told MSG Network’s Rebecca Haarlow during Thursday’s Knicks-Pistons game that he’s been living with his former player the last few weeks following the death of Stockton’s wife. “‘You come to New York with me and enjoy yourself and get your mind back straight because you know how much you loved your wife,’” Robinson told Stockton.

🏈 Bills star Von Miller is facing domestic violence charges over an alleged incident with his pregnant girlfriend.

🏀 Quinn Slazinski played for two years under Rick Pitino at Iona and then transferred to St. John’s when his coach made the move to Queens. But he soon found himself without a regular role in the rotation and transferred to West Virginia, which hosts Pitino and the Red Storm Friday night. Now the Mountaineers’ leading scorer, he’s circled his reunion with his former coach on the schedule, but told Zach Braziller, “I’m not here to play one-on-one versus Rick Pitino, I’m here to play West Virginia against St. John’s.”

⛳ Tiger Woods didn’t exactly tear up the course in his return to competitive golf.

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