For football fans, the annual unveiling of ESPN’s Playoff Machine is as much of a holiday as Christmas or Thanksgiving. 

The simulation allows users to select winners and losers of the regular season’s remaining games and churns out a projected playoff bracket based on win-loss records and tiebreakers.

It’s an incredibly useful tool for media and fans, but it’s just as entertaining to toy with the system to see what kind of wacky results it can produce. So that’s exactly what we did. The goal was simple: create the most statistically unlikely playoff bracket possible.

Picks against the spread | Power rankings

The first order of business is trying to find a way to squeeze as many 2020 No. 1 draft pick contenders into the playoffs. In the AFC, the Bengals sit at 0-10 and the Dolphins (2-8) and Jets (3-7) can do no better than tie the Patriots with nine wins on the season. Not a lot going on here.

For the NFC, however, the door is a bit more open. The Redskins, which own a conference-worst 1-9 record, still have a mathematical chance of reaching the playoffs this season. The same case also applies to the lowly Giants (2-8), Falcons (3-7), Buccaneers (3-7) and Cardinals (3-7-1).

We started by trying to place as many current non-playoff teams in the bracket and remove as many true playoff contenders as possible. These efforts resulted in the Patriots, Ravens, Chiefs, 49ers, Packers, Saints and Cowboys all missing the playoffs. 

The final playoff seedings according to the simulation are listed below with each team’s projected playoff record and ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight playoff probabilities.



1. Browns (10-6) — Mathematically speaking, Cleveland can still live up to its lofty preseason expectations. As it currently stands, though, the Browns are 4-6 and three games behind the Chiefs in the win column for the No. 6 seed. The fact that Cleveland can still technically land the top seed in the AFC is pretty remarkable. First-round bye probability: <1%

2. Raiders (10-6) — The Raiders, meanwhile, are trending closer to playoff contention. Oakland is tied with the Chiefs in the loss column and has just one game against a team above .500 the rest of the way, which is Kansas City on Dec. 1. First-round bye probability: 2%

3. Bills (10-6) — How about a changing of the guard in the AFC East? The Bills trail the Patriots by two games but look the part of a playoff contender through the first 10 games. The only problem is Buffalo has yet to beat a winning team this season and its remaining schedule features the Cowboys, Ravens, Steelers and Patriots. Playoff probability: 72%

4. Texans (9-6-1) — The AFC South could get pretty hectic down the stretch if the Texans stumble. Houston currently leads with a 7-4 record with the Colts (6-5), Titans (5-5) and even the Jaguars (4-6) not far behind. Houston and Tennessee will meet in weeks 15 and 17 for a pair of matchups that figure to go a long way in deciding the division. Playoff probability: 84%

5. Jaguars (9-6-1) — Surprise, surprise. Despite falling two games under .500 after starting 4-4, Jacksonville isn’t finished. The Jaguars’ remaining schedule is favorable, too, with four of the final six games coming against teams below .500. Playoff probability: 7%

6. Titans (9-6-1) — Operation AFC South Takeover is complete with the Titans rounding out the playoff field, leaving the Patriots, Ravens and Chiefs among potential Super Bowl contenders booking early vacations. I wouldn’t bet any money on this scenario coming to fruition. Playoff probability: 17%

Missing out: Patriots (playoff miss probability: <1%), Ravens (1%), Chiefs (8%), Colts (64%), Steelers (71%)

MORE: Here is the real NFL playoff picture for Week 12


1. Bears (10-6) — We start with the Bears winning out (Giants, at Lions, Cowboys, at Packers, Chiefs, at Vikings) and the Packers completely collapsing and missing out on a playoff berth entirely. Given Chicago’s complete incompetence on the offensive side of the ball (28th in points per game) and a challenging finish to 2019, even an 8-8 record seems unlikely. First-round bye probability: <1%

2. Seahawks (10-6) — Seattle only trails San Francisco by a game at 8-2, so the Seahawks slotting into a first-round bye at season’s end wouldn’t be all that surprising. The two play in Week 17 in Seattle in a potential winner-take-all NFC West decider. First-round bye probability: 27%

3. Falcons (8-7-1) — For about eight weeks, Atlanta was looking primed for a shot at the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. In the past two weeks, though, the Falcons have a pair of dominant road wins against quality NFC South opponents in the Saints (8-2) and Panthers (5-5). Even still, Atlanta trails New Orleans by five games with six contests remaining. Playoff probability: <1%

4. Redskins (7-9) — Yes, the Redskins. Washington (1-9) would have to win out and needs the Cowboys (6-4) to avoid winning another game and the Eagles to avoid winning two games the rest of the way. To put it lightly, that would be asking an absurd amount out of a team that has the worst offense in the NFL and is operating with an interim head coach. A 7-9 division winner doesn’t feel morally sound, either.

Playoff probability: <1%

5. Vikings (10-6) — Minnesota has snuck up on Green Bay in the NFC North hunt with six wins in its last seven outings. You can take your pick, but it’s nearly impossible to envision a scenario in which both the Packers and Vikings miss the playoffs. Their Week 16 “Monday Night Football” showdown could carry big implications. Playoff probability: 91%

6. Rams (10-6) — Much like the NFC West, you can only keep so many heavyweights out of the postseason. The 49ers, Seahawks and Rams have a combined 23-7 record on the year and the Seahawks and Rams currently sit sixth and seventh in the NFC standings. Can Los Angeles rebound from its early hiccups to return to the playoffs? Time will tell. Playoff probability: 26%

Missing out: Saints (playoff miss probability: 3%), Packers (6%), 49ers (7%), Cowboys (38%), Eagles (54%)

So feel free to dream, Browns, Raiders, Bears, Falcons and Redskins fans. If nothing else, this exercise should illustrate the inevitability of unpredictability down the stretch of the NFL regular season. Maybe it won’t be Browns vs. Bears Super Bowl-level chaos, but chaos nonetheless.