Next week is the last time any teams will have a bye, so we’re pretty close to having one factor out of the way in terms of figuring out teams’ playoff chances. I never know how to account for a half game; do you assume the trailing team will get the win, or do you assume they’ll lose? If we’re talking about the NFC East, do you assume they all lose every remaining game, or tie the ones against each other? It’s a mess. In the meantime, there are two things we need to know: how many games a team has won, and how many games a team is going to win. One of those is easy, but the second isn’t. But with trusty Luigi at my side, we’re going to give it a spin.
Part of knowing how many games a team is going to win is knowing how good that team is. Carolina is a game behind the Saints, but to evaluate their chances of catching up we need to know who both teams are playing and their chances of winning those games. So let’s go ahead and break out the rankings from after this weekend’s games.
Denver is still at the top but has been getting progressively a bit closer to the pack recently. I don’t think any of the key teams have changed too much from last time, and the points I made there still stand, so I won’t belabor this too much. Instead, let’s get to the season predictions.
NFC West: We’ll start here because it’s fairly straightforward. Seattle is 10-1 with a 3.5 game lead over San Fran and Arizona (both 6-4), with the Rams bringing up the rear at 4-6. Luigi thinks that Seattle still has 3 wins to come, and 13-3 should be plenty to take the division. The Rams and Cards both have 2 or 3 wins, and the 49ers 3 or 4. The Rams won’t make the playoffs at 6-10 or even 7-9, but if the Cardinals can make it to 9-7 things could be interesting. The 49ers will also be trying to get to 10-6 for a good shot. The Seahawks will just be trying to stay ahead of the Saints (primarily) for the 1 seed.
NFC South: Speaking of the Saints, as mentioned before they have a game on the Panthers. Tampa and Atlanta have basically eliminated themselves at 2-8; they would have to go undefeated just to break even and hope that somehow 8-8 is good enough. Instead, Luigi thinks they each have maybe 2 more wins in them. The Saints and Panthers have pretty much identical predictions, with 3 or 4 more wins. However, two of their remaining games are against each other. Assuming those are about a wash, what it really means is that if one can win both games, they would have a huge advantage on the other. The Saints would get an extra game up and the Panthers would even their records and grab the tiebreaker. Assuming nothing odd happens in the other games, those two will determine the division winner and probably who gets the second bye in the NFC. The other team will likely get a playoff spot as well. Let’s assume the Saints stay ahead and peg them at 12-4 while the Panthers get to 11-5.
NFC North: Right now the Lions have the division lead over Chicago thanks to their head-to-head wins even though both squads are 6-4. Each is just ahead of the 5-5 Packers, and Minnesota is out of the running at 2-8. Each of the top three is expected to win 3 or 4 more games, so things will stay tight. However, that assumes that the Packers are playing at their season-long average. As long as Rodgers is out, that will not be the case, as the last three games suggest. It will be critical for Green Bay that Rodgers comes back and is healthy for the Thanksgiving game against Detroit on short rest to give them the Lions tiebreaker and another divisional win if they can beat Chicago in week 17. But, assuming Rodgers is out long enough to cost the Pack a game or two, let’s give the Lions the division in a tiebreaker over Chicago: both teams end up at 9-7 and the Packers end up at 7-9.
NFC East: This is obviously where everything will go wrong. The Eagles have half a game on the Cowboys, who have a game on the Giants, who have a game on Washington. Washington is predicted to win three more games, which would put them at 6-10, which is unlikely to win the division or get a wild card spot. 7-9 probably won’t either, and while you don’t want to rule anything out in the East, 8-8 probably won’t be good enough. So let’s count Washington out. Despite a recent resurgence, the Giants are only supposed to win 2 more games, so they’re out too. For those curious about why the Giants are being frowned on here, let’s just say that three of their four wins came against third-string QBs and the fourth came against a second-stringer. They also have three road games left, which isn’t particularly friendly. So we’ll put the Giants at 6-10 and out. That leaves Dallas, who Luigi expects to get to 8-8, and Philly, who is expected to get to 9-7. Obviously not a big difference, and it includes me rounding a bit. The Cowboys and Eagles play in week 17 in what may decide the division; if the Cowboys catch up that half game and win week 17, they would take the title thanks to the tiebreaker. But I’ll take a stab at the Eagles holding on at 9-7.
That would give us an NFC slate of Seattle and New Orleans with the bye followed by Detroit and Philly as division winners. Carolina seems like a safe wild card and the 49ers would likely get the last spot, but Arizona, Dallas, and Chicago could keep it interesting. Detroit and Philly both need to worry about winning their divisions, because if they don’t they could easily find themselves outside the playoffs entirely.
AFC West: The AFC is a bit easier at least as far as the division winners go, so let’s start with the ‘hard’ one. The Broncos and Chiefs are tied at 9-1 and have five games on the 4-6 Chargers and Raiders. Denver has one win on the Chiefs and will likely be favored to get another in Kansas City in a couple weeks, although it should be closer. Denver is expected to win nearly one more game than the Chiefs, so we’ll give them the nod. Let’s say 13-3 for Denver, 12-4 for KC, and the Chargers and Oakland trailing at 7-9 and 6-10.
AFC South: The Colts have this one wrapped up with a three game lead over Tennessee. Indy is 7-3 and is expected to win another 3 or 4, so let’s peg them at 10-6. Tennessee should get to 7-9 and Houston and Jacksonville are out of the running.
AFC North: The Bengals don’t seem particularly strong right now (although better than the week before), but 2.5 games with 6 to play is a big lead. In any event, Cincy should get to 10-6. Everyone else is 4-6, and they’re all expected to win about another 3 games. I don’t really see anything that differentiates the Ravens, Steelers, and Browns, so let’s just say they’re all 7-9 in the end. According to ESPN, Pittsburgh currently has the tiebreaker lead out of the three, so let’s say they’ll have it at the end as well if it becomes relevant.
AFC East: The Pats have two games on the Jets and Dolphins and three on Buffalo. They have three or four wins to come, so let’s say they end up at 11-5; I’ll lean towards four because they should play better than their season stats as Gronk continues to play and (maybe) the rookie receivers get better. Miami is expected to win half a game more than the Jets, so let’s say those two end up at 8-8 and 7-9. Buffalo should get to 6-10.
That means that five teams in the AFC are easy to put in the playoffs. The division winners should be Denver, Indy, Cincy, and New England, and the Chiefs will get a wild card spot with little worry. Then we have a mess between Miami at 8-8 and the Jets, Chargers, Titans, Steelers, Ravens, and Browns all at 7-9. Presumably one or more of that group will actually get to at least 8-8 as well, so it’s going to be quite a race.
That’s a lot of words and it’s still early to make a pick anyway, so let’s wrap it up there. In a couple of weeks there won’t be as many games and I can use the cool NFL forecast tool to put actual probabilities on teams instead of rounding off to games and ignoring some of the tiebreaking procedures. But in the meantime, it looks like there are about seven or eight fan bases that can rest easy; they’ll be playing in January.