Things are looking pretty tight in the playoff races for the rest of the season. Looking at the NFC standings today, the Eagles are one game ahead of the Giants and two ahead of Washington; Chicago and Green Bay are tied; Atlanta is one game ahead of New Orleans and Tampa Bay (who are tied), and Seattle is one game ahead of St. Louis and two games ahead of San Fran and Arizona. In the AFC, the Jets are tied with New England, Baltimore is tied with Pittsburgh, Jacksonville is tied with Indy one game ahead of Tennessee and two games ahead of Houston, and Kansas City is one game ahead of San Diego and Oakland. With five games to go it would usually be a little tough to make up two games, but a lot of these teams still play each other (a couple even play each other twice). If we look at the power rankings, we only get a little help.
The issue is that when teams are close in strength, it’s hard to pick a winner. So while Arizona is near the bottom of the league and thus, you might think, unlikely to do well, the Rams, Seahawks, and 49ers are also only numbers 30, 27, and 26. So we can’t expect them to differentiate themselves too much at this point just based on the quality of the team. We can try to look at the actual schedule going forward for help, and for that we go to the season predictions:
Not a lot of help here either though. The predicted remaining wins vary from 1.75 (Carolina) to 4.12 (San Diego), but pretty much everyone is expected to win 2 or 3 of their last 5 games. Here’s how the races break down; projected wins below is actual wins plus predicted wins in future games:
NFC East: Philly has 10.25 projected wins, the Giants 9.3, and Washington 7.5. So we can probably count the Redskins out. Philly plays at the Giants in week 15 and that will likely decide things.
NFC North: Chicago has 10 projected wins and the Packers have 10.6. They play in week 17 in Green Bay, likely for all the marbles.
NFC South: Atlanta has 11.83 projected wins, New Orleans has 10.44, and Tampa has 9.87. Atlanta plays both teams on the road; New Orleans gets both teams at home. Atlanta benefits from still playing Carolina twice, which should be 2 free wins.
NFC West: Seattle has 7.7 projected wins, the Rams 7, the 49ers 5.6, and the Cardinals 5.57. Seattle gets the Rams at home in week 17; San Fran plays all three teams, including the Cardinals twice. There could be a lot of movement here, but the winner is likely going to bow out in the first round of the playoffs regardless.
Wild Cards: It’s obviously hard to say who the wild cards will be if we can’t pick the division winners. But since the NFC West has to send someone, it’s likely that a more deserving team will stay home. The most likely candidates right now are the Giants and Tampa.
AFC East: The Jets have 11.25 projected wins and the Patriots 11.55; they play in Foxboro in week 13. The Jets continue to be the luckiest team in football; they’ve played like a team that should have only won 5 games so far. Unless you believe heavily in clutch play, you have to be wary of their two wins in overtime and two other wins on the last plays of the game (Houston and Denver). Even if you do believe in clutch play, you should be nervous about how the team is playing.
AFC North: Baltimore has 10.37 projected wins and Pittsburgh has 10.61. They play in Pittsburgh in week 13.
AFC South: Jacksonville has 8.67 projected wins, Indy 9.34, Tennessee 8.08, and Houston 7.01. Tennessee will be hard to peg with Vince Young out for the year and Kerry Collins banged up, so this will likely be Indy’s show. They play Jacksonville at home in week 15, Tennessee twice (including week 17), and split with Houston.
AFC West: Kansas City has 9.47 projected wins, San Diego 9.12, and Oakland 7.67. The Chiefs play in San Diego in week 14 and would win the head-to-head tie breaker if they win that game.
Wild Cards: It looks like the losers of the AFC East and North have the inside track on the wild card spots, meaning the entire AFC playoff bracket might be made of teams with 10 or more wins (if Indy and KC/San Diego get there). That will be an absolute slugfest and home field will be important. The Patriots/Jets/Steelers/Ravens would do themselves a big favor by winning the division to get a bye and home field for another game (and the 14% advantage that comes with it).