NFL Playoff Picture – Post Week 14

Teams have mostly settled in to how good they are at this point, so the power rankings are only so useful.  But the schedule is more critical now as we figure out the playoff picture.  This week I’ll be using both nfl-forecast and ESPN’s playoff machine to project things out.  Forecast is nice in that we can attach probabilities to the outcomes, but the playoff machine is much prettier.  Here goes!

Step one: power rankings.  The Packers still sit on top after crushing the Raiders, followed by the Saints and Patriots.  Those three are somewhat spread out but then there’s a solid drop to the Texans and Ravens to finish off the top 5.  If you watched the Colts, Rams, and Chiefs games then you understand why they’re at the bottom.

Step two: season predictions.  These take the schedule into account and are maybe most useful for looking at ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ teams.  The unluckiest team has been the Colts.  Remember that teams can be both bad and unlucky; even a crappy NFL team wins a few games, but the Colts are winless despite having played other crummy teams like the Chiefs, Browns, Bucs, and Jaguars.  They actually only lost by 3 to Pittsburgh.  Things could have been better.  Buffalo and Philadelphia have also been on the wrong end of a few games.  On the other end the luckiest team has been the Packers, for basically the opposite reason as the Colts.  Teams lose games for dumb reasons, like a poorly timed fumble or even injuries.  The Packers haven’t so far.  They are joined by the 49ers, Steelers, Falcons, and Broncos as having more wins than they probably deserve.

Step three: profit.  Or in this case, make the playoffs.  I used my projections to put probabilities into nfl-forecast’s software and used the same projections with a 50% cut-off to pick winners in ESPN’s playoff machine.  You have to make the usual disclaimer about the model not knowing about injuries and the like; Chicago is probably rated better than it’s actually playing right now.  I’ve also come to the conclusion that Buffalo is over-rated, but they just keep getting picked to hang around.  But here’s the story:

In the AFC the playoff machine sees New England and Houston getting byes with the Steelers and Raiders getting home field against the Ravens and Jets.  However, the forecast says that the Ravens are in a much better position.  The issue is that the Steelers have a toss-up game against the 49ers and the Ravens have two questionable road games against the Bengals and Chargers.  If the Steelers lose to the 49ers (or crash in either of the other two games) and the Ravens win either of those two games (or if the Steelers and Ravens win out), the Ravens will move ahead of the Steelers thanks to their tie-breaker.  If the Ravens were to win out, they would actually end up at number one.  Regardless of the exact positioning, the Texans, Pats, Ravens, and Steelers are virtual locks for the playoffs at some spot (the Texans are a literal lock).  Whichever team doesn’t win the AFC North will be the 5 seed.

In the rest of the AFC, the Jets currently have the edge on the Bengals and have a 43% chance to make the playoffs.  More interestingly, Denver actually has a better shot than Oakland in the probability forecast.  That’s because Denver has two winnable games left against Buffalo and the Chiefs, but are projected to lose to Buffalo (they’re also projected to lose to the Patriots).  The Buffalo game is close though, so 2-1 is reasonable.  In fact, if I give the Broncos the win over Buffalo then they get the 4 seed and Oakland moves into 6.  The Raiders, on the other hand, have a toss-up game against the Lions, a road game against the Chiefs, and a final game against the Chargers.  If they lose any of those, even if Denver goes 1-2, the Broncos would take the division.  Thus the Broncos sit at 80% to make the playoffs and the Raiders at 30% even though Oakland is favored in the rest of their games; they just aren’t strong favorites and they have no margin of error.

The other two teams in the mix are the Titans and Bengals with about 20% of a chance each.  The Bengals are projected to win each of their remaining games, so they’ll need extra help to make it in.  One such scenario would be if the Jets lose to Miami or the Giants and the Bengals win out.  The Titans are in a similar situation; they need to beat the Texans in week 17 to have a shot.  There are some funny contingencies; if everything goes as projected but the Titans beat the Texans, they would move into the 6 spot over the Jets.  But if the Jets also lose to Miami or the Giants, the Bengals would go instead.  So we’ll need a little more info to fully eliminate some teams.  This week the biggest AFC-related games are Titans at Colts (should be a gimme, but necessary), Bengals at Rams (same), Lions at Oakland, Pats at Denver, Jets at Eagles, Ravens at Chargers, and Steelers at 49ers.  That’s basically half of them.

In the NFC, the Packers, 49ers, and Saints have clinched playoff spots.  The projections put them at 1, 3, and 2 respectively.  However, simply giving the 49ers a win against the Steelers is enough to put them in 2nd.  In fact, the 49ers have the tie-breaker, so any Saints loss would also put the 49ers in 2nd even if the 49ers lose to Pittsburgh.  Thus the 49ers have a slightly better chance at the bye because the Saints have to play the Falcons.  But that’s the only real movement at the top.  The Packers are now basically 50/50 to go undefeated if they play out the season.  There are five teams looking at the other three spots, with three other teams still hanging around.

Those three are the Eagles, Cardinals, and Seahawks.  The Seahawks play the Cardinals in week 17, so only one of them can functionally make it.  If Seattle beats the Bears, upsets the 49ers, and beats the Cardinals they could make it to the 6 seed at 9-7.  The Cardinals similarly need to beat the Browns and Bengals before winning that week 17 game to finish 9-7.  For the Eagles, they need to beat the Jets, Cowboys, and Redskins just to get to 8-8.  That won’t get a wild card, so they can only get in by winning the division.  The Giants would have to go 1-2 against the Redskins, Jets, and Cowboys.  The Cowboys would also have to go 1-2 against the Bucs, Eagles, and Giants.  One of the Giants and Cowboys obviously has to win their week 17 game, so the Eagles basically have to hope that both the Bucs and Redskins win this weekend.

So let’s ignore those unlikely outcomes.  The other five teams in the hunt are the Falcons (85%), Cowboys (52%), Giants (48%), Lions (70%), and Bears (25%).  The Cowboys and Giants are easy to handle; neither team is likely to make it if they don’t win the division.  The loss to the Broncos really hurt the Bears.  The Cowboys are currently favored because they get the Eagles at home while the Giants go on the road to face the Jets.  If the Cowboys win and Giants lose, the Cowboys can still afford to lose in week 17.  If they both lose, however, the Giants can take it with a week 17 win.  If the Giants win but the Cowboys lose, the Giants would take it even without a week 17 win.  This all assumes nothing funny happens this week, of course.  And finally if they both win in week 16, the winner of week 17 takes it.  So the Cowboys will be rooting for the Jets and the Giants for the Eagles, as those are the only scenarios that determines things before week 17.

Atlanta faces the Jaguars, Saints, and Bucs.  Unless something funny happens, they’ll be in with 10 wins.  Even if they go 9-7 they have the tie-breaker over the Lions (head to head), but they did lose to the Bears.  Unfortunately for the Bears, they’re a game behind both teams and according to the playoff machine the Lions still make it if both teams end up at 9-7 (which is the projection).  The machine also says the Lions and Falcons make it if all three teams are 9-7.  So the Bears need to beat the Packers or get more serious help.  The Lions are in a good spot for two reasons.  One is that one of their projected losses is to Oakland, which is more of a toss-up.  A win there would help a lot (on the other hand, they’re projected to beat the Chargers but that could also be tough).  The other reason is that the Packers might decide to rest up in week 17.  Two wins virtually assures the Lions of a playoff spot.  The downside for the Lions is that they have almost no chance of moving past the Falcons, so they’re likely stuck in 6th.  The Lions could get to 5th by winning out while the Falcons go 2-1 though, or by going 2-1 while the Falcons go 1-2.  That kind of scenario would actually allow the Bears to sneak in if they get to 9 wins.  So the Bears should have a strong rooting interest in the Bucs or Jags upsetting the Falcons, along with hoping the Saints get their projected win.

That should cover most of the possibilities, although obviously not all of them or all the combinations.  The most likely playoff orders are Packers, 49ers, Saints, Cowboys, Falcons, Lions; and Pats, Ravens, Texans, Denver, Steelers, Jets.  The only really important NFC game this weekend is Detroit at Oakland.  All the other teams mentioned are obviously playing, but they’re in more lopsided affairs that only matter if there’s an upset, and even then could still ‘work out’ in the future.  But if the Lions win they will virtually lock up a playoff spot while the Raiders will most likely fall out of the playoff picture.  Go Lions!

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