After embarrassing the Jets and driving Fireman Ed into retirement, the Patriots are still the number one team in the power rankings. In fact, things are looking pretty AFC-heavy right now. Atlanta would like to argue, but their array of close calls don’t inspire any more confidence than you should have in some other teams who happened to lose their close calls. And after Atlanta, who in the NFC do you have a lot of confidence in?
Here are the rankings.
If you had to pick an NFC team without looking at any numbers, besides Atlanta, maybe you’d go with the 49ers. They would be a decent choice, although I’m still a little wary about the quarterback change. After that I think you’d go to sentimental favorites like the Packers, Giants, or Saints (they could still make a run! Or could they?). But in my eyes, your better choices would be the Bears or Bucs. Both have some question marks though, as the Bears are another Cutler headshot away from falling apart and the Bucs, while a strong team, have a disappointing tendency to lose games. The Giants are doing alright for themselves, but the Packers and Saints are likely not going to be a real factor this postseason.
On the other hand, the AFC has the Patriots, Texans, and Broncos leading the way. The Texans have had a number of close calls, but there’s no doubt they’re a solid team. The Broncos have the fifth-best differential in the league and all three of their losses have come against other top teams (Atlanta and New England on the road and Houston at home). They have benefited from something of a weak schedule, but they still play Tampa and Baltimore, which should give us a better idea of the quality of all three teams. Speaking of the Ravens, they’re doing pretty well. They’ve only lost twice; an increasingly bad-looking game against the Eagles and when they laid down against the Texans. I’m not sure if they can do a lot of damage in the playoffs, but they’re as much an option as anyone.
Here are the season predictions, just for posterity’s sake, but I’ll just move on to the playoff predictions below that.
The division winners aren’t too hard to pick for most groups, as we saw last week. The Patriots, being a really good team with a three game lead, are a virtual lock for the AFC East. The Ravens and Texans are in a similar position, and the Broncos have a four game lead. With five games to go, three game leads are technically vulnerable but require things to go just right for the second-place teams. The Colts are one AFC team that could be in an ok position as far as it goes because they still have to play the Texans twice. I find it unlikely they would beat the Texans when they’re trying (Houston may not be by week 17), but if they could pull both wins they would have the tiebreaker and only be a game back. Miami is potentially the other team because they also play their division leader, the Patriots, twice and also because the Patriots have tough games remaining against Houston and San Fran. If Miami can take advantage they might slip through. But since my predictions have all four division leaders at 96% or better to finish in the lead, neither of those scenarios seem very plausible.
In the NFC, Atlanta and San Fran are in similar positions. Atlanta has four games on Tampa, and while the 49ers only have a 2.5 game lead on Seattle, they are still a better team and there are only five games left. The NFC North and East are more up for grabs, however. The Giants have a two game lead on both Dallas and Washington, but they have three of their remaining games on the road (Washington, Atlanta, and Baltimore, none of which are gimmes) and a feisty Saints home game. That being said, I still have the Giants winning the division 80% of the time. Around this time of year you tend to see a lot of “I don’t know, can’t you see RGIII getting hot and winning out?” and the like. The problem is that you’re giving one team all the benefit of the doubt and the other team none of it. Sometimes that’ll happen, but it’s just as likely (if not more so) that the team in first manages to go at least 2-3 or 3-2 while the team in second loses at least one.
The only division I see as up for grabs is the NFC North. The Bears only have a one game lead on Green Bay and two games on Minnesota. As I mentioned, the Bears are a Cutler injury away from falling apart, as we’ve seen happen before. Besides that, they have three road games left and three of them are division games. If they lose to the Packers again, Green Bay would also have the tiebreaker. In contrast the Packers have four division games and two road games left; they also get to play Detroit (looking increasingly winnable) and Tennessee (should be a gimme). If they play well, they could catch up (the Bears’ easiest remaining game is either Seattle or on the road against Arizona) and earn a lot of tiebreaker points with their remaining schedule. The Vikings don’t have as much of a chance to get to first, but they could make some noise with a game against the Bears and two against Green Bay. I give the Bears a 58% chance at winning the division with most of the rest going to the Packers.
So who does that leave as wild cards? In the AFC the top options are the Colts (72%), Bengals (54%), and Steelers (40%). The Chargers are the only other squad with over 10% probability to make the playoffs. I personally hope the Bengals make it over Pittsburgh, but most of that will probably be dependent on how quickly Big Ben can make it back on the field. In the NFC the Packers are 71% to get in one way or another and then you have Seattle (47%), Tampa (41%), Washington (27%), and Minnesota (20%).
I can’t do proper probabilities with the nfl-forecast tool once we actually get into the playoffs, but let’s assume that we have a first round of Patriots hosting Bengals and Broncos hosting Colts; I would pick New England and Denver to move on. Then we’d have Broncos at Texans and Patriots at Baltimore; both should be good games but the Texans have the edge with home field advantage and I think the Patriots would also be small favorites. That makes an AFC Championship game of Pats at Texans, and I don’t know how that goes. In the NFC we would have (possibly) Chicago hosting Seattle (or maybe Tampa) and Giants hosting the Packers. If Chicago gets Seattle I like the Bears but if the get Tampa I kind of like the Bucs. The Giants should be able to handle Green Bay. Assuming that turns out, we have Atlanta hosting the Giants, which I would narrowly give to the Falcons, and San Fran hosting either Chicago or Tampa. Tampa would be the better game, but I like the 49ers either way. So we would end up with Atlanta hosting San Fran, which would be close but I think the 49ers might be predicted to win.
All of those playoff guesses are no more than that so far though; there’s too much wiggle room still in the wild card races and even in the NFC seeding in general. But if you’re looking for critical games this weekend, the predictions can help point them out. I would look at Colts at Lions (Indy needs to improve wild card position), Seahawks-Bears (apparently could be a first round match-up), Vikings-Packers (both divisional and wild card implications), Tampa-Denver (should be a good game in general, and important for Tampa’s wild card and Denver’s playoff position hopes), Steelers-Ravens (always fun and playoff-deciding), and Giants-Redskins on Monday night.