Last week I picked out a few games with particular playoff importance. The Colts won to help their wild card chances, as did the Seahawks, Steelers (potentially giving them a shot at the divison), and Redskins. The Packers and Broncos also won, helping their own positioning but perhaps just as importantly delivering blows to the Bucs’ and Vikings’ chances. At this point the power rankings aren’t going to change much because now we’re adding single games to over ten games worth of data, so the averages aren’t going to move unless something dramatic happens. What is important is the schedule and game outcomes; the power rankings will mean a bit more again once we hit the playoffs.
That being said, the power rankings tell us roughly who should be expected to win these games, so let’s take a look.
As mentioned, they haven’t changed a whole lot from last week. The Patriots’ rating moved up a tiny, tiny amount; the 49ers stayed the same despite their overtime loss while the Broncos and Texans improved a bit, enough for Denver to pass San Fran. Washington made probably the biggest move, skipping over the Bears and into more of the same neighborhood as the (probable) playoff teams that you expect to not make the Super Bowl. There were also some improvements amongst the bad teams, like Carolina, Cleveland, and St. Louis; it won’t mean anything once the playoffs roll around, but maybe some playoff teams will have a slightly harder time getting there than we though last week.
For posterity, here are the season predictions and then we’ll get to the playoff story.
As of right now, we know a few things for sure: the Patriots and Broncos have won their divisions and so will be a top-four seed in the AFC, and Atlanta will will their division and also be a top seed in the NFC. We also know that the Texans haven’t technically won their division, but they have also guaranteed themselves a playoff spot. So those four teams are 100% in. For everything else, I use Luigi’s predictions for the remaining games and nfl-forecast.com. Using that, we can see that the Jaguars, Chiefs, Raiders, Eagles, and Panthers are 100% out of the playoffs. Everyone else has a non-zero chance of getting in, even if it’s Arizona and their .02% chance (short version: they win out to 8-8, and no other contender gets to 8 wins).
But what’s likely? Well, despite their unexpected loss to the Steelers, the Ravens have a very good chance of taking the AFC North. They still have a two game lead, which will come in handy since they have a rough four games ahead (Redskins, Giants, Bengals, and Broncos). Fortunately for Baltimore, the Bengals and Steelers play each other so one of them is guaranteed a loss. The Ravens also play the Bengals in week 17, so they have some amount of control there. The Texans are even more likely to win their division, as they have a three game lead on the Colts and play them twice.
So the top four in the AFC will almost certainly be the Patriots, Texans, Ravens, and Broncos. The top seed will probably be the Texans but from there it’s pretty noisy. I think it will be Pats-Broncos-Ravens for 2-4, but there’s definitely wiggle room there. As for the wild card spots, the Colts have a good 86% chance at getting in, mostly as a five seed. The 6 seed is a race between Pittsburgh and the Bengals, with a slight edge to Pittsburgh. That’s likely because they host the game between the two in week 16, giving them a better chance at the win. Every other team in the AFC has less than a three percent chance of making the playoffs, so these are your teams. It’s just a question of who makes it between the Steelers and Bengals and where they end up in the seeding.
The NFC is much more open. As mentioned, only the Falcons have locked up a spot. The 49ers have a very good chance to win their division, but the Seahawks could technically still take it away. The 49ers are likely to beat the Cardinals and Dolphins, so let’s give them those. To keep up, the Seahawks will need to beat the Rams and Cardinals. Let’s also give the Seahawks a road win against the Bills while the 49ers lose to the Patriots. That means it comes down to the week 16 game between the two. If the Seahawks win, they would take the division by a half game. It looks to me like if they end up with the same number of wins the 49ers will stay ahead, so Seattle actually needs to pass them by.
The North and East are much crazier. The Giants’ loss on Monday was a big one, as it left them with only a 50% chance of winning the division. The Redskins and Cowboys are each only a game back, although Washington has the better odds of getting in. Here’s what’s left: the Giants host the Saints, travel to Atlanta, travel to Baltimore, and finish at home against the Eagles. Only that last game is really a done deal, but let’s give it to them. The Redskins host Baltimore, travel to Cleveland, travel to Philly, and finish hosting the Cowboys. Again, only the Philly game seems like a very probable win, so we’ll give it to them. Finally, the Cowboys travel to Cincinnati, host Pittsburgh, host the Saints, and finish by traveling to Washington. None of those are easy, which is Dallas’ main problem (along with having to travel to play the Redskins). So the question is, can the Redskins make up one game on the Giants? They have the tiebreaker, so if they end with the same number of wins they will take the division. The Cowboys also have the tiebreaker on the Giants, but not on the Redskins, but they have to make up two games (if we’re willing to give the Giants a win against the Eagles).
In the North the Packers have a 55% chance of winning the division, and at least they only have to worry about the Bears. The key game will probably be when they play each other in week 15; if the Packers win they’ll not only pick up a game but also give themselves the clear tiebreaker with two head-to-head wins. First the Packers play the Lions on Sunday night, then travel to Chicago, then host the Titans, and finish on the road in Minnesota. Outside of hosting Green Bay, the Bears play entirely on the road the rest of the way, against the Vikings, Cardinals, and Lions. None of those games are easy, and if anything they are very similar. Green Bay has the edge mostly because they have one extra home game, and better tiebreaker position.
So let’s say that things hold serve as they currently stand; the top four seeds will be the Giants, Packers, Falcons, and 49ers. The Falcons are the clear-cut number one seed and the 49ers aren’t a lock but are a good choice for the two seed. The Packers would likely take the three seed and the Giants would get the four seed. If that happens, the Seahawks and Bears would probably complete the playoff group. In contrast to the AFC, though, there are still a few hangers-on beyond Washington (the NFC version of the Bengals). Dallas and Tampa both have about a one in six chance of making the playoffs and the Vikings have a one in ten shot. I think my favorite possible outcome, which I will call NFC Apocalypse, is that if the chips fall right we could have ten teams all with 9 wins (it might be possible to sneak in an eleventh, I’m not sure). In at least one version of that world, the Falcons would take the one seed at 13-3, the Rams would be the two seed at 9-6-1 displacing the 9-6-1 49ers to 5th, and the other seeds would go to Washington, Seattle, and Minnesota. It would be gloriously ridiculous.
Your key games for this weekend: Cowboys at Bengals, Bears at Vikings, Ravens at Redskins, and Texans at Patriots. Those four all involve teams with definite playoff aspirations. Other games that are important for one team are Broncos at Raiders, Titans at Colts, Chargers at Steelers, Dolphins at 49ers, Saints at Giants, Cardinals at Seahawks, and Lions at Packers. Good times!