The Cardinals travel to St. Louis tonight (actually, I’m sure they’re already there, since the game kicks off in a few minutes), and the line is a little silly. The Rams are 5.5 or 6 point favorites. Just to remind you, St. Louis is 6-7 and more or less eliminated from playoff contention while Arizona is 10-3 and would have a bye if the playoffs started today. Of course, that ignores some things. Like that the Cardinals are on their backup QB and had lost two in a row before a narrow win over the Chiefs last week. And that the Rams have been very feisty and are coming off back to back shutouts, and beat the Broncos not long ago. And the game is in St. Louis. That being said, the Cardinals still have the better overall record; they’ve outscored their opponents by 37 points overall while the Rams are even, and in related news Arizona has the better SRS. Even if the Cardinals have been slumping recently, one of those losses was to Seattle and both were on the road; before that, they beat the Lions to cap a six-game winning streak. As the models see it, St. Louis is a tiny favorite but not nearly worth 5 or 6 points. They are taking the Cardinals to cover.
While I said the Rams are mostly out of the playoffs, they aren’t all the way out. If you want to know how, you can play with ESPN’s playoff machine. The Rams get to 9-7 if they win out, obviously, which would take victories tonight (apparently plausible), next week against the Giants (seems like they could), and in week 17 in Seattle (hmmmm). Of course, Arizona and Seattle already have 9 wins or better as well, and so do Philly/Dallas and Green Bay/Detroit, the Rams’ wild card rivals. So what has to happen?
Since Green Bay and Arizona are already ahead, they need to win more while Seattle and Detroit lose more. So Seattle also loses to San Francisco and Detroit to Minnesota this weekend, they lose at Arizona and at Chicago next week, and Detroit loses to Green Bay in week 17 (we already said St. Louis beats Seattle in their last game). We’ll also give Green Bay wins in weeks 15 and 16 over Buffalo and Tampa. The 49ers can’t be a threat, and we already gave them a win over Seattle, so they lose to San Diego and Arizona. Now we figure out Dallas and Philly. If Dallas loses out, ending at 9-7, the Rams could actually be the 5th seed with Seattle at 6. The same thing appears to happen if the Eagles lose all their games. So it looks like the Rams need to win out, either Dallas or Philly has to lose out (we’ll know which after this weekend when they play each other), and Detroit needs to lose out. That could happen, but it’s obviously unlikely.
I went through and put each of Luigi’s, Yoshi 1’s, and Yoshi 2’s predicted outcomes into the playoff machine to see what were some potentially more likely outcomes. Obviously they won’t all be correct, but they seem like good guesses. Luigi has an AFC bracket of Pats and Broncos with byes at 1 and 2, Baltimore traveling to Indy at 6 and 3, and Pittsburgh hosting San Diego at 4 and 5. I think those are fairly entertaining. Houston, Miami, KC, and Cincy are all one win behind, and the Steelers take the AFC North on tiebreakers. The NFC has Green Bay and Philly with byes followed by Detroit traveling to Seattle for 6-3 and Arizona traveling to (8-8) New Orleans for 4-5. I think the Saints might actually be favored in that match-up despite their rollercoaster season.
Yoshi 1’s predictions only change a few games, but it’s enough to move a couple things around. Houston travels to Pittsburgh instead of the Chargers, beating them out along with Miami, Cleveland, and KC on tiebreakers. Dallas gets the 2 seed bye in the NFC and Arizona goes to 7-9 Atlanta while 10-6 Philly and 9-7 San Fran stay home.
Finally, Yoshi 2’s picks are the most chilling of all. They have the Lions as the absolute smallest of underdogs in Chicago in week 16 but Dallas and Philly each win two more games. In this world, Dallas, Philly, Seattle, and Arizona all end up at 11-5, leaving 10-6 Detroit at home. Green Bay and Seattle get byes while the Cowboys and Eagles play a third time in Philly (if they end up at 11-5 but Dallas wins this weekend, Dallas would host) and Arizona travels to New Orleans. In the AFC New England and Denver still lead the way but the Bengals travel to play the Colts and the Ravens and Steelers play a rubber match in Pittsburgh. If Detroit can win in Chicago though, they would knock out the Cowboys, so let’s hope that happens.
The most cheerful option would be for the Lions to handle Minnesota again at home this weekend, travel to Chicago and beat a Bears team that’s given up, and then travel to Green Bay in week 17 and win a pivotal showdown to determine the division winner (Green Bay’s games are both on the road, so they aren’t gimmes, but they should handle Buffalo and definitely Tampa). If Seattle happens to drop a game (likely either San Fran getting frisky this weekend or Arizona putting on a defensive clinic at home in week 16) and Arizona loses twice (maybe getting that Seattle win but dropping tonight’s game to St. Louis and at San Fran to finish the season), the Lions would be the number 1 seed in the NFC at 12-4. They might end up playing Green Bay in the divisional round, but at least they would be at home. Even if Seattle or Arizona got to 12 wins, the Lions would still get a bye as the 2 seed as they are ahead of either Dallas or Philly at 12-4. Let’s hope something like that happens.