NFL playoff picture taking shape in Week 16

Danny Kelly takes a look at the implications of the most important NFL games this week.

Once again, the the NFL’s Week 16 docket of games features some heavy hitters with major playoff implications on the line. In fact, the only games on the Week 16 slate that don’t have an effect on the NFL playoff picture are: a) already over (Jags-Titans); and b) the Rams-Giants tilt in New York. Now, that said, there are a host of teams with playoff aspirations that are hanging on by a thread, but, as Andy Dufresne once said, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. Until you’re mathematically eliminated.

So, with that in mind, here’s a quick look at each big game this weekend, and I’ve listed teams along with their records and their spot in our weekly Power Rankings. The season has come down to the final two games — hold on to your butts.

The NFC South still matters

There’s still a pretty decent chance that a team with a losing record plays in the Playoffs this year. Hopefully that’s not the case, but it could happen. Regardless, someone has to win this division, and it’s somehow still a three-horse race.

No. 25 Falcons (5-9) vs. No. 21 Saints (6-8)
No. 22 Browns (7-7) vs. No. 20 Panthers (5-8-1)

The Saints are in the catbird seat for the division at 6-8 (63 percent odds, per FiveThirtyEight, and 65 percent, per Football Outsiders), and a win over the Falcons drive them up to over 92 percent per ELO. As to who the “second favorite” for the division would be, well, that depends on who you ask.

The Falcons may appear to be on the outside looking in at 5-9, but, according to Football Outsiders DVOA metric, Atlanta actually holds better odds for the Playoffs (21 percent) than the Panthers (14 percent). This can be attributed to a very strong offense (ninth in the NFL, per DVOA) and special teams group (eighth in DVOA), but obviously, the Falcons are in the spot they’re in because of their defense (dead last, per FO). Whether Julio Jones can go Sunday will be a big deal, and it’s looking like he’ll be a game-time decision.

Carolina is far more tepid across the board (21st offense, 19th defense, 31st special teams, per DVOA), and a potentially hobbled or car-accident affected Cam Newton certainly doesn’t help things, their two game win streak notwithstanding. Now, for what it’s worth, FiveThirtyEight’s ELO rating likes the Panthers more than Football Outsiders, and puts their odds at winning the division at 19 percent compared to Atlanta at 17 percent.

Bottom line: these are big games for all three teams. If the Panthers lose, they can all but kiss the playoffs goodbye, as their odds for the division would drop to about 3.4 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight, and if the Falcons lose, well, they’re out, officially. The Panthers probably have the advantage that they’re playing an all-but-eliminate Browns team with the Johnny Manziel experience at quarterback, but that’s a tough, no-joke defense in Cleveland so it’s not a matchup to take lightly.

The race to the No. 1 seed in the AFC

No. 3 Broncos (11-3) vs. No. 12 Bengals (9-4-1)
No. 1 Patriots (11-3) vs. No. 28 Jets (3-11)

The Colts are extreme long-shots to get one of those two top seeds because of losses earlier in the season to both the Broncos and Patriots, so I’ve included the Indy-Dallas game below in the NFC analysis. For now, the more pertinent question will be how those first two seeds will shake out, an important distinction because of the guarantee of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Right now, the Patriots have the inside track at it — 78.5 percent odds for the top seed, per FiveThirtyEight and 67.6 percent, per Football Outsiders — but both teams face interesting finishes to their seasons. The Patriots get the hapless Jets this week but with the way division games always play out, especially in a rivalry like this, I’m not discounting anything. A New England win would push their odds at the conference’s top spot to over 88 percent, but a loss would send their No. 1 seed odds to around 35 percent. It’s a big game.

Meanwhile, the Broncos face a tougher task on paper, traveling to chilly Cincinnati to take on the Bengals Sunday. Pride isn’t the only thing at stake in this one for their opponent, though, as a win this week guarantees the Bengals a playoffs spot.

Regardless, whether it’s the No. 1 seed or the No. 2 seed — that will get sorted out in Week 17 — the Broncos and Patriots can both clinch first round byes with wins this week. That’s huge.

The battle for the AFC North

No. 14 Chiefs (8-6) at No. 11 Steelers (9-5)
No. 9 Ravens (9-5) at No. 17 Texans (7-7)

Right now, the playoff picture shows three AFC North teams making it into the dance, with seedings set like this: (1) New England, (2) Denver, (3) Indianapolis, (4) Cincinnati, (5) Pittsburgh, and (6) Baltimore.

That said, they’ve got a few teams nipping at their heels for the Wild Card spots, and the race for the AFC North title is no gimme with the slate of games this week. As said above, the Bengals have to host the red-hot Patriots, and the Steelers host the Chiefs, while the Ravens travel to Houston to take on the Texans.

Kansas City is clinging to playoff life at 26 percent odds, per FiveThirtyEight and 34 percent, per Football Outsiders. A big win this week would put Kansas City at 9-6, giving them a shot of life and putting them back into the for a Wild Card spot as they head into the season’s final week. More importantly, it’d give them a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Steelers, who would fall to 9-6 alongside them.

Meanwhile, both FiveThirtyEight’s ELO and Football Outsiders DVOA continue to really like the Ravens at 9-5, giving them strong odds (87 percent ELO, 87 percent DVOA) to get into the postseason, in part because of how highly they rank (sixth in NFL in ELO and fourth in the NFL in DVOA), in part because they swept the Steelers this year, and in part because of a relatively light final schedule (Houston, Cleveland) as compared to Pittsburgh (Kansas City, Cincinnati) and Cincy (New England, Pittsburgh).

Still, the Ravens will have to take care of business this week against the Texans team that has been decimated at the quarterback spot, but still has a strong defense.

The AFC bubble

No. 15 Bills (8-6) at No. 31 Raiders (2-12)
No. 13 Chargers (8-6) at No. 19 49ers (7-7)
No. 24 Vikings (7-7) at No. 16 Dolphins (7-7)

Right there with Kansas City at 8-6 we have the Bills and Chargers. After upsetting the Packers last week, Buffalo will have to continue to shut down quarterbacks this week against Derek Carr in Oakland. They should, on paper, get that done, and then they’ll have an interesting game Week 17 in New England. The Chargers face a similarly difficult road to the playoffs, heading to Santa Clara this weekend to play the 49ers then having to head to the Midwest to finish off at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Dolphins are technically still in the hunt but it’s a long, long shot. Nonetheless, they have to win.

The NFC top seed game of musical chairs

In the NFC, things are a little wacky, with five teams — the Packers, Lions, Cowboys, Seahawks, and Cardinals — still in the hunt for both the top seed and a chance at a bye week.

No. 5 Packers (10-4) at No. 27 Buccaneers (2-12)
No. 8 Lions (10-4) at No. 26 Bears (5-9)
No. 6 Colts (10-4) at No. 7 Cowboys (10-4)
No. 2 Seahawks (10-4) at No. 4 Cardinals (11-3)

The Packers really made things hard on themselves last week by losing in Buffalo, and now sit on the outside looking in for the NFC’s top seed. They are near locks for the playoffs still at 93 percent, per FiveThirtyEight and Football Outsiders, but their grasp on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs took a big hit. They’ll have to dispatch the Bucs on the road this week to keep pace with the Lions, who will, I assume, beat the Jimmy Clausen-led Bears in Chicago (yeah, you never know, I guess).

If both the Packers and Lions win, and I’m guessing both will, it will set up a very exciting Week 17 matchup at Lambeau between the two teams for the division title, and they’ll both still have a shot at the top seed. To get that top seed, though, they’ll have to hope for some favorable outcomes from Cardinals, Cowboys and Seahawks over the next two weeks.

Bottom line? A win for Arizona over the Seahawks would push them to 12-3, clinching them the NFC West title, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That said — per FiveThirtyEight — if the Ryan Lindley-led Cardinals lose to the Seahawks, their odds of grabbing the top seed would drop to just three percent. This is obviously an enormous game for them in terms of seeding, even though they’ve already locked up a spot in the Postseason.

It’s big for the Seahawks as well, who can win this week against the Cardinals, then next week at home against the Rams, and give themselves a great shot at the NFC West division title and the NFC’s top seed. This would give Seattle home-field throughout the playoffs for the second straight season, an advantage was crucial for a Super Bowl run last season.

Dallas has a shot at the No. 1 seed as well, but will need to beat Andrew Luck’s Colts to stay in the race. In a weird tie-breaker scenario, the Cowboys would get the No. 1 seed if both Dallas and the Seahawks win out and end up in a two-way tie at 12-4, because the Cowboys beat the Seahawks earlier this year. However, if one of the Lions or Packers also end up 12-4 (and if both Detroit and Green Bay win this weekend, one of them will, because they play each other Week 17), the tie-breaker would revert to three-way rules, and the Seahawks would win out by virtue of conference record and/or common opponents.

If the Seahawks and Lions both win out and finish 12-4 in a two-way tie, Seattle would get the tiebreaker by virtue of their record against common opponents (they’d both have 10-2 conference records), as the Seahawks would be 5-0 against the Packers, Panthers, Giants, and Cardinals, and the Lions will be 3-2 against those same teams.

The NFC race is weird, is what I’m saying, but regardless, the Packers, Lions, Seahawks, Cowboys and Cardinals have a lot on the line this week, as they all have a shot at the No. 1 seed.

December 19, 2014 by : Posted in Uncategorized No Comments

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