The NFL is a league filled with parity. Every year, there are certain examples of this parity that happens almost without fail. With 4 weeks left in the NFL season, we can use these to figure out which teams, if history is any indication, will struggle down the stretch. Note: I’m doing this probably in lieu of detailed power rankings.
1. Every year in at least the last decade, a team has gone from 5 wins or fewer to the playoffs.
This is an easy one. The Colts, winners of 2 games last year, stand at 8-4 right now and in the weak AFC, they can pretty much clinch a playoff spot with 2 more wins. They have easy games against Tennessee and Kansas City, along with tougher games against Houston, in their final 4 games. They won’t need to pull any upsets to make the playoffs, and they might even be able to make the playoffs if they get upset once down the stretch, so there isn’t much we can learn from them. Washington, Tampa Bay, and Minnesota are candidates here and we can certainly have more than one of these teams make the playoffs, but Indianapolis should fulfill this “requirement.”
2. Every year in at least the last decade, with the exception of one, a team has gone from the playoffs to 5 wins or fewer.
With the exception of 2, each one of last year’s 12 playoff teams have already won 6 games or more, so that eliminates a good chunk of the candidates. New Orleans at 5-7 is technically still a candidate, but they’d have to lose out, which makes them a long shot. Even if they can’t beat Tampa Bay in New Orleans or go to New York and beat the Giants or beat the Cowboys in Dallas, I’d be stunned if they lost to the Panthers at home in the Superdome week 17.
That leaves Detroit. Detroit sits at 4-8 and could definitely go 1-3 down the stretch. They have very tough games against Green Bay, Atlanta, and Chicago, all of which they will be dogs in, and only a trip to Arizona offers them an opportunity to be favorites. They’re really our only option, so this teaches us to basically fade them as small or medium sized dogs against Green Bay, Atlanta, and Chicago because history suggests they won’t pull any of those 3 upsets. If they do, definitely fade them as favorites in Arizona, because Arizona just might pull that upset, again, if history is any indication.
3. Every year in at least the last decade, one team goes from out of the playoffs to a first round bye.
Really the only candidate here is the Bears. The AFC byes will almost definitely be two of Houston, New England, Baltimore, and Denver, all returning playoff teams. The Falcons, another returning playoff team, have the other bye locked up, which leaves that 2nd NFC bye as the one that will likely be taken by a non-playoff team from a year ago. The 49ers, are 8-3-1, hold the spot right now, a 4th returning playoff team, but the Bears are at 8-4 and if they can beat Green Bay in Chicago, a game in which they’ll probably be favored, they could definitely run the table and go 12-4. In that case, they would only need San Francisco to lose one of two very losable games in Seattle or New England, where they will probably be dogs, to take the 2nd bye.
Seattle is the other candidate. If they can beat San Francisco in Seattle, where they have already knocked down some of the tougher teams in the NFL this season (New England, Green Bay), they have a very good chance to run the table and get to 11-5, barring another snafu as road favorites in Buffalo. Their other two games at are home for Arizona and St. Louis and I would be stunned if they lost either of those. At 11-5, they’d still need some help getting into the playoffs, in the form of a Chicago loss and another San Francisco loss, but the possibility is still open. Potential suspensions to Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman could kill their chances though.
What does all this mean? Well, I don’t think I’m going to pick against the Bears as small or medium favorites the rest of the way and I certainly won’t pick against them as dogs. I think I’m taking them against Green Bay pretty much no matter what. I probably won’t pick against Seattle the rest of the way, just to be safe (though Browner’s and Sherman’s potential suspensions could really make me rethink that promise, as would the juicy possibility of getting Buffalo +3.5 at home for the Seahawks). I’ll also pick against San Francisco in both New England and Seattle.
4. Every year in at least the last decade, one team goes from a first round bye to out of the playoffs
Here’s another reason I like the Bears to satisfy situation #3. The 49ers, Patriots, and Ravens are all pretty much locked into a playoff spot. None of those teams has more than 3 losses. The Packers at 8-4 are the only candidate that still remotely has a chance of satisfying this one. They’d have to go 2-2 or worse to do so. Losing in Chicago would definitely not be a shock, but they’ll probably be favorites in their other 3 games.
I can’t see them losing at home to Tennessee, nor can I see them losing at home to Detroit, especially since doing so would put situation 2 at risk of not happening, so the only real possibility would be a week 17 road loss in Minnesota. Minnesota played them tough this week, so it is a possibility in Minneapolis, where they are 5-1 this year, especially since Percy Harvin will probably be back for that one.
Who would take the Packers’ playoff spot? Well, there’s a trio of 6-6 teams right now, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and Dallas. Tampa Bay is the most talented of the bunch by far, but they’d have to win out and that would mean wins in New Orleans and Atlanta. A win in Atlanta would not be farfetched as that will be week 17 and the Falcons will almost definitely be resting starters then (they might clinch home field in the NFC by week 15) and I think they can win in New Orleans. Basically what this means is I’m going against the Packers against the Bears and Vikings the rest of the way and taking Tampa Bay as dogs and small or medium favorites the rest of the way.
5. Every year in the last 17 years, there have been 5 new playoff teams.
This is another reason I think the Packers will miss the playoffs. This has happened for 17 straight years. Right now, the Colts, Seahawks, and Bears look like locks to be 3 of those 5. If the Buccaneers can take the Packers’ spot, that’s 4, with the Packers joining the Saints, Lions, and either the Steelers or Bengals on the outside looking in. That leaves one spot.
The only plausible way this can happen for an 18th straight year is if the Redskins win the NFC East and someone takes the Packers’ spot. 6 of the 8 divisions in the NFL will definitely be won by the team that won it last year. The Steelers or Bengals, two returning playoff teams, are taking one of the two wild cards in the AFC. That only leaves 5 spots for new playoff teams and if this is going to happen for the 18th straight year, they will all have to be filled by new playoff teams, including the Giants’ spot atop the NFC East.
I know the Cowboys are right in that NFC East race as well, but I just think the Redskins are a much better team. After all, they smoked the Cowboys in Dallas on Thanksgiving. These two teams do play week 17 in Washington so I guess you can say that whichever teams win week 17 is the favorite between these two, but I think the Redskins will win that one and the division.
The Giants are a much better team in the first half of the season than the second. In the first 8 games of the season, they are 53-19 and in the 2nd half, they are 28-40. The Giants have tough games against New Orleans, Baltimore, and Atlanta left, before an easy week 17 game against the Eagles. That week 17 game is their only easy win and they’ll have to win at least 2 games I think to win this division. 8-8 won’t cut it.
The Redskins stand at 6-6 and have a much easier final quarter schedule, playing the Eagles and Browns in 2 of their next 3 games, sandwiched in between a winnable game at home against the Ravens and that week 17 matchup against the Cowboys. All the Redskins have to do is win the 3 games they’ll be favored in (Browns, Eagles, and Cowboys) and have the Giants win just the 2 games they’ll be favored in (Saints, Eagles) and the Redskins will win the division at 9-7, by virtue of the 2nd tiebreaker, divisional record (5-1 to Giants’ 4-2). Chalk wins the Redskins the division. So what does this mean for picking purposes, basically I’m going fade the Giants unless they’re big dogs down the stretch and I’m going to take the Redskins unless they’re big favorites. I would do the same for the Cowboys, but I don’t trust them.
Teams to bet
4. Tampa Bay
Teams to fade
1. Green Bay
2. NY Giants
3. San Francisco
Final playoff predictions
1. Atlanta 14-2 (lose to Buccaneers week 17 with rested starters)
2. Chicago 12-4 (win out)
3. San Francisco 11-4-1 (lose in either New England or Seattle)
4. Washington 9-7 (lose to Ravens, win other 3)
5. Seattle 10-6 (lose to 49ers or in Buffalo)
6. Tampa Bay 10-6 (win out)
1. Houston 14-2
2. New England 13-3
3. Denver 13-3
4. Baltimore 12-4
5. Pittsburgh 10-6
6. Indianapolis 9-7
Just for mock draft/power rankings purposes, these would be my playoff predictions in that scenario.
AFC Wild Card
3. Broncos over 6. Colts
5. Steelers over 4. Ravens
NFC Wild Card
3. 49ers over 6. Buccaneers
4. Redskins over 5. Seahawks
1. Texans over Steelers
2. Patriots over Broncos
1. Falcons over 4. Redskins
3. 49ers over 2. Bears
2. Patriots over 1. Texans
3. 49ers over 1. Falcons
2. Patriots over 3. 49ers