The NFL playoff picture remains fluid as we get set for the final week of the season on Sunday (there are no Thursday or Monday games for this week, it’s a full 16-game Sunday). The following remains up in the air…
*Both #1 seeds–Denver/New England are still jousting in the AFC and homefield in the NFC can go to either Seattle or Carolina.
*Three of the four first-round byes–Denver is the only team assured of both the division title and a week off. The other bye in the AFC can go to New England or Cincinnati, while the NFC contenders beyond Seattle and Carolina include both San Francisco and New Orleans.
*Three division titles–two of these will be easy to settle. Green Bay-Chicago and Philadelphia-Dallas will settle the mediocre “races” in the NFC North and NFC East head-to-head. Seattle still has to wrap up the NFC West when they host St. Louis.
*The final wild-card spot in both conferences–New Orleans can not only get a bye, they can also miss the playoffs entirely if they don’t take care of a home game with Tampa Bay. If the Saints lose, that opens the door for the Arizona Cardinals, if the Cards can win at home against San Francisco.
The AFC is even crazier–Miami, Baltimore, San Diego and Pittsburgh are all alive for the #6 seed and none control their own destiny. The Steelers’ case is straightforward–they need to win and everyone else needs to lose. Miami and Baltimore are who this spot likely goes to, but with the Ravensgoing to Cincinnati and the Dolphins coming off a hideous tank job in Buffalo, who knows?
We’ll preview and predict all of the Week 17 games here at TheSportsNotebook later in the week. A recap of all Week 16 games is available here. For now, let’s keep it simple and project how the NFL playoff bracket will look if the betting-line favorites all win on Sunday. At least that way we have a grasp for who’s really in prime position.
One note–at this early point, there are no lines on Carolina-Atlanta, Green Bay-Chicago and Arizona-San Francisco. The Packer-Bear game has injuries all over, but with Aaron Rodgers looking unlikely to return and now Clay Matthews out, I’m finally conceding this game to Chicago.
I’m not sure why the hesitancy on the other two games, although if I had to guess it would be that because Atlanta and San Francisco just played last night, oddsmakers are waiting final word on injuries. In either case, I’m sure the Panthers will be heavy road favorites. I’m also going to cautiously project Arizona at home.
NFL PLAYOFF PICTURE
(6)Miami at (3)Cincinnati
(5)Kansas City at (4)Indianapolis
(6)San Francisco at (3)Philadelphia
(5)New Orleans at (4)Chicago
(1)Denver (2) New England
(1)Seattle (2) Carolina
There’s a theory floating around NFL fandom and the media that says homefield advantage in the playoffs no longer matters—or at the very least is no more than an incidental edge. We can give our main thanks to Eli Manning for this theory, and to a lesser extent to Aaron Rodgers. Over the last five years, Eli’s Giants and Aaron’s Pack have won a combined three Super Bowls coming out of the first round, with a road record of 8-0. Conversely, those same quarterbacks have each seen their team lose in the second round as #1 seeds (2008 Giants, 2011 Packers). So is the theory true? Is getting to the dance all that matters, or is there still something to be said for favorable seeding?
Maybe I’m thinking this theory has gained far more traction than it really has, but living in southeast Wisconsin and surrounded by Packer fans, the circle I inhabit has definitely bought into it. The fact Green Bay went 3-0 on the road in 2010 en route to a Super Bowl title and then lost at home the following year as a 1-seed has a lot of people convinced that the Packers are better off playing in the first round. With the team set to play Minnesota on Sunday with a two-seed and first-round bye at stake, that’s no small thing right now. And in the national media, especially as it pertains to teams like the Cowboys, I’m hearing how the lessons of the Giants—both 2007 & 2011—have taught us that just getting in is the only thing that matters.
Let’s take a look at the record. I’ve gone through the last ten years of playoff history. This provides both a credible sample size, along with using as 2002 as the marking point, the year the NFL went to its current divisional alignment and postseason format.
The overall record of NFL playoff home teams in that timeframe is 63-37 (63%), which strikes me as pretty resounding In favor of homefield advantage. The weakest round is the first, where home teams win about 58% of the time. The strongest round is the conference championship game, where the win rate is 65%, and the second round—where the bye would be the biggest factor—being right on the average.
Now let’s break this ten-year period into two distinct halves. The second half—2007-11 can be called the Era of Eli, since it both begins and ends with New York’s improbable Super Bowl runs. Even with three Super Bowl champions coming out of the first round, even with the bracket-shattering year of 2008 when three of four teams with byes lost in the second round, the home team still went 31-19 overall for 62 percent. Most of that edge was created in the championship round, where home teams won seven of ten, while the first two rounds were more competitive, at 11-9 each for the home team.
If we go into the previous five years of 2002-06, the overall homefield edge stayed strong, at 32-18 (64%), and it was overwhelming at the bye level, with teams using the week off to go 14-6 (70%). The win rate was 60% in both the first round (12-8) and the conference championships (6-4).
Now let’s take this research one level further and focus on the #3 seed in particular. This is the area that draws the most attention, with the bye marking the clear dividing line between the 2-3 spots in the bracket. Again, if you want to argue it’s irrelevant, you have to argue against facts, or rely on a few narrow examples. Because just getting out of the first round is no guarantee, with the #3 seed going 11-9 over the past ten years. It gets worse in the second round. Against rested opponents and playing on the road, the 3-seed has gone 4-7. Three of the four winners lost in the conference championship game. The one exception was the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, who won the Super Bowl.
And the Era of Eli, presumably the one where homefield advantage and high seeding became things of the past, were even worse for the 3-seed. They only split in the first round (5-5), only one of those teams—the 2007 San Diego Chargers—won on the road in the second round and the Chargers then lost the AFC Championship Game. This example in of itself is instructive—while the ’07 Bolts lost to an undefeated team in New England, San Diego was also a wounded team in that conference championship, with LaDanian Tomlinson unable to go and Philip Rivers being hurt. Would a week off have made the difference?
Therefore, we can conclude that homefield advantage is still a big deal in the NFL playoffs, with win percentages remaining steadily between 60-65 percent. We can further note that while the first-round bye has lost a little bit of juice from the 2002-06 period when it was virtually tantamount to a win, the numbers still say that being in the 3-spot gives one a very difficult road to the Super Bowl.
I believe the numbers on the 3-seed in the first round are the most revealing. When fans debate whether it’s better to keep momentum or to take a week off, they overlook the most obvious point—they might get beat in the first round! It’s not as though it’s a glorified 60-minute scrimmage to tune up with before going on to the second round.
The overall data places the odds of the 3-seed losing right out of the gate at 45 percent, which is hardly insignificant and the record goes drastically downhill from that point forward. In fact, within the context of the 2 vs. 3 debate, proponents of playing in the first round contradict themselves—on the one hand, homefield doesn’t matter. On the other hand, a first-round home game is just an easy tuneup win.
Every matchup is different and every team has its own nuance. When you look at the Houston-Denver-New England troika in the AFC angling for the top spots, I’d give the ultimate #3 seed a considerably better chance than 55 percent of beating Cincinnati in the first round. If Green Bay should lose to Minnesota on Sunday and be forced into a first-round rematch with the Vikings at Lambeau Field, I’d place the Packers’ odds of winning that game much higher than 55 percent. But in no case in the NFL playoffs, should you ever place the odds of winning higher than 70 percent. Isn’t a 30 percent chance of losing reason enough to push for favorable bracket position, to say nothing of avoiding injuries and getting homefield in future rounds, where the numbers say you have a 60 percent-plus chance of winning?
The record of the Giants and Packers over the last five years—both good and bad—are reasons to suggest that perhaps NFL homefield advantage isn’t as prohibitive as it once was. But it doesn’t mean homefield isn’t a very significant issue, and with byes on the line in both conferences in Week 17, this could still be the week when the Super Bowl teams are settled.
The AFC North I was expecting to see all year long showed up in a big way on Sunday. This division has been better than I expected—I thought 9-7 would win it, and there wouldn’t be any wild-card teams. As it stands, it will likely be double-digit wins to take first place and in all likelihood the final wild-card spot comes from this division. But Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all managed to come up small in big situations.
*Baltimore lost in overtime at Washington 31-28 and in the aftermath fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. I’m almost always opposed to this kind of radical change at this point in the season. Almost always. In this case, the move had to be made and it’s better late than never.
Cameron consistently pulled Baltimore away from its core identity as a running team with Ray Rice and tried to get too cute with Joe Flacco throwing the ball all over the place. Instead of trying to pretend Flacco is Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, the Ravens would be better served letting him be Eli Manning—a quarterback who’s not really elite-level, but is still pretty good and when you surround him with a running game and defense, you can win Super Bowls.
I suspect the window for the Ravens doing the latter has shut, especially regarding the defense. But there’s only one way to find out and that’s to put an offensive coordinator in charge who will give Rice the ball, over and over again. The path will be tougher, as Sunday’s loss drops them out of control for the #2 seed and into the first round.
*Cincinnati missed a chance to take control of the race for the final playoff spot because Andy Dalton couldn’t get big plays made in the passing game against a Dallas defense that has “thrived” on giving them up. Dalton’s completion percentage, at 20/33, was respectable enough, but it only produced 206 yards and he still threw an interception. Consequently, Cincy kept settling for field goals, missed chances to put Dallas away and lost at home 20-19. My current projections have them missing the playoffs as a result.
*Pittsburgh was the worst of them all on Sunday, with a 34-24 loss to San Diego. The score is misleadingly close, as the Chargers led 27-3 in Pittsburgh. The Steelers’ problems with the running game were again made manifest and the return of Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t bail the team out.
The Steeler loss dropped them to 7-6 and has them tied with the Bengals for the #6 seed, and the Jets in pursuit at 6-7, although New York has lost to Pittsburgh head-to-head and their uninspiring wins over Arizona and Jacksonville the last two weeks leave doubt over whether they can continue on with three more wins in the coming weeks.
In spite of how bad Pittsburgh was, I think they’ll turn it around. Even though their loss was worse than Cincinnati’s strictly on its face, there’s a couple mitigating factors. The media was alive all week in San Diego with reports that owner Dean Spanos had finally decided to do the obvious and fire general manager A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner at season’s end. It’s typical of the Chargers in the Smith-Turner era to rally to the cause after it’s too late, so while I’d have never predicted they’d come up big, I can’t say I’m shocked.
I also think we need to cut Roethlisberger a little slack on his first game back. The Steelers have a big game coming up in Dallas on Sunday, and while I reserve the right to change my mind, right now I think they’re going to have their own “rally-the-troops” kind of moment and win that game. I think Cincinnati is going to lose in Philadelphia on Thursday night. Then I think the Steelers are going to beat the Bengals in Pittsburgh in Week 16. Even if just the latter happens, that gives Pittsburgh control of the race in the final week. And if that entire sequence of three dominoes falls, the Steelers would clinch with a game to go.
If you’re not sold on either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati—and let’s face it, both teams have given you plenty of reasons not to be—then you can look at the Jets. They play a very winnable Monday Night game in Tennessee, then come home to play San Diego. The New York season ends at Buffalo. I think the Jets will lose at least one of the road games, and if I had to pick, I’d learn towards saying the finale against the Bills. But that’s also a manageable schedule, even for a team that can’t score.
Finally, if you think both the Steelers and Bengals will end up at 8-8, that opens up a whole new can of worms. The likeliest scenario for that is Pittsburgh losing to Dallas and Cincy, while the Bengals lose to Philadelphia and in the finale against Baltimore. This opens the door for any of the teams currently at 5-8 to run the table and see how the tiebreakers fall. Those teams are Buffalo, Miami, Cleveland and San Diego.
Cleveland would have the best shot at a tiebreaker because they’ve beaten Pittsburgh once and this scenario presumes they’d do it again, but the Browns also play at Denver. The Miami schedule is the most conducive—home games with Jacksonville and Buffalo and the Week 17 game at New England is a question mark since we don’t know if the Patriots will have any incentive to play. But the best argument against any of these teams is that regardless of schedule, any team that’s lost eight of thirteen to this point, is not likely to rip off three straight wins.
Here’s how I see the NFL playoff projections shaking out after three more weeks of games. I’ve moved New England up to the #1 seed in the AFC. It’s not so much because of their win over Houston last night, impressive as it was. I expected that last week when I still had the Pats playing in the first round. But the combination of the Baltimore loss and how impressive Indianapolis looks have changed the forecast. The Colts are relevant because they play Houston twice and I now think they’ll get at least one win, which opens the door for New England.
The notable parts of the NFC playoff picture are Washington and Seattle in division-winning spots. I laid out my reasons why as the lead in last week’s projections and those reasons all hold firm this week—even stronger in fact, given the Washington win over Baltimore and the fact Seattle’s coming on like “a beast” as ESPN’s Michael Wilbon put it yesterday on Pardon The Interruption, dropping a 58-0 beatdown on Arizona.
AFC EAST: New England AFC NORTH: Baltimore AFC SOUTH: Houston AFC WEST: Denver Wild-Cards: Indianapolis, Pittsburgh Byes: New England (1), Houston (2) 1st Round Matchups: (6)Pittsburgh at (3)Denver, (5)Indianapolis at (4)Baltimore
NFC EAST: Washington NFC NORTH: Green Bay NFC SOUTH: Atlanta NFC WEST: Seattle Wild-Cards: San Francisco, Chicago Byes: Atlanta (1), Seattle (2) 1st Round Matchups: (6)Chicago at (3)Green Bay, (5)San Francisco at (4)Washington
The Baltimore Ravens keep finding ways to survive, and on Sunday in San Diego, they took their survival instinct to new heights. After playing poorly against a subpar opponent—again—the Ravens trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter, still trailed 13-10 in the closing minutes and faced a 4th-and-29. A simple dump-off pass to Ray Rice got them the first down, eventually the tying field goal and ultimately the win.
It isn’t often TheSportsNotebook’s pregame analysis is vindicated this thoroughly, but the take on this game was a sluggish effort by Baltimore, that San Diego would cover the 7.5 point line, but in the end this was one team with an art for winning games and another with an art for losing them. And it’s that Baltimore knack for pulling these games out that has them situated high in the first round of our NFL playoff projections that will now run early each week between now and the end of the regular season. Normally this will be a Tuesday feature, but I trust no one will think I’m jumping the gun if I ignore tonight’s Carolina-Philadelphia game.
Baltimore is an ugly 9-2. They have two narrow escapes against Cleveland. They beat Kansas City without scoring a touchdown. They barely escaped Dallas at home. Their win over Pittsburgh came without Ben Roethlisberger and still required a special teams touchdown. And now this escape in San Diego. John Harbaugh’s team has nothing to suggest its Super Bowl-caliber, yet they are the #2 seed based on current standings and with most of their key games of December at home,
TheSportsNotebook’s exit polling suggests they will hold on to that status. Here’s how I’d see the AFC playoffs shaking out. Please note these are not what currently holds, but as the title of the article suggests, they are projections…
AFC East: New England AFC North: Baltimore AFC South: Houston AFC West: Denver Wild-Cards: Indianapolis, Cincinnati 1st Round Byes: Houston, Baltimore
The division winners are pretty straight forward and the battle between these four teams is all about positioning, making the Ravens’ win so important. They are a game up on both New England and Denver for the first-round bye that comes with the #2 seed, with a head-to-head win over the Patriots and a home game with Denver ahead. While the Patriots played very well on Thursday night without Rob Gronkowski, that was against the Jets. It’s tougher to envision New England sweeping a remaining schedule that includes Houston and San Francisco without Gronk on hand.
Conversely, Baltimore trails Houston by a game and has lost head-to-head. And the Texans show no signs of letting up, as Matt Schaub has been locked in on Andre Johnson for two straight weeks (188 yards worth of receiving for Johnson in the Thanksgiving win at Detroit). The pass protection is solid, and J.J. Watt solidified his Defensive Player of the Year case with three sacks and five QB hits against Matthew Stafford.
Denver did not play well on Sunday, but they still beat Kansas City, and unlike the Ravens, Peyton Manning’s team isn’t making a habit of narrow escapes, so I think they’re entitled to this one without a lot of questioning. The Broncos’ path to the two-seed is there, with a manageable schedule. But also remember, Denver lost to New England, so if the Broncos beat Baltimore, we could end up in a three-way tie that goes deep into the tiebreakers. Overall though, like Denver to end up as the #3 seed.
Indianapolis won a big game against Buffalo, the latter being the team that never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Ryan Fitzpatrick was horrible in a game that would have put the Bills—and a few others—back in the AFC wild-card race and the 7-4 Colts look like a good bet to win ten games right now. That likely puts them in the 5-seed spot.
I’ve got Cincinnati edging out Pittsburgh for the final spot. I know Ben Roethlisberger probably returns Sunday in Baltimore, but that’s still a road game the Steelers will have a tough time winning. I think Big Ben can get Pittsburgh to 9-7, but I don’t know that will be enough. The fact Pittsburgh’s backs fumbled five times in Cleveland—a game they knew they had to protect the ball, with Charlie Batch at quarterback—speaks volumes. Meanwhile the Bengals pounded the Raiders with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and then whipped them in the trenches on the other side of the ball, as defensive tackle Geno Atkins led a pass rush that made Carson Palmer’s homecoming to the Queen City as miserable as the locals hoped it would be.
So that leads to AFC playoff matchups of… 1st Round: (5)Indy at (4) New England & (6)Cincy at (3)Denver) Byes: (1)Houston, (2)Baltimore
The NFC has five teams that are stable to make the playoffs, and three of them—San Francisco, Atlanta and NY Giants to do so as division champs, with Green Bay/Chicago sorting out the division winner/wild-card slot. The Giants regained control of the NFC East by physically dominating a wounded Packer team, not giving Aaron Rodgers any time to throw and taking away a mediocre Green Bay running game.
New York’s win kept Washington & Dallas at two games back, though the Redskins host the Giants in this coming Monday Night Game. Washington, now 5-6, has an outside shot at the NFC East and a legitimate shot at the last wild-card. As a Redskins fan, I’m excited beyond all belief and in the aftermath of the Thanksgiving win in Dallas, I was touting RG3 to be anointed the first American monarch. Admit it—can’t you see future history books titled “From King George III to Robert Griffin III: The Story of American Democracy”? But I digress.
I digress because the Washington offensive line still did a lousy job in pass protection and only this defense could take a 28-3 halftime lead, allow the opponent to make a game of it and leave me completely unsurprised that it happened. So while my emotions are smelling playoffs, my head is telling me something else.
New Orleans’ loss to San Francisco—thanks to a pair of Pick-6’s by the Niner defense against Drew Brees—hurt their chances, but the three teams leading the race for the final playoff berth all lost. Seattle, Minnesota and Tampa Bay all dropped to 6-5, so that leaves all the 5-6 teams—the Saints, Redskins and Cowboys, very much in the hunt.
But in Seattle’s loss, I see the reasons why I’m staying with them at the #6 seed. The Seahawks did not run the ball, nor could they stop the run in a 24-21 loss at Miami. But Russell Wilson continues to show how much he’s growing as an NFL quarterback, playing well against a good defense in a road environment and it came down to a last-play field goal for the Dolphins to win. It’s going down to the end and in all likelihood 9-7 will take this berth, but I’m sticking with Seattle.
Here’s how the NFC projects out…
NFC East: NY Giants NFC North: Green Bay NFC South: Atlanta NFC West: San Francisco Wild-Cards: Chicago, Seattle
The projection of the Packers is predicated on Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson getting healthy defensively, which looks on schedule right now. While the Green Bay offensive line isn’t going to magically get better, Chicago has the same problem, so even though the Pack is a game out today, I see them taking this division. I also see them moving past New York for the #3 seed. The reason is schedule—the Giants still play at Atlanta and at Baltimore, whereas Green Bay’s difficult road games are Chicago and Minnesota.
Both the Packers and Giants are 7-4 and New York obviously has the tiebreaker after last night, but I believe the schedule allows Green Bay to take this spot outright. Both teams are in a tough spot when it comes to catching Atlanta (10-1) or San Francisco (8-2-1) for a bye.
So that leads to NFC playoff matchups of… 1st Round: (6)Seattle at (3) Green Bay, (5)Chicago at (4)NY Giants Byes: Atlanta (1), San Francisco (2)
Admit it—you’d love to the Seahawks & Packers re-do their infamous Monday Night Game earlier this year and to see what kind of reception Seattle would get coming through the tunnel of Lambeau Field? My only regret is that the projections in the AFC deny us the Indianapolis-Denver matchup with Luck and Peyton Manning. Hopefully events can change and let both games become highlights of the first round in January.