It was time for another visit to the ESPN Playoff Machine this morning, to see how the NFL playoff picture would shake out after you play out each game in the final three weeks. As was the case in last week’s projections, I used a conservative approach, deferring to home teams except when the road team seemed clearly superior.
This methodology creates some debatable results, ones that even I’m not entirely comfortable with. The two most prominent examples this week are the following…
*The way the Minnesota Vikings are playing right now, they look like a tough out at home. The Vikes have beaten Chicago on their homefield and when Minnesota went on the road to Baltimore it took a wild, heartbreaking ending to beat them.
Based on this, it is not unreasonable to look at their home games with Detroit and Philadelphia and pick the Vikings. I’m a little skeptical that Minnesota would win both of these games, but I feel like I’d mess with the projections far worse by trying to guess which one it would be, rather than just giving the home team the benefit of the doubt.
*With the season-ending injury to Rob Gronkowski, I can’t give the New England Patriots the benefit of the doubt in road games against mid-level playoff contenders, the way I did last week. Consequently, the Patriots are projected to lose road games at Miami and at Baltimore.
Here again, I feel like each pick individually is logical, but I’d consider it a good bet that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady find a way to pick off one of those wins. Based on how the rest of the projections fell, that’s the difference between a 2-seed and first-round bye, or a 3-seed and the long road to New York City for the Super Bowl.
But as with Minnesota, I felt it safer just to pick New England to lose both, rather than try and mix and match and figure out which road game they’d steal, thus creating ripple effects throughout the bracket.
What this methodology does do is shed light on which teams have the most favorable path. For example, last week, the projections showed the Pittsburgh Steelers holding serve at home and making the playoffs at 8-8. Even though the Steelers failed in this task last Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, the projections showed that Pittsburgh had blown a much stronger playoff position than their record may have indicated.
In this case, the projections tell us to keep an eye on those games Minnesota will play at home and New England will play on the road. They stand to be, to borrow a political analogy, the key battleground states that will settle playoff qualification and seeding on both sides of the bracket.
CURRENT NFL PLAYOFF PROJECTIONS
(6) San Francisco at (3) Dallas
(5)Carolina at (4) Detroit
BYES: (1) Seattle (2) New Orleans
(6)Miami at (3) New England
(5)Kansas City at (4) Indianapolis
BYES: (1) Denver (2) Cincinnati