NFL playoff races heated up in week 15 (just like always). The Packers finally lost and the corks popped for the ’72 Dolphins (just like always), while all other NFC playoff teams held serve. The AFC was the mirror image. The Patriots are now cruising with the top seed (just like always) and a six game win streak, while all other AFC playoff teams lost but maintained their playoff positions. Yes, that’s correct, Tim Tebow lost.
Despite losses by the Broncos, Titans, Raiders, Bears, and Giants, no new teams were eliminated. The NFL must be thrilled! With two weeks to go, 22 out of 32 teams still have a shot for only 12 spots.
Before we see who actually deserves a shot, here are a couple quick stats that caught my eye. The Patriots have now scored at least 30 points in 11 of 14 games. That’s two more 30-point games than the Packers, who lead the NFL in scoring. The Patriots better keep it up, because they’ve also given up at least 20 points in 9 games and they just lost defensive leader Andre Carter for the year.
Now for some True Wins standings. If you need a refresher on True Wins, check out last week’s post or my post on True Wins and prediction. True Wins gives teams half credit for all close games, whether won or lost, which follows the assumption that close games are largely decided by luck. Here are the standings for the top third (playoffs clinched):
The Pats, 49ers, and Saints picked up convincing True Wins, while the Packers got half a True Win by losing close. The Ravens, Texans, and Steelers got blown out. With the exception of the Steelers, who had Roethlisberger at about 50% on a bad ankle, True Wins earned in week 15 captures how I feel about these teams pretty well. The Patriots and 49ers are both finishing strongly and have the (slightly overrated) Packers in their sights in terms of True Wins. The Ravens only seem to show up for big games and the Texans are on their third string QB — both are fading in the True Wins column.
Expectations for week 16:
- Saints host Falcons (MNF) to try to clinch the division. If they lose, they have a dangerous game against Newt and the Panthers in week 17. The Saints have 6 wins in a row (4 of them True). Expect them to get the job done.
- 49ers travel to Seattle, who think they can make the playoffs and have the biggest home field advantage year in and year out (generally attributed to stadium acoustics). A win would probably clinch a bye for the 49ers, who get the Rams in week 17. Only 2.5 True Wins separate these teams, and the 49ers have a Monday – Saturday short week. The match up favors the 49ers because of their strong run defensive and Seattle’s reliance on the run, but expect a close game.
- Everyone else should pick up a True Win this week. Texans (at Colts) and Steelers (hosting Rams) should thank the scheduling gods while they buy time for their QBs to settle in and heal, respectively, though Dan Orlovsky should make the Colts competitive in that game.
The fringe contenders are next:
Just like last week, luck bites hard on the playoff edge. Of the 7 unlucky or neutral teams in this group (True Wins less than or equal to actual wins), only the Cowboys are currently in the playoffs, while 4 of the 8 lucky teams are in.
Week 15 was great for the birds: The Falcons, Seahawks, Eagles, Cowboys, and Chargers all got True Wins. I wasn’t surprised, since these five teams are all ranked 5th or higher in the list above. However, the Chargers, Eagles, and Seahawks are all long shots to make the playoffs because of their bad luck, while the Lions, Jets, and Broncos remain in prime position despite average play. I wouldn’t bet on any of those True Wins stinkers in the first round, unless they are playing each other or the Lions start throwing to Megatron before the fourth quarter.
I threw the Chiefs back in this group, since the Broncos and Raiders lost. Imagine the following scenario: Chiefs beat Raiders, Broncos lose to Bills, Chargers beat Lions, Chiefs beat Broncos (Orton’s revenge!), Raiders beat Chargers. Yes, that’s right, that would be 4 teams at 8-8 in the AFC West, and the Chiefs would advance to the playoffs. The Chargers can’t even get lucky in the tiebreakers. Don Banks at SI gives a good summary of the AFC West mess if you want to read more.
A bunch of these teams play each other this week, and every game matters. Here are some expectations for the top teams in week 16:
- Falcons have the lowly Buccaneers in week 17, so they can probably lose at Saints this week and still clinch.
- Lions host the red hot Chargers, who are two games behind in the win column but one game ahead in the True Win column. The Lions have four teams nipping at their heels and travel to chilly Green Bay in week 17. That game is shaping up just like Packers – Bears last year, with this year’s Packers playing the Bears role. Last year, Lovie Smith played his starters, lost, and then lost again in the NFC championship game to the Packers. Unfortunately for my Lions (7.5 True Wins), the Packers had 10.5 True Wins to the Bears 8.5 entering that game. The Lions are far from a sure bet for the playoffs.
- Cowboys host the Eagles this week. While the Eagles need a lot to go right to win the division, only the Giants control their own destiny in the NFC East (they get the Cowboys in week 17). I’m not sure who would be more frustrated: the Cowboys going home early at 9-7 or a 9.5 True Win Eagles team missing the playoffs. I like Philly to win, since their True Wins would be even higher if Vick had been healthy all year.
- Giants could trundle into the playoffs with only 7 True Wins. They get the similarly lucky Jets in the Battle for New York this week, who also control their own destiny. I’m not sure who to take here. Keep a close eye on that lemon shaped ball — one bounce could determine the winner.
Finally, the dregs:
Despite a 5-9 record, the Panthers have as many True Wins as two playoff teams! Five of these bottom dwellers are in range of the Broncos 6 True Wins. The Vikings are still the league’s unluckiest team, with a 3.5 actual win to True Win deficit. The Buffalos have the best chance to play spoiler this week with a home game against the Broncos, although they are in a big slide. Next week, the Dolphins face the Jets; don’t be surprised if both teams finish with 7.5 True Wins and neither makes the playoffs.