NFL week 17: contenders and pretenders

Week 16 was huge. Fifteen teams entered the week with work to do to make the playoffs (7 more had already clinched). Ten of those 15 teams played another team within the same group. That meant 5 guaranteed wins for these teams; only the Titans got a win outside of the group.

Before I break down the carnage, let’s look at the real contenders. Here are the True Wins standings for the six teams that I think have a chance (you can learn about True Wins in my previous post, which are my quick and dirty luck-free measure of team quality):

Last week, I predicted that the streaking Saints would get a True Win over the Falcons, that the 49ers-Seahawks game would be very close, and that the other top teams would all get True Wins. The first two predictions were right on. The Saints looked awesome and the 49ers squeaked out a win against the increasingly unlucky Seahawks. The Pats and Ravens only got close wins, but the Steelers and Packers got True Wins over the hapless Rams and quarterback-less Bears. Only the Texans truly defied me by losing to the Colts. I’ve punished them by kicking them out of the contenders group.

It’s still hard to argue with the Packers as the favorite. They’ve clinched everything they can clinch and have a commanding 1.5 True Win lead over second place. The Patriots, on the other hand, do not excite me. They’ve won 7 games in a row and will probably be the 1 seed, but their second half schedule was soft and only 1 of their last 4 wins was a True Win. Their best scalps are the Cowboys and Jets (twice) — ugh. The good news for the Patriots is Ben Roethlisberger’s injured ankle. When healthy, the top three AFC North teams (including the Bengals) are probably slightly better than their actual/True Wins ranking, since they have to play each other twice. I don’t like how the Ravens only show up for big games. If Roethlisberger gets healthy, the Steelers will overtake the Pats as my AFC favorite. (My buddy Tony asked me last week how I plan to work strength of schedule into True Wins; I told him I’m saving that for the lean off season months, but the AFC situation this year emphasizes his point.)

The NFC looks much stronger at the top (Vegas has the NFC favored by 3 or 4 points in the Super Bowl right now). It has three of the top four teams by True Wins, and all three have a healthy starting quarterback. If two of these six teams met in the Super Bowl right now, the AFC would only be the favorite in a Patriots-49ers match up.

There’s still some work to be done for these teams. Week 17 will determine who gets the last bye in each conference. The interested parties are dead even in wins and True Wins in both conferences, but the 49ers and Ravens hold the tiebreakers. The Saints and Ravens have the tougher match ups (Panthers and Bengals). I predict that the Saints hold of the Panthers, but the 49ers cruise by the Rams and grab the bye. I expect the Ravens to fall and join the Bengals as a wild card, while the Steelers defense helps superb game-manager Charlie Batch to a win in Cleveland. Now I just have to hope the Lions finish ahead of the Falcons — otherwise they will be sacrificed as the first round offering in the dome in New Orleans.

Speaking of the Lions, let’s get to the more interesting playoff scenarios. I give you, the pretenders:

All of these teams have clinched a playoff berth or still have a chance. None of these teams have convinced me they can win a Super Bowl. In the past 10 years, only the 2006-07 Colts and the 2007-08 Giants have won a Super Bowl with fewer than 10 True Wins.

I predicted that the Falcons would lose and clinch against the Buccaneers in week 17. The Bears, Seahawks, and Cardinals happily lost however, allowing the Falcons to back into the playoffs with a loss. I was too pessimistic about my Lions (they easily handled the Chargers, despite the Chargers’ impressive 8 True Wins) but predicted the Cowboys loss to the Eagles. It was too little, too late, for the unlucky and unhealthy Eagles; the Giants eliminated them by beating up the Jets (a game I expected to be close).

As I mentioned above, this list of playoff hopefuls had 15 teams last week. Of the 10 remaining teams, only the Cowboys have been a unlucky this year (True Wins > actual wins). If you’d like to know where all the unlucky teams are, please refer to the table below. There are 7 eliminated teams with at least as many True Wins as the Jets (potential wild card), and all suffered from bad or neutral luck. As I’ve argued the last two weeks, luck makes all the difference for the teams on the bubble.

What’s left for these teams? I’ll give the quick scenario for all 10 and my prediction:

  • Texans: clinched division, can’t get a bye. They’ve lost two bad games in a row after a decent start with Yates at QB, so it’s hard to learn much from their overall season performance. The Bengals in the first round would be a stiff challenge.
  • Bengals: need a win or Jets/Raiders losses or Jets/Broncos losses to clinch a wild card. Unfortunately, they have a tough game against the Ravens, but with more to play for, I think the 9 True Win Bengals get the job done against the 10 True Win Ravens. I think the Bengals are the best team in this group of 10.
  • Falcons: clinched wild card, need a win and a Lions loss to get the 5 seed and avoid a first round shellacking by the Saints. The Falcons get the lowly Buccaneers, who have accrued only 1 True Win total in their last 9 games, all losses. It should be an easy True Win, but the Falcons play at 4pm, so their effort level will depend on the next team.
  • Lions: clinched wild card, need a win or Falcons loss to clinch the 5 seed. They must travel to Green Bay, though Green Bay has nothing left to play for. The Lions have been pretty lucky this year (1.5 more actual wins than True Wins), but I expect them to beat the Packers and beat the fourth-seeded NFC East winner in the first round.
  • Cowboys/Giants: Cowboys need to beat Giants to win the NFC East. Both the Cowboys and Giants have 8 wins, but the Cowboys have 8.5 True Wins to the Giants’ 7. The best team in this division (Eagles) will be home for the playoffs. Schedules can’t be ignored for these two teams: they both played hard schedules, and the Giants was truly wicked. From week 9 to week 13, they played the Patriots, 49ers, (Vick-less) Eagles, Saints, and Packers. Wow. Although they lost 4 of the 5, they managed 2 True Wins. I’m going to go against the True Wins prediction — it will be close, but the Giants should win, playing at home.
  • Titans: need to beat the Texans and need help to end up in a three-way tie at 9-7 with the Bengals and the Jets/Raiders. They lose the tiebreaker in a two-way tie with the Bengals (ESPN spells out all the playoff scenarios succinctly). Luckily for the Titans (a neutral luck team by True Wins), the Texans have nothing obvious to play for in week 17. However, the Texans will face the 6 seed in round 1 for sure, which could be the Titans. I still expect the Texans to rest guys and give Tennessee a shot to sneak into the playoffs (the Texans have been banged up all year).
  • Jets: need to win in Miami and have the Bengals and Titans lose, plus either the Raiders or the Broncos lose. Oh dear, Jets. That’s a lot of losses to expect from playoff hopeful teams. It looks like luck has finally run out for the 7 True Win Jets. The Dolphins likewise have 7 True Wins, despite being eliminated from the playoffs. I expect a full implosion from the Jets. They have no real hope of making the playoffs; the Dolphins quality should prevail.
  • Broncos/Raiders: if the Broncos beat the Chiefs, they clinch the AFC West. They can even lose if the Raiders also lose to the Chargers. If both teams win, the Raiders can still get in if the Bengals lose and a few other results go their way. The Broncos and Raiders are the luckiest of the bunch, with only 6 and 5.5 True Wins, respectively. The Raiders have the tougher game left (Chargers have 8 True Wins to the Chiefs 5.5). Both of these teams are terrible. I think they will both lose, sending the Broncos to get crushed by the Steelers or Ravens in round 1.
Of the 10 pretenders, the first 6 above (Texans, Bengals, Falcons, Lions, Cowboys, Giants) could make some noise in the playoffs. The bottom 4 (Titans, Jets, Broncos, Raiders) are lucky to be in the discussion. They might get one more payday at the ticket office, but there are more deserving teams in the next list. Here are the dregs:

With the elimination of 5 more teams (Eagles, Chargers, Seahawks, Cardinals, and Chiefs), this group has grown to 16. As I predicted last week, the Bills spoiled Denver’s Tebow magic in a match up of 6 True Win teams, and the Panthers kept rolling. The Dolphins and Jets are following the plan as well. I think these two teams are pretty much even, despite their records. Expect them to play a close game and finish with 7.5 True Wins each, out of the playoffs.

Who really goes home angry this year? The Eagles and Chargers. These teams are built to win now, and the Eagles are probably a 10 True Win team with Vick healthy (granted, expecting Vick to be healthy is not a good plan). Both teams will likely see a team with the same or fewer True Wins make the playoffs from their division. The Panthers, Seahawks, Dolphins, and Vikings also played much better than their records. They should go home happy, knowing that they would be weak playoff teams this year at best, but they’ve got something to build on. Look for the Dolphins and Chargers in particular to play spoiler (against the Jets and Raiders) in week 17.

One response to “NFL week 17: contenders and pretenders

  1. Pingback: As the dust settles: week 17 recap and playoff preview | Causal Sports Fan

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