Breaking Down the Playoff Picture, from Eagles to Texans
NFL Week 13 - With Thanksgiving come and gone, we enter the final act of the 2022 NFL season—12 weeks gone, six weeks to go. Say what you will about the NFL's current schedule—the fact that teams can't finish .500 anymore; the imbalanced number of home and away games; the bizarre, bizarre scheduling choices which means that some teams still haven't had their bye week; the fact that the divisional matchups are so backloaded that the Commanders have to play the Giants two games in a row—they have at least let us slice the schedule into neat thirds.
That's aesthetically pleasing to me; the three-act structure is a fun way to view the season from 20,000 feet, as it were. You have all your important characters and themes introduced in the first few weeks, like the Year of No Great Teams and The Year of No Offense. The middle bit of the season brings the twists and turns—the shocking return of Rookie Josh Allen at the goal line, the De-Wentzification of Washington, the Great Tua MVP Hunt. And now, as in any good Act III, we're about to start racking up a body count.
As it stands as this goes live on Thursday afternoon, all 32 teams are still alive for the playoffs. And it's probably the last time we'll get to say that, too, as the clock is finally beginning to run out on the bottom-feeders. Both the 3-9 Chicago Bears and the 1-9-1 Houston Texans can meet their proverbial makers this week, but until they do, there's still the faintest, slimmest, tiniest sliver of hope. Never mind that no one has ever made the playoffs at 3-9 or worse! If the 2008 Chargers could turn a 4-8 start into an AFC West title and a memorable playoff upset, then even the league's bottommost feeders can dream, right?
I'll admit, I'm more than a little obsessed with running longshot odds for things that will never, ever happen.
Excluding ties, there are 16,384 possible outcomes in the NFC North race.
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) November 28, 2022
And it's a fun mental exercise to try to fit all the pieces of the rapidly shrinking jigsaw together to find ways for, say, the Texans to win the AFC South (don't lose any more games, have the Titans lose everything, have the Jags lose two of DET/DAL/NYJ, have the Colts lose one of DAL/MIN/LAC/NYG) or the Bears to overcome their head-to-head losses with the Giants or Commanders (get the Cardinals to be involved in a three-way tie by finishing ahead of the Seahawks or 49ers in the NFC West). Is this ever going to be useful? No! But some people watch highlight reels, others obsessively track betting odds, I create massive spreadsheets of impossible outcomes. I, and other sickos like me, wouldn't want to live in a world where the Kyle Allen renaissance was utterly impossible!
But as much as I love delving into the depths of strength of victory and common games and massive, improbable upsets, we do have a fairly clear separation of wheat from chaff by this point in the season. It's as good a time as any to take a step back and take stock of the playoff race as we enter the final stretch. We can separate the truly dead from those who are merely very badly burnt; who's already selling playoff tickets and who is nervously looking over their shoulder. Which teams can still desperately pile on wins, and which are just scheduling fodder the NFL really, really wishes they could flex out of prime viewing on Christmas Day. Let's triage the playoff race, shall we?
For the record, here are the current standings. In the AFC, the 9-2 Chiefs currently sit in possession of the top seed, with the Dolphins, Titans, and Ravens joining them as division leaders. The 8-3 Bills, 7-4 Bengals, and 7-4 Jets currently have the three wild-card slots. Over in the NFC, the Eagles keep on cruising at 10-1, with the Vikings, 49ers, and Buccaneers also sitting on top of their divisions. The NFC East is crushing the wild-card race, with the 8-3 Cowboys, 7-4 Giants, and 7-5 Commanders all in playoff position at the moment. None of that is set in stone, however, with even those 10-1 Eagles still technically able to be sent to their couches before the playoffs begin. Yes, really.
The Walking Dead (10)
On this week's Data Show, Aaron Schatz slightly re-worded Bill Parcells' famous quote—you were what your record says you were. While no team is mathematically eliminated, there are some teams who have performed so badly to this point that you could replace them with the 1985 Chicago Bears and they'd likely still end up missing the playoffs—holes too big to claw their way out of in the little time remaining.
The Packers, Cardinals, Rams, Bears, Texans, Broncos, Steelers, Browns, Raiders, and Colts have a combined 12.4% chance of making the playoffs in our latest postseason odds, and most of that is mutually exclusive. The Packers have the highest odds by our numbers (3.8%), but even if Jordan Love were to take over and go undefeated the rest of the way, they'd still be just 9-8 with head-to-head losses to real contenders such as the Commanders and Giants. These teams' fates are well out of their hands, and they need massive chaos throughout the league to make it; the kind of stories we'd be writing about for years and years to justify fans of other terrible teams as the calendar flips to December.
Some of this was expected, naturally. The Cardinals, Browns, and Bears were at the bottom of our preseason projections, and there's no real surprise from seeing the Texans and Steelers already flipping through draft catalogs. But the Rams? We knew that their window could only be open for so long after flipping so many draft picks for immediate talent, but the degree to which the defending champions has fallen is basically unprecedented. They currently sit with a DVOA of -17.3%; the worst DVOA for a defending Super Bowl champion belongs to the 1981 Oakland Raiders at -15.6%. We projected the Rams to be in the top 10 on both sides of the ball! They were struggling before their starters got hurt but, to be fair, it's very difficult to play with this much talent and this many resources devoted to players who aren't playing; they may well stay below those Raiders as worst defending champion in DVOA history if they shut everyone down.
And then you have the Packers and Broncos, who were in the top 10 in preseason Super Bowl betting odds. The hype was based, in part, on the massive contracts given to Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson; the two biggest deals in NFL history by average salary at $50.3 million and $49 million dollars. Now, just months later, fans are already wondering what it would take to get out of those deals. Take your pick as to which of the three teams are the most disappointed to find themselves grouped with the Bears and Texans of the world; I'd take the Broncos because they also have to watch their first-round pick head to Seattle and they don't even have a shiny Lombardi Trophy to distract themselves. But that's a topic for another day.
Staggering Forwards (4)
There's a second tier, just above the teams we have declared dead and buried, of teams that would need to suddenly and dramatically improve in order to make the playoffs, but haven't dug themselves in a hole so deep as to make a sudden turnaround meaningless. Think of the distinction this way: if any of the first 10 teams were to go 6-0 down the stretch, they would probably still miss the playoffs. If these four teams went 6-0, they probably are in; it's just that they have not been good enough this year to make 6-0 seem like a realistic possibility.
The Panthers and Saints could be written off entirely … if they didn't happen to play in the NFC South. They each have a 0.2% chance of earning a wild-card slot, which is actually below the average for the 10 dead teams. But they also each have at least a 3.2% chance of winning their division, because the South is no good. At the moment, there's a 34% chance the NFC South will be won by a team with a losing record, as neither the Buccaneers nor the Falcons are exactly lighting up the league. Both the Panthers and Saints get to play the Buccaneers down the stretch, so they can help their own cause, too. They're both in the bottom 10 in DVOA and have harder-than-average schedules remaining, so they are realistically toast as well. But at least they have a clear path to the postseason, even if it's beyond their abilities.
The Jaguars are in a similar boat, with a 4.4% chance to win the AFC South. If we were handing out seeds based on estimated wins rather than actual wins, the Jags would be within striking distance, with 5.2 to Tennessee's 6.7. They have a better point differential than Tennessee, too, not to mention the Chargers, Vikings, Commanders, and Giants. The problem is, they have already played their easiest games and have come up short; one-score losses to the likes of the Texans, Colts, and Broncos were missed opportunities that leave them with a massive mountain to cover. There has been significant, real, and measurable improvement for the Jaguars this year, and optimism going forward! Just, you know, optimism for 2023 and beyond, not for a miracle run over the last six weeks.
They get kind of a quasi-elimination game this week as they take on the Lions, the last team I'd call hanging on for dear life. We were more than ready to write them off sitting at 1-6 at the end of October, but the three-game winning streak they pieced together since then at least means they have shown more signs of life than half their division. If the Vikings had a record commiserate with their DVOA, the Lions would be right in the divisional race. Instead, they're leaning on a solid 4-4 conference record and head-to-head wins over both Washington and New York as their playoff calling cards; decent tiebreakers if they manage to turn things around enough to reach a tie. The Detroit-Jacksonville game on Sunday isn't an elimination game in the traditional sense, but the winner will be 5-7 and will get to appear on all of those "in the hunt" graphics for another week or two; the loser will be 4-8 and more or less out of things. Either way, there's cause for optimism for two long-struggling franchises, and they'll get to enjoy a little bit of relevant December football for the first time in four or five years, at least. And hey, who knows? At least you're not the [insert Texans or Packers here, as is relevant to your particular fandom]. Pointing and laughing is the true reward for the not-quite-dead.
Coasting to A Finish (5)
On the flipside, you have the teams that are essentially already in, where even dropping every game left on the schedule would give them a puncher's chance to make it.
Our playoff odds currently give seven teams greater than a 95% chance to make the playoffs, but I'm going to set the Bills and 49ers aside for just one moment—we'll get back to them, and why I'm relatively bearish compared to our numbers. Just barely.
That leaves the Chiefs, Titans, Eagles, Cowboys, and Vikings. We already list the Eagles with a 100% chance to make the playoffs after rounding, even though that's technically not accurate; they can clinch the postseason this week with a win and losses by the Commanders, Seahawks, and 49ers. That's a lot to ask for in one week, but they'll probably lock things up in Week 14, alongside everyone else on this list.
The Vikings are the one team here which doesn't fit in. The Eagles, Cowboys, and Chiefs are third through fifth in DVOA, and the Titans are at least on the positive side of the ledger. The Vikings are sitting a -9.2%, the worst 9-2 team in DVOA history by a wide margin. Add up all of their Post-Game Win Expectancies and they come out at 5.5 "expected" wins, compared to 9.7 for Philadelphia, 8.0 for Kansas City, 7.4 for Dallas, and 7.1 for Tennessee. But you don't make the playoffs on expected wins; you make it on actual wins. Maybe the Vikings were fortunate to come out on top against Buffalo, New Orleans, Washington, Chicago, and Arizona, but they did beat them. And so they can tie the record for earliest team to clinch a division in NFL history if they beat the Jets and the Lions lose to the Jaguars this week. Our playoff odds still insist that no, there's a chance! Minnesota is bad enough they could lose out, and then maybe Detroit would win all their games; it could happen! There's only a 98.9% chance they win the division, despite literally having a clinching scenario this week! And the model will keep sending error messages and smoking as Minnesota wins yet another game by watching their opponents trip all over themselves.
Not that there's nothing to wrap up here, mind you. The Titans are probably locked into a home wild-card game as the AFC South champion, but the Chiefs still have to fend off the Bills/Dolphins winner for the bye week; they currently lose the tiebreaker to both teams thanks to the Week 6 loss to Buffalo and Miami's superior 6-2 conference record. And don't sleep on this week, either—a loss to the Bengals is far from out of the question, and would give Cincinnati the potential tiebreaker while being only one win behind. Tennessee and Baltimore aren't issues, but the Chiefs have to finish a win clear of the rest of the AFC contenders if they want to enjoy a bye week; frankly, their tiebreakers suck for a 9-2 team.
And in the NFC, I'm willing to pencil in the Vikings as NFC North champions. They have the third-highest odds of winning the bye week by our numbers, even if that's only at 2.9%. The head-to-head losses to both Dallas and Philadelphia are the huge blow there; they need the NFC East to beat up on each other enough to get a full game clear at the top. As for the Eagles and Cowboys, that Week 16 rematch is a killer; if the Cowboys win that they'll have split the head-to-head series and will likely have the divisional record tiebreaker to boot, barring a Week 18 slip-up against Washington. There's every chance that Christmas Eve will decide the bye week battle in the NFC, so get your popcorn ready there.
Still Plugging Away (4)
Here's where I put the 49ers and Bills—teams that have had enough slip-ups earlier in the year that they still have a little work to do, despite our playoff odds' high hopes. That's based on their high DVOAs; the Bills have the best season-long DVOA, while the 49ers are seventh overall and first since Week 8. If they had played to those levels on a week-in, week-out basis, they'd be up with that first group already.
But the 49ers have the third-highest variance in football, thanks in large part to getting rocked by the Chiefs. They also blew winnable games against Chicago, Atlanta, and Denver, so they're only 7-4 despite having faced the easiest schedule in the league to date. Sure, there are excuses for all of those losses (a monsoon, massive injuries, and Russell Wilson's 49ers voodoo doll), but they still happened, and so the 49ers find themselves with work to do. A win over Miami may not matter much for tiebreaker purposes or anything, but a big, signature win would do wonders for easing the minds of a fanbase that has had quite enough of being jerked up and down, thank you very much.
As for the Bills, well, they may still have the best DVOA in the league and that signature win over Kansas City in their back pocket, but they're only 10th with a 15.3% DVOA over the past six weeks, dropping games to the Jets and Vikings along the way. They also find themselves in divisional tiebreaker trouble, as they have yet to actually win a game in the AFC East; those losses to the Jets and Dolphins could come back to bite them. We have seen 8-3 teams miss the playoffs before, although that usually requires a quarterback injury (see Lamar Jackson for the 2021 Ravens or Nick Foles for the 2014 Eagles). I don't think Josh Allen's elbow injury is serious enough to derail a Buffalo team which looked nigh-unstoppable at points in September and October, but we'll know a little more once they get through the Pats-Jets-Dolphins gauntlet they have coming up. The Bills get the chance to show the AFC East who's boss, and they should be fine. Should. You can hopefully see why there's a little more cause for concern for the likes of the Bills and 49ers than there are for the cruising Chiefs or Eagles, no matter what DVOA says.
I'm also putting the Dolphins and Ravens in this category; the other two AFC division leaders both are above 85% in our playoff odds and are in very good shape but can't kick back and relax quite yet.
For the Dolphins, it's all about the damage done during Tua Tagovailoa's concussion; losses to the Bengals and Jets are really bad when you're in a potential wild-card race against the Bengals and Jets. Miami will get a chance to even the score with New York in Week 18, but that Bengals loss is a blotch they can't erase, and there are plenty of scenarios left where the Dolphins and Bengals end up tied for some seed. Miami also faces the second-hardest schedule remaining, with the 49ers, Chargers, Bills, Patriots, and Jets (and, uh, Packers) still in the docket. Four of those teams are in playoff contention in the AFC, so slipping up against any of them not only hurts Miami, but helps a rival; double whammy.
With the Ravens, it's worries about the offense. After starting the year with a league-best 41.1% offensive DVOA, the Ravens only have played one game with an offensive DVOA above 20% and two games with a DVOA above 10%. They're 25th in pass DVOA since Week 4, below such dominant aerial attacks as Chicago and Tennessee. They're running the ball phenomenally and the defense is holding up their end of the bargain, but they almost got upset by Carolina because they could not find the end zone. They likely should have lost to either Cincinnati or Cleveland, and they outright lost to Jacksonville last week. This isn't a tiebreaker problem, this is a "can we please stomp somebody?" problem.
To be clear, I think all four of these teams will make the playoffs, just like the five in the tier above. It's just that it would take a historic collapse for someone like Philadelphia to miss the playoffs, and just a regular collapse for someone like Miami to stay home.
Still, go ahead and pencil nine playoff slots as filled, as well as four divisional titles, with the Chiefs, Titans, Vikings, and Eagles-or-Cowboys all sitting pretty. That leaves five slots for nine teams, which is the real race over the last six weeks.
The Thick of the Race (9)
We have two groups that mostly don't interact in the NFC, thanks to the weakness of the South compared to the other three divisions.
We give the Buccaneers and Falcons a combined 92.5% chance to win the NFC South, and a combined 4.6% chance to win a wild-card berth; this is one slot for two teams in all realistic scenarios. And there's very little hope for Atlanta if they don't beat Tampa Bay in Week 18; the Buccaneers already won the Week 5 game, they have half-game lead on Atlanta, and they have the easier schedule going forward at -4.5% to Atlanta's -0.2%. Plus, y'know, they're the better team, which does tend to help. Winning Week 18 is essentially necessary, if not sufficient, for Atlanta to make the postseason. And even if Atlanta does win and split the season series, they're still probably going to lose the tiebreaker, as Tampa Bay sits with a 2-1 divisional record to Atlanta's 1-3 (the sooner we can forget that Thursday game against the Panthers, the better). Realistically, Atlanta's going to need to pass Tampa Bay outright if they want to win the South. If you just pick the betting favorite in each game from Weeks 13 to 17, that doesn't happen; a Falcons win in Week 18 would just tie the two teams at 8-9 and send Tampa Bay through. What we need, then, is an upset somewhere or other. The Cardinals, strangely, could have the final say here; if they beat the Bucs and lose to the Falcons in Weeks 16 and 17, the Falcons just might have enough juice to pull off the comeback. Birds of a feather and all that.
With one wild-card spot going to the Eagles/Cowboys runner-up, the Seahawks, Giants, and Commanders look to be fighting it out for two spots. That's not necessarily a given—we give Seattle a 14.8% chance of taking the NFC West, a chance which almost necessitates beating the 49ers on Thursday in Week 15. Even then, it's a tough ask—a tie at 12 wins would give the 49ers the tiebreaker on common opponents, while ties at 11 wins go San Francisco's way unless they slip up against the Cardinals and the Seahawks don't against the Rams. In nearly every case, Seattle has to not only catch but pass the 49ers to win the NFC West, and that's a tall order unless San Francisco absolutely crumbles.
Fortunately, the Seahawks get to watch the Giants and Commanders smash into each other's faces twice in the next three weeks, giving them every opportunity to get back into playoff position as those teams can't both win. You could argue that the two New York-Washington matchups are the biggest remaining games of the season, at least in terms of playoff leverage. For this week, if the Commanders win, we give them an 83% chance to make the playoffs and the Giants just a 29% chance. If the Giants win, they go to 73% and the Commanders to 39%. And if they end up splitting, well, it's advantage Washington—they have a win against the Eagles already in the bag, meaning New York would have to get an upset of their own if they wanted to have even a chance in a tie scenario. While neither team can afford to be swept, it's the Giants with more pressure to get something out of these matchups. And, of course, if one team does manage to sweep the other, go ahead and pencil them in—a minimum of nine wins with a crushing tiebreaker over a top rival should be more than good enough for either team.
As for the Seahawks, their rooting interest is "the same team twice," but if they had to choose, they'd root for the Giants, as they have that Week 5 win over New York sitting in their back pocket. If I had to bet now, I'd say the Giants end up as the odd team out, because their record is beginning to fall back to their DVOA. Don't get me wrong, -8.1% is far, far better than anyone expected the Giants to be this season, but there's only so long they can keep winning with these underlying performances. Just ask Minneso … wait.
Over in the AFC, it's four teams for two slots—the Bengals, Jets, Patriots, and Chargers. It's a little more complicated than the NFC because there are more divisions in play—we give the Bengals a 23.1% chance to win the AFC North; the Jets and Patriots 10.6% and 4.8% chances to win the AFC East, respectively; and then the Chargers too are playing football. There's a good chance that whichever of these four teams does well enough to be on top of this mini-division will also be doing well enough to make a run at their division title. But then, presumably the Ravens, Dolphins, and/or Bills will just slot in atop this group anyway, leaving everyone else scrapping over the seventh seed. So we can just focus on these four.
In terms of DVOA, there's a pretty clear hierarchy from top to bottom—the Bengals are solidly in first at 16.6%, the Jets are just hanging on to an edge over the Patriots with both hovering around 11%, and the Chargers are way, way behind at -10.1%. But the Chargers have the second-easiest remaining schedule in the league at -7.8%. The Bengals, Patriots, and Jets, meanwhile, all face top-five schedules remaining, with the Bengals' 17.5% being the toughest in the league by far. Cincy has the Chiefs, Browns, Buccaneers, Patriots, Bills, and Ravens; murderer's row compared to the Chargers' Raiders, Dolphins, Titans, Colts, Rams, and Broncos finish. The Bengals may be atop the group for now, but a one-game cushion can evaporate fast when your opponents are playing in two different leagues.
Even with the easy schedule, however, I think the Chargers are going to fall off the pace quickly. They haven't beaten a good team yet, and the Joe Lombardi-led offense and injured defense do not fill me with excessive optimism. And they have tiebreaker problems—no head-to-head wins against any other contenders, a worse conference record than the Jets or Patriots, and they trail everyone in common games. There's too much working against them, and while you can never count Justin Herbert out entirely, I think there are just too many roadblocks in their way.
The Bengals, meanwhile, have that all-important head-to-head win over New York in their back pocket, plus a game against the Patriots on Christmas Eve to look forward to. If they beat New England, I think that will be enough to ensure Cincinnati's survival, barring some terrible results the rest of the way. Yes, the schedule is hard, but a lot of that is focused in the Ravens, Bills, and Chiefs games. Even if all three of those are losses, wins over the Browns, Bucs, and Pats should be enough to see Cincinnati through. The Bengals aren't consistent enough for that to be a gimme by any stretch of the imagination, but all losing their hard games really does is take away their margin for error. I think they get through.
That just leaves the Jets and Patriots for the seventh seed. The Jets have three slight advantages—a win already in hand, a slightly better DVOA, and a slightly easier schedule remaining. But they have already definitively lost the tiebreaker to New England thanks to losing both matchups, making it 14 straight wins for the Patriots in their series. And I think DVOA is overrating the Jets because they have had a string of performances against backup quarterbacks—they're still a top-10 defense in DVOA even if you take out games against backups in Miami, Denver, and Chicago, but our numbers have them in the top five. So while our playoff odds favor the Jets, 66.4% to 46.8%, I'm just not sure I can back the Mike White experience all the way into the postseason; not this year, at any rate. The Patriots may no longer be the monster at the end of the NFL's book, but they're still plenty horrifying for the Jets. That head-to-head sweep will, I think, extend the longest active postseason drought.
Alright, all 14 playoff teams decided. And, according to our odds, there's about … carry the three … an 8.2% chance of all these teams being the ones who actually make it. I'm looking forward to getting this article thrown right back into my face in February, when it turns out this week's Lions-Jaguars game is actually the super-secret Super Bowl preview we have all been waiting for. Stranger things, right?