Fun with Playoff Scenarios

I know Greg does his weekly “Who To Root For” piece that does an excellent job of outlining the playoff picture, but with only five games left in the season I thought it would be fun to get a jump on the playoffs and really dive into the few contenders that are left and outline the most likely AFC playoff seeding as the Colts look to do the improbable and make the post-season in the first year of their rebuild (or “reload” as Pagano and Arians insist on saying).

To get started let’s take a look at the contenders and the road they have ahead.

The Shoe-Ins

The AFC is decidedly top heavy this season and the division races in every case are a bit of a joke. Houston, New England, and Baltimore lead their respective divisions by 3 games with just 5 to play, and Denver has an even more commanding 4 game lead in the abysmal AFC West.

Football Outsiders playoff odds report puts their collective odds of making the playoffs at 99.9%, the stray .1% is levied at Baltimore who have quite possibly the most difficult remaining schedule in the NFL (Pittsburgh, @ Washington, Denver, New York Giants, and @ Cincinnati). It’s conceivable that the Ravens could lose all 5 of their remaining games, but even were that to happen, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, Miami, and Indianapolis would have to nearly win out in order to push Baltimore out of the wild card spot. It’s pretty much impossible.

So with the divisions more or less decided, let’s take a closer look at the wild card spot where 3 (maybe 4) teams have a realistic chance for the 2 available spots.

The Contenders

Indianapolis Colts (7-4)

Traditional Stats:

  Offense Defense
Rush 108.3 (17th) 121.2 (20th)
Pass 277.7 (7th) 233.8 (19th)
Total 386.0 (5th) 355.0 (20th)
Points 20.9 (21st) 24.8 (22nd)

Advanced Stats:

  Football Outsiders ProFootballFocus
Offense 0.6% (16th) 1.9 (24th)
Defense 20.0% (32nd) -41.9 (28th)
Special Teams -2.6% (24th) 22.9 (16th)
Overall -22.0% (28th) NA

Remaining Schedule: @ Detroit, Tennessee, @ Houston, @ Kansas City, Houston (SOS 0.53)

Why they make the playoffs: With a 1 game lead in the wild card race over both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati (the Colts also currently hold an edge in the crucial conference record tiebreaker), the Colts are in the fortunate position of being in complete control of their playoff future. All they need to do is
keep winning and they’re in (easy right?). Their remaining strength of schedule is the highest among the contenders, but that total is skewed heavily by the 2 remaining games against the 10-1 Houston Texans.

Since Pittsburgh and Cincinnati still play each other, the Colts need not win every game to ensure a playoff berth. With contests against the 4-7 Titans at home and the 1-10 Chiefs in Kansas City, Indianapolis need only beat the bottom of the barrel to reach 9 wins. With the Texans potentially
lacking motivation in week 17 and the Detroit Lions vulnerable on defense, 10-6 or 11-5 is not out of the question.

Why they don’t: With just a 1 game lead over Cincinnati and Pittsburgh (Miami lurking 2 back), the Colts are far from out of the woods. Advanced stats do not bode well for our home town heroes. Football Outsiders in particular suggest that the Colts are more a mirage than a marvel, ranking their defense
dead last and their offense only a middling 16th in the NFL behind teams like Cincinnati (13th) and Dallas (14th). The Colts have been winning on grit, courage, and emotion, pulling out improbable close games in critical situations and winning ugly (-43 in point differential).

With remaining games against underrated Detroit (ranked 11th by FO DVOA) and 2 against league leading Houston (who may very well have something to play for with New England and Baltimore close on their heels), the road ahead is a difficult one. If the close wins finally catch up to the Colts and they
somehow drop 3 (or even 4) of their last 5, which is a distinct possibility, they leave the door open for the other wild card chasers to finish strong and push them out.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-5)

Traditional Stats:

  Offense Defense
Rush 113.9 (14th) 116.1 (17th)
Pass 244.5 (12th) 218.4 (8th)
Total 358.4 (13th) 334.5 (9th)
Points 25.6 (10th) 22.5 (15th)

Advanced Stats:

  FootballOutsiders ProFootballFocus
Offense 7.3% (12th) 45.8 (12th)
Defense 6.0% (24th) 34.4 (8th)
Special Teams 3.3% (9th) 35.4 (8th)
Overall 7.9% (10th) NA


Remaining Schedule: @ San Diego; Dallas; @ Philadelphia; @ Pittsburgh; Baltimore (SOS 0.48)

Why they make the playoffs: Of the realistic wild card contenders, the Cincinnati Bengals have easily the most momentum and are coming off dominating performances against the Giants, Chiefs, and Raiders in consecutive weeks. With a relatively easy schedule (and potentially Baltimore resting players week 17), it’s not inconceivable that Cincinnati could end the season on an 8 game winning streak and finish with an 11-5 mark. That would be hard for either of the other contenders to match.

Advanced stats seem to indicate that Cincinnati is better than their 6-5 record would suggest, Football Outsiders pegging them as their 10th best team according to weighted DVOA and Pro Football Focus giving them top 12 marks on offense, defense, and special teams.

Why they don’t: Cincinnati is a scary team, but they’ve put themselves in a very difficult position by losing 4 straight games early in the season. At 6-5, and remaining games against division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the Bengals will really need to bring their A-game each and every week or risk
falling victim to their past transgressions. Their main competition is going to be Pittsburgh, which is a team they have already lost to once this season (and at home to boot), a fact that could come into play if tiebreakers become an issue (and they very well might).

San Diego is a wounded animal right now and known for finishing strong; Cincinnati will have to make the trip west to play them, a long, cross-country road trip that gives the home team a decided advantage. A loss to the ailing Chargers this week could prove a serious blow.
 
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)

Traditional Stats:

  Offense Defense
Rush 101.5 (22nd) 91.5 (5th)
Pass 238.3 (15th) 165.7 (1st)
Total 339.8 (20th) 257.2 (1st)
Points 21.0 (20th) 19.1 (4th)


Advanced Stats:

  FootballOutsiders ProFootballFocus
Offense -3.6% (19th) 27.9 (17th)
Defense -2.9%  (10th) 0.4 (17th)
Special Teams -0.6% (20th) 16.0 (23rd)
Overall -1.3% (18th) NA


Remaining Schedule: @ Baltimore; San Diego; @ Dallas; Cincinnati; Cleveland (SOS 0.48)

Why they make the playoffs: Pittsburgh currently holds the tiebreaker over Cincinnati based on their head-to-head matchup in week 7. The Steelers lost their most important player, Ben Roethlisberger, to an injury and have looked terrible since (losing ugly games to Baltimore and Cleveland), but before Ben’s
injury, Pittsburgh was on a 4 game winning streak (including wins over the Giants and Bengals) and with him expected back this week to face Baltimore, things could be getting back on track for the Steelers.

Pittsburgh also boasts the best defense among all the wild card contenders, 1 st in total yards allowed and 4th in points. With home games against lowly San Diego and Cleveland, the Steelers may need to only beat Cincinnati in week 16 (also at home) to assure themselves a place in the second wild card
position.

Why they don’t: Ben Roethlisberger is expected to be back in practice but it’s still unclear whether or not he will be able to start. Having not thrown a pass in two weeks, it’s also unknown just how effective he will be, even assuming he is well enough to play. With a huge division game on the road against 9-2
Baltimore this week, a fully healthy Ben doesn’t ensure victory let alone a gimpy one, and losing to the Ravens would put Pittsburgh in a bit of a bind.

Traditional stats suggest Pittsburgh has a top 5 defense, but advanced metrics provided by Football Outsiders ranks them more near the middle of the pack and Pro Football Focus grades them in the bottom half of the league (due primarily to an anemic pass rush). With a difficult schedule and an
injured Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers have an uphill battle to hang on to their current position as the AFC’s final playoff team.

The Longshot

Miami is worth mentioning in brief, though their chances at this point are not very good to say the least (FO puts their playoff odds at 4.2%, give or take). At 5-6 the Dolphins find themselves on the outside looking in. If matters weren’t bad enough already, Miami faces the unenviable task of playing New
England twice and the 49ers in San Francisco in their final 5 games. The Dolphins are not technically eliminated but they’d have to finish 4-1 at worst to really have a chance, and even then their lack of tiebreaker power makes them a longshot (head-to-head loss to Indianapolis and a lowly 3-5 conference
record). It’s a tall order considering the teams they would have to beat and the amount of help they’d need from the teams in front of them.

[Final note: The Jets have a very real chance of finishing 5-0 (which would make them 9-7) with what is probably the easiest remaining schedule in the league, Arizona, @ Jacksonville, @ Tennessee, San Diego, and @ Buffalo. They also hold the tiebreaker over the Colts with their head-to-head win in week
6. They’d need a lot of help, and they haven’t showed much to suggest they can win out even against a cupcake schedule, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention it was possible.]

The Scenario

Okay. Now that we know the players, let’s play this thing out and determine the most likely outcome. I’m going to take each team game by game and predict winners based on a variety of factors. I’d give you the elaborate method I’m going to use but that would just confuse you and add unnecessary complexities to the proceedings. All you really need to know is that I am absolutely 100% not picking these games based on feeling alone.

Disclaimer: While I have a very high pick percentage this season (and I say that only to establish my credentials in this matter and not to toot my own proverbial horn), when you are attempting to project weeks into the future, as I will be doing, there are always going to be unforeseen variables (injuries,
suspensions, etc.) that can drastically alter the outcome of a game. What follows is simply the most likely scenario, any money bet on this information is at the users own risk (though it would be a pretty damn good bet. If you’d bet on the Colts making the playoffs back in week 4 when I first guaranteed it you’d probably have made a pretty penny (assuming gambling were legal of course).

Houston

@ Tennessee – WIN
@ New England – LOSS
Indianapolis – WIN
Minnesota – WIN
@ Indianapolis – LOSS

Final record: 13-3

New England

@ Miami – LOSS
Houston – WIN
San Francisco – LOSS
@ Jacksonville – WIN
Miami – WIN

Final record: 11-5

Denver

Tampa Bay – WIN
@ Oakland – WIN
@ Baltimore – WIN
Cleveland – WIN
Kansas City – WIN

Final record: 13-3

Baltimore

Pittsburgh – WIN
@ Washington – WIN
Denver – LOSS
New York Giants – LOSS
@ Cincinnati – LOSS

Final record: 11-5

Indianapolis

@ Detroit – LOSS
Tennessee – WIN
@ Houston – LOSS
@ Kansas City – WIN
Houston – WIN

Final record: 10-6

Cincinnati

@ San Diego – LOSS
Dallas – WIN
@ Philadelphia – WIN
@ Pittsburgh – WIN
Baltimore – WIN

Final record: 10-6

Pittsburgh

@ Baltimore – LOSS
San Diego – WIN
@ Dallas – LOSS
Cincinnati – LOSS
Cleveland – WIN

Final record: 8-8

Final Seeding:

BYE – #1 Houston; #2 Denver – Houston wins tiebreak based on head-to-head win vs. Denver.

#3 Baltimore; #4 New England – Baltimore wins tiebreak based on head-to-head win vs. New England.

#5 Indianapolis; #6 Cincinnati – Indy wins tiebreak based on better conference record.

Wild card round: New England vs. Indianapolis; Baltimore vs. Cincinnati

How I see it: No matter which way I slice it the fact remains that Indianapolis is in the driver’s seat with a 1 game lead, the conference record tiebreak advantage over Pitt and Cincinnati, and easy games against Kansas City and Tennessee still to play. I project a 10-6 finish and the 5 seed.

I pick Cincinnati to outplay Pittsburgh down the stretch because I believe that the Bengals are a more complete team, are getting hot at the right time, and I am not convinced Roethlisberger will be 100% again this season if he even manages to play.

The top 4 seeds could go a few different ways but I am not completely sold on New England’s defense, even though they are scoring an absurd number of points right now on offense, and I believe Baltimore is significantly flawed. That leaves Denver and Houston with the inside track to a bye week.

So that’s how I see it. Leave your own scenarios in the comments or pick mine apart at your leisure. Again, this is what I deem to be the most likely scenario, and though it will undoubtedly be off here and there, I still think these are ultimately the final 6 teams that make it in the end if perhaps not the exact
records they will possess.

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