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NFL Week 16 Playoff Implications: When Things Start To Shake Out

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The Arizona Cardinals continue to get no respect. Despite an NFC best 11-3 record, Las Vegas has them as eight-point underdogs, at home, against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. Similarly, our rankings, which are derived from point spreads, have the Cardinals pegged as just the 19th best team in the NFL. Their “generic points favored”1 is essentially zero.

The Cardinals are, quite literally, average.

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Of course, this is largely a reflection of the Cardinals’ starting quarterback situation. Because of injuries to Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton, Arizona will start Ryan Lindley against the Seahawks defense. If Lindley and the Cardinals pull off the upset, power rankings, point spreads and “respect” become meaningless, at least when it comes to playoff positioning. A win for Arizona would not only clinch the NFC West title, it would also guarantee it the top seed in the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

A loss keeps the Green Bay Packers in contention for the top seed. Their opponent this week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are in no hurry to win: As you can see in the table above, we’re simulating each team’s chances of getting the top pick in the NFL draft. The Buccaneers are in the lead.

With their decisive Monday night victory over the Chicago Bears, the New Orleans Saints re-established themselves as the front-runner in the NFC South. They host the Atlanta Falcons this week in a game that is truly a must-win for Atlanta. A loss would eliminate the Falcons from the playoff race. Although not quite a must-win for New Orleans, the Saints’ chances of winning the division and making the playoffs would drop to 11 percent with a loss to the Falcons. The Carolina Panthers can also afford to lose this week, but a loss to the Cleveland Browns would drop their playoff chances to just 3 percent.

As it stands, the probability that the NFC South winner finishes with a losing record is slightly better than 50 percent. And there is about a 1 percent chance that Carolina will win the division with a 6-9-1 record. As if that wasn’t unfair enough, the NFC South winner may also find themselves with a favorable draw in the first round of the playoffs. If Arizona loses this week, they will most likely finish as the fifth seed and face the fourth-seed NFC South winner in the wild card round. The third seed plays the sixth seed in the first round, and that sixth seed would probably be a much tougher opponent than the fifth seed. In the event of an Arizona loss, the most likely sixth-seed teams would be the Detroit Lions, Packers or Dallas Cowboys, all of whom place higher in our rankings than the Cardinals.

While all four divisional races are undecided in the NFC, in the AFC, only the North remains up in the air. But with three teams still vying for the AFC North title, and an additional five teams in the wild card race, things are far from settled in the conference. The Miami Dolphins are clinging to a 0.2 percent playoff probability going into Week 16 and will need a lot of help to make it to the postseason. The best case scenario for every team is included in the graphic below, which also includes “top pick” chances for the teams lousy enough to have a shot.

 

The game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers will have a bigger impact on the Dolphins’ playoff chances than Miami’s game against the Minnesota Vikings. The Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens playoff chances actually improve with a Steelers victory over the Chiefs; this despite the fact that they are battling the Steelers for the division title. With 143 percent of playoff “swing” at stake, the Chiefs-Steelers game figures to be one of the most important matchups this week.

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At the top of the AFC, the picture is relatively certain. The New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos are virtual locks for the top two seeds and byes in the first round. The Indianapolis Colts’ fate as a third or fourth seed was effectively sealed in Week 11 with their loss to the Patriots. In the NFC, there are still five teams in contention for both the top seed and the bye week. As we mentioned above, a victory would guarantee the Cardinals the top seed. But a loss would drop their top-seed probability to just 7 percent — a swing of 93 percent.

CORRECTION (Dec. 18, 9:23 a.m.): The initial version of the “Which Teams To Root For In Week 16” graphic included three instances where a game in one conference (e.g. a matchup between two NFC teams) affected the playoff odds of a team in the opposite conference. These effects are not statistically meaningful and have been removed.

CORRECTION (Dec. 20, 2:13 p.m.): Because of a programming error, this analysis miscalculated the outcomes of “head-to-head sweep” tiebreakers involving multiple teams. This miscalculation had a large effect on the race for the top two NFC seeds and a smaller effect on the AFC wild card race. The interactives, tables and text have been updated.

Footnotes

  1. Generic points favored is what you would expect a team to be favored by against a league average opponent on a neutral field.

Mike Beuoy writes about sports and data from Southern California. He is the creator of inpredictable.com.

Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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