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The 10 Games That Shaped The NFL Playoff Picture The Most

After a tedious Week 17, the NFL playoff picture is finally set. Every week since Week 12, we’ve looked at which games could have the biggest impact on postseason chances throughout the league. Now, instead of dealing with hypotheticals, we can look backward to see which results from the entire 2016 regular season actually affected the playoff race the most.

This is pretty easy to measure. Our NFL predictions update after every game, so the most important games are simply the ones that caused the largest net change in playoff probabilities. For example, when Buffalo beat Los Angeles in Week 5, the Bills’ playoff chances immediately improved from 50 percent to 64 percent (+14) while the Rams’ dropped from 49 percent to 34 percent (-14, with rounding). That’s a net change of 28 points. If we add to that number the impact the Bill’s victory had on Arizona, Seattle, New England and Oakland and its minor impacts on every other team in the league, we get an overall playoff swing of 57 points for that game.1

By this measure, the 10 biggest games of the regular season are below. Note that some of these results didn’t actually “matter” in the end. Going back to the example above: Buffalo didn’t make the postseason. But that game did make a significant impact on the playoff race at the time, so it was still important to the arc of the season.

PLAYOFF CHANCES
AFFECTED TEAM BEFORE GAME AFTER GAME CHANGE
Green Bay 70% 100% +30
Detroit 72 100 +28
Washington 58 0 -58
1. N.Y. Giants 19, Washington 10 (Week 17)

Game had 116.6 total “swing” points; only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome are shown

The most important game of the year came in Week 17, even though one of the teams — the New York Giants — had absolutely nothing to play for. Washington’s loss ended its playoff hopes and rendered the highly anticipated Green Bay-Detroit evening matchup mostly moot by guaranteeing playoff spots for both the Packers and Lions.

PLAYOFF CHANCES
AFFECTED TEAM BEFORE GAME AFTER GAME CHANGE
Miami 55% 92% +38
Houston 58 55 -3
Tennessee 45 42 -3
Pittsburgh 93 88 -5
Denver 17 7 -10
Baltimore 28 14 -14
2. Miami 34, Buffalo 31 (Week 16)

Game had 76.0 total “swing” points; only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome are shown

The game to watch for Week 16 was one of the best of the year. Buffalo came back from a 21-7 deficit, but the Dolphins hit a 55-yard field goal at the end of the fourth quarter to send the game into OT. Buffalo immediately drove 58 yards to Miami’s 17-yard line before moving backward 10 yards on two running plays and missing a 45-yarder. The Dolphins eventually won it on a chip shot field goal, sending their playoff chances skyrocketing to 92 percent at the expense of Denver and Baltimore.

PLAYOFF CHANCES
AFFECTED TEAM BEFORE GAME AFTER GAME CHANGE
Tennessee 11% 25% +14
Miami 16 26 +11
Buffalo 7 12 +5
Baltimore 38 41 +3
Pittsburgh 68 70 +2
Indianapolis 39 34 -5
Houston 51 44 -7
Denver 73 48 -24
3. Tennessee 13, Denver 10 (Week 14)

Game had 75.9 total “swing” points; only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome are shown

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge Tennessee’s season. The Titans were one of the NFL’s worst teams in 2015 but rallied to go 9-7 this season, with a 5-2 record against eventual playoff teams. Their peak came in back-to-back wins against Denver (Week 14) and Kansas City (Week 15), giving them a serious shot at an AFC South title. Unfortunately, it was all for naught — the bad version of the Titans came out in Week 16 and lost 38-17 to the Jaguars, allowing the Texans to clinch the division. Tennessee’s victory over Denver did make a big difference for Miami, which eventually took the second AFC wild card spot.

PLAYOFF CHANCES
AFFECTED TEAM BEFORE GAME AFTER GAME CHANGE
Houston 44% 74% +30
Indianapolis 34 4 -30
4. Houston 22, Indianapolis 17 (Week 14)

Game had 66.3 total “swing” points; only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome are shown

The Texans ended the regular season with a 9-7 record, a -49 point differential and just the saddest kind of quarterback controversy (the kind where both quarterbacks are bad). So how did they find themselves in the playoffs, with room to spare? Houston’s secret weapon was a 5-1 record against its AFC South opponents, spoiled only by its final meaningless game against the Titans. Whenever Houston’s lead in its terrible division was challenged, the team rose to the occasion, getting a particularly large boost to its playoffs chances in this narrow victory over the Colts.

PLAYOFF CHANCES
AFFECTED TEAM BEFORE GAME AFTER GAME CHANGE
Tennessee 16% 44% +28
Miami 41 45 +3
Denver 41 39 -2
Kansas City >99 97 -2
Indianapolis 7 3 -4
Houston 79 57 -22
5. Tennessee 19, Kansas City 17 (Week 15)

Game had 65.0 total “swing” points; only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome are shown

The second ultimately meaningless late-season Titans victory that briefly shook the AFC South playoff race. Better luck next year, Tennessee!

PLAYOFF CHANCES
AFFECTED TEAM BEFORE GAME AFTER GAME CHANGE
Indianapolis 11% 21% +10
Detroit 46 50 +4
Minnesota 61 64 +3
Washington 28 31 +3
N.Y. Giants 48 50 +2
Houston 86 82 -5
Green Bay 54 34 -20
6. Indianapolis 31, Green Bay 26 (Week 9)

Game had 59.7 total “swing” points; only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome are shown

After Green Bay’s late-season surge to make the playoffs (and the collapse of Washington and Tampa Bay), the Packers’ midseason foibles are all but forgotten. But they really almost blew it, going on a four-game losing streak that started at the end of October during which the Green Bay defense allowed 38 points per game and the team’s chances of making the playoffs dropped (at 4-6) to just 6 percent. This Week 9 loss to the Colts — the second loss in the streak — was one of the most damaging for Green Bay while simultaneously reviving Indianapolis’s hopes.

PLAYOFF CHANCES
AFFECTED TEAM BEFORE GAME AFTER GAME CHANGE
Pittsburgh 55% 71% +16
Houston 79 87 +7
Cincinnati 15 9 -7
Baltimore 32 24 -8
Indianapolis 23 11 -12
7. Pittsburgh 28, Indianapolis 7 (Week 12)

Game had 58.9 total “swing” points; only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome are shown

Pittsburgh was an early favorite to make the playoffs, with a 62 percent preseason chance of advancing to the postseason that improved to 90 percent after a 4-1 start. But then the Steelers lost four straight, dropping down to 16th in our rankings, which are based on Elo ratings (a measure of team strength based on game results that we use quite a bit around here). They would go on to beat the Browns in Week 11, but this road victory against the Colts was when Pittsburgh really righted the ship. The Steelers closed the season with five more wins, easily making it to the postseason; they enter as the fourth-ranked team by Elo.

PLAYOFF CHANCES
AFFECTED TEAM BEFORE GAME AFTER GAME CHANGE
Dallas 56% 78% +22
Philadelphia 38 35 -3
Green Bay 72 49 -22
8. Dallas 30, Green Bay 16 (Week 6)

Game had 58.7 total “swing” points; only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome are shown

Based on the Cowboys’ terrible performance last season, our NFL predictions projected them to go 7-9 in 2016. And it took a little while for our model to figure out that Dallas was for real. This Week 6 drubbing of Green Bay improved the Cowboys’ record to 5-1 and sent their playoff chances shooting up 22 points to 78 percent; the suddenly struggling Packers saw an equivalent drop.

PLAYOFF CHANCES
AFFECTED TEAM BEFORE GAME AFTER GAME CHANGE
Philadelphia 56% 72% +16
Baltimore 51 54 +3
Dallas 26 23 -3
Washington 18 15 -3
N.Y. Giants 34 29 -4
Pittsburgh 80 67 -13
9. Philadelphia 34, Pittsburgh 3 (Week 3)

Game had 58.5 total “swing” points; only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome are shown

Remember Philadelphia? After a 3-0 start, capped by this shellacking of the highly rated Pittsburgh Steelers, the Eagles saw their playoff chances rise to over 70 percent. After a bye in Week 4, it was all downhill. Philadelphia went 2-9 over their next 11 games and were eliminated from playoff contention in Week 15.

PLAYOFF CHANCES
AFFECTED TEAM BEFORE GAME AFTER GAME CHANGE
Washington 37% 51% +14
Detroit 73 80 +7
Green Bay 62 69 +6
Tampa Bay 29 <1 -28
10. New Orleans 31, Tampa Bay 24 (Week 16)

Game had 57.2 total “swing” points; only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome are shown

Going into Week 15, the 8-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a 54 percent chance of making the playoffs but blew it with back-to-back narrow losses to the Cowboys and Saints. Although this game didn’t technically eliminate Tampa Bay from playoff contention — the team had a very outside chance of making the playoffs in Week 17, if seven games broke their way — it more or less ended the Bucs’ playoff hopes.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The playoff swing totals in this article are lower than what we had listed in previous weeks. That’s because the scale has changed a bit, now that we’re measuring based on one actual game outcome instead of two potential game outcomes. An example: Going into their Week 17 matchup against New York, Washington had a 58 percent chance of making the playoffs. It would be eliminated with a loss and would more or less clinch with a win, so the team’s total potential range of outcomes, which we called its swing, was zero to 100 percent, or 100 percentage points. But Washington lost that game, so its actual, non-potential swing was from 58 percent to zero, or 58 percentage points.

Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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