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Vikings-Lions Is The Biggest Game Of Week 12

With Thanksgiving upon us, we’re entering the home stretch of the NFL regular season. So what are the most important games of Week 12?

One way of looking at this — as we did in 2014 — is to figure out how much every game affects each team’s playoff chances. We do this by using the model behind our 2016 NFL predictions to calculate each team’s playoff “swing” based on a game outcome. For example, we estimate that if Oakland beats Carolina, the Raiders’ playoff chances will rise to 88 percent from 81 percent. If they lose, their chances will drop to 70 percent — an 18 percentage point swing.1 Carolina’s chances would see a more modest swing (rising to 17 percent from 9 percent if the Panthers win and falling to 4 percent if they lose); Buffalo, Atlanta, Miami and several other contenders could also see their probabilities change.

By summing up these individual swings, we can get sense of which games will make the largest total impact league-wide. Here are this week’s top five, ranked by total swing:

CHANCE OF MAKING PLAYOFFS
AFFECTED TEAM CURRENT IF MIN WINS IF DET WINS SWING
Detroit 58% 32% 79% 46
Minnesota 65 89 46 43
N.Y. Giants 66 67 65 3
1. Minnesota (6-4) vs. Detroit (6-4) — 101 total ‘swing’ points

Only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome shown

The NFC North is on the line, and, for once, the Packers aren’t involved. Going into 2016, Green Bay had made the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons, winning an average of 11 games each year. So it’s come as some surprise that the Packers have basically played their way out of playoff contention by Week 12 — we give them just a 6 percent chance of making it to the postseason. Rising in their place are the Lions and Vikings. The winner of their game on Thursday will be in strong shape; the loser will be more likely to miss the playoffs than make them.

CHANCE OF MAKING PLAYOFFS
AFFECTED TEAM CURRENT IF PIT WINS IF IND WINS SWING
Pittsburgh 55% 70% 42% 28
Indianapolis 22 12 31 19
Baltimore 32 24 38 14
Houston 80 86 74 12
Cincinnati 15 9 21 11
2. Pittsburgh (5-5) vs. Indianapolis (5-5) — 96 total ‘swing’ points

Only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome shown

According to the Elo ratings that our NFL predictions are based on, the five best teams in the AFC are New England, Kansas City, Denver, Buffalo and Oakland — all in the East or West divisions. Since it’s looking unlikely that the AFC South or North will produce a wild-card team, Steelers-Colts will go a long way toward determining two divisional playoff spots and not much else.

Indianapolis is in a rough position because of a bit of karmic payback: Although the Colts have outperformed their point differential the past few seasons, the Texans (6-4, outscored by 34 points) are managing the same feat this year. The Colts will need some help to win the AFC South even with a win. The Steelers, meanwhile, have a slightly better point differential than the Ravens, with whom they’re tied for first in the North, but it’s come against a slightly easier schedule. Pittsburgh is a good bet to make it in with a win, and not all the way out of it with a loss.

CHANCE OF MAKING PLAYOFFS
AFFECTED TEAM CURRENT IF ARI WINS IF ATL WINS SWING
Atlanta 78% 64% 87% 23
Arizona 11 22 4 18
Tampa Bay 15 19 13 6
Washington 56 53 58 5
New Orleans 10 12 8 5
Carolina 9 12 7 4
3. Arizona (4-5-1) vs. Atlanta (6-4) — 70 total ‘swing’ points

Only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome shown

Despite a narrow lead in the NFC South, the Falcons are in stronger shape than they may seem to be. Elo thinks Atlanta is way better than 5-5 Tampa Bay and 4-6 New Orleans, and although the Panthers still rank high (by Elo), they’re unlikely to win a division tiebreaker and their remaining schedule is rough. That means that if Atlanta wins on Sunday, the Falcons will make a pretty big playoff jump — and if they lose, their NFC South rivals make only modest gains. Washington, which currently holds the second wild-card spot in the NFC, would prefer that Arizona all but end its playoff hunt with a loss.

CHANCE OF MAKING PLAYOFFS
AFFECTED TEAM CURRENT IF CIN WINS IF BAL WINS SWING
Baltimore 32% 14% 46% 32
Cincinnati 15 29 5 24
Pittsburgh 55 59 52 7
4. Cincinnati (3-6-1) vs. Baltimore (5-5) — 68 total ‘swing’ points

Only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome shown

This is another big game toward determining the AFC North winner. Cincinnati is very much alive despite its 3-6-1 record and even though star receiver A.J. Green is out with a hamstring injury for the next few weeks — the Bengals would improve to a roughly 1-in-3 chance of making the playoffs with a win here. Baltimore can make similar gains, and Pittsburgh, which has beaten Cincinnati but lost to the Ravens in Week 9, would rather the Bengals win.

CHANCE OF MAKING PLAYOFFS
AFFECTED TEAM CURRENT IF KC WINS IF DEN WINS SWING
Denver 76% 58% 89% 30
Kansas City 83 96 73 22
Oakland 81 82 80 3
Miami 29 31 28 3
Buffalo 26 27 25 2
5. Kansas City (7-3) vs. Denver (7-3) — 66 total ���swing’ points

Only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome shown

The Broncos have already lost to the Raiders, who sit on top of the AFC West at 8-2. A loss to the Chiefs would put Denver in a dangerous situation, at risk of losing a division tiebreaker or a wild-card tiebreaker (or both!) to an AFC West rival. A Denver loss would have a pretty big impact: Since 1995, 7-4 teams have made the playoffs 68 percent of the time, but we’d give the 7-4 Broncos just a 58 percent chance if the Chiefs knock them off.

CORRECTION (Nov. 23, 2:10 p.m.): A footnote in an earlier version of this article said incorrectly that FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction model does not project ties and gave an incorrect number of simulations in which the Oakland Raiders and the Carolina Panthers were projected to win their game on Sunday. In 100,000 simulations of the NFL season, Oakland was projected to win the game 58,042 times, not 57,955, and Carolina was projected to win 41,791 times, not 42,045.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Some detail on what this means. Our NFL predictions are based on 100,000 simulations of the rest of the season and are updated after every game ends. In the simulations in which Oakland beats Carolina, the Raiders make the playoffs 88 percent of the time. In the simulations in which they lose, they make the playoffs 70 percent of the time. But at the end of Week 12, it’s unlikely that Oakland’s playoff probabilities will be exactly 88 percent or exactly 70 percent, because the team’s chances depend on the outcome of several games, not just their own.

Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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