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We Finally Have Some Playoff Teams … And We Don’t Believe In Any Of Them

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): At long last, we finally have ourselves a playoff picture in the NFL — and it only took until Week 16. Six teams have clinched playoff berths, and though that’s still just 43 percent of the postseason field, at least we’re getting closer. Eighteen teams still have a shot at the final eight spots, setting up what should be a wild final two weeks of the regular season.

So let’s start in the AFC, where only one team has clinched a spot: the Kansas City Chiefs. How is it possible that no other teams have wrapped up postseason bids?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Well, we’ve spent the whole season complaining about how no teams were distinguishing themselves, so it makes sense that would carry over into the playoff race down the stretch. Maybe the surprise is that the team who did rise to the top from that group was K.C., given how shaky they looked at various times earlier in the season. (Although that feels like forever ago now.)

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): It’s just wide open this year, with no team able to take charge in the conference except the Chiefs lately. 

sara.ziegler: Buffalo, Tennessee, Indianapolis and New England all have at least a 96 percent chance to make it, according to our model. So they’re about as close to clinching as it gets.

Salfino: I know Kansas City is the favorite for the bye at the moment, but I think that the Titans have a puncher’s chance, looking at the schedule and factoring in that Tennessee has the tiebreaker by beating the Chiefs this year. 

One of the dominant teams in my favorite metric — net yards gained per pass play minus net yards allowed per pass play — is the Bills. They had a rough stretch where they lost control of their division. They finally got it back, but they’ve underachieved. They should be the team that’s clinched, I believe, not the Chiefs, who I have 13th in net yards per attempt differential — and the Titans are 20th! I think we’d all agree that Tennessee’s record is a miracle, and I don’t mean that in a good way. 

sara.ziegler: I was impressed by the Bills’ win Sunday in their rematch against the Patriots. That was a key test for them.

neil: That was basically the AFC East Championship Game, and the Bills — and Josh Allen — delivered big time.

Salfino: The Patriots were exposed when they didn’t have bad weather on their side and had to play the Bills legit, and the Bills are just way better.

neil: It made Bill Belichick’s coaching in that earlier matchup seem even more impressive, but that’s of little consolation after back-to-back losses and probably letting the division slip away.

Salfino: The Belichick signature trait of taking away the opponent’s right hand and forcing them to play left-handed has failed them these two games. The Colts are a running team that ran all over them, and the Bills are a passing team that passed all over them.

sara.ziegler: I do enjoy your “Buffalo can’t play in bad weather” belief, Mike. Maybe they should hope they don’t get home-field advantage!

Salfino: It’s true, Sara — the Bills have to hope for good weather in Buffalo. It’s weird for them. 

The Colts are a super bad matchup for Buffalo anywhere but especially in tough weather. I just don’t know how the seeding is going to land.

neil: The Colts are a super bad matchup for a lot of teams.

Salfino: Agreed!

sara.ziegler: And yet, I don’t completely trust Indy. But I guess that’s the problem this season: I don’t trust anyone.

Salfino: Well, it’s hard to trust Carson Wentz, in fairness.

sara.ziegler: Haha, good point.

Salfino: Are you guys with me that, irrespective of seeding and current record, the Chiefs are not a team that you’ll be shocked to see lose in January?

sara.ziegler: I like the Chiefs! I mean, I won’t be shocked by anyone losing in these playoffs, but I’m back firmly on the Kansas City bandwagon.

neil: I feel better about them now that Patrick Mahomes is playing like Patrick Mahomes again.

Salfino: My problem with the Chiefs is that they are relying on ridiculous efficiency on defense — a point every 17.8 yards. The average in that stat this season is 15.3. This is generally a way to beat bad teams with bad offenses, so I expect regression here for the Chiefs against good teams in January. That’s what’s happened to New England the past two weeks: The opponents were better, and their efficiency vanished. 

So are the Chiefs going to have a big yardage edge against whomever they play? I’d be surprised. Their offense isn’t as good as it used to be, and their defense has been very, very lucky.

neil: Yet that defense still ranks 12th in schedule-adjusted expected points added per game.

sara.ziegler: We wrote about the turnaround of the Chiefs defense a few weeks ago and compared the first few weeks of the year against the back half. The difference is really remarkable. Even schedule-adjusted, you have to admit they’ve been much better since Week 8.

Salfino: On the season, Kansas City has gained 5.9 yards per play and given up 5.8. How is this a dominant team? It’s going to be hard to find another conference champion that mediocre in that stat. The Bills are 5.8 for and 4.7 allowed. THAT I can buy.

sara.ziegler: Though the Chiefs defense has improved dramatically in that stat: It allowed 6.6 yards per play in Weeks 1 through 7 but only 5.1 since Week 8.

Salfino: Do you guys think dramatic turnarounds are real, or do you think that the Chiefs’ bad defense in the beginning of the year is still lurking in them? The Los Angeles Chargers ate their defense up last week. 

neil: I don’t think they were ever really as bad as some of those early games made them out to be (even if maybe they are playing over their heads recently). This team was 14th in EPA per game on defense last season, which I think tracks with their true quality still, probably. 

sara.ziegler: I think they did things to their scheme during the season that made a significant difference. Their increased use of dime packages won’t work against every team, but it has seemed to work against several decent offenses.

Salfino: It will be interesting to see if their run defense is a problem in January. Good teams love to do the easiest thing, which is to run. If they play the Colts, Jonathan Taylor is coming, and how are they going to stop him? Remember, the Broncos ran all over that defense, too, and really could have beaten K.C. in Week 13, when they scored 9 points on 404 yards, including 154 rushing.

neil: The important thing for me, though, is that K.C.’s offense looks much better recently. That was the really concerning element of their struggles earlier in the year because their formula does not work if Mahomes and the offense are not elite. The formula has been shown to work fine if the defense is meh, as long as the offense is elite.

sara.ziegler: Let’s look at the rest of the AFC playoff picture. We give the Cincinnati Bengals a 79 percent chance to get in, but beyond that, things are kind of a free-for-all. There are seven teams clustered from 8-7 to 7-8, with odds as high as 36 percent (Chargers and Ravens) and as low as less than 0.1 percent (Broncos). There are a LOT of scenarios on the table for that last spot.

The Chargers in particular took a sledgehammer to their chances on Sunday, with a bad and baffling loss to the Houston Texans. What happened to L.A.?

neil: Too much Davis Mills?

No, I’m kidding, that was a horrendous performance by the Chargers, particularly on defense. You wanna talk about teams with defensive liabilities? Ooof.

Salfino: That was an ultimate Chargers game. Seriously, Neil, Mills has been the best rookie QB this season. Better than Mac Jones. In nine starts, he has five games with at least 300 passing yards and/or multiple TD passes … on a team that’s a joke. How is his situation better than any of the other rookies? 

neil: He is justifying that weird report that Houston might be satisfied with him as their future at QB and draft at another position!

Salfino: But as for the Chargers, they can’t stop the run. They made Rex Burkhead look like Jim Brown. This is going to be a problem against good teams.

sara.ziegler: Not gonna lie, I was pretty surprised that Burkhead is still in the NFL. Love to see those former Huskers doing damage.

Salfino: The Bengals are the team I would not want to play. Joe Burrow is at least in the conversation as a possibility now for MVP. They have great receivers and overall skill position talent. The defense is VERY well coached.

neil: Burrow came within striking distance of Norm Van Brocklin’s single-game record for passing yards, which … somehow it’s almost 2022 and that’s the passing record that hasn’t fallen yet?

Salfino: Amazing. Though I must note as a Jets fan that Joe Namath had a 496-yard passing game — on 28 attempts.

sara.ziegler: I like the Bengals a lot, but they’ve also had some strange games that they couldn’t quite close out or made key mistakes in

neil: How many times do I have to point out that the Bengals either score or allow 41 points almost every game? I don’t know what it means, but it is very strange.

sara.ziegler: They do seem to love that number.

Salfino: I love that the Bengals are making teams angry for piling it on:

sara.ziegler: LOL

Am I wrong to think the Dolphins would be a fun team for that seventh spot? It’s been wild to watch their turnaround as well.

neil: Tua Tagovailoa found another QB to potentially outduel tonight in — checks notes — Ian Book?

sara.ziegler: This game … might be bad. But will I still watch it? Yes.

Salfino: It’s weird that the COVID-19 season we thought we were getting last year is the one we’re getting right now.

Neil, if the Dolphins win they are what to make the playoffs? 25 percent?

neil: Thirty-one percent.

Salfino: OMG

sara.ziegler: Basically a lock.

Salfino: The Dolphins are sort of the poor man’s Chiefs right now.

neil: But if they win out, they are in.

sara.ziegler: Against Tennessee and New England!

neil: Destiny is in their hands!

sara.ziegler: They’re like the Little Engine That Could.

Salfino: Both Tennessee and New England are eminently beatable.

neil: Certainly. Although here’s who the Dolphins have beaten during this winning streak: Tyrod Taylor, Lamar Jackson (OK, I’ll give you that one!), Joe Flacco, Cam Newton, Mike Glennon, Zach Wilson and maybe Ian Book.

sara.ziegler: I like that you’re chalking tonight up as a “maybe win.”

neil: The fact that it’s not more certain than Miami -3 vs. Book might be telling.

Salfino: Everyday I Write the Book.

neil: Hahaha

sara.ziegler: LOL

Let’s move over to the NFC, where things are much more settled. The Green Bay Packers have a solid hold on the No. 1 seed, and they’re joined by the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals. Dallas in particular looked strong this weekend, with a 56-14 romp over Washington. Are the Cowboys peaking at the right time?

neil: “Romp” is a word made for games like that.

Thank goodness that game was in primetime while Buffalo vs. New England was at 1 p.m. Eastern and not available across the entire country!

(In NYC, we were subjected to the Jets vs. Jags while that game was happening.)

(Are you even kidding me?)

Salfino: I’m going to let Neil’s second attempt at Jets slander in the last minute pass.

sara.ziegler: Such restraint, LOL.

neil: There is no Jets slander. Just Jets mentions.

Salfino: Any Jets mention is slander.

neil: Right, LOL.

sara.ziegler: Dallas has been such a boom or bust team. Do we believe in the Cowboys now?

neil: I believe in them defensively more than offensively. But this was another case where we saw what we needed out of Dak Prescott and the offense to keep belief alive.

Then again, it helped that the Football Team just didn’t show up at all and had more fight between teammates on the sidelines than on the field against Dallas.

Salfino: I really don’t believe in Dallas, which again is not remotely dominant in net yards per attempt differential, and the team that wins that stat by any margin has won 74 percent of games since the merger. It’s important. 

The Rams are a bully team with a QB I don’t believe in in January. The Packers raised as many concerns in their win over the Browns as they would have by losing, and the fact that the Ravens were lit up by Burrow a week after holding Aaron Rodgers somewhat in check is another concern. The Cardinals are a dead team walking. I think the Bucs have the fewest flaws if we just accept that the Saints have Tom Brady’s number and Tampa won’t have to worry about them.

sara.ziegler: I still don’t know what to think about the Packers. It’s hard to argue with a defense that snares four interceptions, but on the other hand, their spate of close calls could catch up to them in the playoffs. How do you all feel about them? Could they win it all? 

Salfino: Their point differential suggests they should be 9-6. Feels right. 

But the Packers always overachieve, it seems, versus expected results. Should we just say, “This is the Rodgers effect”?

sara.ziegler: That’s kind of where I’m at.

neil: That’s what I have been wondering too.

sara.ziegler: If this is what they always are able to do, there has to be something to it, right?

Salfino: Maybe though that’s an effect against bad teams mostly and sort of vanishes in the playoffs, where the Packers and Rodgers have underachieved.

neil: The Packers are ninth in EPA per game but second on offense, 19th on defense and 30th on special teams. By our logic earlier, that’s good right?

The offense is strong, and defense/special teams is so unpredictable that it might not matter.

sara.ziegler: Their special teams play is just brutal.

neil: What’s amazing about that game against Cleveland is that the Browns were in it down to the end despite Baker Mayfield throwing so many picks.

I would imagine teams’ all-time average point differential against opponents with 4 INTs is much better than +2.

sara.ziegler: LOL, yeah.

And one might want to bring up a missed pass interference call in that game, if one were not rooting for the Packers to win it.

Just hypothetically.

neil: Sure.

But I mean, at this point can we even make excuses for Baker anymore?

sara.ziegler: I’ve come around on Baker and want him to succeed. His Progressive commercials won me over.

Salfino: What team lurking in the postseason is a bad matchup for the Packers? I say the San Francisco 49ers, who I think are actually good. Not great but good. A legit playoff team.

neil: I like the Niners as a potential upset special against Green Bay. I’ll throw another out there: the E-A-G-L-E-S.

Philly is second in rushing EPA per game.

sara.ziegler: I thought you were convinced the Eagles wouldn’t even make the playoffs, Neil!

neil: They still might not!

Salfino: The Eagles! I like it. Sort of a knuckleball team. And despite their running, or supplementing it, 10th in net yards per attempt differential, just ahead of … the Cowboys. What are the Eagles’ odds, Neil?

neil: They’re 60 percent to make the playoffs, 0.6 percent to win the Super Bowl. So I’m saying there’s a chance.

(They have a 0 percent chance to win the division, which I learned was because of the outcome of … the Denver-Las Vegas game? Sure, why not.)

Salfino: I would not want to play that style of offense.

sara.ziegler: Just like I’m pushing for the Dolphins in the AFC, I’m rooting for the Falcons to make the playoffs in the NFC. Wouldn’t that be a ridiculous story?

Salfino: OMG, no! The Falcons are perhaps the worst team in the league. They’re the NFC’s Titans with that crazy record.

sara.ziegler: That’s what’s so fun about them!

neil: Yeah, this team has a -8.1 PPG differential.

sara.ziegler: They’re terrible … and they could make the playoffs.

neil: Nothing says “playoffs” like losing by a TD + 2-point conversion per game.

This is proof the NFL’s playoff expansion was misguided.

sara.ziegler: I mean, they only have a 2 percent chance to get in.

Salfino: “If it’s not broken, fix it,” I guess is the NFL’s motto.

neil: LOL

(But yes, actually.)

sara.ziegler: 🤣

I just enjoy that there are only two weeks left but so many playoff spots up for grabs. At least this chaotic season is also ending chaotically.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.