Predicting The Playoffs: Patriots Could Win Out and Stay Home

Before we know it, the NFL regular season is going to be done. Three more weeks and there will be no scenarios to map out and no hypotheticals to think through.

But for now, the Jets' collapse and the Cowboys', Bucs', and Falcons' losses make for a very jumbled playoff picture.

Here's the short-hand version, with a chart to help.

Will Make It
Pittsburgh, Denver, Indianapolis
Should Make It
Baltimore, New York Jets
Needs Help
New England, Miami
New York Giants, Arizona
Will Make It
Should Make It
Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Dallas
Needs Help
Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington

The AFC has five spots largely settled, with the loser of the Ravens/Steelers AFC North battle still likely to win the second wild card spot while Indianapolis is almost assured of the first. The truly tense race is in the AFC East, where three teams are battling for one spot. New England is in bad shape, as they could win out and still be stuck at home come playoff time.

In the NFC, the Giants and Cardinals are the only two teams who are set, and the Panthers are the only other team virtually assured of a spot. The Vikings and Bucs are in good shape for the playoffs, but they still have to take care of business, while the Cowboys would be in great shape if it wasn't for their brutal schedule to finish the season.

AFC East

New York Jets (8-5, .410 winning percentage for teams on the remaining schedule)
New England Patriots (8-5, .436)
Miami Dolphins (8-5, .385)

If New England hadn't rallied in the final minutes against Seattle, Miami would be in the driver's seat to take the division. New York has completely fallen apart over the past two weeks, going from the media's darling (after they beat the Titans) to a team of chokers who have lost back-to-back games to the Broncos and 49ers. But they still are in better shape than the Patriots, who need help to win the division, and have a difficult path to winning a wild card spot.

The Patriots can't win the division if either of the other two teams wins its final three games, but it knows that there is no chance both the Jets and Dolphins will win out -- New York and Miami play each other in their Week 17 finale. Assuming the Patriots did win out (which is possible with Oakland, Arizona and Buffalo on the schedule), the Patriots would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Jets (if the Jets could win out by beating Buffalo, Seattle and Miami) because of the Jets' superior division record. If the Patriots and Dolphins both won out, the Dolphins (who have the 49ers, Chiefs and Jets left) would win the division because of their better conference record.

Now if everyone loses at least one game, things get more complicated. If the Dolphins lose to the Jets, they will lose any tiebreaker with the Jets because they would have been swept in head-to-head matchups. The Jets would win the tiebreaker against the Patriots if they beat the Bills and Dolphins because of their superior division record. If the Jets lost to the Dolphins, they are out of the division hunt in a three-way tie because of their inferior record against common opponents. In the case of that three-way tie, the Dolphins would top the Patriots by beating the Chiefs, because it would give them a better conference record than the Pats.

For the Patriots to win a tiebreaker by going 2-1 over the final three games, they could beat the Jets in a tiebreaker if New York lost to the Bills and the Patriots' only loss came against the Cardinals. In that case, the two teams would have split the head-to-head matchup, tied on division record, but New England would have a superior record against common opponents, but that's one of the few tiebreakers the Patriots can win.

When it comes to a wild card spot, even if they win out, New England would lose in a tie with the Colts or Steelers because they lost head-to-head. And they would lose the wild card to the Ravens because of an inferior conference record. Indianapolis is a game ahead of New England in the wild card race with two cakewalks on the schedule (Detroit and Jacksonville) in the next two weeks, so that's almost assuredly one wild card spot out of the running for New England. So New England either has to win the division or hope that the loser of the AFC North finishes no better than 10-6 while New England wins out.

AFC North

Pittsburgh (10-3, .641)
Baltimore (9-4, .579)

If the Steelers can beat the Ravens next week, they wrap up the division. They would have a two-game lead with two games to go and the tiebreaker because of a sweep of the Ravens. But if Baltimore wins, things get much more interesting. Pittsburgh would have one tough game (the Titans) and one easy game to play, while Baltimore would have one tough game (the Cowboys) and one easy game (the Jaguars).

It would still be an uphill battle for the Ravens to win the division. Here's where it gets technical, as NFL tiebreakers can often read like the instruction manual for installing a new HDTV. If you want the short version in most scenarios, Pittsburgh would still win the tiebreaker. If you want the details (which hopefully is why you're reading this), read the next couple of paragraphs.

If both teams win out, the Steelers would win the division based on their superior conference record. If they both went 1-1 in the final two games, it all depends on who wins which game. If Baltimore lost to the Jaguars, the Steelers would win the division by beating the Browns, (because it would give Pittsburgh a better conference record, again giving Pittsburgh the fourth tiebreaker). But if the Steelers lost to the Browns, Baltimore would win the division because of a better division record. Because of that same reason, Baltimore would win the division if both teams finished 0-2.

Now if the Ravens lost to the Cowboys while the Steelers lost to the Titans, the two teams would be deadlocked on the first five tiebreakers. We'd have to go all the way to the poorly titled "strength of victory" tiebreaker, which is a tiebreaker where you add up the winning percentages of all the teams each team beat. Pittsburgh currently has a 2.5 win advantage in the strength of victory tiebreaker, and would pick up another win on Baltimore because this scenario depends on a Dallas win (and the Steelers beat Dallas). So for the Ravens to win by going 1-1 and beating the Jaguars while the Steelers beat the Browns, they need the Eagles, Raiders and Dolphins to outplay the Cowboys, Patriots and Chargers by at least three games over the final three weeks of the season. The Eagles play the Cowboys in Week 17, so there's a very outside chance that the AFC North crown could be decided by who wins this NFC East rivalry game.

AFC South

Tennessee (12-1, .641) has clinched the division
Indianapolis (9-4, .421)

Thankfully after figuring out all the AFC East and North scenarios, the South is easy. Tennessee has the division clinched and has wrapped up a first-round bye.

Indianapolis keeps cruising to a wild card spot with a end-of-season schedule so soft they should be embarrassed. You'll see a lot written over the next few weeks about how the Colts are getting hot at the right time of year. That may be true, but it's hard to tell when they are playing a stretch of six straight games against teams that are already out of the playoff race. This week's gimme against the Lions should bring them to 10-4, with a dispirited Jacksonville team on tap next. Win both of those games and the Colts are in. They likely could go 1-2 over the final three weeks and still make it, as they hold head-to-head tiebreakers against the Ravens, Steelers and Patriots and would top the Jets or Dolphins in a conference record tiebreaker.

AFC West

Denver (8-5, .526)
San Diego (5-8, .500)

Technically this isn't over, but any one Denver win or one San Diego loss and Denver is the AFC West champ. It's hard to like the Chargers chances against Tampa Bay in two weeks, or the chances that San Diego can run off three wins in a row.

NFC East

New York Giants (11-2, .658) have clinched the division
Dallas Cowboys (8-5, .730)
Philadelphia (7-5-1, .487)
Washington (7-6, .351)

The Giants are in, while everyone else is scrapping for a wild card spot. The Eagles make our life easy by having the tie in their record that ensures we don't have to worry about tiebreakers. The Cowboys would make the playoffs if the season ended today, but they also have the toughest remaining schedule of any playoff contender.

Dallas wins a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Bucs because of their head-to-head win. If it comes down to a tie with the Falcons, Panthers,or Bears, it likely will come down to conference record, where the Cowboys are currently trailing the Panthers, are essentially even with the Falcons and are ahead of the Bears.

If Dallas wins out, they'll be playing in January, but it's hard to imagine them going 3-0 against the Giants, Ravens and Eagles. If they are going to go 2-1, it's better to beat the Giants and Eagles while losing to the Ravens, because of conference record. Philadelphia is actually hanging in better than expected shape after beating the Giants. The Eagles have the Browns, Redskins and Cowboys left. Because they are currently trailing three teams for two playoff spots, they likely need to go 3-0, but in the topsy-turvy world of the NFL this year, it's hard to say they can't do that after beating the Giants (although after tying the Bengals it's also hard to say they can).

Washington needs way too much help, with too many teams ahead of them to have a good shot, although finishing with the Bengals, Eagles, 49ers does mean it's too early to say they're completely finished.

NFC North

Minnesota (8-5, .711)
Chicago (7-6, .462)
Green Bay (5-8, .289)

Three weeks ago, this was a three-way race, but the Packers have tried to simplify things by completely collapsing. Green Bay is 1-5 since their bye in Week 8, and now even a very easy schedule will likely not be enough to save them.

Minnesota is in control here. If Minnesota can beat the Falcons, the Vikings will win any tiebreaker against the Bears because of their superior record against common opponents. Even if the Vikings lose to Atlanta, the next tiebreaker is conference record, where the Vikings currently hold a two-game lead on the Bears with three games to play. The only way the Vikings could squander that tiebreaker is by losing two of its final three while Chicago beats New Orleans and Green Bay. And even then, the next tiebreaker is strength of victory, where Minnesota currently holds a commanding lead (four games above .500 compared to Chicago's two games under .500). So in almost any scenario, Minnesota would win a tiebreaker against the Bears.

But there is one thing standing in Minnesota's way--a brutal ending schedule. With Arizona, Atlanta and the Giants left to play, the Vikings could still finish up 8-8 if they aren't careful. This division race will be affected a lot by whether the Giants have anything to play for in Week 17. If New York comes to play, they will be heavy favorites over the Vikings. But if New York decides to rest its starters for the playoffs, Minnesota's finale doesn't look nearly as tough. The Bears schedule isn't full of walkovers, with New Orleans, Green Bay and Houston, but those are three very winnable games.

The Bears poor conference record (5-5) means they'll likely lose any tiebreaker for a wild card with a team outside the division, so it's better to aim for the division title.

Green Bay needs to win out (against the Jaguars, Bears and Lions), then hope Minnesota goes 0-3 and Chicago goes 1-2 at best. If that happened, Green Bay could still win the division thanks to their superior division record. But any win by Minnesota, or any two wins by Chicago or any Packers loss and its all over for the Packers.

NFC South

Carolina (10-3, .684)
Tampa Bay (9-4, .410)
Atlanta (8-5, .500)
New Orleans (7-6, .421)

By beating the Bucs, Carolina not only grabbed a one-game lead, but they won a must-win game that allows them to split the head-to-head series with Tampa. A loss would have largely wiped out the Panthers chances to win the division. But even now Carolina is still facing an uphill battle.

Now Carolina controls its own destiny, but with the Broncos, Giants and Saints over the final three weeks, the Panthers are still a long way from wrapping up the division, especially since the Bucs have the Falcons, Chargers and Raiders left. If Tampa Bay can beat Atlanta, they have a very good chance to finish 12-4, and if they do that, they will likely win the division, because they would own all kind of tiebreaker advantages over Carolina. If Tampa Bay goes 3-0 and Carolina loses to the Saints, the Bucs would win the division because of their better division record. If the Panthers lost to the Broncos, the Bucs would win the division because of their better record in common games. If the Panthers lost to the Giants, the Bucs would win the division because of their superior conference record.

Now if Atlanta beats Tampa Bay this week, Carolina should win the division. If that happens and Carolina beats the Saints, they win the division, even if they go 0-2 in their other two games because they would have the division record tiebreaker over both the Bucs and Falcons.

The Bucs still have a solid chance to win the division, but Tampa Bay is in even better shape when it comes to a wild card spot. Not only does Tampa Bay have a one-game lead over everyone else in the wild card chase, but their 8-3 conference record ensures that they should top any of the NFC East team (with the exception of the Cowboys) in a tiebreaker. In the case of the Cowboys, they would win a tiebreaker with the Bucs on the basis of their head-to-head win.

The Falcons squandered their chances of winning the division by losing to the Saints. Now they would need to beat the Bucs, Vikings and Rams while the Panthers go 0-3 or 1-2 with a loss to the Saints and Broncos while Tampa Bay also goes 1-2 at best. Realistically the Falcons need to focus on the wild card race. If the Falcons can beat the Bucs, they are in the middle of the wild card race, but it's difficult to work out all the scenarios since it will likely come to down to conference record (where Atlanta's 5-4 is indistinguishable from the Cowboys 6-4

I included the Saints because they are technically still alive, but with four teams ahead of them, they need more help than it's realistic to believe in.

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals (8-5, .462)

Arizona wrapped up its first division title since the days of Gerald Ford, and they still technically have a shot at a first-round bye. But that schedule strength is a little misleading. The Cardinals face NFC North leading Minnesota and New England over the next two weeks, it's the finale against Seattle that makes it look like the Cardinals have an easy path to the finish line. If Arizona can go 3-0, they could still earn a first-round bye, but hey, just making it to the playoffs is a pleasant surprise for the Buzzsaw.

Predicting The Playoffs: Patriots Could Win Out and Stay Home originally appeared on NFL FanHouse on Tue, 09 Dec 2008 10:00:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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