NFL Standings at the 3/4 Pole

A few thoughts on the NFL Playoff picture after everyone has played 12 of their 16 games, along with the complete standings in each conference.  With only 4 weeks to go, 31 of the 32 teams maintain at least a theoretical chance at making the postseason (sorry Cleveland) while only 1 team (hooray Carolina!) is guaranteed a spot.  A remarkable 30 of the 32 teams are somewhere in that iffy zone.  Let’s start with the conference standings in the AFC:

  1. Cincinnati Bengals (10-2) (conference record tiebreaker on New England & Denver)
  2. Denver (head-to-head tiebreaker on New England)
  3. New England
  4. Indianapolis (6-6) (head-to-head tiebreaker on Houston for division lead)
  5. Kansas City (7-5) (conference record tiebreaker on New York & Pittsburgh)
  6. New York (conference record tiebreaker on Pittsburgh)
  7. Pittsburgh
  8. Buffalo (6-6) (head-to-head tiebreaker on Houston)
  9. Houston
  10. Oakland (5-7) (conference record tiebreaker on Miami)
  11. Miami
  12. Jacksonville (4-8) (head-to-head tiebreaker on Baltimore)
  13. Baltimore
  14. San Diego (3-9) (conference record tiebreaker on Tennessee)
  15. Tennessee
  16. Cleveland (2-10)

At the top of the conference the Patriots, Bengals, and Broncos all look safe for winning their divisions (they each have scenarios where they can clinch that this weekend) and 2 of the 3 will get the coveted byes into the Divisional round.  Cincinnati and Denver will play a critical head to head matchup on Monday Night Football in Week 16.  Denver has a win over New England while the Patriots and Bengals don’t play each other.  Both of Denver’s losses so far are in the conference, whereas the Bengals and Patriots both only have one conference loss.  At this point all 3 teams are guaranteed being a bye seed if they don’t lose again.

The AFC South “winner” will be the #4 seed and get a home game Wildcard Weekend.  While Jacksonville and Tennessee maintain mathematical chances at that, its almost certainly going to be either Indianapolis or Houston.  The Colts won the first matchup with the 2nd, possibly decisive one, still to come.  If the Texans win the rematch but lose one more of their other 3 games than the Colts, who the loss is to would be critical.  If either stumbles in a remaining game with the Jags or Titans they could blow the division on division record.

At this juncture the race for the two wildcards is still fluid.  Kansas City is in the best shape because they have a stellar 6-2 conference record, with the 2 losses being understandably to Denver and Cincinnati; losses that wouldn’t hurt them in head to head ties for the wildcard.  New York and Pittsburgh are also at 7-5 and both have 4 losses in conference, with New York having one more win (one non-conference game remaining). If they were to end up the year tied for a spot and with the same conference record, the next tiebreaker is record vs common opponents.  Right now that is a slight edge to Pittsburgh because the Jets lost to Oakland (both have a loss to the Patriots) and because both have one remaining game against a common opponent; for New York its the 2nd New England game while for Pittsburgh its the 2nd Cleveland game.

Not out of it by any stretch is Buffalo at 6-6.  They have a game remaining with New York and would have the tiebreaker on the Jets if they win that game and they end up tied.  Keep in mind that divisional ties are of paramount importance; a team cannot be ranked in the wildcard standings ahead of a team they are behind in their own divisional standings.  They have a head up loss to Kansas City just like the Steelers do, and currently have one more loss than the Steelers.  However, if Pittsburgh loses a game down the stretch it will be in the conference.  The Bills schedule is rather unique in that they still have 3 non-conference games remaining, so their performance down the stretch can impact both the AFC wildcard race and the NFC East division race!  If they did tie the Steelers ultimately at 10-6 that tiebreaker would also go down to common opponents which would  favor the Steelers if they beat the Bengals this coming Sunday; Buffalo went 1-4 against the Chiefs, Patriots, Bengals, and Colts.  However, if Pittsburgh loses Sunday then they are also 1-4 against that grouping.

Houston is also only 1 game out in the wildcard.  However, if they win out to 10-6 they would win their division; there are scenarios to their advantage at 9-7 if they don’t win the South, but with losses to Buffalo and to Kansas City they don’t have great odds.  Oakland and Miami are still alive if they could win out to get to 9-7.  The Raiders are hurt by a loss to Pittsburgh in that scenario, but they would gain a split with the Chiefs and did beat New York.  Miami is killed by the fact they got swept by both New York and Buffalo; they would need both of those teams to finish at 8-8 or worse, or for themselves and one of those two to be the only teams in wildcard position to finish 9-7.  By the math and the schedule its possible, but not likely.  At 4-8 Baltimore needs a miracle; they would have to sweep Pittsburgh so with help they could be 2nd in the North which is a start.  At 4-8 Jacksonville has a chance to get to 8-8 and win their division with considerable help.  Tennessee could win the South at 7-9 with an enormous amount of help.

And now for the NFC:

  1. Carolina {clinched division} (12-0)
  2. Arizona (10-2)
  3. Green Bay (8-4) (head-to-head tiebreaker on Minnesota for division lead)
  4. Washington (5-7) (head-to-head-to-head tiebreaker on Philadelphia & New York for division lead)
  5. Minnesota (8-4)
  6. Seattle (7-5)
  7. Tampa Bay (6-6) (head-to-head on Atlanta for divisional rank)
  8. Atlanta
  9. Philadelphia (5-7) ([head-to-head on New York for divisional rank] conference record tiebreaker on Chicago)
  10. New York (conference record tiebreaker on Chicago)
  11. Chicago
  12. Detroit or St Louis (4-8) ([St Louis has head-to-head tiebreaker on San Francisco for divisional rank] conference record tiebreaker on New Orleans & Dallas) {Detroit & St. Louis have identical conference records.  They are scheduled to play each other this coming Sunday}
  13. St. Louis or Detroit
  14. New Orleans (conference record tiebreaker on Dallas & San Francisco
  15. Dallas (record vs opponents common with San Francisco {games played not yet at minimum of 5 games each to qualify per NFL tiebreaking formulas: my ranking based on current record and projection that 5 common games will have been played by end of season}
  16. San Francisco

As it currently stands there is a very good chance that Carolina will end up the #1 seed (they can clinch a bye seed this coming weekend) and Arizona the #2 seed (assuming they don’t collapse and lose the division to Seattle and/or let the North winner catch them [they play Minnesota this coming Thursday Night]).  The winner of the North should do no worse than the #3 seed, and will likely end up exactly in that spot.

The “winner” of the East will get the #4 seed and the home game on wildcard weekend that goes with.  Philadelphia and Washington both have the most control over their destiny; the Eagles have a game remaining with both the Redskins and Giants: winning both would give a better division record than both Washington and New York and likely tiebreaker advantage over Dallas also.  If Washington wins over Philadelphia on December 26th they would have swept the Eagles.  For the Giants, winning out to 9-7 would put the Eagles behind them and box out the Cowboys but they need someone to hand the Redskins a loss.  Along those lines, the Giants are somewhat less likely to have 8-8 or 7-9 work for them than the other teams in the division being the only team that already has 3 division losses.  Dallas is in much better shape than any other 4-8 team in the NFL.  They can draw inspiration from the fact that Carolina was 3-8-1 at this time last season and the Panthers won out to 7-8-1 and claimed the division title.  The Cowboys finish with Washington and would have a 4-2 division record at 8-8 but they likely cannot afford the Eagles to be 8-8 with their two wins being their remaining division games.  And, of course, given their records to date, it’s a real possibility no one gets to .500 and the division is “won” at 7-9; the scenarios are almost boundless based on who won and lost which games to get to that record.

The wildcard picture in the NFC has the potential to be very clear within a week or two.  2nd place in the North, which is currently Minnesota, and Seattle are the clear front-runners.  For the North division it could come down to Week 17 at Lambeau with the Packers being able to enter 1 game back having won the first matchup.  Seattle’s win last Sunday against the Vikings means the Seahawks are, despite being 1 game back right now, in good shape to end up being the #5 seed.  This is important as the #5 seed gets to play the East division winner.  However, there are no guarantees; Seahawks fans might remember they were a 7-9 division winner a few years ago that knocked out defending champion New Orleans in the wildcard round.  I’m sure Marshawn Lynch and the local Richter Scales remember!

If Seattle or 2nd place in the North stumble down the stretch, there are other teams still alive with a hot finish.  Tampa is in better shape at 6-6 because they swept Atlanta head to head and they have only 3 conference losses.  The Falcons are in free fall mode after a 5-0 start to the season.  Chicago could win out to 9-7 but that doesn’t really seem at all likely in light of their loss at home to the 49ers; even if it did happen they would have a pedestrian 6-6 conference record.  St. Louis could win out to 8-8 and they would have swept Seattle so that gives them a small chance if the Seahawks collapse and a number of other things also goes their way.  New Orleans and San Francisco are not mathematically eliminated, but their chances at this point are even smaller than the Rams’.

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