NFL Week 15 Recap: All the Playoff Scenarios My Brain Can Handle

bengals

In a week where nine of the 15 NFL matchups ended as one-score games, it didn’t really feel like we had an exciting Sunday with lots of close calls. Maybe it’s because for the most part, the team that was winning each game down the stretch ultimately held on and secured the victory. Maybe it’s because the four teams that clinched playoff spots yesterday—New England, Denver, Indianapolis, Arizona—did it without any drama or build-up. If they hadn’t clinched in week 15, they would have in week 16 anyway. And really, the only division-defining game yesterday was Dallas beating Philadelphia (and as you’ll see below, it wasn’t even that backbreaking for Philly).

Kind of a ho-hum weekend for being so late in the regular season.

Lucky for us we don’t have to focus too much on the specifics of week 15. Instead we can look at the broader landscape of the NFL as we quickly approach January football.

The NFC is Tidy, Organized Chaos…

I love how the NFC is shaking out because it’s easy to express what’s going on in that conference without a super long explanation.

There are two-team races in three divisions: the West (Arizona is 11-3, Seattle is 10-4), the North (Detroit is 10-4, Green Bay is 10-4) and the East (Dallas is 10-4, Philadelphia s 9-5).

The losers of those three divisions are competing for the two available NFC Wildcard spots. So for the moment, you have Seattle, Green Bay and Philly technically fighting it out to play on Wildcard Weekend, but there will likely be lots of shuffling to come.

And then of course there are the three NFC South teams “battling” for that division’s automatic playoff berth (Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta).

Every other NFC team beyond those nine is eliminated.

…And the AFC is like a Los Angeles Freeway on the Day Before Thanksgiving

A never-ending clusterfuck.

The clean part is the three division winners that I already mentioned. The dirty part is everything else.

The AFC North is impossible to figure out because three teams have nine wins and one of those teams has a tie on its record. Nightmare scenario for a blogger without the knowledge or time to get into Advanced Playoff Theory.

While those three AFC North teams currently occupy three playoff spots (the division plus both Wildcards), three more teams are right on their heels with 8-6 records: Buffalo, Kansas City and San Diego.

And for the time being, the three 7-7 teams in the AFC are still technically in the hunt: Miami, Cleveland and Houston. I only know this because Bovada still has odds for those teams to win the Super Bowl (albeit not great odds at 500/1).

Compared to the nine teams in the NFC fighting for playoff spots, the AFC has 12 postseason hopefuls.

Rather than try to go through every AFC scenario, I’ll give you just two tidbits:

  1. The Bills are probably eliminated because they currently lose a tiebreaker to Kansas City and San Diego while still having to face the Patriots in New England. It’s highly unlikely they will clear both those AFC West teams by a full game while still facing the league’s #1 team on the road.
  2. Out of five extremely important games on the schedule for week 16, there might be none more important than Kansas City at Pittsburgh. The Steelers are the #5 seed in the AFC and the Chiefs are #7. A win by the Chiefs would even up the two teams’ records and give KC the tiebreaker. A Steelers win would just about guarantee them a playoff spot and possibly hand them temporary rights to being the top team in the North (because Cincy may lose to Denver on Monday night next week).

A Few More Playoff Scenarios

Using only my brain and ESPN.com’s Tiebreaking Procedures information, I think I figured out all the scenarios in the NFC. Let’s walk through this together.

The West

  • Seattle (10-4) at Arizona (11-3) in week 16.
  • If Arizona wins that game, they win the West because they’ll have a two-game lead over Seattle with only one week remaining.
  • If Seattle wins, both teams would be 11-4 and Seattle would hold the tiebreaker with two head-to-head wins against Arizona. In this scenario, if both teams win or both teams lose in week 17, Seattle gets the division. If Seattle wins and Arizona loses in week 17, obviously Seattle wins the division. But if Seattle loses and Arizona wins, then of course Arizona captures the division title. In those week 17 games, Arizona travels to San Francisco and Seattle hosts St Louis.
  • Even though the Rams beat Seattle earlier this year, you have to give the edge to Seattle over Arizona right now. With the way the ‘Hawks are playing and the fact that Arizona has to start Poor Ryan Lindley at QB in week 16, you’d expect Seattle to win that game. Then they just have to handle the Rams at home.
  • Arizona gets the consolation prize of heading to an NFC South destination over Wildcard Weekend.

The North

  • Detroit (10-4) at Green Bay (10-4) but not until week 17.
  • Let’s talk about each team’s next game first. In week 16 the Lions travel to Chicago while the Packers face the Bucs in Tampa Bay. I probably don’t need to point out that if both NFC North teams win their week 16 game (highly likely) or both lose those games, the winner of their week 17 matchup will take the division.
  • But let’s say Green Bay loses to Tampa while Detroit beats Chicago. Then the Lions would be one game up on the Packers.
  • If Green Bay then beats Detroit in week 17, they’d have the same record, a split of their two head-to-head matchups, the same division record (5-1) AND THEY’D EVEN HAVE THE SAME RECORD IN COMMON GAMES!
  • They would move onto the fourth tiebreaker, which is their win-loss percentage in conference games. Detroit would win the North because they’d have a 9-3 conference record while the Packers would finish at 8-4.
  • The one other scenario is Detroit losing its week 16 game while Green Bay wins. In this scenario, the winner of their week 17 matchup is once again the division winner.
  • If all that is correct, it means that if Green Bay loses at Tampa Bay in week 16, the Packers will not be able to win the division as long as the Lions handle the Bears.
  • We all know this is coming down to week 17.

The East

  • Philadelphia (9-5) and Dallas (10-4) do not face each other again.
  • First, the easy scenarios: If Dallas wins its final two games, it wins the East. If Philadelphia loses its final two games, Dallas wins the East.
  • If both teams go 1-1 to finish the season, Dallas wins the East.
  • If the Eagles win out and the Cowboys lose even one more game, the Eagles win the East (on account of the division record tiebreaker).
  • If the Eagles go 1-1, they win the division if the Cowboys lose its final two (on account of the division tiebreaker again).
  • The Cowboys finish the season hosting Indianapolis and then traveling to Washington. The Eagles have two road games: at Washington and at the Giants.
  • The nice thing is this should still be up for grabs heading into week 17. If Dallas loses to the Colts and the Eagles beat Washington in week 16, Dallas no longer controls its fate.
  • Somehow, someway, this atrocity of a Washington season is going to play a HUGE role in who wins the NFC East.

Speaking of Washington

The PotatoSkins finally did something right by losing to the Giants yesterday. They improved their draft positioning and made sure that no other team in the NFC East will pick before they do. And of course they couldn’t play a meaningless game without some level of drama being involved. Colt McCoy got immediately hurt, RG3 came on in relief duty, scored a huge touchdown at the end of the first half using his legs and scrambling abilities (a throwback to those long ago days of 2012), and then people started getting ejected when the refs overturned RG3’s touchdown. Just a classic Washington performance.

Anyway, here’s one Washington fan’s depressed response to my comments last week about Jay Gruden being on the hot seat:

I don’t think there’s any way they fire Gruden after one year. I think everyone, especially the fans, recognizes that this mess is not on him. Certainly wouldn’t put it past Snyder to do something batshit crazy like fire him, but I think it’s unlikely. What they will do is a mystery though. People are pretty fed up at this point. Normally that would mean big org changes, but we’ve tried that over & over and it hasn’t worked. We could hire a new GM, I suppose, but Snyder loves George Allen. My guess is they try and sell that we have been rebuilding, blame the shit out of RG3 even though it’s as much the org’s fault as his, trade him for pennies on the dollar and draft a new guy for the fan base to try and get excited about.  Anyways, who cares? They are going to suck for a while.”

Washington has officially sunk lower than Jacksonville, Oakland, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Minnesota and Buffalo. Good job, Dan Snyder.

Questioning Two of the NFL’s Bad Teams

I don’t necessarily believing in tanking or even think it’s possible in the NFL. After all, these players and coaches are being paid millions to show up and play hard.

But when it’s this late in the season and you’re the head coach of a two-win team, you’re doing your organization a disservice if you don’t at least give tanking the old college try.

The most bizarre thing I saw on Sunday was the Jacksonville Jaguars pulling out every trick play in the book to try to beat the Ravens in Baltimore. First there was the surprise onsides kick in the first half that the Jaguars recovered to steal an extra offensive possession. Then there was a fake punt shovel pass for a long completion in the second half. The Jaguars ultimately lost, but what were they doing pulling out all the stops to secure that third win?

The Jaguars didn’t have to do anything special or sketchy to lose this game. They could have simply gone with standard, conservative play. Even if they won’t be using their first round pick on a QB, getting that top pick would produce a HAUL in a trade with a QB-needy team (there are about 37 teams looking for that franchise quarterback).

Jacksonville’s loss meant it got to stay in that exclusive club of two-win teams, but there was another two-win team that may have just screwed itself out of drafting a franchise quarterback in 2015. You didn’t even have to watch yesterday’s games or look at the results to have a solid guess on which team I’m talking about.

The New York Jets, of course.

Since they were facing fellow two-win compadre Tennessee, someone had to exit the two-win club unless they played to a tie. The Jets were on the road and trailing most of the game, but two different times in the second half they rallied and took the lead. Why bother? No team has gotten less out of the starting quarterback position in the past three years, and newly minted Heisman Winner Marcus Mariota is waiting in the wings. The Jets even had a chance to make the Titans proud owners of “The Music City Miracle, Part Two” when Tennessee started lateraling the ball all over the field on the game’s final play. Delanie Walker was making a break for the end zone to give the Titans a shocker of a win, but Dawn Landry of the Jets made the game-saving (season-ruining?) tackle to seal the victory for New York.

I hate what the 76ers are doing in the NBA right now because they are tanking an entire season and slapping their season ticket holders in the face, but to tank a game or two at the end of your season when you’re already eliminated from contention? Every team should do that. Or at least save the trick plays for a game that your owner and general manager also want you to win.

What’s interesting about the Jets’ win is that it could be a construed as an Eff You from Rex Ryan to the front office. “You’re gonna fire me because I haven’t been able to crack eight wins while being saddled with Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith and Michael Vick??? Fine, fuck you. Here’s that third win that ensures you don’t get Mariota or Jameis Winston. Enjoy Brian Hoyer or whatever other trashy free agent QB you sign, Fuckers!”

Emptying Out the Notebook

  • I only use the phrase “unmitigated disaster” two times each season because it’s such a fantastic phrase. I used it in week 9 to describe my record picking against the spread last year. And for my second and final usage of that phrase in 2014, I’m going with: “Johnny Manziel was an unmitigated disaster in his debut as a starter.”
  • Remember that Manziel took over a 7-6 team, a team that has Cleveland fans clamoring for the playoffs. It’s not like he was handed the keys to the Jaguars where he could toil away for a 3-13 team. People needed him to perform as good or better than Brian Hoyer’s baseline performance (not that hard to do, right?).
  • He finished the day 10-for-18 for 80 yards passing, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, a 27.3 passer rating, and about 46 Cincy players standing over him doing the “money sign.”
  • After I proclaimed that the MVP race was finished a week ago, did J.J. Watt just pop his head back in the room and say, “Are you guys sure you wanna go with an offensive player still?”
  • Aaron Rodgers completed only 40% of his passes for 185 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 34.3 passer rating.
  • DeMarco Murray was held to 81 rushing yards on 31 carries (averaging 2.6 yards per carry)…although he did have two touchdowns.
  • Peyton Manning and Tom Brady haven’t been putting up otherworldly numbers recently as their teams’ running games and defenses have taken over.
  • J.J. Watt finished his day with 6 tackles, 2 sacks, several QB hits and a pass defensed.
  • I don’t think Rodgers deserves to lose his spot atop the MVP balloting for one bad game, but voters seem to love guys who play their best in December. Luckily Rodgers gets a matchup with Tampa Bay next week to make or break his MVP campaign.
  • For once, a positive word on the Lions…Does Teryl Austin deserve some sort of special recognition for the work he’s done this year? You’re probably asking who the hell that is, right? Apparently he’s the Lions’ defensive coordinator. Their defense was horrible in 2012, middle of the pack in 2013, and now in 2014 it’s the best D in football. This is a 10-win team that has a below average offense, a meh quarterback in Matthew Stafford, a special teams unit that ranks 30th in the league in efficiency and a coach who’s best trait is “I’m not Mike Smith.” Someone deserves a ton of credit for the Lions being on the brink of a playoff berth and division title, so I’m giving it to Teryl Austin, 2014’s Unsung Hero in the NFL.
  • And last but not least, this week’s best announcer quote. I didn’t even have to wait for the weekend for this one. In the first half of Thursday’s game between Arizona and St. Louis, Jim Nantz promoted the upcoming Thursday game of Tennessee at Jacksonville. Without hesitation or any hint of sarcasm, Phil Simms stated, “I’m looking forward to it.”
  • I’m going the other way on this game…it might be the first game in five years that I voluntarily don’t bother watching.

Week 16 picks coming on Thursday.

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NFL Week 13 Recap: A Villain Is Born

richard sherman

I mentioned in my week 13 picks column that there was almost no chance of me actually writing something for the usual recap this week. I probably saw less football on Sunday than in any other week over the past five years. For the early games on Sunday, I went to a bar in Boston to watch the Patriots. One thing I’m not used to is having almost every TV in the bar tuned to the same game, as was the case this time. That was particularly annoying. When I booked my flights for Thanksgiving way back in May, I chose to fly out of Boston on Sunday at the exact wrong time…I spent the entire second half of the late games on Sunday waiting in a security line and deciding between McDonald’s or Sbarro’s for my disgusting dinner. And when I finally got back to my apartment well after midnight on Monday morning, I really didn’t have the mental strength or energy to watch the Sunday Night Game that I had DVR’d…an NFC East “classic” between the Giants and Redskins.

So you could understand my excitement throughout the day on Monday as I anticipated watching a football game in my natural environment later that night. And not just any football game…a legitimately good game that could easily be an NFC Championship preview.

Except New Orleans forgot they were supposed to be one half of that awesome matchup.

What a waste…I can guarantee this coming Thursday’s Houston @ Jacksonville tilt will be more exciting (after all, the 1st overall pick in the 2014 draft could be at stake).

But one huge positive did come from last night’s game: We officially have our villain for the 2013 playoffs.

It’s not just that Seattle is impossible to beat at home (they’ve outscored opponents by 19 points per game at CenturyLink Field this year). It’s that they’ve been almost impossible to beat anywhere. And it’s not just that my least favorite football player on the planet, Richard Sherman, is the biggest shit talker who’s never won anything. It’s that the entire team apparently falls into that category that LaDainian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers created about 10 years ago…that mentality of talking and acting like you’re the best without actually being the best (Golden Tate and Earl Thomas are the 2nd and 3rd biggest offenders on the team, respectively). And it’s not just that the entire football media is convinced that the NFL should award this year’s MVP to the Seattle fans. It’s that those fans actually believe they can alter a game significantly. And finally, it’s not just that Pete Carroll is an obnoxious sideline cheerleader (probably his biggest contribution as a coach). It’s that he’s a known scumbag who left his job at USC right before they were about to get slapped with a multi-year bowl ban. And that pompous grin that he wears on his face 24/7….fucking disgusting.

So maybe it was a good thing that the Seahawks have crushed almost every opponent this year. Maybe the general public will get behind my push for Seattle to be our honorary “most hated team” for the rest of the season…Or maybe people are so bitter at long term success that they’ll continue to pretend my Patriots are the common enemy (even though they quietly go about their business like they’re a team that hasn’t won anything yet…which, in my opinion, is the right way to operate).

But no matter how you feel about the Seahawks, one thing is undeniable: They will be playing football at home in January until they either lose or fly East for the Super Bowl. They guaranteed that with last night’s win. But I’ve been thinking all year long that eventually some team would trip them up at home. With remaining home games in the regular season against Arizona and St. Louis, it’s likely going to have to happen in the playoffs.

Now seems like a perfect time to check in on each potential opponent’s chances at knocking Seattle off their stupid throne at home in January:

7. Dallas – The most mentally weak team with easily the worst coach of all the NFC playoff teams and some particularly fragile offensive players (Miles Austin, DeMarco Murray)…combined with a quarterback who’s legendary meltdowns have followed him from 8-8 season to 8-8 season…against this Seattle team? HA! Let’s say the Cowboys squeak out a 9-7 record and face the Seahawks in the 2nd round, how high would they have to make the line for you to even think about backing Dallas? Thirty-three? Sixty-four?

6. Arizona – The poor Cardinals still have to go to Seattle later this season while battling for a wildcard spot. I wonder if they’ll even think making the playoffs was worth it if they end up drawing the Seahawks in the 2nd round. Carson Palmer in any road playoff game scares the shit out of me…and this wouldn’t be just any road game. A guy like Richard Sherman could, in theory, limit Larry Fitzgerald, and I just don’t see how the Cardinals keep up if he’s a non-factor all game. They wouldn’t win by nearly as much as in the fictitious matchup with Dallas, but it would be a major blowout if these two teams faced each other.

5. Philadelphia – I give the Eagles a slightly better chance than Dallas and Arizona because they have more weapons and a somewhat innovative offensive scheme. Maybe, just maybe, they get a little lucky and expose some Seattle defensive issues with their up-tempo style of play. It’s doubtful, but unlike those previous two teams, I wouldn’t give them a 0% chance of winning…maybe something like a 1.7% chance.

4. New Orleans – As a 13-point deficit quickly turned into a 27-point deficit for the Saints on Monday night, I tried to convince myself that the game was a little fluky. For example, Drew Brees’ fumble into the arms of a Seahawks’ defensive lineman that was returned for a touchdown, and the 60-yard completion to the tight end that New Orleans randomly forgot to account for. Those are things that probably won’t happen again should these teams face each other in the playoffs. But let’s have an honest talk for a second: Seattle beat the crap out of the Saints on Monday. I doubt there are many teams who have beaten the Sean Payton/Drew Brees combo twice in one season, but this particular group of trash talkers would probably get it done in a similar manner as what we just saw.

3. San Francisco – In a week where almost all of my predictions could best be described as “comical,” claiming that the 49ers were rounding into form was one of my few bright spots. If they can stay incredibly healthy for the rest of the regular season, I wouldn’t automatically bet my dog and girlfriend on Seattle if these teams face off in the 2nd or 3rd round of the playoffs. I would eventually bet them, but not immediately. Of course if Seattle goes down to San Francisco this coming week and pulls off a similar feat to Monday night’s effort (or something similar to their lopsided win against San Francisco earlier this year), then I will quickly change my tune on the 9ers having any chance whatsoever.

2. Detroit – The Lions may stumble to a 9-7 record and win their division due in large part to the unforeseen Matt Flynn era in Green Bay, and yet somehow I like their chances in Seattle over some of these likely 11 or 12-win teams? It’s all because of Calvin Johnson. Yes, the Seattle secondary is good. And yes, unfortunately Richard Sherman is good. But if he was ever going to struggle against a receiver, wouldn’t it be Johnson? I could see Mega giving Sherman trouble to the point that Sherman decides to commit pass interference every time the ball is thrown that way. And maybe the Reggie Bush/Joique Bell combination is just what the doctor ordered to balance out an offense against an aggressive defense like Seattle. And maybe I’m grasping at straws, but I’ll have you know Detroit is one of only three teams that’s beaten the Seahawks in Seattle’s past 21 games. Maybe Calvin goes off for 473 receiving yards and the Lions sneak by Seattle in overtime. Who knows.

1. Carolina – Our one true hope for ending the Seattle dominance before the Patriots get their chance in the Super Bowl. The Panthers are the best defensive team in football and one of the best running teams. Those seem like two areas you might want to be good at when going into such hostile territory. Maybe Carolina wouldn’t score a lot, but they have the best shot of any of these teams at slowing down Russell Wilson’s offense. They also might get the #2 seed in the NFC and have a chance to rest early in January. Oh, and there’s that little thing about them making a deal with the devil, as evidenced by an eight-game winning streak that included a should-have-been loss to New England in week 11. Maybe this is just their year. Maybe Cam Newton’s corny Superman gimmick will turn into a compelling storyline as the “super hero” finally knocks off the villain.

While it certainly seems unlikely that someone knocks off Seattle before the Super Bowl, just remember this: In 2011, the 9-7 New York Giants went into Green Bay and ripped apart the 15-1 Packers by a score of 37-20. Weird, crazy shit happens in the playoffs. And hoping for something completely unpredictable like that might be a better bet than thinking one of the legit NFC contenders can oust Seattle.

Week 14 picks coming on Thursday.