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Picking ONE 5-7 Team to Make the Playoffs

Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis (40) drags Miami Dolphins Vontae Davis (21) after making a first down in first half action at Sun Life Stadium in Miami on December 5, 2010. UPI/Michael Bush Photo via Newscom

Teams with 5-7 records are on the fringe of playoff contention at this point.  At 5-7, the season is one loss from being over entirely.  Even with 4 consecutive wins, sometimes you just don’t get enough help to make it pay off.  Just ask the 2009 Texans.  Sometimes, things take care of themselves and you make the postseason at 9-7.  Just ask the 2007 Redskins.

There are four teams in the NFL with 5 wins and 7 losses on December 10th, with the Tennessee Titans falling out of playoff contention yesterday (mathematically so if Jacksonville beats Oakland), taking their 8th loss.  Those four teams are the Cleveland Browns, the Houston Texans, the Minnesota Vikings, and the Washington Redskins.  The Minnesota Vikings are already eliminated from division contention, while the Texans are out of contention for one of the two wild cards already (the one held by the Jets).

Let me take you team-by-team, look at some playoff scenarios for them, and then pick ONE team that I think can make the playoffs (last year’s pick: Texans).

Cleveland Browns

Cleveland needs to win out simply to NOT be mathematically eliminated by the AFC North division.  They would be alive to make the postseason at 8-8, but could only pull this off by seeing the Ravens LOSE OUT, and then getting a lot of help, including: a pair of Miami losses, a pair of Colts losses, a Texans loss, the Jaguars and Chiefs to win their respective divisions, and then getting three losses each from the Raiders and the Chargers.  In other words, Browns fans, root like crazy for the Chiefs and the Jaguars every time they play the rest of this year.

If the Browns can win out to get to 9-7, they are in play in this division in any number of ways.  First of all, they need way less help to catch the Ravens.  Between the Texans, Saints, and Bengals, they’d need help from just two of them to catch the Ravens.  They’d also be in play to catch the Steelers if that team failed to win again.  But at 9-7, and at least second place in the division, their main competitors for the last wild card in the AFC would come from the Colts, the Chargers, and the Raiders.  Winning the tiebreaker against the Chargers should be pretty easy for the Browns: if the Chargers lose to EITHER Cincinnati or Kansas City, then they no longer control their destiny against the Browns.

The Raiders could be a thorn in the side of the Browns’ playoff hopes if they get to 9-7.  The easiest scenario for the Browns to have priority over the Raiders would be for the Raiders to lose twice and not be in contention for a wild card.  A bigger problem for the Browns: the Week 16 game between the Raiders and the Colts is going to have a winner.  If the Colts lose to Jacksonville, that will give the Browns the tiebreaker over the Colts (at 9-7) on common opponents.  In that event, the Browns would likely hope for a Colts win over the Raiders.  However, if the Colts beat the Jaguars and the Raiders beat the Jaguars the next two weeks, there isn’t going to be a good outcome of the Raiders-Colts game from the perspective of the Browns.  One of the teams could easily be at 9 wins after that game.  Like I said above: Browns fans are Jaguars fans from here on out.

The Browns chances of making the playoffs at 8-8 are astronomically low, but all probability suggests that a 2nd place team in the AFC North has the inside track for the wild card at 9-7.  I’m giving the Ravens a 40% chance of losing 2 of 3 remaining games provided already that the Browns beat them.  I’ll go 2% that the Steelers lose out.  So that’s 42% chance that a 9-7 Browns team is 2nd place or better in the AFC North.  They are better than 50-50 to make the playoffs at that point, but need the Chiefs and Jaguars to do work.  Let’s go 70% that a 9-7 team in the AFC North wins a wild card.

If the Cleveland Browns win out, they will have a 30% chance to make the AFC postseason field as a 9-7 team.

Houston Texans

The best chance the Houston Texans have to make the postseason is to win out and win the division.  No team is better situated in terms of tiebreakers to win the wild card at 8-8 than the Houston Texans, but the way the AFC South is breaking, it’s going to be difficult to get to second place in this division winning just 8 games.  For the Texans, it’s almost a meaningless scenario: it’s relevant for them if they beat the Ravens, beat the Titans, beat the Jaguars, and then lose to the Broncos.  Then it’s probable they are at 8-8, and if the Ravens lose out, they’re probably in.

Anyway, since the Ravens are about 95% likely to win another game this year, let’s examine the chances of the Texans provided they win out.  Their chances of catching the Ravens are then about as likely as the Browns’ chances, 40%.  They would still need to survive the AFC West outcome, which cuts their chances of postseason play in half.  So at 9-7, the Texans would have a 15 to 20% to win the wild card, once you adjust for Miami’s chances of winning out (not much).

But they would have a real chance to win the division.  A real good chance.  A 9-7 finish clinches a finish ahead of the Titans, as well as tiebreakers over the Colts (conference record) and Jaguars (common opponents).  So then the Texans would need a single Colts loss and another Jaguars loss (in addition to head to head).  Luckily for them, the Jaguars and Colts play, and one of them would lose.

The only way the Texans wouldn’t win the division at 9-7 is if the Jaguars-Colts winner won their next three games from this point.  For the Colts, that would mean beating the Raiders and Titans.  For the Jaguars, that would mean beating the Raiders and Redskins.  It’s hard to say which is more likely.  Backs to the wall, the Titans and Redskins just aren’t good competition for the Colts or the Jaguars respectively.  So really, we’ll go a 25% chance of losing that game plus a 40% chance that the Raiders beat the Jags or Colts winner.  That’s a 65% chance that a 9-7 Texans team would win the division, independent of the 15% chance they’d have of winning the wild card.

A 9-7 Texans team would have an 80% chance of making the AFC playoffs as either the 4th or 6th seed.

Minnesota Vikings

Out of all the teams to get to 9 wins, the Vikings seem like the team most likely to get there (pending the outcomes of this week’s games).  I can assure you that their probability of making the postseason is not as good as either of the AFC teams, and the very best the Vikings can do is the 6th seed.  By comparison, things could break in a way so that the 5-7 Texans end up the 3rd seed in the AFC.

The Vikings cannot catch either the Falcons or the Saints, so they need to catch either the Packers or the Bears (even if all three of the teams were 9-7, there’s no way the Vikings could win the tiebreaker).  The Vikings need the Packers to lose out just to have a chance: with the Bears’ win over the Lions last week, they are out of reach of the Vikings.

Catching the Bears may be the only way for the Vikings to make the postseason, but they also need to get even with the second place team in the NFC.  They play both of the top teams in that division, and need to win both to be relevant.  They probably should root for the Giants in the Eagles game because they also need the Giants to beat the Packers at Lambeau.  All the help that Minnesota would then need: the Cowboys to knock off the Eagles one out of the two times they play.  They also must catch the Bucs, who play three VERY bad teams in their final four games, and the Vikings need them to lose twice.  The Vikings hold that tiebreaker, however.

IF the Vikings win out, it’s actually pretty likely that they would be ahead of all other divisions for playoff priority as the 6 seed.  I’m putting a 70% chance on being ahead of the Bucs and a 65% chance at being ahead of the 2nd place team in the East.  Getting to 2nd place in the NFC North is the big problem.  The Packers play four really good teams to close out the year, but my estimations give them just a 5% chance of not winning any of those games.  The Vikings need that 5% outcome just to be alive.

Even winning out to get to 9-7, the Vikings have just a 2% chance of making the postseason.

Washington Redskins

The worst of these five teams, even getting to 9-7 would be some sort of miracle for the Redskins.  Here’s the weird thing about this whole thing: three of the four teams here HAVE ACTUALLY WON all four games to finish the season at some point in the last three years.  The Texans and Browns did it last year.  The Texans also did it in 2008.  The Redskins did it in 2007 (and 2005 as well).  So, yeah, this Redskins team is fortunate to have four wins on the year, much less four wins in a row.

The Redskins need to win out just to stay alive.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  That whole 5% chance that the Packers lose out…that would leave the Redskins alive at 8-8 as well.  And the way the Redskins are playing, I like taking the Vikings probability of 2% getting the help and the Redskins getting to lose one of their final 4 games and making it anyway as opposed to any likelyhood of the above scenarios with the Redskins actually winning four games to end the year.  The Redskins DID win 3 of 4 in one stretch this year: between Week 4 and Week 7, they beat the Eagles, beat the Packers, lost to the Colts, and beat the Bears.  So yes, this Redskins team actually played that stretch of schedule in a four week span and came out ahead.  Outside of that stretch against winning teams, the Redskins are just 2-6 on the season.  Thank you, Tashard Choice.

At 9-7, the Redskins would be very much alive.  Catching the Bears would be a realistic opportunity, because the Bears play the Patriots, Jets, and Packers, along with the Vikings.  I remain very unconvinced that the second place team in the NFC North is going to see 10 wins, but we’ll list that probability at just 1/3 at this point.  The Redskins would also need an additional loss from the Bucs in addition to beating them, lets say 4/5ths.  I’ll also throw in a 1/6 chance of the Saints losing out, given their struggles in December last season.  That’s a 42% chance the Redskins are in line for a wild card spot pending the outcome of the NFC East IN ADDITION to a 3% chance that things break perfectly and the Redskins could make it as the third place team in the NFC East at 9-7.

Their chances of getting to second in the division by winning out aren’t great, but the Eagles have at least a 70% chance of losing one of two games to the Cowboys, and probably a 20% chance of losing both.  There’s a good chance that the Eagles beat the Vikings (75%), and a smaller (40%) chance that they beat the Giants.  There’s a 30% that the Eagles lose 3 of 4 and 36% chance that the Giants lose two of three.  Added together, there’s a 2/3 chance that the Redskins are at least 2nd in the division if they win out.  Multiplied together, there’s a 10% chance that the Redskins win the division if they win out.

So winning out, that’s 10% to win the division, and 17% to make a wild card if the Redskins went 9-7.  That’s a 27% chance of making the NFC postseason at 9-7.

Pick a Team

We can pretty much throw the Vikings out.  Even if you like them to win out more than any other team, the Vikings don’t have a realistic opening to make the postseason at 9-7.  The Browns and the Redskins have roughly the same chance if they win out, though the Browns seem a lot more likely to win out.

The NFC is believed to be the wide open conference at this point, but it’s clear that unless the Redskins get really, really hot for some reason, any team that is going to come from 5-7 down to make the postseason will come from the AFC.  Thing is, with a win on Monday night, Baltimore can make this academic really fast.  They can knock out the Texans and separate from the Browns.

Provided that doesn’t happen, I like the Cleveland Browns to make the playoffs more than these other three teams.  I don’t think it’s likely to happen by any stretch, but with Houston’s pass defense as shoddy as it is, I think they are going to be hard pressed to get to 9-7 with such an obvious weakness.  Cleveland needs a lot of help, but one place they almost certainly can count on getting that help, is from themselves.  That’s why I’m throwing my support behind them.

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  1. December 15, 2010 at 5:11 am

    All four teams lost.

    Minnesota, Cleveland, and Washington have been eliminated. Houston can still make the postseason with three consecutive wins, the Colts beating the Jaguars this Sunday, then losing to the Raiders and Titans the last two weeks, and the Jaguars losing to the Redskins in Week 16 as well.

    Prediction: this is not happening.

  1. December 15, 2010 at 6:36 am

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