This Week’s Playoff Scenario: Picking a 6 Win Team to Make the Playoffs
Well, good news: none of last week’s 5-7 teams got to 6-7. Four of the five were eliminated from playoff contention when the Ravens beat the Texans in an overtime thriller on Monday night. In a small bout of irony, the Texans were the one team NOT mathematically eliminated by that interception. However, they are helpless to prevent the Jaguars from locking up the AFC South division this weekend, and need to win out just to stay alive in the division week to week.
The Texans are tied for the worst record of any team still alive. The 5-8 San Francisco 49ers are now eliminated from contention for the wild card in the NFC, but are still alive (VERY alive) in the NFC West “race.” That division is led by a pair of 6-win teams: the St. Louis Rams, and the Seattle Seahawks, however, they have the one remaining “auto win” on their schedule: when hapless Arizona visits them in Week 17. While Seattle plays two teams that would figure to beat up on them the next two weeks, St. Louis might be drawing the luckiest match-up of the weekend: they’ve got a Kansas City team that just lost 31-0 to the Chargers, and might be without it’s starting quarterback this week.
Could St. Louis have the division clinched before they play Seattle in Week 17? If they had a winning record, at 8-7, it’s hard to see how they would not. And beating Kansas City and San Francisco in consecutive weeks, they would have earned it. But San Francisco has been money in divisional match-ups since their disaster in Week 1 at Seattle, and it wouldn’t shock anyone if they went to St. Louis and won that game. If San Francisco plays like they did last week, they’ll win in San Diego tomorrow. That’s both unlikely, and a digression from the real point: San Francisco NEEDS the St. Louis game. They need it badly.
Winning that game will, at worst, force 7-8 St. Louis to the very last game of the season, needing to beat Seattle on the road merely to stay alive in the division race. It’s a game that St. Louis is at least probable to win, whether that makes them 9-7, 8-8, or 7-9. San Francisco wins the division if they win out. The most heartbreaking scenario for the 49ers would be winning at San Diego to knot up the division at 6-8, then getting outschemed at St. Louis and falling, before lambasting the Cardinals in the finale, only to watch St. Louis go to the playoffs at 8-8.
I don’t think San Francisco is capable of winning out. That may not hurt them in the end. St. Louis just has to avoid losing each of their next two games to control their own destiny, but Kansas City is really looking at their entire season being on the line when they visit the Rams in St. Louis. If Matt Cassel plays, that doesn’t guarantee he will play well, but the Chiefs will do what it takes to get him comfortable, and absent a big early lead for the Rams, will overcome. That’s not good for the Rams: another team might not be able to pull it together after a 31-0 loss like the Chiefs well.
A loss to the Chiefs will set up a must win for the Rams at home against the 49ers. That game is going to be the best chance for the Rams to seize control of the NFC West…but the same goes for the 49ers, who are already more talented from the start. If the Rams don’t find a source of offense soon, they will be falling short in that match-up. Even if they can win at Seattle, the 49ers will have the division wrapped up with a win over the Cardinals. Right now, the Rams have their chances, and need to take advantage. Otherwise, the 49ers will come all the way back from 0-5 to finish the season 7-4 or 8-3 and make the postseason.
Because of this weeks games, the fates of teams in the AFC West and NFC West are dependent on one another. The Seahawks really need a pair of losses from the Rams and the 49ers, but the Raiders need exactly the opposite to stay alive: they need the Rams and 49ers to beat the Chiefs and Chargers respectively. The Raiders will have stiff challenges in Weeks 16 & 17 to stay in the playoff race, but if they get help from the Rams and 49ers in Week 15, their walkover home game with the Broncos will put them in position to control their destiny in the AFC West.
Here’s the added bonus for the Raiders: gaining a game on both teams ahead of them in the AFC West, jumping into 2nd place in the process, would take the mathematical must-win out of their home game against the Colts the week after. That’d be nice, right: being able to get enough help from other teams to NOT have to beat a playoff-hungry Peyton Manning led team on Christmas weekend? Realistically, the Raiders have to win out to make the playoffs because the San Diego Chargers simply have too easy a schedule to expect them to lose 2 of 3 games to finish. They’re less than certain to beat the 49ers, and less than certain to beat the Bengals on the road…but losing more than one of those games (or the Week 17 Denver game) would qualify as a “shocker.” The Chiefs have a much tougher draw, but need to win only one of the next two to force a decisive game with the Raiders in Week 17.
Assuming the Chargers beat the Broncos, there’s no other way the Chiefs can steal the tiebreaker from the San Diego Chargers, and the Raiders would out-tiebreak the both of them. The Chiefs must be able to win out to secure their playoff berth, and realistically speaking, anything worse than 2-1 to end the season is going to take them out of contention. That’s a tough draw for the Chiefs to need to go 10 or 11 wins to win your division, but that’s life when your entire division gets to play the NFC West. Just look at the NFC South these days. The Bucs could get 10 wins AND make the playoffs without beating a winning team. That’s 2 non-divisional losses, for those keeping track.
The Chargers need to win out to stay in it, and the schedule softens now to allow them to do so. Winning the last four games of their regular season is not something new to the Chargers: it’s something they’ve done every year since 2005. Winning those games under conditions where a loss means no playoffs is also not a new deal. But it would be a new thing if the Chiefs executed at the end of their season and took the division from the Chargers.
The Chargers’ best chance to make the playoffs with a loss is as follows: lose to the 49ers on Thursday night, then come back on the road to beat the Bengals and the Broncos. That’s a 9-7 finish. Then they get help from an unlikely source: the Raiders, after the Rams knock down the Chiefs (who know they have a game buffer in the division going in). A 9-6 Chiefs team loses at home for the first time to the Raiders who complete a 6-0 run in the division. That would improbably hand the division to the Raiders…if not for the fact that they lost their final home game to the desperate Colts, falling to 7-8 in the process. The 8-8 Raiders miss the playoffs by a game, sending the Chargers to the playoffs instead. The Chargers needing help from a Raiders’ opponent to make the playoffs? What a finish!
The Colts, of course, would find themselves on the brink of elimination from the playoffs if they lose to the more physical Jaguars this week, rendering the game with the Raiders largely meaningless. Well, a largely meaningless *must win.* While the Jaguars will have clinched the AFC South at that point by beating the Colts, the Colts can claw their way to 9-7, and hope for a lot of help against the Jets or the Ravens. At that point, it would mean more to the Raiders than the Colts, which could create a very interesting dynamic. An 8-8 Colts team is nearly unfathomable, but at 7-7, becomes quite believable, and I’d imagine, favorable to the Raiders.
Things get crazy in that division if the Colts beat the Jaguars. The Colts now control all tiebreakers where the teams would finish tied at 10-6 (but NOT all tiebreakers if they tie at 8-8 or 9-7). However, based on the remaining schedules, the Jaguars would be far more likely to get to 10-6 than the Colts would. The Redskins are a pushover at this point, and the Texans have won ONCE since a thrilling comeback win over the Chiefs on October 17. The Colts have to get by the Raiders first, then the Titans, who they just beat by only 2. If they pull it off, a 10-6 Jaguars team would have a wildly interesting wild card opportunity. The Jets and Ravens would have to win another two games each out of their remaining three to hold off the Jaguars for the final wild card. Both having to win 2/3 makes it unlikely that the Jags would fail to make a wild card at 10-6. You may not have realized how strong the Jags’ playoff position is.
That’s three different divisions where multiple teams are jockeying for playoff spots at 7 wins or fewer. There’s four divisions without a 7-6 team or with fewer wins, and are still in playoff contention. Not very exciting. The one exception: the Miami Dolphins. The Miami Dolphins can get to 10 wins by winning their final 3 games. The problem with this: one of their remaining games will be played…in New England. The Dolphins can only get to the postseason at 9-7 if the Jets lose out. That might actually be possible, as the Jets have Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo remaining on their schedule. The only problem is: the Dolphins need to beat the Patriots in order to have the relevant tiebreakers. At that point, the Dolphins might as well win out instead of losing to the Bills or Lions. The Dolphins’ playoff hopes are back-against-the-wall right now: go to New England and win, then we’ll talk.
Most teams in the AFC are pulling for the Jags over the Colts this weekend, because the last thing teams want to see is the Colts get back into the playoff race. The only other threat to either the Ravens or the Jets for their playoff spots is if the Chiefs and Chargers both win out. If that happens, the Chargers will be in line for the wild card, getting in over the 10-6 Jags in the process.
But, we can revisit that in next week’s playoff scenarios.