5 NFL Playoff Picture Storylines for Week 10: Must-Win Game for the Chiefs and Bills?
It seems like just yesterday that everyone was spitting their hot takes about how Richard Sherman shut down the Green Bay offense, but he did so by only playing one side, so he's not "elite." But instead, those moments were over two months ago, and the NFL season has flown by since then. Yet that game looms large in the NFC's playoff picture.
Yes, the playoff picture. Now that the calendar has turned over to November, that means it's time to start figuring out tiebreakers and discussing playoff implications every week, and Week 10 is full of great games with lots of postseason positioning to be sorted out. Here are five storylines to keep an eye on this week as the end of the regular season draws closer and the top six in each conference become clearer.
An AFC Wild Card Battle with a Surprising Contestant
I don't think anyone would have laughed if I had told them before the season that in Week 10, the Chiefs would have a big game against a team battling them for a playoff spot. But if I mentioned that the team in question was the Kyle Orton-led Bills without C.J. Spiller, I'd have been dismissed fairly quickly for being too optimistic about Buffalo's chances.
Both of these teams currently sit at 5-3, however, and while Kansas City currently holds a tiebreaker over the Bills, that deciding factor is meaningless as the head-to-head contest this weekend will break the tie and provide one team with a solid advantage over the other in the hunt for a postseason berth. So which team will come out ahead?
Our rankings currently see the Bills as a middle-of-the-pack team in the NFL at 16th, while Kansas City ranks 5th. But with the game being played in upstate New York, the Bills do have a chance to defeat the seemingly superior Chiefs and move into the driver's seat for a Wild Card spot in the very competitive AFC.
Kansas City has been balanced this year with a top-10 offense and a defense that sits in 11th in our overall team rankings. The Bills have one of the worst offenses in the league, but their fourth-ranked defense will help them in a home test against Jamaal Charles and company. Both of these teams need this win badly, as their division leaders (Denver and New England) will be out of reach in a hurry with any stumbles over the next few weeks. And with the Wild Card as competitive as it is already in the AFC, a head-to-head game between two teams in the thick of the race is as close to a must-win as you'll get in Week 10.
Dolphins Making Waves in the AFC East
The Dolphins have quietly wound up at 5-3 through 8 games after talk of benching their quarterback and an offseason full of skepticism about the direction of the franchise. Our data thinks 5-3 is a bit unfair to Miami, as we see them as the second-best team in the NFL, shy of only the Broncos. Those rankings don't matter quite as much as wins and losses because that is how playoff spots are awarded.
This weekend, the Dolphins take on the Lions, who rank eighth in our team rankings and have been similarly strong in quiet and unexpected fashion. Both of these teams have won with defense this season, as they're the top two teams in our Adjusted Defense Net Expected Points (NEP) data through nine weeks. Miami's defense is better than Detroit's, according to our data, and they'll need to make sure that leads to a win to keep their playoff hopes afloat.
The AFC is very top-heavy at the moment, with nine teams sitting at three or four losses. Miami would drop to four defeats if they fall to the Lions, and that would leave them in a pack of mediocre teams and would require strong play within the division over the final six weeks to bounce back into the postseason picture. The Lions, on the other hand, can lose and remain in the projected playoff bracket, but will want to avoid another late-season collapse and hold off the Packers in what has become a two-team race for the NFC North.
The Lions have homefield advantage in this game, and that may be enough to get the win, which would allow Miami to retain their not-so-coveted title of "best team outside of the playoffs."
The Packers and Seahawks Just Can't Quit Each Other
From the "Fail Mary" to this year's season opener to a battle for a Wild Card spot, the Seahawks and Packers just cannot seem to stay away from each other in the NFL's headlines recently. One of the league's best offenses and one of the league's best defenses entering the season now sit on the cusp of the postseason in the NFC, with Seattle currently breaking the tie thanks to their win in the Week 1 matchup.
Both teams have very winnable games this weekend, as Green Bay takes on Chicago while Seattle hosts the Giants. A loss for either of these teams would be a letdown and would be a real disruption to the postseason projections in the weaker conference this season.
These two franchises were expected to be Super Bowl contenders this year but currently rank 13th (Seattle) and 15th (Green Bay) in our team rankings so far this season. Yet both have better than 50 percent chances of making the postseason, according to our algorithms, due to the generally weak nature of the NFC and considering their remaining schedules. Green Bay has games left against Tampa Bay (31st in our rankings), Minnesota (24th) and Atlanta (21st) while Seattle has one game left with St. Louis (29th), and two with San Francisco, who rank 20th according to our numbers, and are in a playoff battle of their own this week...
The Battle of Disappointing Preseason Favorites
The 49ers will face the Saints this weekend, and both teams sit at 4-4. That's not quite what we all expected out of these two teams, but a game against one another is a perfect opportunity to launch a playoff push to set aside a mediocre beginning to the season. The Saints are in a much better spot than San Francisco, as New Orleans is currently in the playoffs thanks to the horrible NFC South allowing them to sit in first with a .500 winning percentage. The Niners aren't as fortunate, sitting a game out of the final playoff spot with their break-even record.
This week's game is at the Superdome, which definitely favors the already preferred Saints. Our team rankings have the Saints just outside the top-10 in 11th. The Niners are 20th, as I mentioned above. This leads to a disparity in playoff probability for these 2 teams of over 50 percent, as the Niners are less than a 1-in-4 shot to make the postseason, while the Saints are over 75 percent to make it to the knockout stages.
The Saints can't let this game slip from their grasp, however, as they'll keep the Falcons and Saints in the hunt for the NFC South if they're unable to earn a victory this weekend. Sean Payton's team benefits from a weak division, but it cannot lose in this key matchup against a potential Wild Card competitor with so much season left ahead of us. The 49ers have winnable games against New York, Washington and Oakland on the horizon, so they could make a nice run over the next month with a win against the Saints.
Could the Cardinals Clinch the NFC This Week?
No, Arizona cannot literally clinch anything this weekend, but the surprising Cardinals are 7-1 and have a relatively easy game at home against the Rams. If they're able to win, and the Lions (who face the tough task referenced above) and Eagles (who are rolling with a backup quarterback against the scrappy Panthers) both lose, Arizona will have a two-game lead on the entire conference with a month and a half to go in the season.
Two games against Seattle await the Cardinals as the season winds down, so they're not going to coast to the finish line just by securing their eighth win. But moving two games ahead of every other team in the conference gives some breathing room to the Cards, who have been one of the real surprises this season. Our team rankings have them as the second best team in the NFC, just behind the Dallas Cowboys, thanks to a defense that has been a bit leaky against the pass but still ranks fifth overall.