3 AFC Teams Who Are Ready to Make a Playoff Push
As the season winds down and we await the inevitable six- to seven-team hunt for two or three playoff spots, every game on the schedule becomes more and more important.
Over in the AFC, there are four teams we can safely write off: the Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Oakland Raiders. Each of those teams has two or fewer wins, and our algorithms don't have any of them with a greater than 0.1% chance of making the playoffs.
As a result, there are quite a few teams technically in the hunt for a limited number of spots. For the purposes of this article, I looked at each AFC team's remaining schedule, ranking each one based on average opponent offensive rating and average opponent defensive rating. I did this using our Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) numbers.
Let's take a look at three teams who have favorable upcoming schedules and could make a surprising push to the playoffs.
Houston Texans (4-5)
Though it remains unlikely that Houston will overtake Indianapolis for the top spot in the AFC South, Houston has one of the best remaining schedules moving forward in the conference. Houston faces the weakest offensive opponents, on average, in the entire AFC, as their opponents average out to the 21st-best offense in the league from here on out. That beats out any other wild card contender or hopeful by nearly four full slots.
Additionally, Houston takes on the third-weakest defensive average in the AFC - this composite of weak offense and weak defense makes this the most favorable schedule on both sides of the ball in the AFC, and at just one game under .500 and fresh off the bye, Houston could rattle off quite a few wins. This is why they currently have a 19.7% chance of making the playoffs, similar odds as Cincinnati and San Diego.
Admittedly, Houston has not been great offensively. Of all quarterbacks with at least 150 drop backs, now-benched quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ranks 23rd out of 31 in Passing NEP per drop back. However, DeAndre Hopkins has been exceptional despite Fitzpatrick's play, ranking 13th out of 79 players with at least 30 receptions in Reception NEP per target. Hopkins has made the most of his chances, and against a relatively weak defensive slate, he could prove to be important down the stretch.
The real strength of Houston, however, is their defense. Houston ranks sixth in Adjusted Defensive NEP, and with Jadeveon Clowney expected to make his way back against some weak offensive opponents (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Jacksonville), I expect Houston to feast on the defensive side of the ball. That'll be the reason, despite the offensive challenges and a quarterback change to Ryan Mallett, for Houston's potential success.
Baltimore Ravens (6-4)
The AFC North is wide open with every team at 6-4 or better, and the Ravens could be the team that ends up winning the division crown. The Ravens face the fifth-worst set of offenses among all AFC teams through the rest of the year, and the sixth-worst set of defenses.
Baltimore has been solid on both sides of the ball this year - their defense is ranked seventh, while the offense is ranked 12th. As a result, Baltimore ranks fifth in the league in team nERD, a statistic that measures the number of points you'd expect a team to win by against an average squad on a neutral field.
Among quarterbacks with at least 150 drop backs, Joe Flacco ranks 12th in Passing NEP on a per drop back basis. That solid play has translated pretty well for Steve Smith, who ranks 14th out of 75 receivers with at least 50 targets in Reception Success Rate, and 19th among that same group in Reception NEP. In that same group, Torrey Smith ranks top 10 in Reception NEP per target, thanks to his big-play ability.
With winnable games on their schedule for a team that's played below their true talent level, expect Baltimore to make a serious playoff push. As it stands, they have a 50.5% chance of getting in.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4)
The Steelers actually have the toughest schedule in terms of offensive opponents in the AFC, but the defenses they'll face will be a cakewalk for Ben Roethlisberger and company. Really, the Steelers' ability to make the playoffs will hinge on whether they can slow teams down, because Pittsburgh should be able to live large against some of the defenses they have coming up: Tennessee, New Orleans, Cincinnati (twice) and Atlanta. The best-ranked defense the Steelers face is the Kansas City Chiefs, who we rank 14th overall - barely better than the median.
The rank of all defenses the Steelers will face from here on out, on average, is 24th - a full five slots better (for the Steelers) than the next-best schedule. We've seen Big Ben put up two enormous games already, and we shouldn't be shocked to see a couple more big ones before the year is out.
With that said, their offensive opponent averages to 13.5th overall, the toughest offensive slate among any AFC team. We have the Steelers ranked 23rd defensively, but if the Steelers can even manage to put up passable games on the defensive side, they should be able to string some wins together.
As it stands, Pittsburgh ranks 14th in nERD, a solid 9 spots below the aforementioned division rival Ravens. Despite this, their odds of making the playoffs sit just 2% lower than Baltimore's thanks to a generous schedule.