5 NFL Playoff Picture Games to Watch in Week 11: Lions and Cardinals Battle for NFC Lead
The NFL season is as chaotic as it is short. Unlike other major American sports, where there are dozens of games over the course of the season to help balance out outliers and oddities, the NFL season comes and goes before the law of averages can bring the best teams to the top and sink the worst teams to the bottom.
That's why you'll often see unexpected teams climb the standings and stay there or have seemingly good rosters fall short of the playoffs. All it takes is a key loss or two in an unexpected situation, and playoff dreams can disappear.
After ten weeks of the NFL season, we're starting to get a clearer view of which teams are headed for the postseason and which are on the outside looking in. But these five Week 11 battles will go a long way toward deciding the top-six teams in each conference.
Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals
There are no two teams who better define how surprising this NFL season has been than the Cardinals and Lions, who have been two of the best teams in the league this year. Our team rankings place the Lions third and the Cardinals seventh, which means the Arizona homefield advantage makes this game as close to a pick 'em as you can get.
Detroit's defense has been lights out this year, ranking second in the league in Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP), while the Cardinals rank third. The offenses are very similar, as well, with the NEP rankings for the Lions (16) and Cardinals (15) leaving the two teams strikingly similar from a statistical standpoint.
In fact, the teams are so tight in all of our metrics that they have identical Super Bowl odds of 11.7% at the moment, second to only the Broncos. These two teams lead their divisions (despite not being preseason favorites to do so) and have been playing strong football all year. But there has been a major shakeup for one team that may shift the balance of power in this game, and in the conference.
With Carson Palmer out, can the Cardinals score enough to overcome a now-healthy Calvin Johnson and the Lions? If not, Detroit could pull off a road win and take the driver's seat in the race for homefield advantage in the NFC.
Philadelphia Eagles at Green Bay Packers
Of course, there will be other teams in that homefield advantage discussion, and two of them will face off at Lambeau this weekend. The Philadelphia Eagles currently lead the NFC East and are third-in-line for the title of top team in the NFC, while the Packers are chasing the Lions in the NFC North, but are a respectable 6-3 and are nearly unstoppable at home.
In fact, in games during which Aaron Rodgers has been healthy enough to throw at least three passess, the Packers haven't lost a regular season home game since Week 1 of the 2012 season. That's 14 straight home wins for Rodgers and company. Can the Eagles possibly break that trend and get a key victory in the NFC playoff race?
Our team ranking calculation says it's too close to call, as Philadelphia ranks just slightly ahead of the Packers, eighth over ninth in the NFL. The Packers have the better offense (fourth as opposed to 14th), while the Eagles actually have the much stronger defense (fourth as opposed to 17th). So it will be strength versus strength when the Packers have the ball, and at home, I would strongly favor the team with Aaron Rodgers in that instance.
Both of these teams are looking like playoff contenders, but the Packers are trailing the Lions in their division, and have to win to keep up with their Wild Card foes. The Eagles can afford a loss a bit more than Green Bay but would still benefit from a win as they try to hold off the Cowboys in the race for first in the East.
Houston Texans at Cleveland Browns
Despite the Browns being the top dogs in the AFC North, the Texans are actually the better team in our metrics, ranking 16th to the Browns' 19th. That sets up this game as a very interesting battle of average teams with a chance of making some noise over the final month and a half of the season.
Houston is 4-5, yet still has a 20% chance at a playoff spot according to our data. That's because they are among the best teams in the pack chasing the final Wild Card spot, and they have games on the schedule like this week's contest with Cleveland, which should be winnable for the Texans. But this game is far more important for the Browns, who are walking a tight rope in a loaded division where they hold a narrow lead.
Cleveland only has about a one-in-three chance at the playoffs, according to our data, despite their standing as the best team in the North at the moment. The Browns are average on defense, below average on offense, and don't inspire a lot of confidence despite a not-so-tough schedule ahead. Upcoming games against the Colts and Ravens will likely decide their season, and those should be no contest when judged by the data we've collected.
The winner of this game stays alive in the playoff picture, while the loser has a tall hill to climb. The Texans would be out of the hunt if they fall short, while the Browns would slip into the pack in the AFC North, where they'd be unlikely to do better than the Ravens and Steelers over the final six weeks.
New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts
The Patriots and Colts are in cruise control when it comes to their divisions, as both teams look like they'll take the East and South crowns with ease. But nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and that becomes especially true when a tough game like this pops up on the schedule.
The Patriots currently rank sixth in our overall standings, while the Colts are second, giving Indy the edge in that regard when considering the game's friendly location for Andrew Luck and company. But the game will come down to a strength-on-strength matchup that will be fun to watch for even the most casual of observers.
The Indianapolis passing offense has been the best in the league so far, according to NEP, while the Patriots pass defense ranks second on the season. That showdown will be vital, as the on-fire New England passing offense will face an average Indianapolis pass defense that should result in another big day for Tom Brady. Over his last four games, the Michigan product has topped 300 yards in three games and has thrown for three or more scores in all four contests.
If Andrew Luck can match Brady blow-for-blow in this heavyweight fight, this should be the best game of the season, and the winner will have a hard-earned advantage in the race for a first-round bye in the playoffs. But if Luck is unable to handle the pressure, the Patriots could continue to roll on their way to the top of the AFC for what feels like the fifteenth season in a row.
Seattle Seahawks at Kansas City Chiefs
The Seahawks and Chiefs are both 6-3 and are both second in their respective West divisions. This means this game will be of great importance for both sides, who are looking to keep up with their division leaders and stay afloat in the crowded Wild Card hunt.
Seattle ranks 10th in the NFL according to our math, while the Chiefs are 11th, and both teams have differing strengths and weaknesses. Kansas City has the better pass defense, while Seattle dominates against the run, which should make for interesting playcalling by the two offensive coordinators. Will Alex Smith be allowed to air it out against Seattle, or will Kansas City try to grind out a rushing attack? And will the Seahawks continue to pound the ball on the ground with Marshawn Lynch, or will they try to take the top off of the defense with throws to Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin?
The victor in this contest will move to seven wins and will secure their spot as a Wild Card team at this early stage, while the loser will likely drop out of the top-six for at least a week. So while these teams aren't competing for the same spot in the same conference, this game is still quite meaningful to these two franchises.