5 NFL Playoff Picture Games to Watch in Week 12: Can the Cardinals Keep Rolling?
Every week as I prepare to write this playoff picture article, I scan for games with two teams in the hunt playing each other. But in the NFL, it's often the games that should be cakewalks for top teams that can turn the tide in a playoff chase quickly.
This has been the case over the past week. The Broncos fell unexpectedly to the Rams last Sunday, and the Chiefs dropped a game to the Raiders on Thursday night. No one would proclaim those games to be important in the playoff picture, but the ramifications from those contests will change the scenarios for other teams chasing a postseason berth.
So while we consider five games this week with obvious playoff storylines, let's not forget just how important it is for contenders to win the "easy" games, which are never as easy as they seem in the NFL.
Detroit Lions at New England Patriots
The Lions are currently tied for first in the NFC North with a 7-3 record, while the Patriots are looking down at the entire AFC at 8-2. New England has shaken off their early season rust and now sit atop our team rankings, boasting a nERD calculation that deems them to be over a touchdown better than an average NFL team.
The Lions are seventh in those rankings, more than two points worse than the Pats, and have to travel to New England. Obviously this makes for a tough test, but it's one the Lions could pass if they're able to play to their strengths.
Detroit currently has the best run defense in the NFL, and the second best defense overall, according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) data. This will likely force New England to throw the ball more than they did against Indianapolis, and if the Lions can get pressure on Tom Brady with their pass rush, they'll stand a chance.
But it's easy to see how the Patriots will handle this matchup and move closer to wrapping up the AFC East with weeks to spare. They have the third-best offense in the league and have been on fire lately. Detroit will be in the thick of the Wild Card chase with a loss, so they might want to start figuring out tiebreakers with other NFC contenders now.
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans
The Bengals currently lead the AFC North by percentage points thanks to the weird things that ties do to NFL standings math, while the Texans are just a game out of first in the AFC South. They're also just two games out of the Wild Card, and while it's unlikely that they could catch up, their schedule will certainly allow them every opportunity.
Houston has two remaining games against Jacksonville, the worst team in the league according to our rankings, along with a game against Tennessee, who rank 29th. They also have a big game against Indianapolis coming up, and if the Texans can get a win against the Bengals and avoid a slip up against their lesser divisional foes, that game could determine the division winner.
The Bengals have games left against the Browns and Buccaneers, but also have contests with the Broncos and Steelers on the horizon. So they have less margin for error, in a much tougher division, and need this win badly.
Our rankings actually prefer the Texans here, who are at home and are ranked six spots higher in our team rankings. Both offenses are similarly mediocre, but the Houston defense is superior, and that gives them the nod, according to our math.
Miami Dolphins at Denver Broncos
Did Denver get a wake up call from the St. Louis Rams, or did the Rams reveal a weakness in the Broncos that the Dolphins can target in Week 12?
That question will provide a lot of answers in the AFC playoff picture, as a Denver win would vault them back into first in the AFC West, and drop the Dolphins out of the Wild Card picture with a long shot to catch back up.
This is a showdown of two top-four teams in our rankings, with the Broncos narrowly beating the Dolphins in our nERD calculation. But the Broncos have an 87% shot at making the playoffs, while the Dolphins are only a coin flip, which is indicative of their current positions in the conference. Miami has just not won enough games to be a legitimate contender at this point, but a win Sunday would swing the odds back in their favor.
If the Broncos lose again, the Chargers would be back in the AFC West chase with a win over the same Rams who tripped up Denver last week. But playing at home, it's hard to imagine John Fox's team falling to another defeat. Miami's only chance will be to play above their heads on offense while maintaining the defensive performances that have earned them the top defensive spot in our NEP rankings.
Baltimore Ravens at New Orleans Saints
The Saints, at 4-6, are currently tied for first in the awful NFC South, while the Ravens are percentage points behind the Bengals in the weird AFC North. That's why this game matters for both teams and why it will be quite interesting to watch on Monday Night Football.
The Saints aren't really in the Wild Card hunt and are only fighting for the one playoff spot handed to their division this season. The Ravens are in the chase for the fifth and sixth playoff spots in the AFC, but a loss in the Superdome would put a damper on those hopes.
Speaking of the dome, it hasn't been a magical homefield advantage for New Orleans this season. Sean Payton's team have lost to Cincinnati and San Francisco under the roof in recent weeks and also nearly lost to the Buccaneers earlier this season on their home turf. The Ravens are the better team, according to our rankings (sixth versus 15th), and should take home a win here.
The Saints would hardly be out of the hunt in the NFC South with a loss, however, as the Falcons play the Browns and Carolina has a bye week. Given that division's history this season, it wouldn't be surprising to see every team lose, and be on pace for a 7-9 (or worse) division champ.
Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks
Last week I discussed a scenario in which the Cardinals could be two games clear of the entire conference heading into Week 12. That scenario unfolded, and Arizona is currently way ahead of everyone else in the NFC with just a few weeks left in the season.
That gives them some slack should they trip up in any of their future games but also gives them incentive to keep winning and lock up homefield advantage early. A win in Seattle this week would be a huge step in that direction.
Seattle is 6-4, one game back of the Wild Card teams in the NFC and would be stuck way behind the contenders with a loss in this game. But they face a tough challenge, one that even their homefield advantage may not be enough to overcome.
The Cardinals are currently fifth in our team rankings, and Seattle is 10th. Bruce Arians' team has one of the league's worst rushing attacks, which is unlikely to get things going against Seattle's strong run defense, but they do pass the ball fairly well, something Seattle has struggled to cope with this year. Arizona's defense has been great, especially against the run, which is a definite strength for Seattle.
Strengths will clash with strengths in the Pacific Northwest this weekend, and this game is really too close to call. If Arizona can move the ball through the air with Drew Stanton under center and a hobbled Larry Fitzgerald, they have a very good shot at being the first NFL team to 10 wins and stay on pace to be the first team to clinch their spot in the postseason.