5 Key Playoff-Picture Games for Week 14: Shaking Up the 7-5 AFC Logjam
The NFL season is rapidly coming to a close, with only four more Sundays loaded with important games before the final playoff field is decided. Both conferences are full of close races for divisions and wild-card spots, and this weekend's games will go a long way toward deciding the top six in each conference a month from now.
If you're looking for games to watch this weekend as a neutral observer of the game, or as a fan of a bad team that's out of the hunt already, here are five recommendations of great contests with a lot on the line.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have stumbled their way to the top of the AFC North with an 8-3-1 record, putting them more than a game ahead of the other three teams, who all sit at 7-5. But according to our team rankings, they're hardly the best team in the division, and aren't even an average NFL team this year.
But none of that matters if they're able to win on Sunday at home against their division rivals from Pittsburgh. The Steelers are only three spots ahead of the Bengals in our team rankings (17th as compared to 20th), and head on the road for this important game. Who will emerge victorious?
The Steelers have the ninth-worst pass defense in the league according to our opponent-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) data, which helps drag down their overall defense into the bottom-five. The Bengals defense falls in the middle of the pack, but is in the bottom-five against the run. And that's where Pittsburgh will hold a key advantage in this game.
Le'Veon Bell is one of the league's best backs this season, ranking fourth among runners with 100 or more carries in Rushing NEP. That sort of production will be difficult for the Bengals to stop, and may give the Steelers an edge. If Pittsburgh can take advantage of Andy Dalton's mistakes and not allow a big day through the air, they stand a very good chance of winning this game and shaking up the AFC North and the wild-card picture.
Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins
If you were to ask our math wizards who should win the AFC North, they'd tell you that the Ravens have been the best team in the division this season, and would be the most deserving team of the division's automatic playoff berth. But they're stuck at 7-5 in the logjam of AFC teams at that record, including the Dolphins, who they visit this weekend.
Miami is fifth in our team ranks, while the Ravens are sixth, with both teams over four points better than an average NFL team, according to our nERD calculation. Baltimore's strengths are on offense, as they've run a balanced attack that ranks eighth in the league. They also have a stout run defense, but have really struggled against the pass.
Miami has been one of the top defensive teams this season, currently ranking sixth in the league in overall defense, according to our data. They excel at defending the pass, which will be a key in stopping the Ravens this week.
Both of these teams are at 7-5 and well within striking distance of the playoffs, but neither has better than 40% odds to make the postseason. There are just too many tough teams in the AFC to confidently predict a playoff spot for either of these teams, despite their solid metrics this season that have led to top-six rankings. Miami is currently on top of the 7-5 pile chasing a wild-card spot thanks to tiebreakers, but that's all subject to change, especially if they lose to Baltimore this week.
Kansas City Chiefs at Arizona Cardinals
Another game, another 7-5 AFC team with a tough test this weekend. The Chiefs currently have the best "strength of victory" (average winning percentage of teams defeated) of any 7-5 team in the hunt for the wild card, yet they face another tough task this week against the 9-3 Cardinals.
Arizona hasn't been the same team without Carson Palmer under center, further dragging down an offense that was already sub-par at running the ball (bottom-10 in our rankings). They've slipped in our power rankings, but are still ahead of Kansas City, who are as average as can be on both offense and defense when considering our analytics.
The Cardinals are one of the best run-stopping teams in the league, and the Chiefs lean on Jamaal Charles for most of their offensive output. If Kansas City doesn't find a way to outscore the slipping Arizona offense in this game, they'll find themselves third in their division and a game or two back of the final wild-card spot despite some of the conference's most impressive wins this season.
Arizona will be in trouble with a loss, as well, as the Seahawks are catching up with the once dominant division leader. Their once-strong grip on homefield advantage is gone, and with the right batch of results this weekend, they could fall out of the top-four playoff seeds and into a fight for survival for a playoff spot.
This game could be ugly for those who like offense, as both teams will hope to win with field position and opportunistic defense. Our data still favors Arizona, especially at home, but don't expect fireworks or excitement from this game in either direction.
New England Patriots at San Diego Chargers
These two teams are only a game apart in the standings, but are on opposite ends of our team rankings. The Patriots currently sit second in the league according to our data, while the Chargers are 18th. But San Diego will play host in this game, and if they're able to pull off the win, it could flip the balance of power in the AFC.
The Chargers have struggled to run the ball efficiently this season, leaning on their passing game to move the ball on offense. They have the sixth-worst rushing offense, but the sixth-best passing offense. Unfortunately for Charger fans, that's not a recipe for beating New England, who rank third against the throw in our rankings.
So will the return of Ryan Mathews spark the San Diego running game, which helped them so often down the stretch last season? If so, expect a heavy dose of running from the Chargers against the Patriots below-average run defense.
They'll need to run and shorten the game to slow down the New England offense, which has been ridiculously hot after stumbling out of the gates this season. Tom Brady and company have a top-three passing offense and overall offense using NEP data, which will be a challenge for San Diego's 29th-ranked pass defense.
San Diego hosts this game, which provides them a much needed advantage over a New England team that seems superior in every way. But the Chargers need a win, and have knocked off the Seahawks and Ravens this season, so can they defeat another contender and move one step closer to a playoff spot?
Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles
The AFC doesn't get to have all the fun this week, as two top NFC teams will also meet with plenty of playoff chips on the table between these two top contenders. Seattle is currently the fourth-best team in our overall ranks, while the Eagles are ninth, but because of current records and the way the playoff picture is shaping up in the conference, the Eagles have stronger playoff odds than the Seahawks.
Of course, a win this week would possibly flip these team's position in the playoff picture, as the Seahawks could leap into a tie for a top-four spot with a win and an Arizona loss, while the Eagles would slip into a tie with the Cowboys with a loss. A positive result for the Eagles would help them keep pace with the Packers for the top spot in the conference and homefield advantage in the playoffs.
Mark Sanchez's ability to move the ball against Seattle's improving pass defense will be the key to this game, as the Seahawks have tightened up against the pass after some early season struggles. The "Legion of Boom" now ranks 15th against opponent throws, an improvement over their mid-20s rankings just a few weeks ago.
The Eagles will also receive a test to their strong run defense (seventh in the league) as they face the Seattle rushing attack that ranks first in the league by a wide margin. If they're unable to slow down the running game for the Seahawks, they simply won't win this game.
Seattle needs this win to keep control over their playoff fate, as a loss would mean they'd be on the verge of dropping out of the playoff picture with a game against the 49ers on the horizon. Their other key rival for a wild-card spot, the Lions, have an easy game against the Bucs, and if they don't slip up, they'd pass the Seahawks should they lose to the Eagles.