5 Playoff-Picture Games to Watch in Week 16: Will the Seahawks Storm Back Into the Division Lead?
Four teams have locked up their spots in the NFL playoff, leaving eight playoff positions available for over a dozen teams to chase over the final two weeks of the 2014 season. This weekend features a handful of very important games in regards to playoff positioning, as winning teams will face-off to swing the balance of power in several of the league's tightest races.
So if your team is out of the mix, or if you just want to enjoy this weekend of NFL action as an objective observer, here are the five games you'll want to keep a close eye on.
Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals
The Denver Broncos have clinched their division and really only have seeding left to play for over the final two weeks. Overtaking the Patriots would require a better record than New England, as the Pats hold a tiebreaker over the Broncos based on a head-to-head victory.
The Broncos hold a tiebreaker over the Colts, who are chasing them for the second spot in the playoff seeding and a bye in the first round, meaning they'd require some help to move up or down in the final standings. But this game would secure Peyton Manning and company with a home playoff game after a first-round bye and may help determine their opponent for that game.
The AFC North champion will be one of the candidates to travel to Denver in the Divisional round of the playoffs, and the Bengals are currently the leader of that division by half of a game. This game is huge for Cincinnati, as they could fall out of the playoff picture with a loss but would clinch their place in the final six with a win.
So who will emerge victorious in this game? The Bengals are at home, but the Broncos are the superior team, ranking second in our power rankings as opposed to the Bengals in 19th. The biggest issue for Cincy will be the Denver running game, which features C.J. Anderson (ninth among backs with 100 or more carries in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP)), going against the Bengals' third-worst run defense according to our NEP data.
Pittsburgh and Baltimore both have easier matchups than Cincinnati does this weekend, and the AFC North could be flipped upside-down by this time next week as we head into the final week of NFL action. There is no better playoff race than the one unfolding in this division, and Monday Night Football will serve as a showcase for the most important game of the week in deciding who will enter the playoffs as champion of the group.
Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals
The NFC's nightmare may come true this weekend, as the Seattle Seahawks have a chance to move into first place in the NFC West, and into contention for a home playoff game with a possible bye, with a win over the Cardinals. Arizona currently ranks first in the conference, but are holding on by a thread with a plethora of injuries slowing down what was already a pedestrian offense. They now face the hottest defense in the league. That's not a good mix.
The Seahawks rank fourth in our team rankings, while Arizona is currently eighth. Our playoff odds currently show the Seahawks with a 44.6% chance of taking the NFC West crown, while the Cards are at only 55.4% despite once holding a seemingly insurmountable lead on the entire conference. This game is the deciding factor in what is otherwise a coinflip between two solid teams.
Arizona's down to backups at quarterback and running back, which will be tough against Seattle's tough defense. But if Arizona can stand strong at home and get the win, they'll clinch homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and be able to coast into a second-round playoff game in a few weeks while figuring out their best, healthiest options at key positions. The Seahawks are in range of clinching a playoff spot of their own this week with the right set of results, but it all starts with a win that would vault them into the division lead.
Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys
The Colts don't really have a ton of potential moves up or down the standings at this point, as they lose tiebreakers with the Patriots and Broncos, and would only move as low as fourth even with consecutive losses. But will they be motivated to play the role of spoiler for the Cowboys, who need this win badly?
Dallas currently ranks 14th in our team rankings, while the Colts are seventh. A bottom-eight run and pass defense drags down the Cowboys overall value, according to our data, but they still hold a 68% chance of winning the NFC East and making the playoffs. But a loss would shift those odds back toward the Eagles, who are just a game behind the Cowboys.
The Colts have the ninth-best offense, per our NEP metrics, and are facing a bad defense, so they should be able to score at will if they don't coast in a virtually meaningless game. The Cowboys have to hope they can outscore the Colts, a feat several teams have failed to accomplish this year. How will the Colts approach these final two games as they prepare for the playoffs? The answer may determine the Cowboys' postseason fate.
Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers
The Chiefs are currently 8-6 and sit outside of the playoffs in the AFC if the season were to end today. But they face a team sitting one game ahead of them in the Wild Card chase this weekend, which could put them in the top-six heading into Week 17. Can they win in Pittsburgh and vault into the postseason in Week 16?
Our team rankings don't exactly give them great odds, as they rank 15th, four spots behind the homestanding Steelers. Current playoff odds don't favor the Chiefs, either, who are just under 30% to make the postseason, while the Steelers have a much stronger 78% chance of playing in January.
The Steelers have plenty to play for, including a possible spot atop the division should the Bengals lose to the Broncos, so they'll be sufficiently motivated to play their best in Week 16. They will face a team that sits just above league average in both Offensive and Defensive NEP and that doesn't exploit the Steelers' biggest flaw. Kansas City is the league's second-best running team in the league, but their passing offense is tame, meaning they may not be able to throw the ball all over the Steelers' bottom-10 pass defense.
The Steelers will be in the playoffs with a win and will be in danger of missing out with a loss. Can they navigate the decent Kansas City defense for enough points to lock up a spot in the postseason?
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints
The Saints jumped into the lead in the NFC South with a big win at Chicago last week, and as a result, they are currently the favorites to win the division at greater than 50%. The Falcons can tip the scales back in their direction this week, as the teams play head-to-head and Atlanta would hold the tiebreaker over the Saints with two victories over their division rivals.
Normally the Saints would be favored at home in a divisional game, but their advantage in the Superdome has been severely limited this season. So without a strong advantage due to the friendly location of the game, can New Orleans hold on to secure a likely playoff spot with a win? It's too close to call, according to our numbers.
The Saints are 16th in our team ranks, while the Falcons are 18th. The Saints have the worst defense in the league, and the Falcons trail in second, while both teams have top-10 offenses. This should be a fun, high-scoring game, and neither team has a clear advantage over the other in terms of efficiency on either side of the ball.
The Falcons could win and turn around to play the Panthers in Week 17 in another must-win affair to determine the winner of the NFL's worst division. The Saints play the hopeless Bucs in Week 17, as well, but they'd need some weird results to go down over the next two weeks to get in with a loss to Atlanta and a win against Tampa. Despite the relative quality of the division, the games over the final two weeks to determine the NFC South champion will be must-watch in what should be a terrific final fortnight of NFL football.